Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Stay-at-Home Mom's Moment of Truth

A few days ago I woke up and realized I was a housewife.

I am not sure how I missed that fact, but I think it has something to do with being so busy calling myself a stay-at-home mom. And, really, unless they’re on a reality TV show, most women don’t reach into the milieu of years past, sip some Sanka, dust off an Oreck and come out shouting,

“I’m a housewife!”

But maybe it would be better if we did.

I’ve been thinking a lot about being a housewife, especially since reading the 1971 preview issue of Ms. Magazine that appeared within New York Magazine forty years ago.

Jane O’ Reilly had an article in that test-run issue, “The Housewife’s Moment of Truth”. It was the piece that tallied the series of “clicks” or moments of recognition in the minds of housewives all over the country as they had “—the moment that brings a gleam to our eyes and means a revolution has begun.”

A lot has changed since that 1971 issue. For one thing, you can’t get land in Ridgefield Connecticut for $14,500. Yes, the classified section captured my attention—how could it not when discotheque music and a $10 electronic meter that measured romance while holding hands or kissing were being sold.

I was aware of my visitor’s status while reading O’Reilly’s piece, too: men calling women “broads”; both sexes debating “women’s lib” and in that pursuit, attending a “Workshop on Approaching Unisexuality”.

But the question O’Reilly asked four decades ago still cuts to the heart and vocabulary of today:

“The future improvement of civilization could not depend on who washes the dishes. Could it?”


“The liberated society,” she concludes, “—with men, women and children living as whole human beings, not halves divided by sex roles—depends on the steadfast search for new solutions to just such apparently trivial problems.”

The wonderful thing about being a parent today is that many men and women have found new solutions. In the forty years since her story, there is a new generation of stay-at-home dads, a fantastic linguistic tango of men and women merging last names, a conspicuous presence of men taking paternity leave and designers making strollers, diaper bags, and gear to appeal to them. I’ve heard from couples who’ve arranged their teaching schedules to split the day and caring of their children, and who have grabbed the list of domestic chores and divided it in two. We've pretty much come to terms with the idea that neither spouse gets to “have it all” and eventually, each of us, at times, gets stuck holding the stinky end of the toilette brush.

Still, I had to wonder as I read O’Reilly’s piece, what might be learned from looking at the scenarios that triggered the “click” four decades ago:

A husband stepping over a pile of toys on the steps, asking when his wife would put them away—the woman noticing he has two hands to do the task himself; a woman abundantly praising her husband for cleaning the bathroom before they left their vacation house, only to remember that she’d been up since six preparing, too; an artist expressing her desire to carve out time to paint, something her husband supports once the paintings bring in income, which is impossible, of course, until she has time to paint.

Is this much different than the contemporary stay-at-home mom whose husband helps with the dishes, except those that don’t fit into the dishwasher because they are pots or oddly shaped pans? The husband who accompanies his wife to the grocery store every week for five years but pleads ignorance when sent there alone? The medical condition now referred to in the blogosphere as the “man-cold” which, although showing no symptoms more severe or debilitating than that strain of virus known to womankind, renders the victim bedridden?

My stay-at-home mom’s moment of truth occurred during one such bout, when my husband, who does do the dishes, and who acknowledges and supports my writing despite no promise of income, spent one day in bed, sick.

“The next time I’m not feeling well, you’ll take a personal day so I can rest, too,” I said before heading out the door for my third round of errands and pick-ups.

The idea was so radical, so outside the bounds of anything we’d ever discussed, that we were both speechless for a minute.

It was one of those rare moments that made me want to reassess what being a stay-at-home mom means—not in comparison to the public or political spheres, but in relation to the one at home—from 1971 to now.

O’Reilly had seven rules for the housewife seeking liberation:

1. Decide what housework needs to be done. Then cut the list in half.

2. Decide what you will and will not do.

3. Make a plan and present it as final.

4. Think revolutionary thoughts (such the couple who eats sandwiches while reading by the fire instead of eating dinner at the table.)

5. Never give in—“empty one dishwasher and it leads to a lifetime of emptying dishwashers.”

6. Do not feel guilty.

7. Expect Regression.

After all that, she says:

“I cannot imagine anything more difficult than incurring the kind of domestic trauma I describe. It requires the conscious loss of the role we have been taught, and its replacement by a true identity. And what if we succeed? What if we become liberated women who recognize that our guilt is reinforced by the marketplace, which would have us attach our identity to furniture polish and confine our deepest anxieties to color coordinating our toilet paper and our washing machines....What if we finally learn that we are not defined by our children and our husbands, but by ourselves?”

