More than Just a Housewife: Considering the Contributions of Local Stay-at-Home Moms, Now, and in the Past

TV and movies are having fun these days examining the dark side of the America suburban dream, especially its origins in the 1950s and 1960s.
This was the era that suburban life moved into the forefront or our culture, demographically and culturally. And, shows like Mad Men and the upcoming Revolutionary Road (based on the classic Richard Yates’ 1961 novel) pay particular attention to what they see as the quietly miserable lives led by suburban housewives and moms of that era.

Many of these women were bright and had been educated at top colleges but they gave up any aspirations for careers and financial independence to talk to toddlers, iron clothes, and nourish their families with well-balanced dinners (meat, potatoes, and vegetables), served promptly at 6.
It’s fashionable to feel sorry for these women or to sigh at the waste of all their potential, misdirected by societal norms into the supposedly stultifying domestic routine of caring for babies and running a home. Actually, I’m not saying that many women of that generation didn’t feel miserable and frustrated. But I wonder if there is also a different, more positive way to look at the lives of women of my mother’s generation and of contemporary women, including those here in Contra Costa and my niece up in Washington state, who are staying at home to their kids. These contemporary women were not expected by society to be housewives—or in today’s parlance–to “off-ramp” and be stay-at-home moms. They have chosen it.

As I write this, a vague memory pops into my head of, when I was a girl, watching an episode of The Donna Reed Show. Remember that show? It ran from 1958 to 1966, was re-run on TV when I was growing up, and starred Academy Award-winning actress Donna Reed as the quintessential post-World War II suburban wife and mom. In one episode, which originally aired in January 1960, the host of a radio show called “Housewives Corner” pays a visit to a market in the hometown of Donna Reed’s character, Donna Stone. The condescending host begins asking the female shoppers such questions as “While baking an upside-down cake, do you recommend standing on your head?”

Ha-ha-ha. What a cutup! Donna Stone, feisty and opinionated behind her Donna Reed veneer of grace and perfect manners, takes offense and goes on the show to defend homemakers like herself as being “more than just a housewife.”

And in giving housewives, or, rather stay-at-home moms, their due, it’s not that I’ve been drinking the Dr. Laura Schlessinger Kool-Aid. I admit that listening to her show was a guilty pleasure (especially for me, given my politics) back when I was staying at home with my son, when he was between the ages of 0 and 3. Dr. Laura praised families that made it work for one parent to stay at home with the kids, instead of “farming” them out to daycare. She actually expressed views that described mothers and fathers as greedy and self-centered for sacrificing their kids’ well-being if they chose to have both parents work–either because mom wanted to feel “fulfilled” or so that the family could earn enough money to buy stuff and attain a certain sense of an affluent American life-style.

I didn’t have any Dr. Laura-esque philosophical ideas about staying home after my son was born. And I don’t intend to get into a debate right now about whether kids fare better– psychologically, intellectually, socially–with a stay-at-home parent than with being put in daycare. Me being home: That’s just how it worked for me, my husband, and my son. It turns out that I would have been mentally and physically incapable of being away from my son for longer than a few hours. It’s not that I am this self-sacrificing Earth Mom. It’s just that, at that point in my life, I couldn’t multi-task in the way that other women can, some of whom nurture successful careers while raising kids.
Sure, it was sometimes boring to be at home with a baby and then a toddler, the routine of talking, playing, and soothing him, minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day. Sure, I felt stifled at times, that I wasn’t living up to my “potential,” that I wasn’t using my brain enough, that any future career ambitions would be permanently stalled.
But I wouldn’t trade those first three years at home with my son for anything. Being with him, the routine we did have and we did enjoy: those were magical times, among some of the best of my life. If I was suddenly given an hour to live, that time I spent with my son would rank at the top of my greatest joys and accomplishments as a human being. I would have continued doing the stay-at-home mom thing longer, had family circumstances not intervened. And, in the end, I enjoyed going back to work.
Last year, I did an interview with my mother about being a ‘50s housewife, here in Contra Costa County. It was an oral history project that I typed up, edited, and gave to my siblings and nieces and nephews for Christmas presents. My mother revealed some of her own private miseries about her life at the time, miseries that might fit into the Mad Men view of suburban housewives quietly growing crazy amid the piles of laundry, kids crying in the background, and the emotionally disengaged husband, expecting a martini and dinner when he arrives home from the office. In my mother’s case—according to her, at least—few of those miseries had to do with being a housewife and at home with three small kids. She says that being a mom was and is her greatest pride and accomplishment.
She talked about how “that’s just the way it was” for most women back then: They stayed home with the kids and ran the households. But like other housewives of the era, my mother got involved in the community once her kids began school. She joined the Diablo Valley chapter of the League of Women Voters that was getting started in the early 1950s. As a student at UC-Berkeley, she had heard that the league was a good organization for socially minded women to join. So she did.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, each member of the league was formally referred to by her husband’s name–as in Mrs. John Smith, rather than Joan Smith. But whether they were Mrs. John Smith or Joan Smith, some of these women were marvels of community organizing and political intellect, according to my mother. If you’re not familiar with the league, you should be. Then and now, the league is a grassroots organization that provides citizen education and advocacy on local, state, and national issues.The Diablo Valley chapter hosts political debates and invites speakers to talk about local issues. Most useful to me is that the league studies candidates and issues that we are asked to vote on–particularly those pesky state propositions that come up every few years and few of us have time to analyze on our own. The league recommends which way to vote and explains how it comes to its conclusions. So, the League of Women voters was, in the 1950s and now, pushing for political dialogue in our community.
Meanwhile, other 1950s and 1960s housewives were volunteering in the schools, campaigning for more parks and open space in our area, and organizing arts and cultural events. Around the time I interviewed my mother, I met another Walnut Creek woman who had been involved in a citywide movement to devote undeveloped hills and valleys around town to parks and open space. She was also instrumental in raising money to get the Lesher Center for the Arts which opened in 1990. Many would say that the arts center transformed Walnut Creek’s downtown.
What I learned from my mother and this woman is that it’s likely that those 1950s and 1960s housewives laid the foundation and set in motion the programs that raised the quality of life here in Walnut Creek and in surrounding suburbs. These days, many stay-at-home moms I know through my son’s school are former professionals who got onto the the Mommy Track and are now using their skills, which they honed in the business world, to raise money for our schools or worthy nonprofits in the area.
I have a full-time job. It’s one that I enjoy and that challenges me, but, to be honest, I often wish I could be there every day to pick up my son from school and be at home when he has a friend over. I’d love to hang out and watch his soccer practices or take him to cool places in the area and do things with him.
We women today have more choices, thanks to those feminists who challenged the status quo in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. But we can’t have it all—no matter that line we were handed by those early, pioneering feminists. There just isn’t enough time in the day to do and have it all.

So even if we still have more choices, we still live with regrets. That’s true for me anyway. How about you?

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