Lessons from a Fearless Mother

By Liza Vilnits

At some point in my teens I found out from my mother that I was a “mistake,” or at least that’s how I interpreted it. What I remember about that moment was being shocked and heartbroken. My mother—a loving mama but also a Russian spitfire—put me in my place, though, with some necessary tough love: “Lizochka, you are the light of my life, but do you think that your father and I had planned to have another child upon immigrating to America? We had no jobs and no money; we were unable to speak English and our hands were already full with your 1-year old brother. To say that it wasn’t the right time is an understatement!”

While it didn’t occur to me that day—after all, I was still an immature teenager—I eventually came to understand that if there is one thing motherhood represents, it is sacrifice. To me, my mother’s brave decision to bring me into this world knowing the uphill battle she faced was the ultimate sacrifice.
With that being said, one thing I’ve never seen my mom stray away from is a challenge. And so she approached motherhood just as she did any other situation – strategically and with vigor. She thought about the now (“How do we quickly make more money to make it through the day-to-day?”) and the future (“What types of careers would set us up for success in the long run?”). She started cleaning more houses to make fast cash and began taking English language classes and computer courses to build a foundation for her career in America.

It was no walk in the park, but in the end, it paid off. She became an expert in quality assurance testing, making sure IT software and systems functioned properly. She worked for both small and large companies, often alongside colleagues—and even supervisors—who made comments about her difficult-to-understand accent and her lack of background in the field, but she kept pushing and eventually became an invaluable resource to the companies who employed her. Still, she wanted a new challenge and went on to obtain her Realtor’s license, as she had always been fascinated with the industry and had a mind for business investing. Today, she has settled into a job that brings her the most joy of all: being a nanny to an adorable baby boy.

When my mother, a Jewish immigrant, began her life here in America, the odds for success were stacked against her, but she never let any of that stop her or even slow her down. In fact, she wore those traits on her sleeves as badges of honor, pushing her to stand taller and stronger. She never strayed away from her true character, and in moments of adversity, she used every single discriminatory and sexist comment she remembered from her past as fuel for her fire. In doing so, she taught me to never back down from a challenge or be ashamed of who you are.

The American Dream was very much a real pursuit for my parents, and I think their fight to succeed was a way of showing others, and maybe themselves, that they deserved to be here. Living under Soviet rule meant that my parents experienced political, economic and social hardships and also had to live in a way where a piece of them—being Jewish—was best swept under the rug. The challenges my parents experienced forced them to truly consider what they wanted for their lives. They knew there was more for them out there, and they wanted a piece of it, so in 1989, they left with a few suitcases, a baby and a few hundred dollars to their name.

I heard my mother recap the story of my parents’ immigration when my best friend interviewed her for a high school project. The assignment was to talk to an immigrant about their experiences coming to America. At the end of the interview, my friend posed her final question: “You’ve achieved so much in your life, but if you had to choose, what would you say is your greatest accomplishment?” My mother responded without hesitation, “My children.”  

So to my fearless mother: Thank you for taking a chance on yourself (and on me). Thank you for being strong, sassy, courageous and driven, and for being a mother who inspires me every day. I am who I am because of you, and for that, I’m eternally grateful.