This is an excerpt from “Everything But Money” by Sam Levenson.
** ** **
For the college graduate, male, the world today offers great opportunities. For the college graduate, female, there are almost equal opportunities, and more than equal agonies. The problem becomes more acute each year as more and more women attempt to combine careers with matrimony only to find out that the problems of home and children fall to her. What happens to the right to self-fulfillment, which is as much hers as her husband’s? She was promised the world. She is a free, thinking, educated, emancipated woman, with a message to deliver. She is different from her mother, whose world was limited to the home. She is at home in the arts, music, literature, science and philosophy. She is, in fact, at home everywhere but at home. At the age of twenty-one, holding a diploma full of career promises in one hand and a marriage license full of romantic promises in the other, she is carried over the threshold — into the kitchen. This is the true “commencement.”
For a year or two everything works out fine for the young couple. They are both working. He picks up the newspaper; she picks up the TV dinner. There are quick fun meals, rich desserts, much talk about their respective jobs, and much honeymooning. This is the college dream come true.
Then comes the baby, and with it the explosion of the equal-rights principle. Motherhood is the one career for which she has had virtually no training. While the possibility of such an eventuality was vaguely mentioned in college, it was just one of those remote bridges to be crossed if and when she got to it.
She is now trapped at home. He is out in the free world. She becomes jealous of his freedom. He comes home at 6pm to greet this prematurely old young lady, her dark hair highlighted with farina sprinkles, a strong-smelling kid on her arm, and anything but a Mona Lisa smile on her lips. She thinks, four years in college for this? He takes one look at her and he thinks, Oh, boy. What I married! and politely kisses her between the smudges. If she can afford full-time help she becomes jealous of the child’s natural affection for the mother-substitute. The child, naturally, has learned to love the hand that feeds it. The mother is afraid of losing the love of her child. She wants to be a mother. She also wants to have a career. Grandma had a saying about this dichotomy: “You can’t sit at two weddings with one fanny.”
Her job is more difficult than her husband’s. He has the greatest “out” in the world. He is making a living for the family. He can leave the scene of the crime every morning with the approval of the whole world. She cannot. She would trade places with him gladly, but she makes a noble attempt at homemaking, a career which, she hopes, will eventually provide the same satisfactions as the chemistry laboratory.
She gets down to the business of being an “enlightened” mother, of fulfilling the multiple roles expected of her: wife, mistress, and delightful companion in the evening: and, with the rising sun, chauffeur, shopper, interior decorator, crabgrass puller, den mother, PTA-er, bazaar chairlady. She appears to herself as a cubist painting of a mother and child: two heads, four eyes, three ears, four bosoms, one baby, mandolins, pots, pans, microscopes, diplomas and the death mask of a college girl.
Meanwhile, back at the lab, there’s her husband, the all-American boy, whose unmarried secretary looks like his wife used to. She’s pretty and young and calm. No kid has vomited onto her typewriter, and she has the freedom, time and availability that his wife has sacrificed — in the service of his home.
The frightened wife picks up the challenge. She’s got to look and behave like a seductive secretary. She colors her hair, lowers her neckline, heightens her heels, shortens her dresses, lengthens her eyelashes to re-entice her husband, whose sense is coming out with his hair. He thinks he has remained handsome, irresistible, the eternal Don Juan. The wife knows he’s behaving like an idiot, but she mercifully keeps the news from him.
The conflict in the mind and heart of the college-educated married woman is only one more aspect of the problem of individual fulfillment of one’s greatest gifts. To deny selfhood to a woman because she is married and a mother leads to profound unhappiness, a nagging sense of “might have been,” and too often a resentment against the husband and children who lured her away from her true mission in life. The tortuous division of loyalties inflicted upon this woman by our ambiguous promises of equality of opportunity for both sexes leads many women to the psychiatrist.
** ** **
More on this subject tomorrow.