A Room with a (Distorted?) View

With local libraries closed, my reading has branched in two directions. I am re-reading old favorites from our shelves and browsing available library downloads for fresh selections. Among the latter is E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel, A Room with a View. Written just over a hundred years ago, it may not qualify as a new book by most definitions, but I have neither read it nor seen a movie of it, so it is quite new to me. 

As I tend to read in bed at night, my mind is far from fresh and I sometimes fall asleep in the middle of even the most interesting book. Nonetheless, I was jolted awake by these words at the beginning of chapter 4:

“Why were most big things unladylike?… It was not that ladies were inferior to men; it was that they were different. Their mission was to inspire others to achievement rather than to achieve themselves.”

These words described what young Lucy, the protagonist of the novel, was taught as a budding English lady in Edwardian England. In my experience, a number of people today who are antagonistic to those who choose to be traditional wives, homemakers and mothers think that these “old-fashioned females” share this 19th-century view of a lady’s ‘mission’. 

I found something off-putting about those first and third sentences (I have no problem with men and women being different), but only once I awoke the next morning did I realize what I didn’t like.

I realized that the troublesome word in the first sentence is “big” while the annoying word in the third sentence is “rather.” Not only do they suggest that inspiring others is the only thing women can do, but they also imply that inspiring others is a secondary achievement.

Over the course of many decades, my aunt was a popular science teacher. Incredibly, she continued teaching into her nineties. Accompanying her as she walked the streets of her town was slow going as so many people, young and old, stopped to greet her. Once, while in her eighties and in the hospital for some tests, an orderly settled her in a wheelchair and took her away from the hospital’s main corridors towards a suite of offices. Confused, she was soon joined by a doctor introducing himself as the hospital’s head of cardiology. Bringing her into his office, he pulled out a junior high yearbook, pointed to her picture, and said,

“I am here today because of this science teacher. I wanted to thank you.”

I don’t believe that in all her years of teaching, my aunt saw herself as inspiring others to achieve rather than achieving herself. Her achievement was being an excellent teacher. I see no reason that replacing the word “teacher” with “wife” or “mother” changes the equation any more than replacing it with “doctor” or “executive.” While I wouldn’t say that every woman must make being a wife or mother her priority, I think more women than it is politically correct to believe would find being an excellent wife and mother to be a big achievement in and of itself.

In early 20th century England, it may well have been unladylike (probably impossible or close to it) for a woman to become a barrister or surgeon. That is certainly not so today. However, many women today are not choosing to “achieve big things” through their jobs but are, instead, regretfully working to afford a high cost of living and high rates of taxation.

Some women are working long hours at an office because they and their husbands were indoctrinated to believe that only a Neanderthal man would want to support a family on his own. Along with their wives, these men assumed lifestyles dependent on two careers. Some women graduate college and professional school believing that a career is the best road to satisfaction and achievement only to find themselves unhappily missing other parts of life. They discover that they would love for their “big thing” to be focusing on their husbands, homes and families, yet society’s message taught them that doing so is unimportant and unfulfilling, perhaps even a betrayal of womanhood.  The prevailing cultural message of today may not be the one best suited to them just as Lucy’s wasn’t in her time.

For us mere mortals, trade-offs in life are inevitable. Along with that, most of us have moments or days or months where we dream of doing something other than what we are doing. The reality of our dreams is rarely part of a 24/7 actualization of said dream. I haven’t finished A Room with a View and at this point, I don’t even know if I like the book, but from what I have seen of Lucy, I am pretty sure that if she faced the hard work, sacrifice and obstacles of “big things,” she would be no less discontented. I do know that doing whatever we undertake with dedication and commitment is a “big thing.” If it is a worthwhile endeavor,  then whether it is in our own homes or outside of them, if we do it well we will have achieved a great deal.

