Our Mothers Ourselves

Helen Stark -- How Did She Pull That Off?

May 31, 2020 Katie Hafner Season 1 Episode 4
Our Mothers Ourselves
Helen Stark -- How Did She Pull That Off?
Chapters
Our Mothers Ourselves
Helen Stark -- How Did She Pull That Off?
May 31, 2020 Season 1 Episode 4
Katie Hafner


Katie interviews Marya Stark, founding executive director of Emerge America, about Marya's mother, Helen, who lived for most of her life with a debilitating lung condition that left her with 25% of normal lung capacity. 

Helen had nine children, and somehow managed to make each believe that that one child was her favorite. Katie and Marya dig deep into how Helen might have managed to pull that off.

Show Notes Transcript


Katie interviews Marya Stark, founding executive director of Emerge America, about Marya's mother, Helen, who lived for most of her life with a debilitating lung condition that left her with 25% of normal lung capacity. 

Helen had nine children, and somehow managed to make each believe that that one child was her favorite. Katie and Marya dig deep into how Helen might have managed to pull that off.

Intro :

My mother was a woman of tremendous integrity. My mother was curious, sensitive, compassionate, honest, always there for us, unflappable, loyal,complicated, she is devoted, resilient, dazzling, giving, vivacious, extraordinary

Katie Hafner :

Marya, what is the one word that you would use to describe your mother?

Marya Stark :

I'd say abundant. She just had so much joy and warmth and good humor and ease with all of us. So yeah, abundant.

Katie Hafner :

Welcome to Our Mothers Ourselves, a weekly conversation about one extraordinary mother. I'm Katie Hafner, and I'm your host. I have a friend named Marya Stark. In 2005, Marya co-founded Emerge America. It's an organization that trains democratic women to run for public office. Emerge has really taken off. In 2018, a good number of the seats that switched to Democrats were won by Emerge alums. But that's not why I asked Maria to talk to me today. For as long as I've known Marya, I've been struck by the admiring way that she has always talked about her mother, Helen Stark. Helen raised nine children, and she did something pretty remarkable. Somehow, Helen managed to make each one of those nine kids think that they were her favorite. So I asked Marya to join me, to dig a little bit into how her mother managed to pull that off, all while living with a debilitating lung condition that she had since childhood. But even with that she lived until she was 93. Marya, thank you so much for joining me to talk about your mother.

Marya Stark :

Well, it's so nice to join you, Katie, because my mother is really one of my favorite things to talk about.

Katie Hafner :

One of the reasons I decided to start this podcast in the first place was, of course, to serve as a distraction and something very good and warm-hearted during these completely crazy times, but also to highlight some really rich mother stories. And years and years ago, you showed me a tribute that you had written to your mom, and I had no idea that you adored her as much as as you did, and I'm assuming, did right up until the day she died.

Marya Stark :

Oh, absolutely.

Katie Hafner :

So Marya, I'm wondering if you would read me a little bit of that tribute that you wrote to your mom, I guess she was in her 80s when you wrote it, just to give us a sense of, of how deep your love for her was.

Marya Stark :

I'd be happy to. My feelings about my mother are surprisingly uncomplicated. I've always been smitten by her. I think of her as the mythical mother, the Holy Grail of mothers. It's not anything she says, she doesn't buy things or do things to show her love. She doesn't reach out to her children. We all know that she's there for us when we need her and she doesn't want to interrupt our busy lives. But she manages her childrens' affection with what we call "the buzz." That unalloyed delight and her voice when she knows it's you. It's what keeps us calling.

Katie Hafner :

I haven't done this yet on the podcast, but I thought I would throw this little pop quiz at you: if you were to use one word to describe your mother, what would it be?

Marya Stark :

Well, you know, I've been at one of your book readings where you asked that of the audience. And for me, I remember at the time, the first word that came to mind was abundant. And I think my mother had, well she had nine children. And all of us thought we were her favorite child. And I think that speaks to an abundance of warmth, love, maturity, great abundance.

Katie Hafner :

So she had nine children.

Marya Stark :

Yes, she had nine children

Katie Hafner :

Over a span of how many years?

Marya Stark :

Not that many! Over a span of 15 years. She had a six children within seven years....

Katie Hafner :

Oh, my God, she was constantly pregnant.

Marya Stark :

Basically.

Katie Hafner :

So there were no accidents. It sounds like it was all very intentional.

