Thursday, May 6, 2004
Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question —"Is this all?" — Betty Friedan
I was groomed from birth to become the stereotypical Southern Mama and—Betty Friedan, forgive me—I guess in some ways I did. My mother, my role model, was a cross between Carol Brady and Billie Jean King, but without the mullet and the live-in chicks. She elevated birthday and bridge-club parties to an art form and won state-wide tennis tournaments in her spare time. My friends thought there was no cooler mom in town, and I agreed.
I was somewhat shocked as a child to discover that my mother actually had a life before my sister and I entered the picture. I stumbled across the evidence while rooting through her scarf drawer; a pair of shiny gold metal wings that seemed as sacred as a war hero's medal and a dove gray embroidered cap creased in military fashion. She flew the friendly skies for Delta until she was forced to choose between a stewardess career and my father's proposal. Married women were not allowed to work for Delta in 1964, so she opted for door No. 2 and a severance honeymoon pass.
"Clipped wings," they called it.
She made life easy for us. I selfishly expected her to constantly cook, clean and care for us but wondered at the same time why she did it. I concluded that it was just her job, just like it was Daddy's job to go off to the office and play golf in the afternoons. But I was becoming a little suspicious of the homemaking vocation and figured there might be something else out there a little less tiring. Grabbing a bag of Doritos, I'd flop in my beanbag chair to lip read "Gilligan's Island" over the annoying drone of the vacuum cleaner. I figured if I steered clear of the kitchen or joined my father outside to work his labs or wash out the dog pens, then I would not be subject to a future fate of domesticity. He seemed to have the better gig, anyway. My first big feminist rebellion as a teenager was to refuse to learn to cook.
This worked for me for a while. I joined a (then-)male-dominated profession and chopped line and dug holes with the best of them. I wore the soles off my redwing boots surveying potential archaeological sites for little pay and lots of fun. I think I even snagged my husband by stating in that euphoric stage of courtship and career confidence that I'd be glad to be his "sugar mama" while he stayed at home to make it as an artist. He now claims he doesn't remember such a gracious offer, but I do. I remembered being terrified he'd take me up on it. I knew marriage changed things, and words like sacrifice, responsibility and roles kept cropping up in our family-planning conversations.
By our first anniversary, I found myself pregnant and not all that gung ho about my career anymore. The hormones and years of social conditioning kicked in, and I recanted, "You know once we have kids, I'm not working anymore; there is no way I'm leaving our kids with someone else to raise."
To utter those words in present-day America is blasphemous to some and an unimaginable luxury to most. They led to a worthwhile hardship for the two of us. Seven years, two children and an MBA later, he hasn't quite gotten around to painting full time, and I haven't quite gotten around to working full time, outside the home that is.
So here I am, 20 years after the Women's Movement, working at home, fielding client calls during potty training sessions, teaching while my kids are in school and writing at night after the blessed bedtime hour comes around. And, yes, I do know how to cook now and with only the slightest bit of smoldering resentment. And when I get dirty looks from my son for running the vacuum during "Sponge Bob," I nix the TV, hand him the vacuum and go to my computer to work.
The pendulum swings from one extreme to the other, then balances itself, and so will we.