Happy Homemaking?



CURRENT BOOK:  The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan seems to pick up where Virginia Woolf left off in A Room of One’s Own.  Friedan discusses that despite the strides made in the early part of the 20th century for women to obtain the right to vote and equal educational opportunities, by the 1950’s and 1960’s many women were under-utilizing the educational opportunities available to them, and were attempting to find fulfillment simply as wives and mothers, without forging identities of their own, and this was encouraged by society (although again, I don’t feel that it was as much of an intentional act to continue repressing women).  Fried argues that such women are unfulfilled.  While I can see the truth of this to an extent and Friedan provides ample evidence, I don’t think she needed to take almost 400 pages with another 100 pages of introduction and epilogue.  I think what Friedan calls the “feminine mystique” was very much a response to the second world war.  The men who came home, and the women they came home to, had been traumatized by the many losses that occurred and they wanted to focus on what really mattered — their families.  For men, this focus traditionally comes from being breadwinners.  For women, this focus traditionally came from being caretakers and nurturers.

I can see where both of my grandmothers, one of whom met my grandfather while they were both serving in the Navy during the war, fit into this generation.  My parents were influenced by my grandparents, despite being part of the “hippie” generation.  At one point my mother did work outside the home part-time at a department store to help supplement my father’s income.  However, since the birth of my middle sister, after which my youngest sister came two years later, my mother has not worked outside the home except for an odd job here and there.  She has attempted to pursue her own interests socially and intellectually (actually, my parents don’t seem to share many interests), but basically she is the type of woman Friedan is criticizing, who makes a career out of keeping her home immaculate and providing meals and other services to her husband.  My parents’ home is unfailingly “staged” to look like the end result of one of those renovation shows when the couple comes back into the house to see what the designers have done.  My father doesn’t even make himself a sandwich for lunch because my mother does it for him to keep him from whining and fussing.  He never even cooked on the grill.  As he advanced in his career and my mother became consumed with caring for three children, all my father did was to bring home a paycheck.  Now that they are retired she claims he does do more to help with the household chores, but I’m not there often enough to see it and it is hard for me to imagine.

Interestingly, after 37 years of marriage, my maternal grandmother did forge her own identity when she discovered my grandfather had been engaging in an affair and my grandparents divorced.  She began working outside the home and advanced in her career at a bank to the point that she was second in charge at her branch.  She did not take back her maiden name during the divorce proceedings, but ultimately she wished she had.  She sold the home she had shared with my grandfather and purchased her own condominium where she was happy for many years before she retired and recently moved to a senior living apartment near my mother.  (On my father’s side, my grandfather passed away just after they retired, and my grandmother has been widowed for over 30 years.  She still likes her mail addressed to “Mrs. Husband’s Name” and seems to identify herself that way.)

For me, I always knew that I didn’t want to be identified just as my husband’s wife, if I ever married.  While I don’t feel that being a legal secretary utilizes my education as much as I would have liked, at least it allows me a great deal of independence to be able to do things for myself without needing a by-your-leave from my husband except to perhaps check that we don’t have prior obligations on our schedule.  And he is completely okay with that because he would rather not have to give me money to go shoe shopping.  As a legal secretary I’m not saving sick babies or putting murderers in prison or anything like that, and most days it’s just a matter of getting the work done because there is so much of it, occasionally I am able to go above and beyond and accomplish a task exceptionally well and there is a small measure of fulfillment in knowing my bosses appreciate my efforts.  As Friedan suggests, for me the household chores are just something to do be done, and with enough financial resources I would gladly pay someone to do it if my paranoid husband would allow a cleaning lady in the house during the week while we were at work.  I’m sure I’ll find fulfillment in seeing the renovations come together, but my husband and I have been participating in the process together as partners and that is part of the fulfillment.  And the first of our renovations are just as much for function as for aesthetics.  I set boundaries with him regarding who does what, and he supported that because he understands that when both the husband and wife work full-time, the balance is different than it traditionally was.  I try to do most of the chores inside the house during the summer when he has to outside in the heat and tame the yard every other weekend, since I’m not much help with yard work.  And he can make his own lousy sandwich.  I did not take his last name, although I had other reasons for my choice in addition to maintaining my own identity and independence.  Perhaps this is becoming more of a trend, as I have two friends who recently married and did not take their husbands’ names. However, one friend’s husband asked her to tell his family that she had taken his name!

It seems like my generation is venturing into uncharted territory where there aren’t hard and fast rules anymore regarding a person’s role as a man or a woman.  It’s more challenging because every person has to figure out what they want for themselves and find their own balance.  My husband and I know couples wherein both partners work outside the home.  We know couples wherein the wife does stay at home with the children, despite that she has a college degree as Friedan describes, but this is far from the majority.  We know couples who run small businesses together.  We even know a couple which has a reversal of the traditional gender roles wherein the wife was so successful with her career that the husband eventually left his job to stay at home with the children.  While in many ways my husband likes to try to keep with tradition and old-fashioned values, I am fortunate that he is flexible as far as the male-female boundaries are concerned.  And, as much as she might be critical that the the stay-at-home mothers are letting their education go to waste, I think this flexibility is what Friedan ultimately wanted society to have.


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