22 thoughts on “A Room with a (Distorted?) View”

  1. Debbie Lowenstein

    I don’t know if there has to be a firm delineation between inspiring others to achieve and achieving great things themselves. For some they can be mutually exclusive and some intertwined. I always felt that being an available and involved mother was of utmost importance, while at the same time I had little to no role models nor did I have preparation or innate emotional expertise. In other words, I raised, taught, fed, cleaned and generally cared for my brood, but I cannot say I passed with flying colors in the inspirational department.
    My achievements can sometimes lie outside the home, but the greatest ones are the maturity and self-understanding, coming from an awareness of my fumbles and failings, along with gaining confidence as I have stumbled, fallen, gotten up and stood up straighter along the ups and downs of my life and my parenting. But that I believe is the achievement any human has the opportunity to gain, parent or not.
    At the same time, I believe that if a person does have children, their foremost obligation is to raise them and ‘be there’. I was just listening to a podcast with a story about two little girls who went from nanny to nanny their entire childhoods, and I cringed at every mention of the mom’s absence and the kids’ instability.
    Women have the right to achieve anything in this day and age, which is a great success of our day and age. I can’t help but think about the treatment of women of the first half of the 20th century and prior to that. Objectified in so many circles, cast aside in others. Yes, we’ve come a long way, baby, but our obligations toward those we give birth to and are sending out into the world should not get buried in that excitement.
    Our kids need us and we should feel good about that role if we have it. Nobody ever died wishing they’d spent more time at the office.

  2. Dear Susan,
    I responded to those sentences as you did.
    I was raised by parents who both had careers…had to work.
    They lived Mazlow’s Hierarchy.
    They taught us that you have wings…you leave home, you establish your own lives.

    Someone told me something that I pass on to this day:
    “Whatever it is you want to do….go for it….what are they going to do? take your birthday?
    The grass will still grow, regardless …However, you are not grass.”

    1. Your statement about grass reminds me of my father-in-law’s saying when someone would tell him that he was content with his life. He would say, “Cows are content, but you are not a cow.”

  3. Thomas Hammett

    I have on my business cards the following: “To be good, do good things. To be great, inspire others to do good things.

  4. I’m reading some Facebook posts about people enjoying the slower pace of life during this pandemic crisis. Not the pandemic itself but the less work stress, no rushing kids to activities etc.. Families are eating together, going for walks and bike rides together, etc.. News reports say some people may choose to home school their kids even when schools reopen. Perhaps we can hope a lesson is learned? Will some women feel it’s now socially okay /acceptable to choose to stay home to raise their families in the future? Will society embrace the idea that being a homemaker is a “big thing”?

  5. I believe that parents need to impress on their daughters that there is no limit for them as females. Our daughter while in high school said she wanted to be a flight attendant. I said wouldn’t you rather be the pilot?

    1. Mike, if a young girl has a callling, I’m all for her pursuing it. My concern is that we don’t validate being a wife and mother as a calling anymore. Of course, your daughter can aim to be a flight attendant or a pilot. Both come with pros and cons as do all other jobs. Our society has tended to dismiss how our jobs affect our families as unimportant (other than pushing for legislation – no legislation can replace a parent). If being a flight attendant allows her to have the best, balanced life she can, then I wouldn’t say that she is doing a secondary thing. That may be exactly what she wants and it is worthwhile.

  6. Neweverymoment, Deb: Susan, you have us back to the distinction between an Ephesians wife and a Proverbs wife. This is really “gifts differing”. All women are not necessarily great at rearing children. Some women, “stuck” rearing children would be much happier in some other career. The Proverbs wife seems to have all the bases covered; great role model! Many–described here–put up with what they must temporarily. We need to work out our priorities at any one point in time. It seems particularly challenging in today’s society. Thanks for your ongoing encouragement.

    1. Deb, I think that the overwhelming majority of women could be good at raising children if they saw examples of doing so and had support and preparation. I don’t think this is a 50/50 thing or the same as saying that only some people have innate artistic skills. (Even with that, I have learned as a homeschooling mom that you can learn techniques that allow you to be adequate even if not genetically gifted in that area.) There isn’t one path to being a good mother but I think almost all women can be good mothers.

      1. I am all for women pursuing their careers. This is a different era. When you are dependent on a man, he tends to want to walk all over you. The pressure of life is real!

        1. Hope, life pressures certainly are real. I think many of today’s pressures are ones we place on ourselves. I’m sorry if your experience with men has been negative. I wouldn’t want to make a blanket statement such as yours about men any more than I would want to make a derogatory blanket statement about women. There are marriages where men and women are full and respectful partners even when the man is the one earning money. Encouraging men and women to relate properly to each other is something to which my husband and I devote much of our time and writings.

