When I was 10, I wanted to be a truck driver. At various other points of my childhood and adolescence the answer to the age-old question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” was met with a bizarre range of careers, from hairdresser to investigative journalist to the first female Red Sox player. But never, not once, was the answer ‘housewife’.
I grew up in the 70s and the 80s. I am a Title IX girl, beneficiary of the feminist movement of the 70s and the glass ceiling shattering 80s. Sally Ride, Gloria Steinem, Martina Navratilova, Sandra Day O’Connor. They were paraded before us as pioneers, proof positive that girls could do anything that boys could do. A lot of money was poured into the education system, making sure that girls were not left behind in the maths and sciences, that young girls were given the same opportunities as boys. And it worked. It never once occurred to me that I couldn’t be whatever I wanted to be, from astronaut to President of the United States. I never doubted the fact that I could and would go to college. And it never once occurred to me that I wouldn’t be SOMETHING. And yet here I sit.
For all intents and purposes, a housewife.
I have a theory. It goes something like this: I think the Betty Drapers of the 50s and early 60s knew what they were signing up for. I think that today’s younger stay-at-home moms are smart enough to realize that you really can’t have it all, or if you do, it’s like juggling with flaming knives on top of a precipice with a gun to your head. I think women of my generation, however, women of a certain (ahem) age, women who were encouraged to go out and grab the bull by the horns, we are caught in an endless loop of, for lack of a better word, mind-fuckery. Because a lot of us did just that. We took that bull and rode it screaming into boardrooms and demanded equal pay. We wore suits with shoulder pads and sneakers. Cut our hair, embraced the word bitch. We put off having kids to forge ahead. And for some of us, when we did decide to have children, it wasn’t as easy as everyone made it sound. And whether it was the cost of day-care or moving to another country or just the desire to stay at home with those children, we came to a sudden and violent halt. We stopped bringing in a paycheck, became dependent upon a partner’s salary, became the blank box next to “Occupation”. We girls, who were raised to storm the ramparts, shatter the ceiling, make room in the history books. We girls, who were given every opportunity, found ourselves a generation of over-educated housewives. Not wishing to squander the work that got us to this place, wondering what you do when your identity is tied up in what you do, we struggled. What do you do with all that pent up ambition?
You become an extreme housewife.
The extreme housewife sews, she knits, she crochets and maybe even macrames as a little retro throw-back. She bakes from scratch, she cooks using organic ingredients delivered fresh to her door. She makes dinner every night, cleans her own house and donates responsibly. She joins organizations, network groups and volunteers for school events. She flatters her husband. She never screams at her kids. She may even have meticulously kept baby books. Her whites are whiter, her colors don’t bleed and there are no rings around her collar. And it’s all folded up, put away neat as you please, Bob’s your Uncle, thank you very much. Her mother-in-law’s birthday card is always on time. She is always showered and respectably dressed. But most of all, more than anything, the extreme housewife competes. Sometimes with others, but mostly with herself.
Because you see, we were not raised for this. And yes, I said ‘we’. I include myself. We were raised to achieve, to strive, to push ourselves. So we drive ourselves batty trying to be the perfect house frau because it’s what we know how to do. We raise some ridiculous bar far beyond our own reach and then spend our time chasing our tails trying to best ourselves. Putting all that energy into the home, into our children, into the effort of trying to be the perfect housewife, to match some ideal that never really existed because housewives of the 50s were allowed to drink and smoke and were hopped up on valium while they were making the casserole.
I will forever be grateful to the feminists that paved the way, that made it possible and acceptable to achieve our goals. Sometimes though it is hard to dust a ceiling when you were expecting to be shattering one.