Too Much Choice?

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.

34 thoughts on “Too Much Choice?”

  1. Mrs. Susan
    I really enjoyed reading this story. My mother was not a professional but she worked outside the home. I remember many women in my neighborhood did not work. This was also outside of the United States. Mom came to America with a dream and fulfilled it. We did have a relative there who cooked, wash and most times had something cool prepared for us when we came home from the Caribbean Sun. She also prepared my dad’s dinner everyday. When we migrated to the United States me and my younger sister still cared for her. It is too bad my two older siblings did not care about her (their actions) I believe that is some of the reasons why my younger sister and I are blessed financially because we supported this relative until her death less than two years ago. That relative was God fearing.

    1. Hope, thank you for sharing your story. When someone has devoted years to taking care us we do owe them care as they age. I’m glad that you and your younger sister were able to do so.

  2. Susan,

    Your description of your childhood, along with the comments of others here, are very similar to what my own was like. I have long realized how lucky I was and often say that I feel bad for many kids today who are growing up in a world that is so very different and lacking in many of the basic advantages I had from my family, neighborhood, and community, and the America of that time. And I still say that, even though my parents eventually had a series of very unlucky things that happened to them–serious illness, car accident, etcetera–which added such stress to their marriage that it finally resulted in their divorce, which was an extremely painful thing for them, and for me at about eleven years old. Even with that, I feel fortunate. The mother of my best friend, who lived just a couple of houses away, became almost like a second mother to me.

    By the way, Betty Friedan’s book is “The Feminine Mystique” (not “Feminist”).

    1. In reverse order, thank you for the correction, which I will apply but more so for the story. You raise a good point about how we used to be able to care more for the widow and orphan and for the rare child of divorce because those were rarities. And these neighborhoods didn’t have single mothers by choice. So, when needed, friends’ mothers did step in. Government can provide money, but it can’t provide warmth, affection and love.

      1. Susan, I understand perfectly why you made the assumption you did, but in my case–which was even much more unusual at that time than it is now–it was my father I stayed with, not my mother. So, in a way, my friend’s mother’s care for me assumed perhaps an even greater importance. I will be forever grateful to her.

  3. Your theme, Ms. Susan, struck me immediately: “Too Many Choices.” Immediately I was reminded of an observation by the renowned Jewish philosopher / theologian Martin Buber, who wrote (and I wish I could quote him verbatim) to the effect that ‘no matter how many choices we are presented, they all essentially boil down to but two alternatives.’ Having long marveled at this observation, I thought to mention it. Perhaps you or the Rabbi can provide a cross-reference to Ancient Jewish Wisdom.

    1. I will try to look up that reference. I learned about Martin Buber in university (not in a religious setting) but I don’t remember much beyond the words, “I – Thou”. This will spur me to look him up.

  4. Susan,

    I always look forward to reading your musings; especially when motherhood is the topic or mentioned. As a 25 year old married mother of two young daughters (4 years and 8 months), there is a wide gap between my life and the lives of my generation. With overflowing gratitude to God and my husband, I am able to stay home with them. Being in this position is so incredible and I am working very hard to raise them to be wise, well-mannered and feminine as apposed to feminist. The work that your husband and you do is so valuable to me. I was raised in a home with no Bible, a wonderful single mother and little grandparent influence, so I have needed to spend a lot of time learning from my husbands family and teachers like you. Please know that the podcast, books, CDs and Ancient Jewish Wisdom show are lifelines to me.


    1. Your girls are fortunate, Paige. There is a cycle of life. My mother’s mother came to this country as a young adult and raised her family without the help of grandparents or much close family, and with very little money. Her sacrifices, along with those of my grandfather, allowed their children to have a better chance of financial success. My mother was able to stay home even though my father wasn’t a great provider, because the cost of living, including taxation, was reasonable. I always assumed I would be a professional woman and thank God that He put me in a marriage and situation where building my home and community became my focus instead.

        1. It is an identity, isn’t it, Anne? It cracks me up that parts of Brooklyn are very hip and hot places now.

  5. Hey! Not to be a downer, but your story, and most of those who commented here, are to me the TV show (of the 60’s) ideal versions that I never knew, and that my parents were not. Frankly, I looked around at the people I knew as a child, looking for something–anything–like this.
    Your advice is very good, yet please remember that a lot of us had the polar opposite, and so do far too many people of today. Reading your story is still wonderful, yet I find myself waiting for the end music and the credits to roll before the commercial break that comes before the next family sitcom. I pray that young people find guidance here–my parents (and family, community) were the cautionary tale of what not to do, and where not to get advice. By the Grace of GOD I am still trying to be something else.

