In praise of tough mothers, including my own

My brilliant mother fought hard to create her own way in the world, and then sacrificed it all to raise me

Published May 13, 2018 3:00PM (EDT)

Artwork from "TOUGH MOTHERS: Amazing Stories of History’s Mightiest Matriarchs" (Dey Street Books)
Artwork from "TOUGH MOTHERS: Amazing Stories of History’s Mightiest Matriarchs" (Dey Street Books)

Here are some things you need to know about my mom. Her anniversary presents from my stepdad early in their marriage included a flamethrower, a chainsaw, and a power scythe (yeah, I didn't know they were a thing either). In her 50s, she fixed the roof of our house by herself, refusing to let me or my legion of brothers help. (There are eight of us, no sisters. Yes, mom is very patient.) Her reason for not letting us help was that we wouldn't do as good of a job as she would, which, well, was true.

When, a few years later, she taught herself to make jewelry and decided to make a website to sell her creations, she built the website by herself in secret, teaching herself how to code. She did so knowing full well that half of the family are software engineers. Heck, my stepdad wrote code for Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. But mom didn't want help. She wanted to do it herself. And she made a great website.

My mother was also a bit of a pariah.

My mom was born in Kentucky in the 1940s. It was not a world with a place for brilliant women, and make no mistake: mom is brilliant. Growing up, she was constantly told that her role was to be a wife and a mother, and that men didn't like smart women. She tried fitting into that mold for decades — she was a cheerleader! — because what other choice was there? But all the while, she worried there was something different about her. That she was some sort of aberration.

It wasn't until Mom was in her 30s that she began to really flourish. She eschewed the expectations put on her and started doing what she wanted to do. Before long, she had her own job, she became a published author, she found a community of like-minded people and she had become that intensely capable person I've described to you. Faced with a world that seemed to have no place for her, she carved her own place out of granite. And as all doors opened to her, she asked: What do I really want out of life? Who do I choose to be?

And she chose to be my mom.

She never looked back on that choice. But I did. I remember catching glimpses of the life she'd had before, of all that she'd put down to raise me and my brothers. I continually meditated on the magnitude of that choice, unable to hold it in my head. Had she been only half herself all this time? Had she pushed her own personality, her likes and dislikes, dreams and goals, to the side, just to give me the best life possible? Is that the sacrifice all mothers make? Is it worth it? Was I worth it?

Of course, these were ridiculous questions. She knew that she didn't stop being herself just because she had her sons. If anything, she became more herself, because she'd walked down that path out of volition instead of obligation. The trade-offs she'd made, she'd make again, if she could.

But I had to pay her back, in some small way. And so, when I left my job in animation in 2014, I started writing the books I wish my mom had owned as a kid. I called them "Rejected Princesses": illustrated collections of little-known women from history, all as brilliant and indomitable and unstoppable as her. I patterned the look after the books she'd read me in my childhood, hoping to reach girls who were also growing up without any link to women like them who'd come before. That lineage of heroines and hellions, with their imperfections on full display, should be everyone's birthright.

To the weirdos, pariahs, and aberrations: Glory in your edges and never let them dull. Don't file yourself down for anybody.

To the guardians: Let the children who don't fit in know — they are not broken, they are not damned, they are not alone.

And to the mothers — mine and all others out there, giving selflessly: No words will ever be able to fully recognize all that you put aside. "Thank you" is too meager, too small, too inadequate, but it's all we have.

Thank you.

By Jason Porath

Jason Porath is the author and illustrator of "Tough Mothers: Amazing Stories of History’s Mightiest Matriarchs" (April 3, 2018; HarperCollins/Dey Street) and "Rejected Princesses" (October, 2016; HarperCollins/Dey Street). A former animator with Dreamworks, he is also the creator of

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