October 30, 2011

Have Things Changed for Women?

Betty Friedan called it "the problem with no name."  Women of the '50s and '60s may have felt trapped by their own privilege.

I was one of the first generation of women for whom having a job and children was the norm.
Not so the Greatest Generation.
My mother received a college degree from a good university. She worked for several years as a second grade teacher. She is a gentle soul, with the internal magnetism that draws little children to her like bees to a hive.
When she was pregnant with her first child (two years after her wedding), the school administrators decided that it was too shocking to have a pregnant woman teaching seven-year-olds. They fired her. Her life became about raising her children, caring for her husband, and her aging parents.
Her husband came home every night to a home-cooked meal, ready for him when he walked in the door. His dress shirts, always perfectly starched and ironed, hung in a row in the closet they shared. She chose his tie every morning, and got out his wingtips, setting them at the foot of the bed.
He often had civic meetings in the evening, and ran out of the house after dinner. She cleaned the dishes and when he came home, he talked with her about the meeting, whether it was community or church or school. She advised him, and I could hear their discussions from my little bedroom.
She made her children breakfast in the morning and walked us to school five blocks away until we were old enough to walk ourselves. She helped us with our homework and corrected our grammar. As we grew, my grandparents needed her more and she drove them to doctor’s appointments, stayed overnight if one was in the hospital, got their prescriptions filled.
There was never any talk about her going back to work. In my elementary school class, there was only one mother who worked outside the home. She was a night nurse at the local hospital. We felt sorry for her only daughter. What must it be like to not have a mother at home? While mine was not a June Cleaver in a shirt dress and pearls, she always looked nice when she went out.
She and her friends met mid-morning in their pedal pushers for coffee, and talked about their children, their husbands, their small lives. My mother never seemed to me to want more.
When I was in fifth grade, a local church decided to start a pre-school program and asked my mother to locate materials and be the first director.
This was a side of my mother I had never seen. She went to night meetings, like Dad did, and she wore a blue tailored suit, white gloves, and a little white hat. She carried one of Dad’s old briefcases, filled with mimeographed blue copies of research she did at the library, and notes on lesson plans. She was a different person. For nearly three months, she balanced all her normal responsibilities and became someone I didn’t know. She threw off new energy for starting this pre-school.
One night she came home in tears.
The church decided against funding the pre-school. She had worked very hard on a pro forma, and the board was too conservative. They gave her a letter citing her hard work and excellent planning.
She never tried anything outside of home again.
I noticed a change in her after that. While I can’t pin down that this was the exact cause, she soon would be in major depression, a disease that would haunt her for years to come. She would be hospitalized for a suicide attempt, and participate in many private therapy and group sessions. Knowing what I know now, I suspect that the traditional definition of depression “anger turned inward” was exactly at work. She was too timid to speak out to her gregarious husband, overbearing parents, and growing, engaged children. But she was the proverbial wind beneath all their wings.
I think back on this sometimes with great sadness — as a woman who had many choices and as a woman who was ready to meet those choices because my stay-at-home mother invested so much in me.
I imagine it was incredibly difficult to “put herself out there” into a changed world after a decade of not working, or not engaging with the wider world.
She was always there when I was young, like an inviting tree in our back yard whose limbs reached out to embrace everyone around her. Always giving, never taking.
What did she need? What choices did she have?