Motherhood… Still A Lonely Job


This article from the Atlantic reminds us that though things have changed for moms in the last 50 years, there is still a sense of isolation we can’t escape as we tend to our offspring. We are living through another period of intensive analysis regarding motherhood. It seems everyday we hear new struggles women face. The barrage of advice is endless and the interconnected world of mommy forums doesn’t seem to sooth any of us. We’re evolving and learning, and with any period of change we will inevitably make mistakes. I just hope all this contemplation results in some answers for my daughter when and if she becomes a mother. Or are the struggles with motherhood synonymous with the ideas of self-evaluation and any mom from any time period will feel isolated and confused as she works to examine her identity morph from an individual to having dependents?

I picked this article because of its retrospective approach. Considering an article from 50 years ago and placing it in the context of today allows us to compare, though I’m not sure anyone is interested in fighting for what’s worse. The bottom line in both accounts is that women love their children beyond reason, we all want the best for them, but sometimes that is pretty hard on us.

Things are undeniably different for women now than they were for Nora Johnson, the daughter of the producer Nunnally Johnson. The Pill was new when Johnson sat down to write her essay, and it had not yet revolutionized women’s ability to delay childbearing in order to pursue personal fulfillment and career success. And so only 38 percent of women worked outside the home, most of them in rigidly gender-scripted and relatively low-paying, low-status fields—nursing, teaching, secretarial work. Those who stayed home spent an average of 55 hours a week on domestic chores. Women’s ambitions and autonomy weren’t just undermined by their domestic duties, but institutionally and legislatively as well: With the exception of a right to “proper support,” wives had no legal claim to their husbands’ income or property, while in many states, husbands could control those of their wives through “head and master laws.” How easy could it be—on the days when the thoughts came at you, and the piles of laundry and the obligations like the PTA and your husband’s boss’s wife and the other items on Johnson’s unrancorous but unsparing list piled up—to feel good in your captivity?

Johnson was groping toward feminism’s second wave before it came to be, feeling for a toehold. She listed, in her catalogue not of grievances so much as unsentimental facts about the lives of herself and her conspecifics, the following: isolation, worries about illness and money, and sexual boredom. She referred to the whole schmear as “the housewife’s syndrome, the vicious circle, the feeling of emptiness in the gap between what she thought marriage was going to be like and what it really is like.”

The shift in language—from housewife to SAHM—suggests that where running a household was once a vocation, now motherhood is. And while the latter may seem “more important”—children are the future of our country and our entire world, after all, whereas a house is just a house—the social status of the woman who doesn’t work, despite our noisy insistence that “motherhood is the toughest job” and so on, has arguably never been lower.

The educated woman who stays home now may face a measure of not only the longing and lack of fulfillment that Johnson and Friedan articulated, but also the awkward silence and turning away at a cocktail party—the lack of interest when she says she is a stay-at-home mother. She is in for a heaping helping of something relatively new: widespread cultural contempt. The Economist piece exemplified this socially sanctioned scorn when it referred to some women who stay home as “highly educated bankers’ wives who choose not to work because they don’t need the money and would rather spend their time hot-housing their toddlers so that they may one day get into Harvard.” The dismissive, judgmental sentiment, if not the precise wording, is commonplace.

Today, some women are more subject to certain forms of misogyny than they have ever been. Because in the post-World War II period, as competent Rosie the Riveters were being shoehorned into suburban domesticity by the G.I. Bill and the ideology of the nuclear family über alles, they were at least told, in so many ways, that their work in the home was important. The flourishing of home-economics courses, with their whiff of pre-professionalization, suggested that being a homemaker was a practice and an identity that mattered, something to learn and to be, proudly. If you did it right, you could save the family unit money. You could contribute, without participating in the labor force for paid work, to the financial health and well being of your household. There was a certain respect for the housewife, even as the very moniker relegated her to a second-class sphere: Her husband couldn’t do it without her.

The one thing the privileged mommies I studied were not willing to delegate completely was childcare. Often cut off from extended families, most depend at least in part on nannies to help them with the heavy lifting of motherhood, the schlepping across town, the playdate scheduling and supervising, the nose-blowing and the puzzle playing. And yet they stay home.

“I was offered my dream job. It really was perfect,” said more than one mother, telling me about her decision to stay home with her children. “I asked if I could do it part time and the answer was no. I asked if I could do part of the hours from home and they said no. I asked about flex time—some weekend hours, something—and the answer was no. So I decided to stay home with the baby.”

These women described their shift to stay-at-home motherhood as a choice, but a choice implies options. Work flexible hours while your child is in the care of loving, trusted caretakers—ideally in onsite daycare—or stay home with your baby and don’t work. That is a choice. No, the women I wrote about had been given what was clearly a false choice, even though the culture at large and even the women themselves often insist on believing otherwise. What kind of choice is it when your career as an attorney or investment banker demands that you stay at the office 60 hours a week or opt out of the workforce altogether? When a husband’s significant income gives a woman the “luxury” to stay home with her children, she’ll often feel compelled to choose that option.

As when Johnson penned her essay, we are in an interlude where our lack of vocabulary confounds us. If the wealthiest Glam-SAHMs still haven’t freed themselves from the captivity Johnson described, what does that say about everybody else? Perhaps, that women are as deceived today as we have ever been.


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