LAMENT OF A LIBERATED WOMAN
How hard it is to keep from being a shrew when you have a husband, two kids and a nine-to-five job
I took after the mother I scarcely knew. When moving pictures arrived she decided to become another Mary Pickford. At 14 she was making the rounds of the booking agents in London’s West End. At 17 she married my father, Billy Lee (St. James), a professional fighter. He, too, was trying to escape the common mold.
I was over 40 when I read a letter written to my father on May 18, 1923. It was from my mother and ended:
“Dear Billy, be good to your little girl, she never does anything real wrong, she is just full of romance, and I can’t help that, darling, lots offolk feel romantic, only romance never comes their way. Romance, adventure, everything that speaks of youth and things that make life worth living seem to come my way and tempt me from paths of convention. This letter comes from a Queenie that I can never understand, a girl who longs for winds as warm as winds of summer south. Lots and lots of love and kisses, your little girl for always,
Queenie. She wrote like a child, but she dreamed of life beyond the kitchen walls. They were married seven years, and I was born in south London between her dancing engagements with a touring chorus line. She was seldom home and they finally separated when I was three years old, with Queenie writing that she could never be a suburban cabbage.
I went to live with my father’s mother. But liberation was in my genes. When I was nine, I pitied housewives, the sevenday-week unpaid family servants. Even then I knew I’d never be content to live only for and through others.
At 13 my first short story was published. At 14 I started work. There was a war on and it was time to grow up. At 15 I was secretary of the local branch of the Clerks and Administrative Workers Union and receiving letters addressed “Dear Comrade” and signed “Yours fraternally.” At 6.30 p.m. I left the office to start evening classes at seven.
I was writing and sending out manuscripts. My deadline for fame was 21.1 thought often of men but seldom of marriage. When I stumbled across the 18th century at the public library it became my ambition to hold 20th-century court to the world’s finest minds and take the most handsome as my lovers. But for the moment I had just turned 16.
My father believed the Germans were about to invade and London would be the last place to fall, so we packed our belongings and left the south coast town of Brighton to return to the capital, just as the blitz began. We spent the nights in a narrow coal cellar outside the back door. The ground rocked beneath our feet as the bombs whistled down. But my grandmother was able to look through the walls of our little prison and see beautiful pastoral scenes. A month after we got to London, she died, aged 73, worn out by hard work. Dear Nanna, who was once a girl called Emily. For 13 years my grandmother had cared for me. Now there were just two of us. It was a strange life in many ways. I spent one year sleeping on the floor of the hallway with my head in a cupboard beneath the stairs, and four years under the dining room table. These precautions were to catch the ceiling if it fell as the result of a nearby bomb.
Too old for fighting, my father now taught a boys boxing class at night, and during the day tried his hand as a film extra. I began work as a typist with a large pharmaceutical company. Two months of typing labels sent me back to my shorthand books. My father dictated to me at night as I stumbled along, angrily trying to keep up with his voice. But within four weeks I was accepted for the stenographic pool and two months later became secretary to the purchasing manager, a reserved position from which I was not called up for the armed services or factory war work two years later when I turned 18.
I manned a first-aid post, was a member of the Home Guard and continued to prepare myself at night school for an uncertain future. On free evenings bright young workers gathered in our kitchen. With an old tablecloth strung across the window for blackout and warmed by the open gas oven, we drank cocoa and talked about peace and how we would remake the world when the war was over. Until gradually I discovered I was just the right age for a war, and the talk was suddenly tempered with dates and dances and dinners and theatres. London was flooded with troops. It was a good time to be young and single.
As the war ended the troops thinned and the signposts reappeared. They had been removed to confuse possible invaders. In reality, of course, it was the residents who were confused. With the signposts back the hostel movement boomed. At weekends and holidays I hitchhiked through England, Scotland and Wales. To write I must live, and to live I must travel. Those were the days when the hunger to see and feel everything was like a pain inside me. It was time to move on.
But how could I leave my father? The tapestry of my life was totally interwoven with his. When I was small, my grandmother dressed me in my Sunday best each weekend and my father and I would set out to explore London, its parks, its theatres, its art galleries, its shabby side streets, its restaurants.
The long corridors of Henry’s Hampton Court were as familiar to me as my own living room. Palaces were imprinted on my mind. I spent hours at the British Museum absorbing the beauty of eighth-century silver flagons or pondering the brevity of life among the Egyptian mummies. On Saturday nights I clung to the wire barrier at the White City and watched the dogs racing round the track after the electric hare. I followed the race meets from Doncaster to the Derby. I knew every favorite and long shot on the racing form. At five I was a veteran of the theatre.
