Thursday, October 10, 2013

Mommy Wars in the 1920s

I started reading a novel which may be familiar to some of you, but is new to me:  Dorothy Canfield's remarkable The Home Maker from 1924. This is one of those novels that feels very ahead of its time.  Canfield writes of a woman who goes out to work when her husband has an accident, and her husband  becomes the primary caregiver when he is home in a wheelchair.  Both thrive.  Ultimately -- spoiler alert -- when the man is healed, he pretends to still be crippled so that he can maintain his homemaking role and his wife can continue to work out of the home.The kids are better off and so are both parents.

I am only a little ways into it, but already find the description of the mother very resonant with today.  The mother makes "healthy" muffins for her food-sensitive boy and scorns friends who give their kids store bought cookies and buy dinner from the deli rather than make it from scratch. Canfield renders the mother's desire for perfection, her frustration with her kids, who are not perfect, her frustration with her husband whom she feels undermines her work and does not have enough ambition through the horrible honesty of passages like this: "These were the moments in a mother's life about which nobody ever warned you, about which everybody kept a deceitful silence. . . moments of arid clear insight when you saw that your children would never measure up to your standard..."  countered by "Her children! She must live for her children! And she loved them she did live for them!"  I am not sure what kind of a parent the dad is, or how he will manage homelife differently from the mom, but I am eager to find out.

More than the narrative itself, Canfields' preface sounds very contemporary as she maps a 1920s version of the Mommy Wars.  One one side, she sees people who think the only way to be married is to have a house in the suburbs, a lawn, material possessions and a "Ford in the garage," "kept in order by a woman with long hair who spends most of her days in the home, and paid for by a man with short hair who lives most of the time out of it."  On the other side, she sees people who view the first position as tyrannical and claim that "the only self-respecting combination for two human beings is for both of them to be short-haired and latch-keyed, and for both of them to work outside the home, leaving the children to specially trained experts, to pay whom the short-haired parents work in offices like decent twentieth-century folk."  Canfield refuses to pick sides or even limit the options to these two.  Instead, she writes: "We could realize that every human being is different from every other, and hence each couple of human beings is different from every other couple: and within the limits of possibility decency we could leave people free to construct the sort of marriage that is best for their particular combination."

What I like about this is that it is not about "choice," in a context in which the choices are limited to two -- stay at home or work.  It is more about diversity and difference and making things work as you see fit, working together.  I am not sure if "possibility and decency" would allow unmarried couples, gay couples, single parents by choice, or other groupings for Canfield, but, to me, she opens up a range of options and urges us to respect them all. I know I am a better mom because I  work outside the home (or really at home in my office much of the time).  And I also know that I can fall into the trap of thinking that my way is best and being snobby about moms who stay at home.  Canfield reminds me that what works for me may not work for everybody and also, I hope, opens rather than closes down options for people who think they need to choose a side.

1 comment:

  1. I have never heard of this book--what a discovery! I just placed a request for it through my library, which says it's buried deep in the stacks, all but forgotten. Who knew that the Mommy Wars have been raging for a century!