Monday, January 12, 2009

If you have ever questioned where American feminism came out of, or why it came to be...

Being a stay-at-home mother and admitting a dissatisfaction with one's life in the all encompassing role of MOMMY is almost taboo in this country. Almost. There was a time when this subject was never talked about... A time when the only choice middle-class women had when they married and had children was to stay at home. There was not a question of loving it or hating it. It was just the way things were done. But, today we have that ability - to question our lives and the roles we play in it because of the groundbreaking women who came before us. It was 1963 when Betty Friedan's book, The Feminine Mystique, was published.

"The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night--she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question--"Is this all?"***

Betty Friedan talked of women feeling trapped in their role as homemaker, and it was as if a casserole exploded across every kitchen in America. Today we are free to talk about this, to question it, but do we?

I like to think of myself as being candid with my close friends, openly expressing both my struggles and joys in being a mother. Yet, I find myself hesitating to discuss my own feelings of dissatisfaction, when I have them. Something holds me back. Shame? Worrying that I'll be seen as a complainer? I am not sure. So, it is easy to fall back into roles like "the harried mom" or "the exasperated mom," putting the onus on my children and what aggravating hi jinks they've been up to this week. But, that is not really what is at the core of the dissatisfaction.

Is this IT?


Is this all there is?

Where have I gone?

Who am I?

I don't recognize that person in the mirror? Oh...that's me. But, IS it?!

Today we have online communities, friends a keystroke away, whom we connect with intimately. Perhaps because it is easier to reveal our own perceived inadequacies and shame to someone who feels a distance. Yet, someone who appears open and listens to our inner heart.

Being a homemaker is a valuable role. One that is often overlooked and undervalued - hence increasing a sense of loneliness and isolation in women. It is a complicated subject, with no easy answers.

I feel very lucky that mothering feels like a natural fit to me. It is something that I wanted for many years, and now I have the privilege of being a mother to two children whom I love with a passion and depth I could never have imagined. I am blessed that I had the choice to be at home with them. It was what I wanted. What I felt was most important for our family. And I don't regret the decision. But, I felt lost for a while. There are many things about mothering that feel cloying and suppressive. As if... you are one step away from the nearest psychiatric facility, or jumping on the back of some one's motorcycle and riding away, without looking back... Often, when I hear a story on the news of another mother who went over the edge, I nod silently, take a deep breath and feel lucky that it isn't me. But, I can least to some of it.

It is the writing that has saved me. Opened me up to a creative well that I had only dreamed of, yet never truly attempted - other than my private journaling and an occasional writing class. The irony is that if I hadn't gone to that dark place and muddled about in my own despair, I'm not sure I would ever have started writing. I'll never know.

Last night I saw a film. It will stay with me for days. Women, not walk, to see Revolutionary Road. If you have ever questioned where American feminism came out of, or why it came to be...this film will turn you upside down. It is explosive, heart rending, and brutally honest. The performances are seamless. Kate Winslet is mesmerizing. Melissa Silverstein, from Women & Hollywood, writes: Revolutionary Road is a tough movie for a woman who grew up after the women’s movement of the 1970s to watch, but after watching it a couple of times I actually think that it should be required watching for all young women who think that feminism is irrelevant.

Seeing Revolutionary Road should have left me feeling depressed. But, it didn't. Instead I felt uplifted. And validated. Uplifted because we, as women, have more choices today. We. Can. Choose. Validated because being a mother is just a part of who I am. A big part. In the end, perhaps for me, the most important part. Yet...I am not only a mother, a wife, a homemaker. I am so much more...

***Quote from The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan - Opening paragraph, Chapter 1.

***"Fragmented Homemaker" painting by David M. Bowers

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  1. Oh, my, you raise so many issues here.

    I was SO invested in my career before I had my son. I was totally surprised at how willingly I de-prioritized that in my mind. Yet at the same time, our household needed income, so I continued to work, although at a part-time job.

    And I've always worked, since my son was born. I think I spent 4 months not working when he was newborn, and then when we moved to LA my work was erratic for a few years, although - paradoxically - the anxiety about not working made thinking about WORK an obsessive issue.

    Now, and since 1999, I have full time real honest desk jobs with benefits. Sometimes - many times - it feels like a ball and chain.

    But - my son is now an adult. He's out of the house. What else would I do?

    I love the fact that you emphasize that WE CAN CHOOSE.

    BTW - love the painting. I will look him up.

  2. That movie (and the book) are very high on my list.

    It is all about having the choice. I do think that many young women today do not get it at all--which is a shame.

