My Mom, In The Lab

Here’s my mom, Theresa Rudroff Haigney (1927-2003), at her microscope. That’s some serious petri dish action going on the background there, if you care to look. This photo was taken in a lab at the Pfizer Pharmaceutical facility in Brooklyn, N.Y., where Mom spent the first phase of her working life.

I don’t have an exact date but I believe it was taken at some point in the late 1940s, when Pfizer was developing terramycin and my mother was assisting the team working on what was then a revolutionary new antibiotic.

Mom always remembered it as an exciting time, not only because of the work, but because celebrities and heads of state (I remember her mentioning Haile Selassie of Ethiopia) would be ushered past the glass observation windows to peer at the staff as they toiled away. She also developed a lifelong love of bridge there, honed at cutthroat card games in the Pfizer break room.

Mom came to Pfizer as a bright high school graduate who had excelled in mathematics, chemistry, physics and German (naturally; her parents spoke it at home).  College was not in the cards for her, alas. Her father did not believe in it for girls, who would only end up marrying and wasting all that education. But bright high school grads in those days could get lab assistant jobs, and she loved the work. She continued to work in various lab settings after she married my father and they moved to Chicago for him to complete his education.

She hit a snag when she realized she was pregnant with my oldest sister. Quitting was not a financial option, but pregnancy left her subject to immediate dismissal.  Thank God for lab smocks, she would say. She hid under them and kept the job. The stress was sky-high. When the next child was on the way, she simply leveled with her boss and begged him not to fire her, as Dad still had a year of school to go. The boss let her keep the job. After Dad graduated, Mom stopped working outside the home.

I think there was always a wistfulness in the background about what she’d left behind. It’d be nice to write a heartwarming screed about how she didn’t mind a bit staying home, due to the awesomeness of me and my siblings (and we are awesome). But she missed working, and I don’t see why she wouldn’t, even as she concentrated her energies on home and kids. A decade or so later and she might have combined family and job, but that just wasn’t something women did a lot, especially with seven children.

I do puzzle sometimes over what to tell my daughters if they ever ask for life advice. (I know, as if.) I guess I would start by telling them about their grandma, and about regrets, and about making the most of the opportunities you get, while doing your best to open up more opportunities for the women who follow you. It’s a start, anyway.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of us — the ones who went before, and the ones coming after. And those of us in the thick of it right now.


3 Comments on “My Mom, In The Lab”

  1. Susan says:

    Great photograph. It’s so important to remember they (and we) are more than Moms.

  2. Betsy says:

    You look so much like your mom in that picture. I miss her, too.

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