I’m a Soviet Jewish immigrant. My mother believes I am embarrassed of the culture of my early youth. I changed my name, after all. I married an American. My kids don’t speak Russian, nor do I plan to teach them.
But my mother is wrong. I’m neither ashamed nor proud. What I am is aware. I know exactly where I came from: a tiny communal walk-up apartment in Riga, Latvia — part of the Soviet Union back in 1981, the year of my birth. A land where all men and all women were expected to work, and children were largely raised in day care centers.
There were many inhumane aspects of living in the Soviet Union (especially for a Jew… or a homosexual), but gender inequality was not one of them. And whether you like or dislike socialism, its philosophy does boast about liberated women. International Women’s Day, which is marked on March 8, was a much more popular holiday over there than it is here. We are talking Valentine’s Day-level hype: flowers, chocolates, a countrywide hurrah for the ladies. It was actually started by the National Socialist Party of America and picked up by Russia a few years later. It was one of just two holidays I grew up celebrating, along with New Year’s — lack of religious freedom sure limits one’s choice of festivities. (That’s why every single birthday is such a big deal in the Russian community, which never ceases to baffle my birthday-shunning husband.)
The USSR, despite all its restrictions, did not promote weird, patriarchal ideas about which careers were suitable for women — and an egalitarian attitude was very much upheld by my family. My grandmother was a physics and math teacher. My mother was, and is, a doctor. This wasn’t unusual; it was the norm where I came from. By contrast, when Americans hear my mom talking to a patient on her cellphone, they inevitably ask, “Are you a nurse?”
Needless to say, it came as a disappointment to my mother and grandmother when — after years of searching for the right line of work — I decided to stay home and be “just a mom.” Mama strongly believes this is temporary. Babushka likes to kindly lecture me on the importance of my working in order to keep my marriage afloat. (This may be contradictory to her giving me lingerie catalogues, encouraging me to sex up my “very gray” pajamas, but I digress.) My choice of employment, or lack thereof, is a topic I prefer not to discuss with them these days. When it comes to women’s issues, I’d much rather talk about my three-year-old daughter’s latest observation about her “bah-gyna.” Or my one-year-old’s attempt to put on my bra.
The thing is, I was a straight-A student. I graduated NYU’s Stern School of Business Summa cum Laude — that’s the very tippy-top of the crop, FYI. Everyone believed I had a bright future. How could I simply opt out of it? The other side of the story, though, is that I longed to be an artist. Or a writer. Or an actress. Or a talk-show host. But Soviet immigrants don’t value pipe dreams — they value straight A’s. So I got ‘em straight A’s, all while remaining conflicted and confused as to what the bleep to do with my life.
After a stint as a news reporter, I pursued TV hosting. I moved to LA to be an actress and came back as a 30-year-old intern. I eventually found well-paid work as a digital copywriter in advertising, but that did very little in the way of fulfilling my soul. And, when the time came, I couldn’t justify leaving my baby to craft junk mail for clients. I even tried freelancing remotely for a bit, but my heart was not in. The work dried up.
In the last three-and-change years, I’ve been All Mom, All The Time. And I’ve loved it, a bout with postpartum depression not withstanding. There are many things that remain as questions, such as, “Do I have a calling in conjunction with motherhood?” But one thing I have figured out is, there’s no such thing as being “just a mom.” I am also a thinker. A philosopher. A people person. I have opinions on everything. And I am feisty as hell — though not as feisty as my daughters. Oh, and I’m a feminist.
Maybe I’ll work again one day. Maybe my family and I will become digital nomads and travel around the world. Maybe I’ll be a suburban stay-at-home-mom forever. The choice I make is irrelevant — the point is that I have a choice.