A favorite children’s book in our house was, Who Put the Pepper in the Pot? It describes how, as a pot of soup simmered on the stove, each passing family member added a pinch of pepper. Not surprisingly, by the time dinner was served, the soup was inedible.
A pinch of pepper adds zest to food; too much can ruin it. We can say the same about life choices. It’s wonderful to have choices in life; it is part of being alive. However, it does seem that each year brings more and more options to young people. Most of these are choices which they have neither the experience nor the maturity to understand.
For many years now, among these choices are how much emphasis to place on a career or profession, whether to get married, and whether to have children (and whether to link the two latter activities). Universities, of course, have their own biases, which tend to minimize marriage and family or suggest that those will be available at any time of one’s choosing.
This week marks my mother’s seventeenth yahrzeit, the Jewish word for the anniversary of a death. During my childhood years, my mother, like most of my friends’ mothers, was “just a mom.” She was always there when I got home from school, she made a supper with a protein, carb and vegetable every night and made sure I had what I needed for school. In pre-computer days, this included a drawer full of magazine articles collected through the years, with pictures from around the world and biographies of interesting people. Since we didn’t have a car it also included taking me on regular bus trips to the library until I was old enough to go independently.
I don’t remember my mother helping me excessively with homework or being terribly involved in my school friendship dramas. During summer and school vacations it was enough for her to know that I was either outdoors somewhere on the block or in some friend’s house, with instructions to be home for lunch or supper. So what did she do all day? I never thought about it. I only knew that she was there.
My mother was a daughter of immigrants who spoke English in the home so that their children would thrive in their environment. She was a polio survivor, who spent much of her childhood in hospitals or confined to a window seat in a small apartment while her siblings went to school and played outside. She and her sister both graduated from college at a time when college still meant something. Her three brothers missed that opportunity, as they were busy fighting World War II. The boys came home wanting to marry or nurture fledgling marriages and earn a living. In spite of the GI Bill, further education wasn’t in the picture. My mother, the college grad, could have embarked on a career like her sister did.
Instead, she used her intelligence and sunny personality to build a home. She was a devoted daughter, wife and mother and a good sister-in-law, friend and neighbor. While she worked part-time when my sister and I were older, she was always “just there,” so much so that we didn’t know to appreciate her presence. That is exactly what all of my friends’ mothers did as well. They were probably exactly the type of women Betty Friedan so harshly critiqued when she wrote her book, The Feminine Mystique, except that they gave no evidence of being stifled, unhappy and frustrated with homemaking and motherhood.
I cannot tell you what my mother and her peers did all day. I only know that we, their children, knew that someone was always there for us. We felt completely safe wandering around the neighborhood knowing that wherever we went there were mothers who would tend to our skinned knees or bee stings.
As they age, these women find great joy in their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Would they, if they could, now trade that for a corporate retirement or career memories? I don’t know. I do know that a generation that views them as a group as objects of pity and subjugation isn’t seeing the whole picture. While that period of history has passed and isn’t returning, the skewed vision that leads eighteen-year-olds to picture marriage and children in terms of something that ties you down and limits you, has every possibility of leading to its own version of unhappy and frustrated women.