My paternal grandmother would be 100 years old today, if she were still alive. She died in July 1991, when I was 18. Her name was Janette, so we grandchildren called her Janmother.
Janmother was an outstanding high school student but never went to college. She married just after turning 20, and at times she helped my grandfather with his work, but primarily she was a homemaker.
My dad and I were able to spend the final week of Janmother’s life staying in her house and visiting her in the hospital. The last time I heard her speak coherently, she said, “I’ll never cook another meal.”
No, we agreed, she probably wouldn’t.
“I’ll never do the laundry again,” she went on. “No more ironing. I’ll never wax that kitchen floor, or dust . . .” She named a few more chores. Finally she said, weakly but with a certain satisfaction, “Well. Guess I got a few things done.” She went back to sleep.
Oh, how sad! I thought. Almost 80 years on this earth, and all she had to show for it was housework? How pathetic that this intelligent, creative woman’s life was wasted doing mundane chores! Janmother loved to write poetry, crochet, embroider, and play word games, but those were just hobbies. She hadn’t really done anything with her life.
Admitting to those thoughts now makes me cringe. But that really is how I felt. I loved Janmother and was very sad when she died, but as a teenager I felt a great determination not to be like her. I was born in 1973, a time when women were really picking up momentum toward equality, and each stage of my life has offered a dazzling array of opportunities compared to what women of Janmother’s generation were allowed. Six weeks after she died, I set out to become an architect. Janmother always had been supportive of my interest in architecture. (I remember when I was about 10, she drove me around to every public school in her part of the city so I could study different ages and styles of school buildings.) She was proud that I was going to a top-notch university. I assumed she would have done the same if she’d had the opportunity–but the fact is, I never asked. I thought that of course she had been a homemaker only because that’s what was expected of her but she would rather have, you know, accomplished something.
This impression didn’t change until, 12 years later, my pet rabbit died and I was scrubbing out his litter box for the last time. I began to think about how I had done that more than 300 times, had served him more than 2000 meals, had fed him carrot babyfood when he was sick . . . and as my tears started flowing again I thought, “Well. Guess I got a few things done.”
I started to realize then how the things we do to take care of someone we love, the things that keep life going day to day, are doing something important. Just because those tasks don’t earn pay doesn’t mean they aren’t worthwhile, don’t count as accomplishments, don’t deserve respect.
It’s funny that it took me until age 30 to realize this, considering the stress and resentment I felt whenever my contributions to the household seemed taken for granted! As a teenager, I did the grocery shopping and cooked dinner every night for weeks at a stretch when my mother’s job took her out of town. As a young adult, I lived with housemates and was aggrieved when they didn’t meet my standards of dividing the housework equally and each doing our share perfectly and on time. I wanted to be appreciated for the housework I did–it was hard work! I felt proud of my competence, thrift, and ingenuity around the house.
Maybe what I was thinking was that household tasks are more difficult (and therefore more honorable) when you squeeze them in around a full work or school schedule. Maybe I thought the achievement was not in the tasks themselves but in getting them done while also “accomplishing something.” Is it really more difficult? I wouldn’t know, would I? I’ve never been a full-time homemaker–and you know, at times when I was unemployed I noticed it was difficult to use my days efficiently because, with so much time under my control instead of scheduled, I tended to drift along doing very little.
Janmother cooked a full breakfast every morning until cancer disabled her: fried eggs, bacon, toasted English muffins, fruit salad. She was intrigued by new convenience foods as they came along (I giggle every time I think of her excitement over something called Suddenly Salad) but she still made lots of things from scratch: fried okra, roast turkey with stuffing, pies. Janmother must have done hundreds of loads of laundry scrubbed against a washboard, thousands more where each garment had to be put through a wringer and later ironed. By the time electric dryers and wrinkle-resistant fabrics came along, she was middle-aged and must have appreciated these conveniences so much more than I do. Janmother when I knew her loved her dishwasher, but she must have hand-washed a million dishes in her life. Janmother when I knew her had plenty of opportunities to put her feet up and crochet, but she had raised two children in a time when all babyfood and formula were made from scratch, all diapers were cloth and line-dried, there was no television, and a lot of things had to be boiled. That was work! She sent two sons out into the world well-equipped, she kept my grandfather fed and clothed so he could put his efforts toward developing his business, and she hosted family gatherings including complete home-cooked meals well into her seventies. Those are accomplishments!
Looking at my own life now, I see my career as important but hardly the only thing that makes my life worthwhile. Both the tasks I do at work and the tasks I do at home are important, valuable, and part of my self-concept. I might not be very efficient as a full-time homemaker, but I’d also feel very unfulfilled if my job was my whole life and I spent no time caring for my home and family. It’s great to do both! It’s great, too, to come home after a hard day at work and have someone who loves me cooking dinner for me. I can have some of both roles because he has some of both roles. The great achievement of feminism is opening up the separate worlds that used to be for women and for men so that each individual can choose what to do. Housework is no more mundane and pathetic than the day-to-day routines of many paid jobs.
Carnegie Mellon University has a building that was once a women’s college, Margaret Morrison, founded by Andrew Carnegie in honor of his mother. Its final class graduated the month I was born, and its building became part of the university where I later walked to classes through the entrance courtyard with this inscription around the ellipse:
These are woman’s high prerogatives:
To make and inspire the home,
To lessen suffering and increase happiness,
To aid mankind in its upward struggle,
To ennoble and adorn life’s work, however humble.
A lot of people find it laughably archaic and sexist. Yeah, if you read “mankind” as meaning “males” instead of “the human race,” and if you read “woman’s high prerogatives” as meaning “things women oughta shut up and do” instead of “skills so important they deserve a whole college” (did you know, “prerogative” means “an exclusive right or privilege”?), then it’ll offend you.
But every time I read it, I’m inspired to be a better person: a person who works hard to make a good home, who helps and comforts people, who has an important role in improving the human race, who makes even the humblest chores noble and beautiful, and who feels privileged to be doing it. Being that kind of person doesn’t mean I can’t earn money. It means staying focused on my high prerogatives instead of believing that only the accomplishments for which I get paid are valuable.
These days, when I fall into bed at night overwhelmed by all the things I have to do tomorrow, I try to remember to give myself credit for what I did do that day. I unloaded the dishwasher, cleaned 8 files of data, answered a researcher’s questions about the Perceived Stress Scale, wrote an article for my Website during lunch break, made some graphs for my boss, bought milk on the way home, played a game with my son, cleaned the bathroom, washed my son’s hair, read him a story, hung up a load of laundry, cut up vegetables for the freezer.
Well. Guess I got a few things done.
Rest in peace, Janmother. I hope my ignorant disrespect never hurt your feelings. I understand now that all the “real work” that men did for centuries was fueled by women cooking the meals, washing the clothes and dishes, making homes.