And when the money ran out, Arfer became part of our lives, with his little van and his eight-shilling moving jobs. He always came at night when the moon was high and our furniture was loaded swiftly and expertly for another moonlit flit. 1 went to seven schools in two years.
These were the memories I shared with my father. Yet the desire to experience and succeed was stronger than love and compassion. I left him alone on a grey, January morning in 1948 and sailed to Canada.
After a brief spell as a secretary in Toronto I decided this was not the path for a writer. I went to the Ontario College of Art and applied for a job as an artist’s model. Within minutes I was shown into a small room, told to take off my clothes and then introduced to a large class of students whose model had not arrived. It was an abrupt entry into the world of art. About this time I sold a few short stories to the Wheeler Newspaper Syndicate for five dollars each.
The University of Alberta hired me to work as a model at the Banff School of Fine Arts for five dollars a day, plus food and accommodation, for four hours work. It meant a paid holiday in the Rockies. I answered an ad in the paper to drive west and made the trip for less than $25. At the end of my contract I took to the road and hitchhiked to Vancouver. I found work as a secretary with the Board of Trade, but gave it up at the start of the fall modeling season without checking the market. There was one art school and only two artists with enough money to pay a model.
Thanks to Ruth Viner, a CBC producer I met at Banff, I had sold a couple of talks to the CBC, but financially things were precarious. I decided to return to Montreal at Ruth’s invitation, sent my luggage on by freight, borrowed $20 from an artist to go with the two I had left, and set out to hitchhike via the United States.
The border authorities refused to let me cross, and I was left with no alternative but to hitchhike across the TransCanada Highway. It wás unpaved, and had been crossed by car for the first time only two years earlier, a fact I learned much later. I didn’t have a map, I had no idea where the mountains were, or even in what order the provinces came. Seventeen days later I arrived at Ruth’s door, a quarter in my pocket.
It was the end of October and I had been in Canada nine months. I was 22. Too old for fame. My deadline was past. I was willing to settle for any kind of work that used my writing talents, but there were no offers. I free-lanced, turning out scripts for CBC International Service, and modeled seven days a week, often nine hours a day. McGill University, Ecole des Beaux Arts, Sir George Williams, the Art Gallery, the Valentine School of Commercial Art, were all good for two-to-four-week runs, with numerous small evening art classes and appointments with private artists thrown in for full measure. It was a business. I kept a big appointment book and everyone was listed in my card index.
In June of the following year I married a young CBC announcer.
Personally I never minded being a sex object. After all, that’s how I regarded a man. I just didn’t want to wait on him. After 20 years I still don’t. I’m continuously amazed how some women wash, water and feed the brute.
So why did 7 get married? In an unprecedented moment of optimism, I really thought I could create something different. After 18 months on the move I had a sudden need for security, to belong. And I was “in love.” That wasn’t unusual; it had never prompted me to marry before. But Jack was different. Apart from anything else he was in a
creative profession and I thought perhaps with him I could have a freer, fuller marriage. And all those bright broadcasting minds would drop in without ceremony and we would thrash out the problems of the world. How childishly naïve. These weren’t young wartime workers, content with bread-and-dripping and cocoa. They waited to be invited, and then they wanted to be entertained. Which was difficult as we possessed only an old kitchen table, three chairs and one secondhand bed, on which we braced ourselves all night so LIBERATED WOMAN continued we wouldn’t roll onto the floor. On $45 a week we couldn’t afford to buy liquor, so the first illusion was quickly dashed. And then I discovered a broadcaster was just like a sales clerk or a civil servant — he expected to be fed three times a day, have his shirts washed and his clothes hung in the closet. Like every man, he had been brought up to expect cradle-to-grave service.
The modeling season had finished at the end of May, but I wasn’t able to go back in September; the tèrrible boredom of standing or sitting hour after hour staring into space had finally defeated me. But worse than that, I found I couldn’t write any more. The words had all dried up. There was nothing to say.
And as an only child this was the first time I had ever shared a room with anyone. I found the complete absence of privacy hard to bear. Fortunately Roslyn Watkins, of The Montrealer, was buying up all my old manuscripts at the time, and I also sold my first story to The Standard, Weekend’s predecessor. At Christmas my father came over from England and managed to pick up my modeling beat. Goodrich Roberts found him a good subject for his painting, The Card Player, and Arthur Lismer made a fine sculpture of his head. And there were long runs at different art schools. The broken nose and cauliflower ears finally paid off. And at last I found the courage to go back into an office. Work, the universal panacea. I still wasn’t writing, but at least I started to feel like a human being again.
