I am a child of the feminist revolution. My mom tells me this story.
She hated being home with kids. She always dreamed she’d be a journalist. She she got a full scholarship to go to college. But when she was graduating, she realized that if she didn’t get married she’d have to go home to her impoverished family.
So she looked around for men to marry, and while my mom dated a lot of really hot men (I am paraphrasing now) my dad was the one who she thought she could for sure get to marry her.
The letters they wrote each other between junior and senior years are great primary sources for understanding the foundation for their relationship. My dad was in Europe touring art museums even though he appreciated art less than a blind man in a snowstorm. His mother told him to go to Europe and he did, because he would go to the moon to get a woman to love him.
My father’s letters to my mom were about how much he loves her. And my mom was in New York City writing him letters about how much she hates him. My mom bequeathed to me a box of letters so large that it is clear both people enjoyed their respective roles as sniveling courtier and cold-hearted strategist.
It will not spoil the story to tell you their divorce papers could also fill a large box because the divorce lasted thirteen years (three judges threw the case out of court citing de minimis no curat lex which is Latin for both of you shut the fuck up). I see now that my parents got warm feelings of fulfillment from the mutual assurance that their needs could never be met.
My mom had a baby because my dad would have had to go to Vietnam if he did not have a baby. My dad studied at Harvard Law School while my mom took care of me. Then they moved to Chicago, where my dad got a job, and my mom had another baby because that was what was expected.
This is, I think, the core of the feminst revolution: that women had to do what was expected.
My mom is a leader in the revolution because not only did she despise staying home with kids, but she despised it enough to stop doing what was expected. She saw an ad in the paper for a job programming in COBOL. They would teach people with a college degree.
She gave me and my brother to the girls across the street who were off school for the summer, and she took the train into the city to learn COBOL.
Interview questions my mom answered in 1970:
1. Do you have children?
2. Who will take care of your children while you’re working?
3. Does your husband know you are going to take a job?
4. Will your husband sign a note that says you can work?
My mom loved working so much that when the neighborhood kids went back to school my mom hired someone to come to the house.
List of babysitters:
1. Vicky. She beat me and my brother with a hairbrush and a belt. My mom found welts on my back.
2. Berneatha. She was too fat to get off the sofa so I did everything for her. My mom found out when dishes were all put away in the bottom cabinets.
3. Ceily. She used the iron to teach me a lesson. On the top inside of my right thigh. I had a third-degree burn.
The era of local daycare centers was 20 years away. The closest one was 90 minutes from our house. So my mom found a job by that daycare center and my mom, my brother and I listened to the radio and sang out loud to songs like Maggie May, Knock Three Times and, Brandy:
Brandy, you’re a fine girl!
What a good wife you would be!
But my life, my lover, my lady is the sea!
The other kids at the day care center were orphans. Their moms died and the dads had not yet had time to replace them. So the kids stayed there all day. The teachers guided us with whistles. My mom took us out for lunch sometimes. We cried about having to go back after lunch, and then she cried, so she stopped coming for lunch.
When I was in first grade my brother was in kindergarten and my mom worked part-time. She hated coming home early for us, which is probably why I have no memory of her having come home early, but she swears she did.
By third grade we went home to an empty house. My dad came home on the 8:35 train. My mom came home shortly after.
She probably didn’t intend to go out drinking with the guys after work every night, but if she came home before my dad, she’d have to do all the child care and all the housework. Before the term second shift emerged, my mom could see it coming. And she dodged it.
In our house, the split was 50/50. My mom kept track. She drove to Hebrew school so my dad drove to Saturday school. When we refused to keep going to Saturday school because the kids were so mean, my mom opened a charge account at the taxi company and told us “call a cab”.
By then, my mom was high up. In the insurance industry. On school forms the line for occupation was never long enough for me to write two, but I always did: dad – lawyer, mom- executive.
My dad kept his money. My mom kept her money. He spent his on racing boats. My mom spent hers on clothes. Her clothes were beautiful. I still remember the burgundy boots. The white leather coat. The Coach purse. Frye boots. Dungarees. My mom was cooler than I’d ever be.
I had a clothing allowance. I bought a lot of costume jewelry because the jewelry store never sneered when I said charge it, and the owner sometimes asked how my school was going.
In December I had forty rings and no winter coat and my parents nodded knowingly that their budget idea was working. I was learning to manage money.
They did not nod together. They were never in the same room. The only memories I have of them in the same room are when they are fighting.
My mom makes dinner because my dad says he’ll get the 6:05. He gets the 8:35. My mom makes us wait until he gets home to serve dinner. Then she throws it at him.
Peas are very bad to clean up. They roll everywhere. With just the right amount of force behind the throw they will even ricochet off walls.
My parents went to couples counseling but they couldn’t find anyone who had experience with working women, so I’m not sure they ever made it past the first session.
For my birthday my dad was supposed to get me a present, and he forgot, so he took me shopping. We bought a dress that would have been good if I had a job at his law firm as a secretary.
It hung in my closet for years, next to my dress that my grandma bought me for my first day of school. It would have been good for going to school at Buckingham Palace. As she gave it to me she said, “Your mother never does anything for you!”
I told her, “My mom works as hard as my dad does. Why doesn’t he buy me clothes for school?”
My grandma said, “Men cannot buy a dress for the first day of school. You’ll see this is true when you’re older. You’ll remember I said this and you’ll think your parents were crazy.”
And she’s right.
But she wasn’t right when I was in my 20s and thought I’d never have kids.
She wasn’t right in my 30s when I thought I’d never stay home with kids.
She wasn’t right until I realized there’s positively no way to keep things equal, and everyone suffers from trying to establish equality. People can only give what they are good at giving. And people can’t stop needing what they need. It’s what they need.
Kids need taking care of.
Money needs earning.
Those are two very unequal jobs. You can’t split them equally because they are not half-time jobs. So you might think I’m a throw-back to the ’50s when I say, stay-at-home dads is a bad idea. You might think I am self-hating when I say that women don’t crave power as much as men do. But don’t say I don’t understand how hard women fought for equality. Because I was part of that fight. I gave up my childhood for the fight for women’s equality.
And as a fighter, I want to believe I fought for choice. I fought for women to be anything, but also for women to choose to be a stay-at-home mom. I fought for women to have a choice to cook meals for their husbands and sew buttons for their kids. I fought for women to be bold enough to have a big career and then give it up for kids and be brave enough to suffer the shame of not earning their own money in a world that values money above everything else.
In the history of revolutions, the revolutions turn against the people who fought them. Just look at the US: we have little celebration for the institutions of the Founding Fathers: slavery, elite rule, and libertarianism. But we have the opportunities the Founding Fathers opened up for us, and it’s okay to celebrate that liberty and still have disdain for the principles of the electoral college.
By the same token, women acting like men, and marriages being 50/50 is the road to self-destruction. But I relish the opportunities Feminism gave me, like saying no to full-time work, and I’m proud that I was a child soldier in that war.