Learning to Lean In

A blog from a girl figuring out how to survive and thrive in Silicon Valley...while staying sane. 

Be Like Babs

Editor's Note: This post is dedicated to its namesake, Babs. I know this could be shorter  (Thanks for the feedback, Morgan) but this isn't for mass consumption.  It's for Babs. But stay tuned for the BLB Lesson Series where I'll go into individual lessons I've learned from the woman herself.  

 

So you may have noticed  I’ve already mentioned the book Lean In a few times, I hope you’re all right with this because it’s a catalyst for my next post, although it’s not actually the subject. Every page of that book reminds me of the lessons my mom instilled on me from a very young age.  Growing up, my mother wasn’t like any of my friends’ mothers (except my friend Alice who I met because our moms were friends). In fact, my mother’s reluctance to be like other mothers got me kicked out of nursery school. That’s right, I am a nursery school dropout… kinda. 

Let me introduce to you my mother, Barbara Merrell, whom I affectionately refer to as Babs.  No one called my mom Babs before my college friends and I started doing it, we were trendsetters in that regard.  Back when my mother was both a cheerleader and the only girl in the math club, she was known as Barbie.  Her four sisters still call her Barbie to this day. Then Barbie became Barbara when she went to Columbia for her MBA and also met my father, Rick. When she married Rick, she made the conscious decision of keeping her maiden name. Barbie spent most of her childhood hating her name, including her middle name, Louise, which she rightly believed is old fashion.  But after marriage, and equipped with a MBA which wasn’t easy to acquire in the 70’s, she decided to own her name throughout the rest of her life. 

 

 Babs and me 

Babs and me 

Okay, back to the nursery school story, it was the 80’s (an era of yuppies, shoulder pads, and rolled up blazer sleeves). Both Babs and Rick worked on Wall Street—Rick in investment banking, Babs conducting real estate investments for TIAA-CREF. My nursery school teachers were seemingly worried about me because I didn’t have a “real” maternal presence in my life aside from my wonderful nanny.  To rectify this, one day the school asked Babs to volunteer at the nursery school since all the other mothers were helping out on a regular basis.  Babs asked what she would be doing during her volunteer hours and she was told she’d be folding napkins for our packed lunches we’d bring on a field trip.

Babs told them she would not take time off to “fold napkins.” From my understanding of the story, she implied she’d be happy to take time off of work if it meant she could spend more time with me by supervising the field trip but the school balked at the suggestion.  Even now, I smile picturing my mom in her fashionable shoulder-pads, hands on her hips, and a look of disbelief on her face as she tried to not grind her teeth in front of the teacher.  

Looking back, I suspect my teachers didn’t trust my Mom with the other kids—the notes I found when I was thirteen rummaging through my dad’s office reinforce this belief. 

The notes were written in perfect cursive on carbon paper and they detailed every move I made over the course of several months during nursery school, bear in mind I was three years old. The notes also included an outline for how my teachers planned on “fixing” me, the crux of their plan involved having a teacher follow me around 24/7. 

Here are some sample complaints:

  1. Cindy refused to sing “Eensie-Weensie Spider.”
  2. LB asked Cindy if she could play with Cindy’s doll. Cindy said no.
  3. Cindy prefers playing dolls by herself than with others.

Here were my reactions to these various statements:

  1. Umm...that song gets really annoying after 4 days in a row of it.
  2. In middle school LB was one of those mean girls they write books about.
  3. Most of the other girls lacked imagination.

The nursery school told Babs she had to take me to their predetermined psychologist.  Babs refused saying she’d happily take me to Yale instead to get checked out by their accredited staff.  The school refused so Babs enrolled me in a nursery school program for lower income students and I had a much better time —I still fondly remember that nursery school teacher, partly because she was the wife of my church’s minister.

Discovering this story when I was thirteen was a huge turning point for me in my relationship with my mother. Before then, I had a hard time accepting my mom as a working professional but after this revelation I began to see how the community I grew up in helped create a disdain towards Babs in very subtle ways.

My friends would often whisper to me, “Your mom scares me,” whenever they stayed over for dinner.  Dinners with my parents and friends were always interesting because I was one of the few who had the pleasure of sitting at the table with a Democrat and a Republican, not to mention they frequently engaged in political discussions over meals despite consistent declarations it’d be the last time.  And there was always that awkward introduction when I explained “Sorry, it’s Ms. Merrell, not Mrs. Waters. And no, my parents are not divorced.” 

However, I’ll never forget the look on my mom’s face when I showed her the nursery school reports.  Her face transformed into a sea of expressions ranging from rage and shock to guilt and relief. Before she told her side of the story, she did a very Babs thing, and asked me how I felt after reading my teacher’s notes.  I told her the truth, I was shocked but some memories were now falling into place—like how none of my classmates at my first nursery school remembered me when we reunited in kindergarten and beyond.  And why all my (very brief and fleeting) memories from that time included teachers instead of play dates. 

 

 I don't know what those teachers were thinking, we're totally normal (l to r  - me, Babs, and my brother at Mesa Verde) 

I don't know what those teachers were thinking, we're totally normal (l to r  - me, Babs, and my brother at Mesa Verde) 

Babs nodded her head while I rambled on about the craziness of the notes. I turned to her to ask what really happened and noticed for the first time she was fighting back a tear, a rare sighting unless a sappy TV show or lifetime movie is playing.  As she told her side of the story, I could see her blood boiling as she remembered the nursery school teachers’ ultimatum. She didn’t have to explain her Yale suggestion to me—I saw the letter in the stack of files already. The letter was very neatly printed out on her stationary, clearly mapping out her methodical reasoning why Yale was a better place to bring me.  She ended her story apologizing to me, but it wasn’t necessary. I wanted to apologize to her. 

Up until then, it was easy to resent my mom for working because it seemed liked she had picked the painless route to parenting, which is what my friends’ moms insinuated whenever they found out Babs worked full time.  But then again, I don’t think many of my friends’ moms ever considered a life beyond country clubs and garden parties. 

And that’s really when my mom became Babs to me—a force to be reckoned with, a woman who stands up for what she believes in, someone who I want to be like one day.

I want to share the story of Babs as a reminder of how far women have come in the work place because of people like her. Sure, it was sad when my mom wasn’t always there to kiss my boo-boos.  However, the sense of pride I have towards my mother for being one of the women pioneers in corporate America has since diminished any real sadness I ever felt.

 

 Okay, maybe not that normal <3.  (l to r: me, my dad, and Babs) 

Okay, maybe not that normal <3.  (l to r: me, my dad, and Babs)