A parade of 21-40 year-old stay-at- home mothers come to my office and complain of boredom, resentment, depression, loneliness: “I feel like I’m going crazy” … “If I don’t talk to a grown-up soon, I … I …” … “I need some ‘me time.’”
And, it occurs to me that, in, say, 1938, housewives might have complained of any number of things, but not one of them ever said, “I need some ‘me time.’”
Now, the easy answer is modern women are more empowered. They have more choices. More vocational options. Ergo, housewives in 1938 would have complained about “me time,” but they didn’t have the social status required to do so.
Perhaps a part of the dilemma.
But I think there’s more going on.
From my earliest memories, my mother was a housewife. I remember the hum of the vacuum and the smell of Comet cleanser. The sound of the washing machine and never-ending laundry. I remember clotheslines and the crispy smell of linens dried in the Arizona sun. I remember constant energy swirling out of the kitchen and virtually every breakfast and every dinner including all five of us around the same table at the same time.
I remember the sound of the sewing machine. The hiss of the steam iron. The opening theme to “As The World Turns.’ The grocery. Peanut butter. My chores. Helping my mom lick and paste Green Stamps.
I remember her leadership and initiative in my play and recreation. No cable channel with 37 consecutive episodes of Sponge Bob. No video games. Mom would set us up with a vinyl recording (we called it the phonograph) of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” which I acted out with my two sisters. I was always the wolf. My older sister, Linda, the unfortunate duck.
Mom would put a sheet over the kitchen table, transforming it into my fort. If I dared complain of boredom, she threw my whiny butt outside, where, despite my belligerent insistence that “I’ll be bored out there, too,” I invariably lost myself in fascination with an ant hill, or pretending the swing set was a space ship.
She read to me. Endlessly. In the summer, there were weekly trips to the library, where I read Bambi, Swiss Family Robinson, Pinnochio, Arabian Nights, Sinbad, Call of the Wild, Black Beauty, Tarzan, Pippi Longstocking, and reveled in Albert Payson Terhune’s tales of his collies Lad, Wolf, Bruce, Gray Dawn, et al.
But the biggest difference between my mother and modern stay-at- home mothers is not access to power and vocational choices, (though certainly that is a difference.) The biggest difference? My mom wasn’t alone. She was a neighbor living in an actual, functioning neighborhood. She was a member of a culture that honored mothering and homemaking as true and meaningful vocation.
Her best friends lived right there on our street, as opposed to some disembodied Facebook account. Constantly my sisters and I traipsed along with her to ‘coffee’ (that’s a verb) with another neighborhood housewife. They talked … and talked and talked. I assume about family, child-rearing, marriage, sex, hopes and dreams.
My mother, I think, was a part of the last wave of women in western civilization who knew motherhood and home-making as vocation, and thrived in that vocation.
Leave it to Mick Jagger to be the first to notice that something was going terribly wrong. In 1965, Mick noticed that housewives were, well, miserable:
Life’s just much too hard today/ I hear every mother say/ The pursuit of happiness just seems a bore/ And if you take more of those, you will get an overdose/ No more running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper/ They just helped you on your way/ Through your busy dying day
Isolated and abandoned by shifts in modern culture, today’s stay-at-home moms are sorely tempted to see this work as something that stifles creativity, personal growth and intellect. Something diminishing them. Something that makes them despairingly one-dimensional. Something that is itself a quid pro quo injustice.
By the way, the moral of this story is not that I think the world would be a better place if all mothers stayed home full time. My lamentation is for individual wife/mothers who, in dialogue with the husband/father, truly desire (for a time) mothering and homemaking as vocation.
Because today, mostly, such women are on their own. I think it’s harder to thrive in this vocation.
(Steven Kalas is a Nevadan and author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing”. He writes a weekly column for the Sparks Tribune.)