The three of us were still cooped in the little apartment on Lincoln Avenue near Guy. It was central, but noisy and uncomfortable. In September we found a six-room apartment in the west end. It was on a dead-end street, so we were spared the never ending traffic of downtown Montreal, although the end happened to be the train tracks and the trains thundered through three or four times a day. Still, it was an enormous improvement.
My father returned to England in 1951, and the following year I had one last fling at freedom. I took two months leave of absence from my long-suffering employer, and hitchhiked with another girl around the United States.
In November, 1952, I went back to work. With $700 saved I returned to England the following year for my first visit home. I was still fighting the marriage syndrome. I refused to be tied by things. After four years of marriage I still didn’t own a washing machine and we had only just bought our first pop-up toaster. I had only been home a week when I realized I was pregnant. I didn’t tell Jack, so he followed through our original plan. He traded our old Morris Minor in Montreal, and we picked up a new one in London which was shipped back after the trip as part of the export quota. Our trip through Paris to Rome via Germany and Austria cost three dollars a day each including gas. I hadn’t really grasped that this would be the last time I would be free to come and go as I pleased.
When we returned to Britain I decided to stay and have the baby and let Jack go back to Canada. By now it was the fifth month of my pregnancy. I found work with Office Overload and stayed with them until three weeks before Penny’s birth, by Caesarean. Finally I was forced to realize that someone quite helpless was depending on me, that my life would never be the same again. I had really believed that I was special, that I could be married and ultimately have children and still be free and remain myself. But now I was tied to a rigid schedule of breast-feeding every three or four hours, principally because I was terrified of my incompetence as a mother, and was sure I would foul up the formula. Penny was eight pounds at birth and grew heavier every day, but I had to carry her everywhere I went on buses and subways and my back soon began to feel broken in two. When she was eight weeks old I flew back to Canada, and we moved to lie Bigras, just outside of Montreal, seduced by the budding cherry trees. The only way of getting off the island was by car which I couldn’t drive, or by train which came through twice a day. Imprisoned, I became an obsessive cleaner and shone and polished without ceasing until 3 p.m. every day. Penny wouldn’t sleep at night so it was usually after ten before I could get up to the attic to start writing. It was at this time I sold my first television play, an adaptation of J. M. Barrie’s Mary Rose, to Associated Rediffusion in England. They paid me a fortune - $300.
When Penny was 18 months old, I was offered a job as assistant public relations officer and executive editor of a company magazine. Women’s Lib hadn’t been coined then, but I’d lived it all my life. Only now, for the first time, I realized that my freedom was in direct proportion to my energy and my willingness to sacrifice my family.
On the afternoon before I reported to work no one had answered my ad for a housekeeper. At 7 p.m. I hired the only applicant, a toothless cross-eyed woman who was, I think, kind to Penny. But she left after three months when, as we subsequently learned, her husband was released from St. Vincent de Paul. If this is liberation it needs a special kind of ruthlessness.
When I left for work at 7.30 a.m. Penny would stand with her face pressed to the window screaming,. “Mummy, Mummy.” And I just kept on walking because I had a job waiting at the end of the trainline and because this was the price we both had to pay so that I could go on growing and learning and because it was the only way I could survive.
Penny was the kind of child who needed a mother all day. And because I wasn’t there I tried to make up for it at night by devoting every evening to her, and the evenings grew longer and longer until at three years old she was going to bed at 11 p.m. The bedtime story often lasted an hour, and by the time she was six we were through David Copperfield and well into Jane Eyre.
But I doubt if I could have managed without my father who arrived again from England. Usually it’s a mother or mother-in-law who keeps a working mother on the job day in and day out. For me it was my father. He gave Penny, and years later my son, the daily continuity that changing housekeepers failed to provide.
I was paying out a large part of my salary to housekeepers and we still didn’t own a house, but at least we moved from He Bigras to Cartierville which made traveling easier. At the same time I changed jobs, going first to an ad agency, and then to Bell Telephone as a news writer. The same month that I started with Bell, I sold my first television play in Canada to the CBC’s Shoestring Theatre. It was called Club Fighter. My father had a small part as one of the seconds.
I spent my days working and my evenings with Penny. There was little time for friends or reading. But a respite was on its way. Jack was posted to England. The furniture went in storage and we followed him over. For the first time we were able to save, and still have holidays. English children attend school all day from the age of five, and are given a hot midday meal, so Penny was away from nine to four and I could write without interruption. And for only nine dollars a week I was able to afford a daily cleaning woman. It was difficult returning to Canada four years later.
