My Mother’s Rules: Good Grades and No Babies

My mother Iva Ware, 1970

My mother Iva Ware, 1970

Don’t get pregnant and get good grades. When I was in high school, these rules were unspoken, but I knew what mattered to Mom.

After Dad died when I was fourteen, Mom worried about restarting her own life rather than controlling mine. I followed her rules because I didn’t want to jeopardize my freedom, plus they were natural to me.

Like Mom, I was an academic striver. The first grader who wanted all As still wanted As in high school. I liked school, but I also knew how to follow directions and turn my work in on time. I made careful considered choices on multiple choice tests and stapled the pages of my essays together. Mom expected a good college and a scholarship.

I socialized with the wild crowd of kids who weren’t in accelerated classes but had good parties. My parties in the basement recreation room of the small house where Mom and I lived in Dearborn, Michigan were the best. My friends and I played Motown records and danced as late as we wanted. At one of these parties, the summer before my senior year, a college boy named Jack showed up.

Elaine and Jack, 1967

Elaine and Jack, 1967

“I was worried about the twinkle in his eye,” Mom told me later, but she didn’t try to stop the romance. Jack was a first generation college student from an Italian family, a 5’8” muscular twenty year old whose father worked in the Ford Motor factory.

Mom’s birth control information was scientific and specific. She confessed without shame that she had sex with my father before marriage and she wanted me to protect myself. In the early 1960s, that meant making sure the guy used a condom. For four months, Jack and I messed around in the recreation room when my mom was away at investment club meetings or night school classes. She was interested in the stock market and a master’s degree, so she was away most nights. I had never felt a boy’s tongue in my mouth or touched an erection even through jeans, but Jack was patient. When I finally said yes, I made sure he had a condom. He didn’t need convincing.

I led a double life my senior year at Edsel Ford High School. I was President of Student Council, a straight A student who banged up the College Boards, and an enthusiastic participant in school and local theater. At the same time, I had hot sex with my boyfriend, went to parties at Wayne State University where he was in a fraternity, and drank beer. On a lark, we once went to a strip club in Detroit where I saw a teacher from my school in the audience. The teacher and I averted our eyes and pretended we hadn’t seen each other. It remained our secret.

I loved Jack as a 17 year old loves, but dreamed of a bigger life.  When I was offered a scholarship to Cornell, I had no doubt. Mom prepared to leave for a new teaching job in England. She also longed for more and wanted to see the world. By summer’s end, I broke up with Jack and packed my suitcases to move to Ithaca. Mom’s dreams and rules had become my own.

How did you manage the balance of freedom and rules in high school? Did you rebel, capitulate, or find a compromise? For another post about my mother, see “My Mother’s Blessing.”

  1. Although I am of another generation, my unspoken message from my mother was the same. Well, it was unspoken until she found a condom and quickly had me on oral birth control pills. I fulfilled her expectation of a driven academic career, and remained nulliparous until I was married. I was also not lost to the party side of life, and sneaking with my boyfriend in the basement and the car, and the park:) But, I suppose in retrospect, I couldn’t have asked for a better balance. I would not have given anything in exchange for the experimental part of my life, just as I was driven in my academic life. Interesting how in society it equals a ‘double’ life, instead of a full one. Maybe a difference in gender, maybe not. Even with my girls, I can only hope that they go for the full one…of course, without getting pregnant before their time:)

    • Thanks for your stories, Jess, and for responding to my post. Sounds like we agree that our mother’s rules served us well. Oral birth control pills were just becoming available when I was a teenager, and I switched to them in college (nasty, strong hormonal doses used then). I only had a few boyfriends before meeting my husband and met him when I was a student at Cornell, so my mother’s approach worked for me. Sexuality is more scary now. There were few risks associated other than pregnancy when I was young. I like your thoughts about leading a full life rather than a double one. Yes, definitely a gender issue in the early 1960s, although much had changed by 1970. By then I was 25, married, and pregnant with my first child. Those two bright eyed beautiful girls will test you and their dad, but it’s wonderful they have a mom who talks straight with them about sex and the open possibilities of life.

  2. Thanks for this honest story, Elaine. Think how differently your life might have turned out of you were pregnant at 17. Kudos to your mother for bringing up birth control. My mother never discussed such things with me, but I had the talk with my daughter when she was 12. My grandson, who is 17, cringed when his mother and I brought it up before he went to the prom.

    • Yes, Lynne, my mom did me a great favor and without embarrassment on either of our parts. She began discussing this with me when I reached puberty at 12 and was relaxed about helping me understand what was happening to my body. Her mother hadn’t told her a thing and she was terrified and traumatized by her first period. Vic talked to my sons and I think there was cringing on their part, but I hope all parents dive into these discussions. Thanks for telling me your experience.

  3. I missed out on the mother-daughter talks. But I was so busy with my artwork that my mother had nothing to worry about. Oh, okay – I did have a boyfriend who was in college when I was in high school. But mom made sure to meet him and give him the evil eye that said, “Don’t mess with my daughter.” I think it was probably that same look that kept me working so much on my paintings and homework.

    • Wow, Robin. My mom was unusual in her willingness to discuss sexuality. I hear of some women who hand their daughter a book. Sounds like you had nothing at all.

  4. Wow, your experience was so different from mine. And wow, that photo….!

  5. I actually have been very open with my daughter about sex. I told her in very small, limited details when she was 7, almost 8. I felt that in the light of the Sanduski scandal, that education was a form of protection for her. I had been contemplating what to say, when she gave me an opener. “Mommy, I dreamt that I was pregnant last night”, so I said, “Really, and do you know how you get pregnant?” And so the concise explanation went. She countered with, “Mommy, I feel a little nauseous about this.” As you should, I told her b/c this was an adult thing to do. Since then, she has come to me with a lot of questions, to which I give basic, concise answers. I know that she will always come to me first, b/c she heard it from me. I feel that it’s one of my better mom moments:) and decisions.

    • Wow, Jess. Will you be my mom? My mom was good at this, but you are fantastic. I remember first hearing about intercourse and wondering how anyone could stand doing that. How nice to know this is natural, too, and to have someone who will hear your questions. Then hormones change that attitude fast.

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