Still Trapped in the Feminine Mystique

I have long felt that my life has had different chapters. I’m glad I got the backpacking-around-Asia chapter and the planting-trees-in-urban-parks chapter, the going-to-grad-school chapter and the bicycle-activist chapter and the spending-every-weekend-rock-climbing chapter before I entered this current chapter of conventional domesticity.

Now I spend most weekends standing around in parks, standing around and watching my kids play or my husband race. Instead of debating the ethics of traveling to Myanmar, now I spend my time helping my daughter decide which fabric to choose to reupholster the kitchen windowseat. My intellectual questions seem to have narrowed to how to find time to iron on those girl-scout-uniform patches (somehow, I earned multiple Ivy-League degrees, but I can’t manage to take care of girl-scout patches), or how much to tip a hairdresser who cuts not only my daughter’s hair, but also my daughter’s doll’s hair. I find questions like this amusing, somewhat, sometimes: who knew that we would find a $100 American-Girl-style doll at a used store for “only” $20, perfect except for hacked-up hair that needed a professional to fix it? Who knew that my daughter would long for a $100 doll? At other times, in other moods, I find questions like this tediously limiting.

Lately, I am feeling stuck in the first chapter of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique. That’s the one where she begins interviewing her Wellesley college classmates for their college reunion and discovers that each of them feels lonely, bored, and trapped within suburban privilege and gendered expectations.

“Each suburban housewife 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 herself the salient question – “Is this all?”….What kind of a woman was she if she did not feel this mysterious fulfillment waxing the kitchen floor?”

These women acknowledge that their status as mid-century suburban housewives represented a remarkable privilege, and yet, for them, it could also be frustratingly unfulfilling.

I teach this almost every year, and it’s odd how much it still resonates for many of my students, as if the last half-century of second-wave feminism never happened. Of course, many others of my students long for the luxury of domesticity that Friedan’s privileged interviewees resented. I recognize the critiques that can be made of Friedan and I applaud the concrete changes that Friedan and her fans helped put in motion.

I write this with full respect for those changes, and full respect for stay-at-home parents of any gender: for me, still, STILL the isolation and the sometimes-self-imposed tedium are real problems.

Unlike Friedan’s interviewees, I have a paid career that I love, thanks in large part to Friedan and the activists she inspired. I also still have the bulk of the housework and childcare, for complicated reasons that I don’t fully understand. I think it might be a sign of how huge are the obstacles to gender equality and home/work balance. So many of us are still re-fighting the battles that our foremothers started fighting in the 1970s. Too many of us are still struggling to figure out seemingly-tiny yet life-determining issues, like who does the dishes and laundry and daycare drop-off duties in each household, and too many of us are still doing it without enough structured societal support.

Statistics show that today, working parents of both sexes actually spend more hours on childcare than stay-at-home parents did in Friedan’s time, and I feel that burden of heightened expectations for parental attentiveness. Almost every day I spend endless hours repeating “Chugga chugga choo choo” and “Do you need to go to the potty? Are you sure?” until even I am sick of listening to myself. If I have to listen to one more children’s tv program (since I let Soph watch 30 minutes a day while I’m cooking dinner or grading my online students), I think I’m going to scream – but I’m afraid the solution is bigger than just finding better programs or teaching Soph to watch tv with headphones.

I know that I should feel grateful to have a life that lets me do intellectual work even while I also get to construct backyard mudpuddles. But, lately, I just feel trapped in the too-few-hours of the day, resentful of the way those mudpuddles don’t leave me time to revise my book manuscript or re-imagine my pedagogy or re-connect to the activist communities I once knew. I love the mudpuddles, but I also feel stuck in the feminine mystique.

I think I need to bring those earlier adventurous chapters of my life back into this current domestic chapter, but I’m not sure how. My playgroup held a mom’s night out playing trampoline dodgeball. That’s a start. My friend took her family to volunteer in Guatemala. That’s tempting. I need to find more adventures and also more civic meaning in my life, since serving my own family and my students isn’t feeling like quite enough, right now. I’m still figuring out how to escape from Betty Friedan’s first chapter.

Maybe my malaise simply stems from the fact that every June, I attempt to do the full-time job of teaching summer-school while having only very part-time childcare. Or maybe I’m facing the midlife crisis of my impending 40th-birthday. I want more time for solitude and more time for adult friendships, more time for exercise and more time for scholarship, more time for wilderness and more time for citizenship, more time for virtually everything except screen-time — and I recognize the irony of working out these thoughts by typing them on a screen. I need all those other times so that I can better enjoy my time with my family. Because I don’t want to give up the mudpuddles, either. It’s a conundrum, one women have been facing since 1963.


3 responses to “Still Trapped in the Feminine Mystique

  1. Aunt Marla

    Elaine, I love your ponderings and reflections. I applaud you for maintaining your own passions in, and zest for, life. A happy mommy is certainly one of the best gifts you can give your kids. And how you achieve that healthy balance for yourself is a great lesson for them. Definitely a challenge when meeting others’ needs. A conundrum since long before 1963.

    (BTW, I don’t believe that working parents today spend more hours at childcare than stay-at-home parents did before; just that our conceptions and perceptions have changed, changes I noticed even in the 8-year span between my two kids.)

    Be kind to yourself, kiddo. You are doing a GREAT job! And when coping with one more children’s TV program strains your “coper,” it’s OK to choose your sanity instead. Moms have equal rights.


  2. Jessica

    Let me know if you figure it all out! I can really relate. Some days it is just plain overwhelming, and there is never any time for me. Now, off I go to catch up on each kid’s journal, because the modern mom must keep a journal…even if I’m too tired to think of anything good to write in them.

  3. Kate

    Oh yes, yes and yes. Time is so elusive, and with children, even the bits we catch are not our own. It is wonderful and frustrating. Someday I am sure we will figure it out, and when we do, we may once again have more time than we know what to do with. Until then, sleep less, caffeinate more. Or at least this is what I tell myself.

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