New Wife and I were chatting the other day about men and women — and specifically, how in the “old days” (in our case, the 1950s and -60s) men went out to work, and women stayed at home, managed the household and raised the children. The roles were clearly defined, and because of that, there seemed to be little angst, the way there is today, about “women’s roles” and all that. Most especially, the traditional role of the “stay-at-home mom” has been belittled, and worse still, seen as some kind of oppression. Even uglier is the attitude which said that women, having got the kids off to school in the morning, sat around and ate bonbons all day, maybe (and reluctantly) doing housework and preparing the evening meal, in the Donna Reed manner.
That was not the case for our mothers, and I’m going to talk about mine (because I don’t know that much about New Wife’s mother — who, it should be said, disliked me for obvious reasons).
My Mom was always working. Far from being lazy and lounging about on the couch, she was so busy that, in retrospect, I have no idea how she got through the day without passing out exhausted at the end. Here are some of the things she did.
She went to England with my father on one of his business trips, but he was going all over the place — to Liverpool, Sheffield, Manchester and Newcastle — and she, stuck in London, got bored on Day Two, with another two weeks to go. So she found a beautician school somewhere in Soho, enrolled, and was able to get a certificate in those two weeks which took other students over a month. When she came back, she started a cottage job, giving facials and nail treatments at first to her friends, and then to a much larger clientele.
But that wasn’t enough. She took up yoga for exercise, and got so good that she was invited by her teacher to become a teacher herself. So for over a decade, she taught yoga to women, two lessons a day each workday week. (It started off as a single class for the neighborhood women, and by the end, she had a waiting list of over a hundred. My father had to build her a studio on our property because she outgrew our living room in a couple of months.)
Like in Britain, South Africa had branches of the Women’s Institute all over the place. My mom joined the local branch, and after a couple of years she became the chairlady, a position she held for nearly twenty years. (For more about the WI, here’s the story.) Under her leadership, that branch went from a recipe-swapping club to an institution which created sub-branches that taught traditional (but forgotten) household skills such as gardening, flower-arranging, household decoration and, outside the house, public speaking and bookkeeping. Also under her auspices, her WI provided caregivers for a daycare center for severely-handicapped children under age 5, and she was in charge of its annual fundraising drive — which after two years enabled the center to move from someone’s house into their own building (incidentally built by my father’s engineering company, gratis ).
Mom was also an indefatigable rose-gardener. While we had a live-in gardener to take care of the main (two-acre) garden, the forty-odd rose bush garden was her own fiercely-guarded domain, and she watered, pruned, dug out and weeded the beds daily. (The ever-present smell of fresh roses in our house stays with me to this day.)
In addition, she was in charge of family entertainment. As a senior business executive (and later owner of his own engineering company), my father hosted formal dinners at least twice a month; and when there wasn’t a business dinner, it was a dinner party for their huge circle of friends — dinners which invariably ended up with everyone dancing in my mother’s yoga studio. (My job was to take out the yoga mats and clean the place, and to restore it to its proper function after the party.)
And the meals. Good grief, the meals. Dinner was a sit-down affair every night, and Sunday lunch was a State occasion. Mom designed and planned out every single meal — needless to say, she also did the supermarket shopping once a month. She was also a peerless baker, to the point where my sister Teresa and I, spoiled brats that we were, could not only identify a store-bought cake, but would refuse to eat it. The only variation to this was confectioneries — Napoleons (custard slices), petit-fours and donuts — which were bought from Gallagher’s Bakery in the city (the only one which met Mom’s exacting standards), where she would take us every Saturday morning, as a treat.
Granted, we also had a live-in maid to help with the cleaning and laundry work — my Black mommy Mary Madipe, who carried me around on her back as a baby in the African manner, and who alone could discipline me with a single word — but all the time that Mom saved from those chores was not spent in idleness and indolence, as can be seen above.
Of course, there were the kids to look after. Fortunately (for her), at age 11 I went off to boarding school, but before that, while waiting for my lift to primary school, I remember that each Monday Mom would give me a manicure before going to school. (I’ve looked after my nails in similar fashion ever since: emery boards, cuticle clippers, the lot.) From Mom, I learned about being a gentleman: table manners, etiquette, proper dressing, the lot — all rigorously drilled into me for as long as I can remember. (I recall, at age eight, holding the door open for one of my mother’s friends, and her astonishment at what was, for me, everyday behavior.)
So yeah, those were the days of the stay-at-home mom that I remember. This was not a life as portrayed in the sneering manner of today: it was a time when “housewife” carried all the responsibilities of home management — and in those days, microwave ovens, TV dinners (and in South Africa, TV at all) were as yet unknown. Everything was made from scratch, and an “out” meal was perhaps a monthly trip to the roadhouse or fish ‘n chip shop, all treated with the greatest excitement by us kids.
It was work, I think, which would absolutely devastate the Modern Ms. of today.
If you’re not bored by all this, I invite you to read further. It’s personal.