My oldest son is about to turn forty-five and that’s prompted me to reflect on how far women have come since his birth in early 1969.
Despite the growing Women’s Liberation Movement, I had been so acculturated to the belief that “a woman’s place was in the home” that I never for a minute considered continuing to hold a job and have a career of my own after the birth of my children. So, two weeks before my due date, I quit my job as a reporter at BNA Publications with no intention of returning. Like most women brought up in the 1950s, I was going to be a full-time mom who would always be at home to play with my children, kiss their wounds, and serve them milk and cookies when they came home from school.
I loved being a mom. For months, I was charmed, satisfied, and content. Indeed, nurturing my two boys to maturity and independence has been the most gratifying and rewarding experience of my life.
But, when my son was about eight months old, I began to grow impatient, restless, and bored with just being a stay-at-home mother. I found myself counting the minutes before my husband came home; I was so eager to have adult company. I didn’t like having a world that revolved only around my son and husband. I felt suppressed and unfulfilled, just as Betty Friedan had recounted in The Feminine Mystique. I started thinking about going back to work.
Two things reinforced my growing conviction that being a wife and a mom was insufficient for me and gave me the courage to act on it. First, was my husband’s enlightened understanding of my dissatisfaction. Second, was the remarkable support I got from my women’s consciousness-raising group.
As the Women’s Liberation Movement gained strength during the second half of the 1960s, consciousness-raising groups sprang up across America. Intrigued by the benefits we heard these groups were producing, six of my friends and I began meeting weekly in early 1969. Like many women of our generation, we found that sharing openly and intimately about the issues in our lives had a transformational impact. We talked about everything: our hopes, our fears, our bodies, our children, our marriages, our ambitions, our insecurities, our sex lives, our strengths, our self-defeating patterns. It was so reassuring and affirming to find that other women were struggling with the exact same issues as I was. We all felt oppressed by being relegated to the sole role of wife and mother. We all wanted lives that were, at least in part, independent of our families, where fulfillment came not just from being wives and mothers but also by having occupations and communities that were entirely our own.
Supported by the group, we all gained the nerve and power to break free of the expectations that had been drummed into us about how women should lead their lives.
Only two of us worked outside the home when we started meeting. A year later, two of the remaining four had taken interesting and rewarding part-time jobs and the other two had applied to law school.
While my husband was extraordinarily empathetic about my need for a life of my own and supportive of my going back to work, our parents were another matter. When I announced my plans, all four of them came down to Washington to tell me what a serious mistake I was making. I’ll never forget my father saying, “You’ll be sorry when Andy is thirteen and risks being a juvenile delinquent because you were not home for him.”
Nearly twenty years later, when both my sons were in college, I asked them if they’d wished they’d had a mother who’d stayed at home. They replied, “Oh no! Then you would have been even more into our lives than you already were.
I am proud that both of my sons married women who have each successfully combined mothering three children and having high-powered jobs, one as a doctor, the other as an investment banker. And I am so happy that neither of them had to face the societal constraints on pursuing a career that had shackled so many women in my generation and very nearly shackled me.
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