Just the same, after 13 years of marriage, we had finally saved enough for a down payment on a small house in Ottawa. I tried to continue free-lancing but conditions had changed. Penny was home for lunch, there was no cleaning help and the only place for my desk was in the unfinished basement facing a very old furnace. Most of my time was spent repainting the house. Just as I had made up my mind to return to work I found I was pregnant, so I could settle only for a temporary job and once again turned to Office Overload. I continued working until three weeks before William’s birth. After he was born we moved out of the suburbs, letting our house and renting a large old home downtown.
It was only after William arrived I really began to realize that to cope successfully with a home, children and continuing employment, and still have time for leisure and a quiet time to recharge, demanded a woman of exceptional stamina. And I wasn’t one.
When William was 18 months old I took a part-time job as executive secretary of a nonprofit organization. My father took care of William. But the pressure of work often kept me in the office until three in the afternoon and I would rush home without lunch, tired and irritable, to clean the house and get dinner.
I finally took a job as information officer with an overseas relief and rehabilitation agency and hired a housekeeper. In fact, I hired a series of housekeepers. But they didn’t solve my problems. Except for the first, they were all filling in time between jobs or were totally unemployable and could get nothing else. They went to great pains to tell me that my home was shabby and run-down and that all their relatives had a new car every two years, unlike our 10-year-old relic. They worked a five-day week and I often came home Friday night to find half the washing in the machine, another batch waiting to be done, and still another in the dryer. I cleaned most weekends and spent more than $6,000 on housekeepers in four years. But even a little assistance is better than none. Today I have no one except very occasional daily help. My father died three years ago. I hadn’t realized how much work he saved me until he was gone. The wastepaper baskets overflowed, the dishes piled up and there was no patient granddad to play interminable games with William.
Now I’ve reached the real crunch. The whole question of liberation founders on the very simple realities of human nature. A family on the move hasn’t time to pick up its dirty washing or straighten the towels or replace the cap on the toothpaste. And the woman who tries to make them ends up a screaming shrew. I know, I am one. After a lifetime of liberation I’m a shrew, mostly because I’m tired. And I defy any working mother to say that she isn’t.
I spent five years as an information officer. Today I’m a public relations director and editor. I work under the pressure of deadlines. And I work under the pressure I put on myself because I enjoy doing a good job. I also want to be a good mother. I’ll never be a good mother in the traditional sense because I’ve too little of myself left at the end of the day. Yet because I do want to try, and because I have very little energy, I give it to my family, so I have cut out my social life entirely.
I’m not against Women’s Lib; how could I be? I’m a founding member. But its exponents are so facile they’re unrealistic. Too many of them are like Betty Friedan, who has already forgotten the
gut issues of running a home, or Germaine Greer, who with only 21 days of marriage under her belt hasn’t even experienced them. They are, of necessity, theorists, academics, often caught up in a world of semantics.
The realities of Women’s Lib are very fundamental. If you take an outside job you can concentrate on mothering or cleaning or cooking. But there is no way you can do all three properly, short of working 20 hours a day. With us, unfortunately, cooking comes a poor third. Which is sad, as we only like good food. No one will eat TV dinners or dehydrated potatoes, cake mixes or frozen pies. But food needs time and energy to prepare well, and I have little of either. So, most of the time, we settle for a quick fry-up of lamb chops or broiled chicken breasts, and on really bad days great heapings of baked beans on toast. And our vitamin pills. No one has any slimming worries of course. Our big problem is to get enough calories. I’ve always wondered about those people who get fat nibbling from the refrigerator. I’ve never been able to find anything in ours except a wilted celery stick or an ancient piece of watermelon.
Actually, if it wasn’t for Penny, sometimes I think we might starve to death. She usually gets home from school early three days a week and gets the dinner started. She has always paid part of the price of my liberation, but she never complains. And on the credit side of the ledger we seem to have less of a generation gap than anyone I know. Perhaps my being only a part-time mother makes us better friends.
If cooking suffers most around our place, housework doesn’t make out much better. Sometimes I feel I’m drowning in dirt, clutter — especially clutter — and unwashed clothes. And I hate disorder!
