“So you’re just a housewife?” the young doctor’s assistant asked. I hesitated. She looked up from the computer where she was busily typing out my life’s story should the doc need to know such things as “Are you under any stress?” Hah. (But that’s another blog post for another day.)
I wish I could tell you that I had a witty comeback. That I put that young woman’s mind straight. That when I left that office, she was motivated to be “just a housewife” herself. That I actually changed her grasp of the role and she would forever ask future patients, “so you’re a domestic engineer then?” or better yet, “you’re a domestic diva? I want to be one someday!” But I didn’t. Maybe it was because I wasn’t feeling well (the reason for the doc visit). Maybe it was simply weariness at having to yet again defend my “career choice.” Maybe it was that deep down I’ve questioned my abilities and success in my role—especially lately. So, despite 26+ years as a full time homemaker, I just looked at her blankly and answered, “Yes…and I do some writing and speaking.” Immediately, I regretted my answer, but it was too late and I was too beaten down already even before entering that room.
When did the role of wife and mother become “just a”? Being a child of the 60’s and coming of age in the late 70’s, I was exposed on a major scale to the women’s liberation movement. My own mother worked full-time, which was still unusual then. My GRANDMOTHER was a full time employee—more than that—she was a mortgage banker and voted businesswoman of the year back in the late 50’s—CERTAINLY an oddity of the day. But you know what? She didn’t want to be. When I interviewed my grandmother about her life (at this point she was in her late 80’s) and tape recorded all her answers, she spoke of that time with some regret. She worked because my granddaddy, who was 10 years her senior, wanted her to. Not for the money, so much, as they were incredibly frugal and even more generous, but for the security and because he felt she was so smart and capable. And she was. But she wanted to be home raising her two daughters. That was all. The stress nearly killed her at one point. Despite her success, she wanted desperately to be “just a housewife.”
I had started down the career path. Newly married to an Air Force pilot, it seemed only natural that my days should be filled with something “worthwhile.” It was just assumed that of course I would work—after all—hadn’t I just about killed myself finishing a college degree just three weeks before my wedding –completing 21 hours of core courses to do so?? I took a job as a billing clerk, but as the company grew at a rapid pace and people moved around, within 2 years found myself head of the Finance Department. This was during the dawn of the computer—the very first IBM XT delivered to my office was a tad imposing at first. My math-challenged mind was already stretched by the tasks, but every morning I drove my brand new Honda Accord (they were the new status symbol of the day) to my carpeted corner office, greeted my staff (both men) and set to work. In the evening I drove to the classrooms where my concentrated MBA program was being taught—4 nights a week and Saturday’s to complete an entire semester course each month. Funny how I don’t remember much about those couple of years…
Standing on the deck of our newly purchased single family home, I stared out at the trees. “God,” I spoke to the grey sky, “I’ve got it all, pretty much. New house, new car, money, career, husband…but I’m empty. Show me what you want me to do—I don’t care what it costs me, just show me and I’ll do it—“ There was no thunder at that moment. No bolt of lightening. No cloud descended on me. I got in my Honda Accord and went to work as usual.
Then the phone call. “Mrs. Spann, you never called in for your blood test results,” the nurse chided me. “I’m sorry, work has been really busy.” My standard excuse for not following through. Truth was, I’d forgotten. Tired of being poked and prodded while they tried to figure out what was wrong. A bit sad that the prognosis was that it would be very difficult for me to ever conceive and have a child (HAH). Bloodwork was yet one more test in a series, so a phone call for results had fallen off the bottom of my ever growing “to do” list. “Well, you might want to know, you’re pregnant.” Silence. “Excuse me?” surely I’d heard wrong—the doc had clearly said that not only was I NOT pregnant, but it would be difficult for that to ever happen. “Let me repeat myself; you’re pregnant, we need to have you make an appointment for your first prenatal exam.” Dazed, I hung up the phone—couldn’t tell you today if that appointment got made or if I just plain hung up on her. I clearly remember staring at the phone for several seconds, then turning on my black stileto heel and walking straight into my supervisor’s office and standing in front of her desk. She looked up, startled at my entrance. “I just wanted to give you sufficient notice,” I stammered, “I will be leaving in 8 months and not returning.” Somehow, I knew God had given me the answer I had so desperately asked for that morning.