  3. Great post - I will make sure I see the movie! I certainly relate to what you are saying here, and smiled when you said 'you can relate' when we read the stories of the moms who do go over the edge - I do too! My oldest is now 11, I am still at sahm, but the isolation and loneliness either recedes or we cope with it better as they get older. This morning I am actually wishing for a desert island where I can be completely alone for a day or two ... I love that our life is a choice, for better or for worse, we decide the life that we want to have - not the outside world.

  4. That movie was so beautiful and Winslet so beautifully ON in every part of it. I'm glad other people are getting the word out there about it because it's some of the best film I've seen in ages.

  5. Amazing post, truly!!! I can't wait to see that movie!!

  6. I'm glad you said it left you uplifted - I was hesitant about this movie because I was worried it would depress me. I, too, struggle with self-identity from time to time (especially when my Stanford alumni magazine comes). "I haven't accomplished anything, I haven't realized my potential..." yadda yadda.

    We're watching the first season of "Mad Men," and it does make me feel lucky that I'm not stuck in a midcentury suburban wife existence with absolutely NO power. It blows my mind that things used to be that way.

  7. Thanks for the reminder. A friend of mine told me that I HAVE to see this movie WITH my two teenage daughters.

  8. Beautiful! I am linking this at BabyCenter with your permission.

    You MUST send this into the Times.

  9. I completely understand. I was home for 10 years -- I would teach a class here and there, but primarily I was home. When I was working hard on my OWN work (I wrote a dissertation and two novels in the first six years - wow, did I just type that?!!) I was happy. But when I was just tending to children and home, I clearly wasn't. For me, having that piece of my own self is essential. Now, I'm teaching full time out of necessity. And -- I love the work, but feel bad that there is so little time for the hard-core novel-writing, creative writing that I'd been doing. Of course, there's always blogging :-)

  10. I'm so antsy to see it. (I caught Winslet in The Reader today; now I have to read the book, to fill in the gaps...)

    I think my restlessness comes and goes. I know I am valuable, albeit unappreciated, at home and volunteering like I do - but I think it matters.

    But all last fall, I felt lost and stymied. I had a hard time writing; I felt unbearably less witty, just blah all the time.

    I'd watch my kids go their way, and my husband would be on the road working, and I'd think: How did I get here, cleaning?

    (Um, I'm rambling.)

    Thanks for writing this post. I always love this subject.

  11. So powerfully well said. I especially love your mention of writing better, more meaningfully, on the heels of depression & darkness. I've discussed this with students but it is so hard for teenagers to see this; yet immensely important that they try.

  12. I guess I'm rather un-feminist, because going to an all girl school it was shoved down my throat. I'm the pendulum that swung further the other way. I saw girls taken out of AP classes when they told admin they wanted to be SAHMs - their spots given to girls who wanted to "be something and use their brains." Those women from the 70s were the ones who taught us and I have to say, I was not impressed with their inflexible views.

  13. I saw the trailer for the movie, and I have to say I was teetering between wondering if it was good and fearing it would be too fraught!

    I'm relating to beach mom's comment - there have been times when I've looked at random apartment buildings in town and thought about what it would be like to live there as a single person. How weird.

    And of course, now, my son is out of the house, unless he moves back! So it's just the 2 of us.

  14. Well done, Jennifer. I have been thinking about becoming a stay-at-home mom. Joe will be the only son I will have and a part of me feels I deserve the opportunity to be one. And you know? I think he deserves it too.

    I am teetering....

  15. I have a girl crush on Kate, so you know I will be there

  16. JCK, you speak my mind as you so often do. I am struggling much, MUCH now that a real job has landed in my lap. I see these women at work who complain openly about how their kids get in the way of their careers. It makes me think OH NO THAT'S NOT ME, but then imagine if we were ALL stuck in the suburbs. I cannot imagine a more savage society. Here's to choice.

  17. These days I mostly keep my mouth shut, except when talking with my husband who feels about the same, that there are aspects of parenthood that are not desirable at all, and that sometimes being parents makes us less than we were.

    An then, on the whole topic there is the eye-opening book, The Mommy Myth

  18. I hear you loud and clear... and I had to agree with the mothering part, the feeling of being suppressed or one step away from the nearest psychiatric facility... these are feelings that comes with the package that makes mothering that much spicier, doesn't it?