Marya Stark :

It was very intentional. And actually, after my parents had both passed away, we found this funny letter that my dad had written to my mother when my mom was pregnant with number four. And it says, 'Helen, we really should stop at four!' And it wasn't that long of a letter. That was the point of the letter. He didn't want any more kids. And we found this. The summer after my mother had passed away. And we we just laughed so hard. We just couldn't believe it. You know, he was making his plea to her. And somehow that did not come to be.

Katie Hafner :

So, starting in what year? Did she have the kids, start having the kids?

Marya Stark :

Her children span the era of the Baby Boom. Basically, her first child was born in 1948. And I'm the youngest of her children. And I was born in '63. So we were all born between those years, almost the exact years of the Baby Boom.

Katie Hafner :

Did she grow up in a big family?

Marya Stark :

She grew up in a medium sized family. She was the youngest of four children. She had it pretty easy, although she had really serious asthma as a child. And, you know, medicine wasn't that far along in understanding how to treat children with asthma, but that she had pneumonia as a teenager and lost about half of her lung capacity and grew scar tissue.

Katie Hafner :

So I assume your mom did go to college?

Marya Stark :

Yes, she did go to college. And for her first year, there were lots of men and women. After that the men went off to the War. And she continued and then she went to grad school to study education at Penn.

Katie Hafner :

So she was a smart woman.

Marya Stark :

She was also very social. Her nickname was "Dimples."

Katie Hafner :

What?

Marya Stark :

Dimples. Yeah.

Katie Hafner :

And then how did she meet your dad?

Marya Stark :

They... My dad was in med school at Jefferson in Philadelphia. And they met at some dance.

Katie Hafner :

They got married in what year?

Marya Stark :

So they would have gotten married in probably '46 or '47. And then they moved to Arizona to the San Carlos Apache Reservation, where my dad was the only physician on the reservation. This is a reservation north of Tucson, Arizona.

Katie Hafner :

Oh, wow. Did he do that as a- Was it a calling or did he do that- Was he obligated to do that somehow?

Marya Stark :

He was obligated because the army had put my dad through college and med school. And so all those physicians owed two years of their time.

Katie Hafner :

Mhm.

Marya Stark :

And he chose that because of my mom's lungs. Like, there were some options and he wanted something dry for her.

Katie Hafner :

He chose- He chose it for your mom's health?

Marya Stark :

Yeah, exactly. And it really did turn out to be a bonanza for her health because it was dry and warm. And so they stayed in Arizona for the rest of their lives.

Katie Hafner :

Was she the kind of mom who would, after you got home from school, greet you with a plate of cookies? Was she that kind of mom? I'm talking more, I'm actually asking that question and kind of more of a metaphorical sense.

Marya Stark :

Sure. Yeah. So um, she, I mean, she would certainly greet you if, you know, she'd certainly be happy to see you. But you know, she wasn't... My mother's view was everybody can do their own thing except for dinner, and dinner was something that, you know, she prepared dinner. But everybody else had to do. You know, everybody else had to prepare their own breakfast and lunch. And she also gave each kid a wicker basket at age six. At which point you have to do your own laundry. And, you know, so she did off-load a lot of work onto us as children.

Katie Hafner :

Age six?

Marya Stark :

Yeah. And apparently one of her favorite stories is that I came home when I was in third grade, very indignant that I was the only child that had to do my own laundry.

Katie Hafner :

Oh my gosh, so was it a source of shame?

Marya Stark :

No, It was... I wanted her... I wanted to see if that would persuade her to do my laundry but she, she was like, "you're fine."

Katie Hafner :

So she would show you how to do it and then say, "knock yourself out."

Marya Stark :

Exactly.

Katie Hafner :

Things I'm trying to get at with this podcast is, you know, how do our mothers make us who we are? And how do you think she set you up to become the the sunny, happy adult that your friends know you to be?

Marya Stark :

Well, I think some of that you're just born with, that I definitely inherited her good nature and her level of anxiety. And, and in addition, she modeled such positive framing and positive behavior that, you know, I kind of got it both ways.

Katie Hafner :

And so you went on to start a very important organization, Emerge America, which by the way, thank you very much Marya for doing that.

Marya Stark :

Mhm.

Katie Hafner :

And it started out as a way to encourage women to run for office at all levels. And how did you, how did you... What did your mother think of, of that?

