For the past year, I have done very little work on my current writing projects. We bought a house, and for the first time I felt like I understood my mother.
Mother had her first five children in six years. Someone asked her about that childless year in the middle. “That was the year,” explained Mother, “we bought the house.” The Year Of The House included but was not limited to:
- My brother falling into the hole being dug for the new basement bathroom (one broken collarbone)
- My attempt to slide down a bannister which stopped halfway down the stairs even though I didn’t (stitches in chin)
- My brother running his arm through the wringer-washer (skin grafts)
- My sister releasing the handbrake on their first new car (totalled—the car, not the sister)
I can only assume my parents were too numb after The House to really consider the consequences of producing five additional children. By my calculations this meant:
- 7 1/2 years of pregnancy.
- 62,050 arguments about why we couldn’t have Neon Chocolate Frosted Glow-in-the-Dark cereal for breakfast when the TV promised it was nutritious and satisfying.
- 1,750 loaves of bread, 875 jars of jam and enough peanutbutter to finance Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign got soggy in 21,000 sack lunches and were thrown into 21,000 trash cans.
- 14,235 dinners for children who would only eat spaghetti, hamburgers, and pizza.
- 234 Parent-Teacher Association meetings attended so that nobody would elect Mother president in her absence. (This actually happened when an unexpectedly early labor put her in the hospital during the PTA election.)
- 360 parent-teacher conferences where she held her tongue even when the teacher young enough to be her daughter confided that the five-year-old was “immature”.
- 21,000 “Have you finished your homework yet?” questions. And even worse, 21,000 answers.
- 40 years of college tuition.
And for all this, what did Mother get?
303 Mother’s Day cards, 174 bottles of bad perfume, and some of the worst breakfasts-in-bed in recorded history. Then, when she was in no condition to defend herself, we presented her with our gifts. One of our favorite presents was perfume, although it was somewhat confusing to purchase. We noticed that the more you paid, the less you got. We got a lot.
Around middle school, I decided Mother could use a little more glamour. A sales clerk showed me a gown and robe billowed in ruffles, chiffon and lace.
“It’s a pen-wore,” I informed my skeptical siblings.
“Not a what.” I tried to explain because I needed their financial assistance in the project.
“Who wore it?”
“Pen-wore, PEN-WORE!” I knew I was losing the battle. “And don’t ask me who ‘Pen’ was.”
“P-E-I-G-N-O-I-R.” Mother’s voice floated down the stairs. “And I don’t want one. How about some perfume?”
So Mother, I owe you an apology for that year’s exceptionally large Mother’s Day bottle that smelled like a morgue. And for taking so long to get it about The Year Of The House. Oh, and the Equal Rights Amendment that wasn’t. I’m really sorry about that one.
And to my daughters, nieces, and their daughters: I also owe you all an apology. When you were babies, we said you could grow up to be anything you wanted. As I told you in my open letter here, I lied. You can’t grow up to be president of the United States. You can’t expect to make the same amount as a man (unless you can wait until the year 2053). And if you shoot for those things, or even if you mention the obstacles in your way?
My own daughter, Amanda Taub, addressed it in her article for Vox (here) on Bernie Sander’s sexist, misogynist supporters, the BernieBros. The conversation about whether Bernie’s supporters are heroes or trolls who could affect the presidential race was, Amanda argued, a red herring.
When Hillary Clinton gets criticized for “shouting,” even though Bernie Sanders is beloved for speaking in a register that seems calculated to drown out every Goldman Sachs banker in a 5-mile radius, we know what that really means — and that it means the same thing for us. When we hear that she’s not “likable,” we know what that really means — and what it means for us. When we hear that she’s bossy, we know what that really means — and what it means for us.
It’s not about the gender pay gap. It’s about the gender coded messages that say it’s fine for women to make it to the top, as long as they know their place and have great hair and the right shoes and don’t mind warping their children’s lives with their utter failure to nurture them.
So I’m sorry. I hope you don’t mind that we didn’t fix the world. Or that you can’t, in fact, have it all, or even what the man in the next desk over can expect to have. I hope you do a better job on this than we did. I hope you do it before your daughters have to figure out why it’s only women who have to ask how to have it all.
Oh, and I hope you don’t give your mother perfume for Mother’s Day. She’d really rather have the Equal Rights Amendment. Or a nice bottle of El Dorado rum for her mojitos. Just sayin…