My Mother's Zest for Adventure

I have known since kindergarten that my mother had a life going on that was all her own.

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For a change, I saw my mother Judith for Mother's Day. I hugged her goodbye early in the morning before she left my living room for the airport to fly to Bogota—just for fun, because she likes to go to places she's never seen before. She has three daughters and her husband, a droll and healthy doctor—but we find it hard to keep up with her sheer exuberant energy apace while seeing the world, including strife-torn Namibia and Bosnia. Only my Dad comes close.

So I had the pleasure of my mother's company here in Washington for a few days before she left. She flew in from California for a conference on military history—not just to see me, but I have known since kindergarten that she had a life going on that was all her own. A little sacrifice like missing her on the day mothers came in to admire our finger painting, well, that was mine to make. She's a professor of political science and an author with a new book coming out, The U.S. Military: A Basic Introduction, from Routledge. My favorite is Champions for Peace: Women Winners of the Nobel Peace Prize.

[Susan Milligan: Coddling Moms Need to Be Tougher With Their Kids]

The first thing I noticed when she arrived at my apartment and changed in two minutes flat is that she, at 76, has cooler shoes than I do. OK, let's go to Politics and Prose, Mom, for Arlie Russell Hochschild's talk on her new book, The Outsourced Self. This bookstore is a favorite haunt and I knew of Arlie, a Berkeley professor emerita: Once when we met in San Francisco and again when we gave a joint talk at a Swarthmore College reunion. Her talk on all the things the wealthier middle class now pay other people to do—plan parties, walk dogs, make matches, coach us for life goals, carry fetuses as far away as India—seemed as true as if written on tablets! And yet it was a "brand" new frontier, a narrative of what has happened when old community bonds have broken down.

People used to marry within their villages or their own cities or towns. Brilliant sociology by Hochschild, and yes, my parents come from "Protestant work ethic" stock in Madison, Wis., and graduated from the university in their hometown. While growing up, I heard other academic terms such as "invidious comparisons," "deferred gratification," and "Midwest egalitarianism."

I felt right at home here in this company because academics have always been our best family friends. As I admitted in an op-ed on mothers and daughters in The Boston Globe ages ago, I felt like choosing a field where I wouldn't be known as my mother's daughter. Few women born in the '60s had this dilemma; it's more of a father and son theme. So journalism was the road I took.

[See the latest political cartoons.]

The next day, on a lark, I brought lush peonies home for her. I actually fixed dinner for my mother for when she came back from the military history conference. A chance for a tete-a-tete, with curried chicken, spring corn, stringbeans and blueberries. (Yes, I outsourced much of this meal.) Our table talk went like this: Did I know what wars are considered the "forgotten" wars? I guessed, correctly, the Korean War and the War of 1812. Then came this: I should write a book people want to read, not one I want to write. You see, my project on Lucretia Mott, a Quaker champion for slaves and women, is not going well. The realist speaks.

The next day burst brightly from the window. She was out the door at 7:30 because she had to say a few words across the river, at the conference. And I had a squash tournament which did wonders for me. Being my mother's daughter, I also scheduled a short meeting of the Millennial Book Club South—most members are in Baltimore. Mary Chesnut's Diary, by a genteel Carolina lady during the Civil War, reveals all the cracks in the Confederacy's leadership and character, page by page. While you see how foolhardy the whole enterprise was, you also see what they thought they were fighting for—for one thing, a country where a rich white woman has the right to have her breakfast served in bed by a "servant," a slave who knows just what she likes. What would Mary Chesnut think of Lucretia Mott of Philadelphia? Good question! The two women would not have any time for each other, to put it politely.

[Jamie Stiehm: Praying for More Women Leaders]

Then time to dress for the Folger Shakespeare Theatre; I had house tickets for The Taming of the Shrew. Life that day was sweet, leavened with drinks at a friend's house in Cleveland Park, where we talked politics, of course. It's in the Washington air and water; it's the reason we are here. Then the Metro to Union Station. As we walked past the Senate buildings, the creamy Capitol, and the Supreme Court, standing silent and grand in the light of dusk, I pointed out the new security state we live in—with so many barriers, bollards and checkpoints marring the sight lines, the transparency of the original open design. It was like walking on a stark stage set of Our Town—and country—post-9/11. Shakespeare's randy and wise comedy diverted and delighted us. The Elizabethan theatre at the Folger transports you back—well, the set was a Wild West saloon.

"Fantastic," said my mother of the set, the cast, the play itself ("none better"), and the line dancing at the end. In a word, the exuberant, like her. I know the Bard's tragedies, but maybe it's time to take a break and see the lighter side of his comedies. At home, she packed everything into a small suitcase and spoke to my father Richard, happily at home in Santa Monica. She'll meet Molly, a young woman who loves my mother's zest for adventure, and has accompanied her from Turkmenistan to Morocco to Colombia. "My daughters won't go with me," is her refrain.

Mine is: "If you like me, you'll love my mother."

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  • Corrected on 5/15/2012: A previous version of this blog post misspelled the name of the author of The Outsourced Self. Her name is Arlie Russell Hochschild.