Of Beginnings and Beyond

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Is Motherhood a "Feminine Mistake"?

A new book I discover online and I will hit the bookstore later today to get a copy of it. Seems like a very interesting book to me and how it will be. In her new book, Leslie Bennetts explores motherhood and career choices.....

An excerpted from "The Feminine Mistake" by Leslie Bennetts.


There's been a lot of talk about career women who give it all up to raise their children. Some say it's a throwback to another generation. But for those who can afford to be stay at home Moms, it's a difficult, and very personal, decision. A controversial new book, “The Feminine Mistake”, by Vanity Fair writer, Leslie Bennetts looks at the risks women take when they put their careers on hold, even for a short time. Leslie Bennetts was invited to appear on TODAY to discuss his book. Here’s an excerpt:

Prologue
My grandmother made the world’s best rhubarb pies and sewed extraordinary silk garments with exquisite craftsmanship worthy of a French couturier. Raised to devote her all to marriage and family, she worshipped her talented husband, doted on her children, and baked homemade bread whose enticing aroma drew everyone to the kitchen. Although she lived for nearly eighty years, she never worked outside the home or held a paying job.

Such latter-day paragons of traditional femininity often make people nostalgic for bygone times, but even then, the truth was frequently a lot darker than the champions of conventional gender roles like to admit. Although my grandmother’s life adhered faithfully to the old-fashioned stereotypes so often held up as a modern ideal, the result was a disaster, not only for her but also for her children and relatives.

In 1932, when my mother was nine years old, her father left the family for his mistress, a stylish black-haired beauty unencumbered by the mundane burdens of domesticity. For my grandmother, who came from a well-to-do family, the emotional devastation of losing her husband was exacerbated by the dizzying plunge into poverty that accompanied it. My grandfather was an architect who had done pioneering work with men like Philip Johnson and R. Buckminster Fuller, but employment was hard to come by during the worst years of the Depression, and he soon defaulted on his financial obligations to his wife and children.

Left with no means of support, my grandmother considered getting a job, but her straitlaced sisters pressured her not to do so. Firmly in thrall to the Victorian concept of “separate spheres” that divided the world according to gender, they believed that men should be the breadwinners and that women—or at least ladies—should not work outside the home. If my grandmother began supporting herself, her sisters warned, that would absolve her husband of his familial responsibilities, and then he would never return to his wife and children. Best to wait until he got tired of “that trollop,” as my grandmother and her sisters referred to the Other Woman (who may have been an adulteress but was also a hardworking schoolteacher with considerably more modern ideas about women’s place in the world).

The loss of her husband left my grandmother virtually paralyzed with grief; according to family lore, she simply went to bed for two years. My mother’s older brother was soon out of the house, so my mother was left on her own to care for my deeply depressed grandmother. In addition to the emotional toll that entailed, the rest of my mother’s childhood was blighted by one financial crisis after another as she and my grandmother were evicted from a series of increasingly shabby apartments, unable to keep up with the rent.

My grandmother’s family owned a great deal of land out west, but as a woman she was deemed unable to manage her own affairs, so her only brother assumed control of her share of the family assets. Over time, he apparently “managed” my grandmother’s property out of her name and into his own. As a result, she was forced to depend on the charity of her four sisters—or, to be more precise, their wealthy husbands--- for support.

My grandfather’s abdication of financial responsibility also torpedoed my mother’s dream of attending Vassar. She was elated at being accepted, and my grandfather had promised to pay the tuition. But the day before my mother left for college, she learned that her father hadn’t paid for her enrollment—and wouldn’t be doing so. By then my great-uncles were all tired of being saddled with financial responsibility for their sister-in-law, so my mother went to work and supported them both while putting herself through school, eventually graduating from Barnard College.

My grandmother spent the next forty years mourning the loss of her marriage and waiting for her ex-husband to come back to her, even though he had long since wed his mistress. Until the day she died, my grandmother clung to the illusion that her husband would eventually return to her. In all those years, she never looked at another man, politely but firmly turning away all suitors. Nor did she ever question the strictly segregated gender roles that prevented her from exploring her own potential. As far as she was concerned, marriage was “for time and all eternity,” just as her wedding ceremony had promised, and her role in life was as a wife, even when there was no husband around.

In the meantime, my mother had met and married my father, giving up her budding career as an actress in order to stay home and have her own family. But when she asked him to take over the financial support of my grandmother, my father declined, unwilling to shoulder that long-term responsibility.

So when I was five and my brother was four, my mother took a job at a publishing company where she worked her way up from secretary to copy editor to children’s-book editor. From her own earnings, she paid her mother to take care of my brother and me after school. This was fine with us; our grandma made up wonderful stories and sewed elaborate costumes for the plays we wrote and staged in our basement. My mother never had to worry about whether we were well cared for, and I don’t think she ever had a guilty conscience about going to the office every day, because we adored being with our grandma.

Our mother left the house every morning with a briefcase and commuted into the city with all the men in their gray flannel suits. In an era when such choices were rare, I was the only one of my friends whose mother was a professional woman. But in other respects, she functioned like a typical 1950s housewife. Every night she came home and made an elaborate meal for our family—no TV dinners for us!—along with baking cookies for the next day’s Girl Scout meeting, cleaning the house, washing and ironing our clothes for school, and helping us with our homework while my father dozed in front of the television set.

Although she undoubtedly didn’t get enough sleep, my mother never complained. To the contrary; she told us all the time how lucky she felt. After the insecurity and humiliation of her childhood, she was thrilled to have a comfortable home and a stable family. She loved being a mother, but she also enjoyed her work, which she talked about with enthusiasm. As a result, it never occurred to me that a woman couldn’t have both.

My mother supported my grandmother until she died, shortly before her eightieth birthday, still waiting for her husband to come back. He died soon afterward, leaving the “trollop,” by then a sweet white-haired little old lady who had been his wife for more than four decades, as his widow.

Although I understood that my grandmother had spent most of her life quietly nursing a broken heart, the larger significance of this family history was lost on me until my mother heard about The Feminine Mystique and gave it to me. “Read this,” she said, so I did.

That book had such a profound effect on American culture that Betty Friedan used the most frequent comment she heard from her readers as the title of a subsequent book: It Changed My Life. It certainly changed mine; I was thirteen when The Feminine Mystique was published, and it helped to guide my views and choices from then on. By the time I was a teenager, my parents had moved from Manhattan’s Upper East Side to a Westchester suburb, and I was beginning to notice how much truth there was in Friedan’s observations about affluent women trapped in unsatisfying domestic lives. Palpably unhappy, many of my friends’ stay-at-home mothers were doubly wounded when their marriages broke up as soon as their kids left for college. My parents were among the few couples we knew who stayed together.

Posted By:CarmelaSolon @ 11:17 AM

1Your Thoughts:

Anonymous Yna berkata...

could it be? Will be looking for this book too and thanks for sharing

5:27 PM  

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