When Jack is away, mornings are a special disaster, particularly as Canadians insist on starting work so early. Let me give you a typical vignette. The toaster is broken. Actually I broke it. I should say I finished off the job the manufacturers started two years ago, when they made it and I bought it, and it burnt my toast for two years until I finally decided to inflict the coup de grâce. So I’m making the toast in the cheese griller. And squeezing oranges. And boiling eggs. And making tea. And I’m trying to find underpants for William. “I know I put out underpants. I put them right there on top of your shirt.” There are no underpants on top of the shirt. There are no underpants on the line (after the dryer broke down for the seventh time I gave up). There’s still a wash in the machine, maybe there are some underpants there. At the back of a drawer I find a small pair of woolly pants that my aunt Lucy knitted when William was two. He is now eight. Thank God they still fit. The toast has burnt and I scrape charcoal and raisins off the griller. The eggs are hard boiled and the kettle has boiled dry. Penny has an hour’s bus ride to school and she’s late. William has five minutes walk and he’s early. If he goes too soon he might climb on the roof or decide to explore the school basement, both off limits. The vet has diagnosed eczema and fleas for the dog, who is reacting to her new pills and has just deposited on the upstairs rug and is now rolling on the hall carpet letting out cries of exquisite agony as she scratches her itchy back. I’m throwing dishes into the sink for a quick tap-water rinse. The radio announces it is now 8.23 a.m. and I should already be cycling under the bridge. “Where’s my 10 cents for walking Lucky?” William asks. “But you haven’t walked her yet.” “I’m just going to.” A quick search of my handbag reveals only 25 cents. It’s bonanza day for William. “William are you wearing your sweater?” “Yes.” He is already out of the door and he isn’t wearing his sweater and the temperature is a chilly 32 degrees. And the day hasn’t yet begun.
The nights are hardly better. I prop open my eyelids and see that William has another note from his teacher. The red pencil has bitten especially deep into the paper. “Did you listen to my instructions?” Treats and Treasures. “The word needed must rhyme with the word in brackets and begin with one of the consonant combinations of ch, sh, th, wh, qu.” I really don’t know if I can stand another 10 years of homework. It’s been a very long day and it’s going to be a lot longer yet. The bath is running, supper still looms (dinner was light years away) and an unread story lies by the bed. My temper is rising. I wish there was a way of making .bedtime shorter. If you’ve been busy mothering all day it’s all right to let out the occasional healthy bellow, “Get to bed!” But when you left the house at 8 a.m. and didn’t turn up again until after 6 p.m. it hardly seems the decent thing to do.
Last year I had to pay a 13-year-old schoolboy to give William lunch. This year we were fortunate to find a neighbor who was willing to take on the job. School lunchrooms are open only to youngsters in grade three or over, unless they live very far from school, and are usually overcrowded and inadequately supervised.
And what happens when your child runs a temperature? I’m a liberated working woman. A professional who always puts her job first. I go into the office and my child lies in bed watching television with my number • propped against the telephone, a pill by the clock to be taken at twelve, and instructions on how to grill himself a cheese sandwich at lunchtime.
Raising a family is a physically and emotionally demanding job by itself. Combine it with full-time employment and something has to give. And what gives is your energy bank. It runs out. I’m not talking about radio commentators working three mornings a week, or TV interviewers with an afternoon program, or university professors with 12 hours of lectures a week, or even the part-time housewives who work all winter and take the summer off. I’m talking about day-to-day eight-thirty-to-five slugging, year in and year out.
I now believe I was being unfair to all of us when I assumed the responsibility for the care of a husband, children and a home, although Jack has never tried to stop me from working, and certainly without his cooperation I couldn’t do it. With more flexible working hours he takes the responsibility for doctor’s and dentist’s appointments and ferrying to and from day camps. I leave for work at 8 a.m., he doesn’t go until 9 a.m., so he takes care of the morning exodus, to school, except when he’s away, which is quite frequently, and then we have the mad rush.
We cover school holidays by staggering our own. I take three weeks; Jack takes three weeks; there is day camp for two weeks; and Penny takes care of the balance of the holidays. The price of liberation runs high, believe me; my family and I have been paying it for years.
To marry or not to marry has absolutely nothing to do with liberation. But washing shirts has. And washing floors. And vacuuming rugs. And staying up at night with crying children. A working woman with home ties, married or not, bears no resemblance to a single, unencumbered woman. A single woman is liberated because her time is her own in which to sleep or eat or play, always at her own pace. A woman with home ties can go to work for most of her married life, as I have done, but she is not liberated, because someone has a claim to every waking hour of her day. Her only respite is the few hours sleep she can snatch at night.
As for working wives being more interesting, I’m not one of them. I’m too tired. I work with words all day and I can’t face a book or a newspaper at night. I haven’t time to sit and watch television. I don’t even listen to the radio much. My favorite sound is silence. My ultimate ambition is to sleep 24 hours straight. Once I was going somewhere, but I’ve forgotten where. I think it was along the road to fame and fortune. I don’t remember any more.
So why don’t I stop and stay at home? Because I can’t. I have to achieve. Only now I feel rather like an old pug. He’s forgotten where his corner is, and who he’s fighting, but he’s not throwing in the towel. ■