Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Working Mothers, 40 years ago

I was talking to my mom last night and, as usual, we covered a lot of ground, everything from the kids to politics to pet ownership. We spent the last part of our conversation talking about working vs. staying at home. My mom was telling me that when they moved to the town I grew up in, she was the only mom who worked among her immediate peers. She was a teacher and taught for 7 years. Then she quit and stayed home for almost 10 years. My mom said two things that I hadn't really thought about. First, she explained that for her generation, it was a status symbol for the wife to stay at home. It meant that the man made enough money to "provide for his family." She said she didn't feel that her peers, male or female thought any less of our family because she worked but that she was aware that that attitude was there.

Second, she was explaining what jobs she could legitimately pursue. She was a French major and one job she considered was being an airline stewardess. But in the late 60s, to be an airline stewardess meant you couldn't be married much less have children. She also initially pursued a job in the international division of a large company that had a branch in our town. When she went to interview, they made her take a typing test. She asked if the job required typing skills. The interviewer said no, but all women applicants had to take a typing test. She didn't get the job.

My mom said that at first she had to work, while my dad was in law school and then establishing himself. Later, she didn't have to work but continued for a couple of years. She said she doesn't regret it and enjoyed her job, but that it would have been nice to be at home the whole time, that she really enjoyed it. I had no idea. I didn't think she hated it by any means, but she certainly wasn't "typical" of a lot of the moms that I know now that stay at home. She was a very hands off mother. She was present but she didn't plan activities and take us on outings or do art projects with us. She sent us outside or to the playroom to play. But maybe that's because staying at home has a different meaning now. It is often a choice that women make and not something they're essentially "forced" into because of a lack of opportunities or a social structure that makes being a working mom uncomfortable. I know that's not always the case, but it certainly seems at the very least that it's not necessarily the default and that women and their families think carefully about what's best for them and their families.

While there are plenty of obstacles to overcome whether one chooses to work or stay at home, we certainly have come a fairly long way in 40 years. I wonder if we'll make as much progress in the next 40.