    But when the day ends and you kiss their little heads, "good night" and they say, "I love you mommy", you know all those insanity was worth it afterall....ya? *wink*

  19. I'm in some kind of mood today, so this just makes me sad. Is anyone ever completely happy and fulfilled? The moms who work feel guilt and miss their kids at home. The moms who stay at home feel lost and lonely. When we are single, we yearn for the family and house to take care of. When we have it, we are nostalgic for single life. Do you think men are happy? I doubt it. I think they just suppress their feelings for the most part. Most of us are just doing what we have to do to survive. We all need to grab on to those happy and content moments with all our strength and squeeze every single drop of joy out of them that we can.

  20. It's so ironic and timely that you have written on this topic this week, we may have both tapped into Jung's creative unconscious at the same moment this week: I've been planning to write a post for next week's article on my blog on 'why I want to be a SAHM when I grow up'. you know, I've always been single, always working (sorta), and yet, I've always wanted to be a SAHM. Surely this is because I've idealized the role, et cetera, and yet, it's also because I really admire the dedication of women who stay at home and create a home for their families.

    Also, you raise another important point, blogging and the internet in general has provided an important community for women to reach out to other women to share their thoughts and provide an outlet.

  21. I've been wanting to see Revolutionary Road but keep hearing how depressing and dark it is, though well-acted. Maybe I'll take the plunge when it comes on VOD.

  22. I have seen this movie--we discussed in church and thought EVERY woman should see it. I found it strong and uplifting too :)
    Blogging is a great outlet for me :)

  23. I'm with you: a creative outlet is essential to sanity. Unfortunately, I think a lot of women feel guilty taking the time to write, paint, whatever.

  24. JCK, this post just stirred something with me. Going from a highly technical career to a SAHM was a huge leap and, at times, still is. My outlet has definitely been photography and meeting other people (like you) - the brotherhood of motherhood.

    And I can't wait to see Revolutionary Road.

  25. i want to see the movie, but I hear the book is even better

  26. This post spoke, no, screamed to me. Probably more so because it took me three separate sittings to read it all thanks to interruptions.

    I do lose myself sometimes. I'm thankful to find friends who understand.

    Thank you, friend.

  27. JCK,

    Elisa, Jory and I were so impressed by the way you scooped Betty Friedan and Revolutionary Road into your embrace of motherhood and your validating choice that we decided you are BlogHer of the Week. It's not an award. It's a "WOW this piece is so brilliant we think everyone should read it" thingy, as in we're standing on our desk chairs applauding. Bravo. Terrific writing.

    More here:

  28. I know what you're saying and I appreciate it, but I think that it's good to keep in mind that U.S. feminism's origins were not, and are not, solely from middle class white women & their issues.


  29. I would echo Liz, both in the appreciation and in the caution. A casserole did not explode in every kitchen across America, because millions of American women did not live in the situation Friedan described so well. And many of them still can't choose.

  30. J, when I read the line "is this all?" It hit me hard because you talked about it in line with being a stay-at-home mommy... but I work full time, we have a nanny and I STILL say that to myself! I feel it is an identity insight, not necessarily touching on the kiddos. As in, you are doing what you wanted, are you where you wanted to be in life, and still feel lacking? Such as the Human Condition I would hope, that we all want to better ourselves no matter where we are. (One way I get past "is this all" is going to read CraigsList WANTED items, where people ask for extra food from fruit trees or maybe an old mattress to sleep on. And I feel humbled.)

    As for the feminist angle, we should talk about that! I grew up as my mother's daughter, she was a die-hard feminist -- and I learned from her that women who do not work outside of the home are not feminists. (!) And women who work should not let their family interfere with their business in ANY way. As I got older I realized how skewed her view of feminism was, and sought to find the true meaning of it. Reading your posts and my friend Hugo's really have helped me along in that journey :)

  31. Thanks to BlogHer for highlighting this post. That's how I found you.
    Just wanted to let you know that there are women across the world who feel exactly this way about themselves and are grappling with a similar sense of worth or the lack thereof.
    Most of us just avoid thinking about it and consider our duty to do what we do.

  32. Some great comments here, especially Liz and Skye for reminding us that for so many, staying at home with children is not an option. American-style feminism and what it means today is a valuable conversation -- thanks, JCK, for kicking off another part of it. Every time we make the effort to examine our lives and what we stand for just gets us closer to understanding.

  33. cascading applause... can you hear it? from Laurel Cyn? can Applause roll down hill and back up to Altadena? impressed is a given Jenifer... but as with good acting, i wasn't paying attention to the writing. just the feling that i was left with after reading. the thoughts of the women, the six women in my life that raised me. non-conformist women on the shoulders of non-conformist women before them. you have a unique perch my dear. that coupled with all those inside allow for a reader to participate and come out the other side a little bit wiser... if not a little bit better. congratulations.