    1. CK, more power to you if you are trying to do something different than the way you were raised. My Musing reflects the story of my neighborhood. What worries me is that not only does it not exist everywhere – as you point out it never existed everywhere – but it isn’t seen as an acceptable goal in our society. While I focused on the individual, the truth is that our society is suffering from lack of old-fashioned homes. You hear a lot about ‘wasting’ 50% of society’s resources if women aren’t encouraged in the work force (which ends up being women forced into the work force) as if being a mother wastes one’s brain.

  6. Good morning, Susan. My mom would have loved to be the kind of mother you describe. As the eldest of a single parent home, my siblings often looked to me for the type of things moms on the television did.

    Mom and I have discussed this and I know it hurt her to see this. She often needed to work more than one position to make ends meet. And in this presented a good role model for work ethic and responsibility to do what was necessary to pay the bills.

    However, she missed a lot and so did we. As a young woman, I felt as though I’d already realized my family and fell prey to the liberal leanings, but always felt that something was missing. As a retirement age single, I can honestly say that I made the wrong decisions to spend the bulk of my life in career chasing success.

    I can also say, that since my spiritual conversion twenty-six years ago, I’ve found more peace. In my studies of the Bible; it’s principles and Jewish Roots I’ve learned that He can use us for good wherever we are. I take comfort in knowing that unless I still had contributions to make that….well, there would be no reason for me to still be here. So, I live and contribute.

    Just wanted you to know how much I appreciate your musings. Sincerely!

    1. Linda, I’m sure you do contribute a great deal to the people around you. If you were basically ‘mom’ to your siblings, I can understand your wanting to do something different. We all have difficult seeing down the road. I hope you have a close relationship with nieces and nephews. It’s important to have love from a younger generation, not only from peers or those older than us.

  7. Thank you for this wonderful article! I have tried to impart these values to my thirty-something daughter and remember going against the tide while raising our children. I remember hearing “What’s a nice, educated woman like you doing at home?” as if “home” were a wasteland. As you have pointed out, I guess younger mothers do need more stimulation these days.

    1. Linda, the funny thing is that so much more stimulation is available at home today than it was. It is easily possible to earn some money at home and to be involved politically and socially. I think part of the mistake is thinking that, whether or not you have a calling, you need to have an all-encompassing career.

  8. My mother was the same. Home was like home-base. Come and go and eat lunch and check in. My mom was busy making dinner – which took all day to do, because everything was from scratch and included dessert. One bad thing is my mom gave us a sweet tooth!

    Then my grandparents lived up the street. Grandma usually came over to talk with my mom and sometimes cook together, or sometimes, just talk. And be there. One thing we all looked forward to was our mailman, Chester. I still remember his name. He was so nice and funny. Back then we used to sit on the porches of some of the elderly people on our block and sit and talk to them. They would have suckers, lemonade and other snacks and we could sit and talk with them for hours. Mom wasn’t worried because she knew all the neighbors. In the ministry I’m in, I surveyed some of our families years ago, and I asked them, “What would be a little bit of heaven for you?” Many answered to my surprise, “To know our neighbors!” What a childhood we had. I’ve been in business and now in ministry, my sister and sister in law both stayed home with their kids (one of the few) and they survived off of one income. They did this deliberately and I know my nieces and nephews will appreciate this in the future as many of their friends are so concerned with “getting ahead.” Down deep, everyone is craving authentic relationships, but are pursuing the false images that are supposed to make them happy. I’m so grateful that I was given this gift of a stable childhood. (We also lived in the same house my whole life). Today, in the city, kids move so much they have no sense of “place.”

    I pray the Lord brings this back, for the sake of our children. Thank you for your words today.

    1. Dana – I was only able to speak to about half the older people on my block. The others spoke only Italian, which I didn’t. I did go with my friend every few evenings when it was her turn to sit with her grandmother – an Italian widow dressed fully in black with no English to speak of. I picked up a smattering of expressions, but more than that, I picked up the idea of family.

  9. Raised on a farm, went to a one room school, everyone’s Mom was home, helping in the barn, cooking, washing, ironing, canning — and they were totally supported and encouraged in these activities by their peers. I loved the freedom to wander with my dog and read books up in the barn or in a tree. I was blessed to raise my family, again, on a farm, doing what my Mom did and my kids wandered around and did as I did. We all worked and had our contribution to the farm and the family. We were a team effort — just the other day I read inside the front cover of a Grade 9 Dictionary I owned — in my own hand — “Privilege entails responsibility” — Who told me that and why did I think it important??? Not too many grade 9 kids would have that in their books now, would they???? On the farm, if your job was to feed the little calves, if you did not do it they went hungry — so YOU did it. It was an “understood” thing.
    Thankful to have raised my kids then and not be facing the untrue blessing of career rather than family now.