Marya Stark :

So my mother was not nearly as political as I was. But she loved it. She loved it. She was proud of me. And she, she thought that it was my way of you know, so if I was unable to have children myself, and so I think she saw it as my way of nurturing others, because that's a deep wound. A deep seated need mine, sensitives, I think for all human beings. And so I think she viewed it in those terms and thought it's great.

Katie Hafner :

And what were her politics?

Marya Stark :

So both of my parents were Republicans, and...

Katie Hafner :

And you're not. You're not.

Marya Stark :

I'm definitely not. No. And they, my mother became... she, she was going to vote for Hillary Clinton in the '16 election and she didn't quite. She passed away about a year before that, but she definitively had changed sides at that point, I would say she, she was raised Catholic. And while I don't think her Catholicism was super central to her identity, she was a model.

Katie Hafner :

Okay, so she was raised Catholic, so I'm assuming she didn't use birth control?

Marya Stark :

Definitely not. I mean, well, considering the results.

Katie Hafner :

Right. And and did she did she approve of her kids using birth control?

Marya Stark :

Oh, I think so. I mean, she often said that if she had been born ten years later, she would have had two kids and been a lawyer, so I'm sure she was fine with that.

Katie Hafner :

That's very interesting. She said that if she had been born ten years later, she would have had two kids and been a lawyer. And did she ever say that like, "And I wish I had?"

Marya Stark :

Um, I mean, I think she was very, she was very happy with having kids that, you know, delighted in her so much. So I don't think she regrets that. But I do think she still had the perspective. But...

Katie Hafner :

let's dial back for one sec to something that you said earlier about how just your mother managed to somehow with nine children to make all of you feel like you were her favorite. So how did how do you think she pulled that off?

Marya Stark :

Well, we all definitely felt like she was a unicorn of a human being. But I think that she there was a method to her madness and it was that she was always available when you wanted her. When she, you know she needed you like, like her emotional wellbeing was so already set and she was just happy and calm and stable in herself that also, you know, she could just be available to everybody else. When my father passed away, in the hospital, I just remember, you know, he died on the morning of their 47th wedding anniversary. And I came into the hospital room. And she did she just had this look on her face. Like all that mattered was trying to help me feel okay about my dada just passed away. It wasn't really her own thoughts about her own feelings about her husband like, you know, she's still just could extend herself and like so focused on me as I walked into that room, you know, so it's whenever you wanted to sit down and talk with her, she would always just clear everything and just be zoomed in on you and 100% paying attention to you as if that was like her favorite place to be in the whole wide world.

Katie Hafner :

With nine of you there. I mean, you'd all be wanting to have these one-on-ones with her so that she could be there to make you feel as if you were the only person on the planet. But it's just it's, it's sounding a little a little too idyllic.

Marya Stark :

I know! I think part of it was that, you know, that that she had so much time for all of us was really just an illusion.

Katie Hafner :

An illusion?

Marya Stark :

Yeah! It's almost impossible that she truly had all this time for all of us, but I think it speaks to her ability to listen so well, when we did want her attention, that, that it was deeply satisfying.

Katie Hafner :

I wonder how she did pull that off.

Marya Stark :

We, as siblings have talked about this for decades. Like how did she do that? But like none of us remember being competitive with each other for her attention. I think part of it was that she was not judgmental. She was very accepting. And so as a child you just felt, and even as an adult we felt really listened to. And I think that's how everybody bonds.

Katie Hafner :

And it sounds like she got that from her parents who might have gotten that from their parents. This this intergenerational cycle.

Marya Stark :

Yeah.

Katie Hafner :

Did she ever talk about how her parents were role models or how her mother was a role model?

Marya Stark :

You know, she didn't talk about it that much, but I thought it was very clear that she had really fond feelings about her own mother. Like, I just remember one time asking her if she missed her mother. And, you know, my mother didn't cry very much. Again, that was part of not trying to try not to trigger an asthma attack. And her eyes just, you know, teared up instantly and, you know, who just veered off that topic.

Katie Hafner :

So there it sounds like there were some things you just didn't talk about.

Marya Stark :

There were some things we didn't we didn't talk about, you know, from a very intense emotional place, but I grew to understand it as her way of managing her health.

Katie Hafner :

Mhm. Wow. That her health was that big of a factor that it shaped her being.

Marya Stark :

Absolutely. I remember when I was like nine years old, going to a doctor appointment with her and she was supposed to blow into this air balloon which showed your lung volume. And she was blowing as hard as she could. And it didn't even move. She could, she could not exhale enough to move it at all.

Katie Hafner :

And what did you, what did you understand as a nine year old? What was going on?

