By Kristin van Ogtrop
Updated January 21, 2015
Robert Maxwell

That is the title of a story in our September 2013 issue, and one of my all-time favorite Real Simple headlines. Yes, it’s true that Are You My Mother? is one of my all-time favorite children’s books, one that I forced on my children, even though they never really sparked to it and preferred awful books that I would try to hide from time to time, such as the ones featuring monster trucks or animated-movie characters.

But I also like the headline because I don’t feel as if I’ve ever had a mentor. I’ve had role models and excellent bosses and coworkers and friends I have relied on for advice, but never a Mentor. A short, completely unscientific poll of friends and acquaintances reveals that other women (well, at least six) feel like this. Apparently there are lots of reasons that we don’t have mentors: not enough women in positions of power in the American workplace; sexual politics; women undermining other women; women afraid to ask for what they want. It’s a long, familiar list that can explain many forces that seem to hold women back.

There’s been a lot of talk about mentoring in our culture lately, but what I want to know (beyond whether we all actually need one) is this: Just what is a mentor? Is it a formal relationship, like the one you have with a contractor (you have to sign papers and put down a deposit)? Or is it more casual, like the relationship you have with your friend up the street, who gives you extremely excellent counsel and the occasional dessert, all for free? The more I talk to people about mentors, frankly, the more confused I become. Maybe it’s the industry I work in or the kind of people I know. Or there is something wrong with me. Or maybe the mentor experience is one of those life situations, like falling in love for the first time, where you don’t know what it is until you do it. (“Oh, you’ll know,” some smug, more experienced person will tell you. Irritating.)

I do know one thing: When you do have—or become—a mentor (you’ll know), it is a relationship that greatly benefits and changes both of you. Just read the profiles of the three pairs of women in the story and you will be convinced.

And for those of you who, like me, haven’t found a mentor yet, take heart. Remember the baby bird? He mistook a dog and a cow and an airplane and—horrors—even a SNORT for his own mother. But eventually, happily, he found her.

Read the story: Are You My Mentor?