  34. Very interesting post, and true, it is so tough to talk about but why? I do think that we feel guilty, as though it is something against those precious things we love to so much when we say that we are feeling blue. I am working part time from home and I love it, I love working, and I love being at home with the kids. I feel I have the best of all worlds, and I'm soooo lucky to have this choice. I can't imagine what it would be like not to have it, either way, staying at home or going to work.

  35. Imagine my surprise and pride, strolling around the blogosphere, when I came across your fabulous post splashed across the front page of BlogHer! Congratulations!

    You've indeed received well-deserved recognition for a fine piece of writing. This issue touches pretty close to the bone for many blogHers; many of us are indeed SAHMS, who struggle to define our personal identity/creativity through outlets like our blogs and other acts of blatant individuality.

    I love being at home with my son, but I struggled for a long time with other people's (primarily my ex-husband's) perception about the "validity" of my role, and the relative "weight" of my work against his own and others.

    For myself, I know that blogging gave me an opportunity to explore my own confusion about these issues, and helped me re-define mySelf at a time when that very Self seemed to be denied in favour of a convenient and acceptable model that suited my then-husband.

    Today, happy and whole, I embrace this role while I can, and enjoy the pleasure of watching my son grow and flower, knowing that I have made right and valid choices for both of us.

    I CHOSE this role. It is NOT all that I do or that I am, but it may prove to be the best thing I ever did.

    Thanks for your wonderful writing, always, and especially for this piece. Whatever choice we make, we must remember to be grateful that we have the freedom to make it.

    PS. Looking forward to seeing the movie, especially now. ;)

  36. You speak beautifully and intelligently as always. Of course they recognized you at BlogHer! This is brilliant. I'm a bit of an oddity I guess in that I was perfectly happy to get laid off when the QUeen was born. I've never had a job (much less a career) that I enjoyed, and while the income was nice, I can't EVEN imagine how hideous I would be as a mother if I had to put up with a full-time outside job every day. That was one of the beauties of waiting until after 40 for motherhood. I've read the book but I'll definitely put that movie on my list. (And I'll try to catch up on the rest of your brilliance soon.)

  37. What a wonderful post, so much of what you've written resonates from my core.
    I am looking forward to watching that film ... when I can get to it...;)

    And congrats on the Blogher Post of the week. I'm a bit late here, but it was so well deserved...

  38. Wonderful to find your blog. My kids are in high school and college now but you bring it all right back so vividly. (not that it's over...I'm learning still more about 'ego deflation' as the mother of teen-agers--) Also, if you have the time, please check out the web series I've been making about the experience of being a wife/mother with a high-maintenance husband, problems with time management, an addiction to caffeine and an over-active inner voice: THE LOUISE LOG at:
    Thank you.

  39. Excellent, thought-provoking post. I'm looking forward to seeing Revolutionary Road very soon!

  40. I think being empowered is less about working or not working, mothering or not mothering. It is about being satisfied in who you are and what you accomplish.

    I think the mommy wars, the blogging wars, the women wars would dissipate if more of us women felt better about who we are, big, small, rich, poor, thin, fat, we have to find our voices and be fearless in using them.

    And Revolutionary Road was totally robbed of best picture. The metaphors were so rich in that picture. I left with my mouth hanging open.

  41. Things have changed...We have a choice I think feminism is the right to have that choice. We can choose to be Full-time moms part-time moms or no time moms. But no matter what we chose we are always conflicted by the question "Is what were doing right?" Are we ever truly happy where we are in life for very long? I and my friends have talked at great length about the need to be home, the need to be at work and the the balence inbetween...All I know is I am glad I get to choose.

  42. Very pleased to have found you through BlogHer! A wonderful post on a subject close to my heart.

    I'm looking forward to being a regular reader here.

  43. I agree with everything you wrote.. Being a mom is tough and it can be taken for granted by others.. but in the end our children will blossom... and will too...if we let ourselves..

    thank you

  44. Wow - this is so great. I just wrote about how much writing has come to mean to me, but what I didn't really articulate more was that it's because it helps to anchor my idea of self outside of MOTHER.

    I love mothering more than anything I've ever done in my life, yet I still feel confused and off balance when out in the real world with non-parent friends. I'm trying to figure it all out, but trust the process, in as much that with time, I will wear my role with more ease and even more pride.

    Re: the movie: I'm gonna put it at the top of my Netflix now.

    Thanks for this bit of writing.

  45. You nailed it with this post. I'm a retired attorney turned SAHM turned dormant feminist. It's time to wake the sleeping giant!

    Revolutionary Road is now in my queue.


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