    1. What a lovely recollection, Ann. I wouldn’t want to force every woman to live on a farm, or to have many children, or to do work within the home rather than out of it, but somehow we seem to be pushing forces that don’t give that option to those who wish and we certainly don’t suggest that many women might find that fulfilling.

  10. I have little use for feminism. I have my own business and I would stay home and be a full-time mom in a heartbeat if I could. Have prayed for my husband to get raises and promotions that would allow me to stay home for years, but his promotion only resulted in a small increase, costs keep rising and despite our lack of debt, my income is still needed. Not a day goes by that I don’t wish things were different.

    1. As with so many other things, the system has changed so that the economic assumptions are based on the idea that you need two incomes to make ends meet for a family. Or, you need to get government help. This is a conversation we’re not even having today.

  11. I think your article hit the mark. You can find joy and contentment in every aspect of your life if your willing to do it God’s way instead of our own way. God loves unconditionally and we’re supposed to love unconditionally too.

    1. I think many working moms love unconditionally, but there is something to be said for there being a stable presence in the home instead of everyone running around in different directions.

  12. I think I was born in the wrong era. I love this tribute to your mother! I, like you, feel saddened that these values seem to be passing away and sometimes wish I was a mother and wife during that time. These women faced life against some great challenges with steadfastness and quiet dedication to their families. My grandmother had to hold down the fort in a foreign land while my grandfather was deployed there during WWII. She lived there in Germany with him and their baby in a tiny little apartment and made it a home. Then they came back to America and led quiet lives where she stayed home and was that mom that was always there, and then as my Grandma, she was still that presence in my life. As a 30-something mother today, I worry that my children won’t identify with what these women truly did in their quiet lives because it was their great-grandmothers who were just always there and that’s quite a distance from my children’s realities. Since that time, it seems to be like that less and less with each passing generation. We do our best to recreate this atmosphere for our children, but it is just different now.

    1. I agree, Trishia. I think the ‘Greatest Generation’ included the women of that time. I also gained a great deal from having my grandmothers’ presence in my life. It’s funny how ‘helicopter parenting’ is a product of a time when simple mothering is disparaged.

  13. Hi Susan
    Your mother sounds a lot like my own. My mother was also the daughter of immigrants who believed that American streets really were paved with gold, but it was up to you to mine it. My mother was a teenager during the Depression, but my grandparents happily saved enough to send her to a vocational school. She worked several years as a medical laboratory technician before meeting and marrying my father. She HAD a choice, and happily chose motherhood instead of a career. Her perspective on “women’s liberation” was that eventually, the women who were marching around and burning bras would “come to their senses,” marry, and enjoy being wives and mothers. I think her perceptions were accurate, which is why today’s “feminists” make choosing to be a wife / mother appear to be the same as choosing to become a slave or a second-class citizen. But if you poll working women, many will tell you that if they felt they had a choice (e.g. no financial obligations) then they would stay at home and raise their kids.

    1. Jean, I agree that many of the women I know who are working would stop if their families could be supported on one income. At the same time, I do think that many women expect more stimulation than some women in my mothers’generation did. I just don’t think that any 20 yr. old, male or female, pictures being 50 or 70 or 90 while they are making decisions that will shape that part of their life.

      1. I appreciate your insightful comments Susan, I miss my mother who passed away as many years ago too. Sadly I came to appreciate her more after she was gone, having taken her so much for granted during my younger years. A few years ago I was lying sick in bed and half asleep when I felt her stroke my hair just as she had when I was a little boy. There was no one in the room but I found it very comforting albeit a rather strange experience. She had been a 40’s – 60’s style homebody and a real mom, she would be appalled to see how things have changed. I think that you are right about women becoming unhappy having stepped outside of the honorable role that God had planned for them. I can’t slight those mothers who absolutely have to work outside the home, they are heroic women who do what it takes to care for their children while helping their husband make ends meet. It’s not ideal, and I suspect that the “social engineers” that seek to destroy all levels of government have included the disintegration of the family, the smallest unit of government as a priority.

        1. I think we all appreciate our mothers more as time goes on. That is part of the way the system was created and why we need a commandment to honor parents even when we don’t understand why we should. That’s a beautiful memory or your mom you have, Mark.

    2. I remember those neighborhood mamas who, on hearing the cry of a child, came running with a tweezers to remove the bee stinger, regardless of whose child it was. My mother had forbidden us to run around barefoot and considered it uncultured, inappropriate, and dangerous but I once did it when she wasn’t watching and had to get another neighborhood mother to remove the bee stinger! Those were the days!

      1. How funny, Leah! I actually don’t know how liberals can say with a straight face, “It takes a village,” when the policies they promote destroy the village.

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