I first heard the term MRS Degree when I set out for my freshman year at a small Catholic college. The words are usually spoken with a mixture of amusement and contempt and refer to the young woman who goes off to college intent on one thing and one thing only: catching a husband so she can stay home and never use the B.A. acquired whilst hunting him. In reality I think very few of the young ladies so accused are quite as shallow as they are made out to be. Certainly the vocation they have chosen to pursue is much harder than their detractors seem to believe. It is often said that a BA degree is no longer enough for a lucrative career; similarly, the so-called MRS will be only the beginning of the modern housewife’s necessary education. She will need culinary and interior decorating degrees. She ought really to have some sort of certification in accounting since she will be running her household on a single income in a society that considers a double income normal. In the particular case of the home schooling housewife she should also invest in a Masters’ degree in education. Nursing degrees or medical licenses will help in handling family health decisions. Experience in upper management is an asset though not required. (It’ll come in handy if she has one of those ridiculously large broods of say, three or more.) All this she will easily accomplish while living in a world that long ago threw aside this image of family life and the support structure that went with it.
In the interests of disclosure I should go no further without saying that this bears a close resemblance to how I live my life. Since marrying directly after college four years ago I have had three children in quick succession. I presented my beloved husband with a reverse dowry in college loans upon our wedding day and have not contributed a dime to our income since. I stay home to cook, clean, and care for the children. My contributions outside the home involve my church and my Air Force spouses’ group. All very 1950s. Any bitterness in my tone when speaking of this ideal of womanhood, comes not from a disagreement that it is a good one, but from a knowledge that I am not very good at it. Throughout childhood we are all asked what we “want to be when we grow up,” and at my school it was just a given that you would answer with a “real” job. At one time or another, I answered dental hygienist, elementary teacher, lawyer, college professor, or journalist. The question of whether I wanted children didn’t really enter my head until my teen years and the idea that I might stay home with them permanently only occurred to me sometime in college. By then I knew I wanted marriage and children but I also loved the idea of a stimulating professional career. However, I observed that for a household to run smoothly somebody needs to, well, run it. If both parents work then they must delegate some part of that responsibility to someone else, be it a housekeeper, a babysitter, or the line cooks at the restaurant. My decision was philosophical rather than emotional. If I wanted the kind of family that I wanted, the brilliant career would have to go. For a while I kept my decision as an embarrassing secret. I was so used to the modern idea that the stay-at-home mom was just unambitious, if not downright lazy or worse yet, horribly oppressed by her husband. I never believed those things myself, but I was pretty sure most people would look at me that way. The first time I told someone besides my family I remember my tone of voice was a little defiant. “I just want to stay home and cook and clean and raise kids” (so there). That first person took it pretty well; we’re married now.
Poor man, he must have thought I’d be a bit better at actually doing all those things. Unfortunately, by natural ability, inclination, and education I was much better suited to the career route. I told myself, if I could succeed at school then I could succeed at this. I threw myself into the acquisition of the necessary skills. I tidied endlessly and set myself to learn a new recipe at least once a week. When my first son was born the cooking and cleaning suffered a setback as I learned to care for a child. In the end I became a Jack (or Jill) of all trades, master of none. Not a result I relish. While these first years of marriage were certainly the happiest of my life and the best for my character as I learned patience and humility, at the back of my mind was a haunting sense of failure. Every other woman on the planet could do this and had been able to for generations untold. Why was it so hard for me?
