In 1986, I had a 3-year old, a 1-year old, and a cozy routine at home. We had one car that left every day with the hubster to his workplace many miles away from the rural area where we had a townhouse. The neighborhood was a bit of a “pink ghetto,” that buzzy term for localities where young mothers like me struggled either with ends that weren’t in waving distance of each other or with the decision to go out and get a job in order to even think about the coveted single family home or even a second car. As our children grew, though, there were fewer and fewer children around to replace them. The newer moms had not even considered the struggle and were at work.
My husband’s company offered incentives for sales and one of these that he won was a wives’ included trip to a dinner theater. We managed to find a babysitter (probably my mom) and dressed as carefully as we could from our limited closet. In the midst of dinner conversation, I quickly realized I was the only woman there who couldn’t succinctly answer that most defining of all questions: “What do you do?” I cheerfully summoned the wherewithal to explain I was mom of two littles. Every conversation devolved as the expression curtain came down; these women spent their days in offices that were not located on Sesame Street.
I sat there on the verge of tears. The mere fact that I puttered and mopped up after preschoolers all day every day left those other ladies who shared that whole workplace thing talking animatedly to each other. I was left alone with my thoughts. I noticed how nicely dressed they were. I critiqued the food; I could have definitely made a better chicken, but did that even matter?
That same year I was 10 years out of high school. I opted not to attend my high school reunion. What was I going to say? I had tried college and did well there, but the goals and management of a “career” was a huge disconnect for me. I had grown up, partly at least, in a time before Work-As Life had taken over. As a teenager—well, even in elementary school—I had made a lot of my own money selling artwork, babysitting and working at a farm across the road. My mom and most every other mom I knew—they worked alright! They managed large gardens, sometimes livestock, and contributed to the household accounts with actual cash or by saving money. Even though Betty Friedan and others were touting the glamour and freedom of working outside the home, most women were still in no position to make that leap. Many were not convinced it was even a leap worth taking. At the end of my freshman year, I made my choice to be a homemaker and got married. I didn’t foresee the dreaded question.
What DID I do? Well, first of all, it’s not as though I didn’t get a little money in here and there doing this or that. I sewed quite a bit but also swapped kids’ clothing with friends and neighbors. I bartered things like babysitting and birthday cakes for rides and other “extras.” I read the Tightwad Gazette and got Mother Earth News from the library. I learned to squeeze every nickel. I drew on everything I had learned in that precious time before the home had been drained of economic value; I had taken home economics classes in high school; now the field was termed “Family and Consumer Sciences.” Not the same thing.
I sadly watched the show as I painfully endured that evening and waited for it to end, even as a dogged determination to defend my homemaking was slowly rising within me. What do I do? Well, for one thing, I’m spending the bulk of my time guiding the next generation and instilling our values into our children. I’m making our albeit tiny little house a homey place to be with nutritious meals on the table every night. I’m giving my husband a comfortable and comforting place to be after a day’s work. And I’m even taking substantive volunteer roles within my community and church. By golly, just because I make oatmeal on a daily basis doesn’t mean my brain was turning into mush.
As the final song of the performance reached its height, the singer threw a single red rose into the audience and miraculously into my lap! The other women at the table congratulated me and I delighted in imagining them to be just a tidge jealous. With this small reward, I went back home with a renewed hope that I had chosen a worthy profession after all.