What Helped Sonia Sotomayor and Surgeon General Nominee Regina Benjamin Succeed: Great Moms

Moms who expect hard work from their kids reap some major rewards.


What a week for superachieving women! Sonia Sotomayor is poised to become the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, and President Obama just named Regina Benjamin to be the nation’s next surgeon general. And what a week for supermoms, who inspired their daughters to work hard and succeed beyond the moms’ wildest dreams. They’re inspiring me to be tough with kids, in all the right ways.

“I want to make one special note of thanks to my mom,” Sotomayor told the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. “I am here today because of her aspirations and sacrifices for my brother, Juan, and me.” Then Sotomayor turned to her mom, seated behind her, and said: “Mom, I love that we are sharing this together.” Go Mom! That helps make up for all those nights around the kitchen table in the Bronx housing project, where the whole family studied together. Sotomayor’s mother earned a nursing degree to support the family after her husband died when Sonia was 9. She made it clear that she was working hard and that her kids would, too. Sonia sure did, heading off to Princeton and becoming a federal judge before being nominated for the nation's top court.

Their family story reminds me of Obama’s famous tale of his mother, Ann Dunham, waking him up at 4 a.m. to practice English vocabulary when he was a schoolboy in Indonesia. When he complained, she replied: “This is no picnic for me, either, Buster.” 

Benjamin, a family physician in Bayou La Batre, Ala., won’t have the joy of praising her mom at her confirmation hearing; she recently passed away. But she was another strong woman, one who waited tables to support her family and who helped found the African-American Catholic parish in Daphne, Ala., where Regina grew up. After Regina graduated from college and medical school, she chose to stay in rural Alabama and serve its mostly poor residents, despite having plenty of chances to cash in on her expertise. She may be moving to D.C. to be surgeon general, but in that role she’ll still be trying to deliver top-quality healthcare to people used to getting very little. She also, her staff told me when I profiled Benjamin last fall, delivers hugs. Mom would be proud.

I know I’ll never be a Supreme Court justice or surgeon general, but I’m glad my daughter will have Sotomayor and Benjamin as role models. And I’m happy to see their moms get the credit they deserve. These days it's easy for parents to think that tough love no longer cuts it. These two women, and their wonderful daughters, have proved that Mom’s hard work really pays off.