As a 45-year-old woman said to me, “The style of the Fifties was maternity dresses.” I wanted to know what it’s like to be a woman of 40 now and trying on a new identity. How it feels to leave behind the character parts of Mum, chief cook and bottle-washer and go out into the world as a wageworker. How it feels to shuck a long-term investment in the service of others and to insist now on one’s own needs.
Laura is 43, has three children between the ages of 11 and 14 and has an editorial job on a trade magazine, a job she describes as “rotten” by other people’s standards but “good for me.” She’s been working at this for the past five years, only the last year full-time. She talks about herself emphatically and candidly, she is full of enthusiasms and ambitions, she is “all systems go.” I would not, apparently, have recognized her 10 years ago.
“I cried a lot but I can’t remember over what. The whole five years when the kids were small slide together and I can’t remember one year from the other. A grey, grey period. My only thought was, when they’re a little older and taking care of themselves, then I can try to get out of this.
“I had always taken it for granted that my role as mother was not considered by the rest of the world as important. I couldn’t stand to be approached as though I did nothing but cook and clean. That there wasn’t anything else to me in other people’s view. I knew I had to do something. I decided it was a job I needed, partly because the rest of the world sees you as what you doj I can be the same person in my head and have all the same feelings as when I’m out working but I’m a nobody if I’m at home with three babies. I have no idea why I didn’t consider it as doing something. At the same time, I wanted children and I didn’t want anybody else to look after them. I was convinced that was my role.”
The double bind. The terrible toss-up between two sets of lives — children’s or mother’s, theirs or mine — and the ingenious, exhausting juggling of priorities — whose need is greatest right at this moment? The resentment that the choice has to be made at all, that women’s lives are apportioned out like some kind of United Appeal Fund — so much for you, so much for you, and this little bit here is for me.
Laura had worked for six years after her marriage before the children came, and loved it. At the same time, she was part of a generation for whom children were the sine qua non of marriage. And so when she became pregnant at 29 she was “delighted.” She quit work to become involved in pregnancy and childbirth but by the third baby this fascinating process had begun to pall. “The incredible nothing of this static, low-key routine. Day in and day out of diapers, food and waxed floors. You simply one day think, there’s got to be more than this.” She couldn’t afford the solution of housekeepers and baby-sitters and, besides, Laura was caught in that Fifties’ romance with the Madonna image. Of course you stayed at home to dote over the strained pears smeared on baby’s bib. What are you, unnatural?
“I really started drying up. I became the domineering traffic warden of the household. Then fear of the outside world started with being at home alone with babies and realizing the huge responsibility a mother has with nobody to tell you if you’re doing it right. The bottom falls out of your self-confidence as you just muddle through each day.”
She recalls with horror that she fully sympathized with a neighbor who never emerged from her house for weeks at a time. It was a way of coping, Laura says now.
Later, when she decided to go back to work, another series of troubles began. The fears, fear of the job interview, fear of full-time (i.e., “real”) work, fear of speaking up, fear of walking into strange restaurants and ordering food, fear of dropping her drink from her shaking hands, fear of failing to measure up to her competition, “22-year-olds with long blond hair down to here, and fabulous grades from Ryerson.
“I was 38 and thought I had nothing to offer compared to them. But it was terribly exciting. I had my own little room at home to work in and I had this space in my life where I was an unqualified success. The two eldest children were very pleased that Mummy had a job. But when I started to work regularly at the office instead of at home, the eldest started developing aches and pains in the morning. I felt terribly cruel leaving her but I had to do it. I’d really like my children to know that it wasn’t them I was leaving when I went out to work, it was my role as mother.
“All the words — look how busy and useful you are raising three kids, running a household — meant absolutely nothing to me.
“My husband had supported me verbally in this. But not really in the nitty-gritty. Not, for instance, in making the supper. I don't mind. It’s not his role.
“The important thing is how I function at work, not at home. To be a success in the office. I must be free to fulfill the terms of my job. And I knew the family could survive the changes. I’ve discovered I have ambition. I really want to ‘make it.’ My biggest disappointment has been learning that working people just muddle through too. The bonus has been earning my own money, paying my own way.”
On the one hand, women are assaulted by a barrage of propaganda telling us our real happiness lies in being somebody’s housekeeper, somebody’s mum. On the other hand, our economic rewards, our definitions of success and usefulness and mental health, reveal what we really think of “women’s work”: it is menial and performed for love not money. By none of our common standards is housewifery considered “real” work and yet we are hounded, as Laura was, by anxiety if we see through the sham. A long-term resolution of this contradiction will probably be to pay housewives for the work they do and to give them the power to determine the conditions under which they work. No self-respecting male worker settles for less. In the meantime, Laura and her co-workers save themselves with a pay cheque from some other kind of job. And nervously make their excuses to people like me for their getaway.
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