The stay-at-home mom of 2011 has many more opportunities to do what O’Reilly suggests as a cure for rule #6, the guilt one might feel for taking hold of these pillars: have something more interesting to think about.

Maybe that’s why we have our blogs, our entrepreneurial businesses, our positions on town councils, our weekly commitments to assist in our children’s schools. And, we and these institutions are better for it.

But are we or our sisters who work outside the home any less likely to make dinner on Saturday and Sunday nights? Or any more likely to spend hours of guiltless time reconnecting to a hobby or interest that has no point, except that it reminds us of who we were before?

It’s necessary to ask: are men any more able to do that, too? The less I work outside the home, the more my husband needs to.

The thing I took away from reading “The Housewife’s Moment of Truth” was a thread that somehow had been buried. It’s the thread that ties me to my mother, and her mother, and my father’s mother, the Phi Beta Kappa who—when my mother first met her, was ironing her husband’s shirts.

So, I send my husband’s to the dry cleaners.

I’d still like to be able to ask him, without justification or hesitation, to stay home from work when I am sick; for my friend to call it a day at 8pm because her husband has figured out how to wash the Crockpot, and, after more than two decades of using the expression, for us to look at the term “Stay-at-Home Mom” as a description of what someone is doing, not who they are.

We’re probably not on the cusp of a revolution the likes of 1971. But, I think those of us who believe in the dynamic importance of both mothers who work outside the home and those who work within it might agree that it’s about time for a new word. Why are we still using one that was coined around 1987 to describe whom we care for (our kids) and what we are not (career women)?

At least there’s something agitating about the word “housewife”. It forces us to say “Oh, no, not in the Mad Men kind of way,” or to say, “Oh, yeah, in the O’Reilly, women’s lib kind of way,” and then to think about how we’ve defined it and what we expect when we use it.

But, it's 2011.

My Stay-at-Home Mom’s Moment of Truth is that it’s time for a new word.

Post Script:
How do you get a copy of the original Ms. Preview issue?

First email your Aunt, who is a librarian, and then you go to the impressive public library in Princeton. A very helpful librarian prints out a list of local libraries that may have the issue but warns the ones who have hard copies may not actually have it. “Something that historical.....sometimes gets stolen.” It’s worth a shot, however, because your last memories of using microfiche are not very happy. Then you head off to the campus of a local University, and park at “Loser Hall,” as advised by a friend, who is also a faculty member, who adds that it’s pronounced “Lozier.” Having parked in the appropriate lot and been given a map, you walk the long path to the campus library which they let you enter even though you do not have an iPod embedded in your outer ear. You approach the reference desk, drop the name “Princeton” three or four times, omitting the “public library” part, and ask to see Volume Four of New York Magazine. They send you to the basement where you are alone with the periodicals and occasional campus tour groups, which offer helpful tidbits, especially about the copy machine. You find the row, rotate the handle, and open the stacks that lead to 1971.

Scanning the shelf you find the right volume. You take it to your desk and hold your breath. You open the book, turning the pages through October 1971, November 1971, and finally reach December 20, 1971. No one had stolen it. It was bound into the larger volume, the pages soft from age, but perfectly smooth.

You can also find parts of  it online, but it's not the same.


parenting ad absurdum said...

This is a great, great post and topic. I do actually see myself as extremely fortunate - I work from home part time as a freelance writer, but don't bring in a significant income - and am at home with the kids the rest of the time. And I've got a husband that truly gets it. Housework is 50/50 - and I expect it to be that way - and so does he. But for so many of my friends, it's very different - husbands who come home from work and watch t.v. until dinner's ready, and then are "too tired" to help with the bedtime routine. I want them all to read your post!!

Ann said...

Very thought-provoking as always. You are so talented. Thank you for the shout-out :)

Mommy said...

I am just embarking on the journey of being a stay at home mum, and I am battling to find a balance both within myself and within my relationship. Yes, my husband gets it, even suggested it but curiously the guilt arises fom me, and drives me to work harder than I ever should.
Thank you for a fascinating post.

Fran said...

as a non parent and one who greatly appreciates all that mothers do, i just wrote down O Reilly's list as this applies to other scenarios, too. thank you! here's to a new title for the admirable work you all do.

Fran said...

as a non parent and one who greatly appreciates all that mothers do, i just wrote down O Reilly's list as this applies to other scenarios, too. thank you! here's to a new title for the admirable work you all do.