Like so many other social issues, the expectations and the reality of motherhood are changing. What I’d like for Mother’s Day is not flowers, but sanity.
I recently heard an interview with Mary Louis Kelly (NPR, “On Point,” May 8) that struck a nerve. She’s an author and reporter who has covered war zones for decades and has worked for NPR, the BBC and CNN. She has a new book out called “It. Goes. So. Fast. The Year of No Do-Overs.”
My initial response, as I heard this in the car, driving somewhere, late for something, was “great, another mom book.” And therein is the problem. It’s not a mom book. It’s a life book. And we all could reconsider the definitions we use.
Minutes into the interview, Kelly described being in body armor and helmet, getting on a Blackhawk helicopter in Baghdad. She got a call on her cell phone from the school nurse in Washington, D.C., repeating insistently that she come in right away because her son was very sick. Her phone cut out. Eventually her husband handled it, but, like most mothers, she was the default to call, the one presumed to be available for anything at any time.
Kelly talks about her early fear of being mommy-tracked. My own career as an engineer was partially inspired by my mom, a rare college-educated working woman and journalist prior to staying home to raise kids in the 1960s. Later, in a failing marriage, she admonished me to always be in a position to take care of myself. And so I did. As the first generation to not “have” to get married to survive, I built a career I loved. Like so many women, I purposely studied something that I could support myself with. Over the years, I went from being the only woman in the room to one of many: lawyers, plant managers, other engineers. Many of us came of age in the era of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, where we quietly strove to be the best we could be but still knew to “be a little deaf” to the inevitable slights. We worked within weeks, if not days, of giving birth. Admonished to breastfeed, we pumped in our cars in sketchy parking lots between meetings.
Still, we strategically learned to rely on our husbands to be what I jokingly call “the voice of power.” We might be the sole qualifier on the mortgage, but his name is, oddly, the one on correspondence. We research, hire and pay the contractors, but when something goes awry, the best answer comes when the man of the house calls to complain. Regardless of income, IRS forms relegate us to “spouse” rather than “taxpayer No. 2.”
Today, “in almost half of opposite-sex marriages in the U.S., women now earn at least as much or more than their husbands.” (Saraiva and Cachero, Bloomberg, April 13.) Yet women bear far and away the most household responsibilities. Not all, but most. Paying the bills. Doing the taxes. Planning and preparing healthy meals. Scheduling everyone’s appointments. Noticing when the pets have rotting teeth or skin conditions. Remembering when the roof has to be redone.
Many of us can buy our own flowers, to quote the hit by Miley Cyrus. What we’d love for Mother’s Day is a redefinition of terms like “woman’s work” and “sweating the small stuff.” Today, as I was desperately trying to finish preparing a chicken salad for dinner after weeks on the road, my daughter hounded me to not be late for swim practice. I reminded her that Dad was recently over 15 minutes late for swim practice, but he got a pass. Eating healthy is indeed important, and, incidentally, we weren’t late for swim. Why is Dad waiting on a customer more important than Mom making sure you eat more than granola bars for dinner? Why, as suggested by trendy planners, do we have a “family email account” yet only half of the adult family cares to read the flood of emails from school or the HOA?
I didn’t change many diapers, and for that I am extremely grateful. My late mom was stunned and astonished by my evasion of diaper duty. Perhaps in the next generation our daughters won’t be the only ones who think to start the dishwasher, separate the whites in the laundry and notice that the dog puked on the carpet.
Change is slow, but I’m hopeful we’ll get there.
Maria Gutzeit is a chemical engineer, business owner, water agency official, and mom living in Santa Clarita.