  7. Susan, I enjoy your writings. I too when younger was told nothing about parenting, my parents were the not there to guide 5 children. We all went on our ways with no guidance. I too was a wife first, but found out my husband was not the father type. Divorced, then was a single mother. I did the best I could and then remarried. I was a career woman but once the children came along, we decided that I was to be an at home mother. I cared for my 3 children with my husbands income. We did not have fancy things or trips, but we did have love and caring. Today we are retired and I would do it all over again. My three children are professionals and we are very proud of them. I could go into how we were able to send them off to college on our dime, its called priorities and not wanting things that are not important. Women today want it all but are not willing to see that daycares are raising their children so they could have more stuff.

    1. Fran, I think there are many things motivating women to work, including the experience you had of being a single mother, not by choice but through an unhappy turn of events. Fear of needing to support a family is, unfortunately, a career motivator. As you say, another aspect is that we believe we need a lot more material things than we actually do need.

  8. Nancy Borodynko

    Dear Susan,
    I have followed your column for several years, as well as your husband’s, Rabbi Lapin
    “Thought Tools”. I don’t usually send my comments. Today I am sending a “Brava” to you for this well thought out, well written piece. My husband and I are married 47 years in June, parents of 4 adult children, all married, wonderful spouses, 7 grandchildren. We are devout Christians. We believe the scriptures, both Old and New Testaments. Upon our engagement we said many things to each other but the one thing we repeatedly said was “ when the children come…Nancy will stay home”.
    It was not only our mantra, but our prayer. After our first three years of marriage we were blessed with our first daughter. I left my employment with Dun and Bradstreet and became a full time mother and wife and daughter of the most high Living God.
    Three years later, another adorable daughter, two and one half years later, daughter
    three ( so adorable.). Four years later our son was born…I was still a full time wife and mother. We began our day with prayer and ended our day with prayer. My husband traveled far for his job each day 2 hour drive. However, before he left each
    morning he would quietly walk into each bedroom and place his hand upon each child and pray for their day. When they were older, mostly our daughters he felt not to violate their privacy he would stand outside of their bedroom doors and pray.
    What am I needing to say? God Almighty blessed our decision that I would be a career mother and wife. All of our grown children are successful and doing well.
    They are secure in their faith and relationship with God and our grandchildren are even more so. Thank you for standing for what is right and biblical. For goodness,
    mercy and hesed, loving kindness. In this terrible day you shine brightly .
    In the name of our God,
    Nancy Borodynko

    1. I’m delighted you are chiming in, Nancy. The comments we get make our work so much more fun. We also had three daughters and then a son! (and then, three more daughters) The picture of your husband blessing your children is touching.

  9. As always such a relatable column, Susan. I’ve lived every word. Wouldn’t change a thing about prioritizing the most important thing in my life: my family. Once they left me an empty nester I got my Realtor license and have enjoyed that profession without sacrificing what needed my full time attention early on. God bless.

    1. Kristin, one of the first Musings I ever wrote was about the second careers of a group of my friends who raised families and were now doing all sorts of things from running their own businesses to teaching to…

  10. Great musing Susan. I made my “big” thing raising my kids and my career my second “big” thing once they were grown. We made sacrifices (material things, expensive vacations, etc.) to make this happen. Absolutely no regrets. The results speak for themselves in the adults that my children became and the relationship I have with them today. As a side note both our children learned the value of hard work and saving money for the things they wanted that we could not afford. This is paying HUGE dividends today. I know that’s not the best for everyone but it definitely was for me.

  11. Theresa Sidrow

    Just try to live a middle class lifestyle on one income. For many (most?) families one income means living in poverty. This is one reason that single motherhood has such poor outcomes. The child(ren) are raised in poverty. In poor neighborhoods. With poor schools. One income is just not possible for most families today. Regardless of what either parent might wish.

    1. It is a Catch-22, Theresa. Prices and taxes and demands go up because of two-income families which forces more families to be two-income or to depend on the government. I don’t know how to end the spiral but I think we need to stop pretending that it is the ideal.

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