So began my journey as “just a housewife.” My jobs include: doctor of all ills, both real and imagined, creative chef who can feed a family of 8 with a chicken breast and a handful of veggies, procurement officer, washer and mender of clothing, teacher of books and life, counselor, wellness coach, mopper of floors, washer of dishes, reader of books, driver of cars, shopper of groceries, clothing and all things household, decorator of homes and cakes, translator of toddlers and changer of babies (and grandbabies), keeper of the checkbook, planner of the future, greeter of the guests and shepherd of the flocks…well, in this case, the sheep have two legs… The hours are from 12 am to 12 pm and 12 pm to 12 am, Sunday through Saturday, 52 weeks a year, 365 days a year with no time off for good behavior save the occasional trip to the hospital to have a baby (and 3 times I just stayed home for that—it was easier). The pay is zero dollars and often robbing Peter to pay Paul to make the household budget work. Mastering yard sales, Craigslist and ebay have also become part of the job description over the last few years—and balancing all the electronic demands that have become part of our world—whether it be social media or simply keeping up with ever changing software and email. Some women spend their lives doing all these things only to be told how far they fall short, how they are “ruining” their children, what a poor example they are and how they are wasting their lives. Lies from the pit of hell.
A moment of perspective. It hit me one day as I drove past my former workplace. Looking at the tall building from the street level, it was easy to pick out my old office. I felt we were doing such important work then. A company birthed out of the breakup of the AT&T monopoly, my job, along with my staff, was to oversee the identification of who owned what part of each of the thousands upon thousands of miles of telephone cable that stretched across the country and under the oceans. Millions of dollars broken into tiny dollars and fractions of cents. It was an impossibility since the monopoly had not kept records with the kind of detail needed. Late nights, weekends, trips across the country to meet with my boss at headquarters…and now…it was all gone. Everything. Including the company…long absorbed into another, I assume, along with…what? My carefully organized files…the training manual written for my replacement which had taken weeks to write…my staff…only 15 years had gone by and there was no trace of the two years of my life that I’d sacrificed…nothing to show for it. Literally–nothing.
Six daughters. In that 15 years, six daughters had been born. “Homeschooling” was a term not part of my vocabulary back in my business suits and briefcase days. Now it was my daily work. Frozen meals and take out had been the fare of the day. Now milling fresh flour for homemade bread and scratch cooking were normal. Spending money was easy then, now it requires thought, planning and even simply foregoing a want. My house was a place to sleep between meetings and business trips, now it is a home.
I’ve spent 25 years learning the art and science of homekeeping. It is a degree without paper certification—but much more useful than my unfinished Master’s degree.
The work I did as a career woman had a shelf life and it was short. My family has eternal significance. It took only a few years to erase my work that came with a title and a paycheck. A hundred years from now, my work as a mom will still matter—will still have impact…Lord willing, a positive one, despite my many failings. Those souls will go on to impact other souls; and I pray, make the world better for that impact. What other pay scale suffices for eternity?
A phone call with a friend back in the early 1990’s came back to me recently—actually, it was the friend who reminded me of it. It seems we were talking about our high school days and the years that followed when I made an observation: “You know how we were told we could HAVE IT ALL – we could have the career, the family, the kids—and we could do it all and do it well?” “Yeah?” she replied. “They lied.” Silence. “They lied to us—we CAN’T have it all—something has to give, something has to suffer. We got duped.”
And because so many of us bought the lie, we have created a world where the economy has adjusted to nearly REQUIRE two incomes and those who choose to live on one have a much lower standard of living than 50 years ago—even 30 years ago. Many women who want to stay home and be “just a housewife” no longer have that choice and our entire society is poorer for it.
I hope the next time some young thing asks me if I’m “just a housewife” I can have a better answer. Perhaps, “builder of women,” or “sculptor of future society,” or…how about I just look her in the eye and say with a smile, “No, I’m a homekeeper.”