Marya Stark :

Oh, just that her health was fragile.

Katie Hafner :

Just to interrupt you for a sec. She was a teacher of what and who?

Marya Stark :

So she she actually taught sixth grade.

Katie Hafner :

And so then she kept working for a while, then she stopped working and was basically pregnant for years.

Marya Stark :

Well, you know, what's interesting is for people who have really bad lungs, at least according to my mother, being pregnant, was it was easy to breathe.

Katie Hafner :

So it was easy to breathe, easier to breathe when you're pregnant? Is that what you're saying?

Marya Stark :

For her, yeah.

Katie Hafner :

Because why? Is there a real physiological reason?

Marya Stark :

Yeah, I think you have more blood volume that helps you, helps your lungs. But you know this, my mother's lungs were so compromised. She was she only had breathing in the, in the 20s, like, like 28% or so of normal lung capacity. And actually, I think that's a really interesting relevant point about my mother's emotional wellbeing and self-regulation was that because having an asthma attack was such a serious issue for her that she very early I think in her life, learned to regulate her emotions and senses to almost neutral. Like she was fine being neutral. But she was very, it was very rare to see her... allow herself to be upset about much of anything. And we used to think that was really weird. But we, over time came to understand that as a really positive adaptive skill that helped her choose her responses instead of react in the moment. And I think that was a very profound part of why she was such a- an accepting, loving, caring adult.

Katie Hafner :

Explain that to me a little better.

Marya Stark :

Yes. Okay. I think that in her case, her poor health and her desire to breathe well meant that she really was careful about not getting upset. And in fact, she was really skilled and disciplined about choosing a positive reaction to pretty much everything that happened in life. You know, that skill is really valuable. I mean, nuts. Obviously, as a parent, it's an incredible skill. But in life, it's an important skill to learn. And she really modeled that for us, that you can choose how you respond to whatever happens around you.

Katie Hafner :

Mhm.

Marya Stark :

And in her case, she always chose the most positive response possible.

Katie Hafner :

Mm. Wow, that's amazing. It sounds from the way you're describing it that she didn't do this in a "I'm a martyr. It's okay. I'll... I'll just sit in the dark" kind of way.

Marya Stark :

No. Yeah, she did not ever have a victim mentality. And she did not complain about her severe health constraints. You know, not being able to breathe well.

Katie Hafner :

Do a lot of people hear about your mom and say to you, "I wish I'd had that mom?"

Marya Stark :

Oh, absolutely. Um, and, and certainly all my friends, you know, and Chuck from childhood that knew her. We all talked about how we wanted to be more like her. And one time like ten, fifteen years ago, I actually tried to codify what it would mean to be more like her. And that at New Year's every year, we'd give ourselves a grade from zero to a hundred, a hundred being Helen, my mother. You know, how did you score last year and how're you gonna do better next year? You know, the, the elements of the score were things like were you inspiring love, joy and connection 24-7, and score yourself. And, you know, when you're being emotionally available and non-judgmental to the people around you, you know, give yourself a score things like that. So I had friends that wanted to be part of this New Year scoring.

Katie Hafner :

Is there's a name for it? The Helen score? What's your Helen score?

Marya Stark :

Well, so it was the Helen-ometer for my friends. We called it a Mama-meter for, you know, the kids, but you know, it was really about- How can any person be more like my mom? I think it's indicative of what an extraordinary mother she was that nine kids if not one of the kids went through a rebellious period against her.

Katie Hafner :

Do you know how lucky you are to have had her as a mother?

Marya Stark :

I've always felt. We were all just madly in love with her, all of us! So, yeah, I do know how lucky I am. Sometimes I even feel bad about it, because it just feels unfair. But yeah, my mother was- she was, you know, was a one in a million. And I do wish more people could, you know, try to learn from what a great example she was able to lay out for everyone.

Katie Hafner :

Marya, thank you so much for talking to me about your mom. I'm sorry I never got to meet her.

Marya Stark :

Mm. Yes. Well, thank you so much, Katie. I'm delighted to talk about my mother because I would love to share her way of being. I think the world would be a kinder place if more people could live like her.

Katie Hafner :

And that's it this week for Our Mothers Ourselves. Our theme song was composed and performed by Andrea Perry, and our artist in residence is Paula Mangin. I'm Katie Hafner, and I'm your host. Have a great week, and stay safe. (This transcript was proofread by Benjy Wachter. Thanks, Benjy!)