Perhaps it was time to consult the experts. After all, there is a proliferation of books, magazines and websites filled with helpful tips. Everything from how making lunch resemble a cute bunny will help your wee ones eat their veggies, to how to effortlessly organize your play room using cheerful color coded IKEA bins. These sources of sage advice speak in near scientific terms: adding words like “lifestyle,” system,” or “method” to seemingly mundane choices. Would you like to strap your baby to your person while getting chores done? Well then you subscribe to a Baby-wearing Lifestyle. Want to save some money or create less trash? The Cloth-diapering Lifestyle may be for you. You thought you were virtuous for breastfeeding but are you Ecological Breastfeeding? Quick! Pick a side! Are you for or against the Cry-It-Out Method of Sleep Training? Will you Vaccinate? And what exactly is a “play-date”, isn’t it just a visit? Can’t we just meet at the park without giving it a fancy name? When my second son inexplicably refused to nurse and began to waste away I was sent to the Lactation Consultant. It occurred to me that “back in the day” I’m pretty sure the name for Lactation Consultants was Any Other Mom. I realized that my generation lived cut off from previous housewife generations, separated by the vast divide of the Feminist Movement and a radical change in what neighbourhoods look like. As a result a generation of highly educated and simultaneously completely uninformed moms are tackling motherhood the only way we know how, as a course of study complete with all the stress over quantifiable success. Someone somewhere is grading this exam and we suspect we’re getting a C-.
Unfortunately, without a seamless transition of knowledge from one generation to the next, the Homemaking Systems we devise tend to be sadly haphazard. Each woman gathers together her own random selection of expectations gleaned from TV, childhood memories, literary figures, the aforementioned experts and their peers. We strive to emulate women from “back in the day,” but which day and where remains unclear. For example, homeschoolers will tell you that parents have been primary educators since time immemorial. True, but teachers and schools have been around a long time too. What kind of ancient homeschooling parent are we referring to? The kind who hired tutors and governesses? The kind who taught their children enough to run the family farm? The average parent has not been expected to teach college prep biology until fairly recently. Another example would be how much a mom got accomplished around the house in a given day while caring for her children. But these moms who did all that work without ever sticking their little ones in front of a TV were also allowed to boot them outside no matter the weather to play with all the other similarly exiled children of the neighbourhood. My mother remembers playing in the street, or skating on the pond, safely out of her busy mother’s hair for hours out of the day. No adults hovered protectively or even came looking for their children. Imagine trying that today? You’d be reported. Of course, it’s not all bad news. I’m not sure I want my kids skating on thin ice unattended. Furthermore, there are some things about our times of which I’m quite happy to take advantage; I like my education thank you very much and it serves me well as a housewife. Getting your MRS along with a BA doesn’t somehow render the BA a waste of time, something to be ashamed of because it cost money and time. It cost money and time because of its inherent worth, a worth that does not change just because it is not used to make the big bucks. It helps me to face challenges with a reasonable level of clear headedness. It allows me to expand the minds of my children. Perhaps most importantly, it allows me to keep a vibrant interior life amidst the daily toil. I have the tools to read thoughtfully, to think deeply, and as a result to fully realize my potential as a human being. Who can say that any one place and time, past present or future, was the best time to be a housewife? What is certain is that motherhood today cannot possibly look exactly like it did at any other point in history. Yes we should look to the past and take instruction and inspiration from it but let’s not get nostalgic. Those mothers lived in their time and in their class and in their own personal situations and we live in ours.
There are days when I feel like I can’t make a move without being caught by a sense that there is something else I ought to be doing. I live in the midst of a tangled and thorny bramble made up of all the conflicting ideas of womanhood I have amassed for myself over the years. If we find ourselves so ensnared it may be time for some vigorous pruning. Where can we cut back? Well for starters we could stop doing things just to keep up with Mrs. Jones. Too much of our worry arises less from the desire to please ourselves, our families or our God so much as the women in our play group. Why does the neighbour’s child eat his broccoli??? How come they just picked up their toys without fussing??? What will they think when they see my living room??? Many women feel that to have a good girlfriend and her kids over requires a thorough spring cleaning perhaps begun days in advance. Heaven forbid anyone knows how you actually keep your house. The visit should begin with the ritualistic greetings.
“Oh I’m so sorry for the mess.”
“What mess? You should see my house.”
Then when you do see my house we’ll swap sides and say the same things. None of us know what the norm should look like so we must carefully hide our own norm in case it falls short. It is time to declare disarmament and end the cycle of Mutually Assured Embarrassment. Let’s practice opening the door to a house with some toys on the floor and some dishes in the sink, swallowing our excuses and saying “make yourself comfortable” instead. Nota bene, if you are indeed the perfect keeper of an immaculate house, please avoid the false modesty that sends the rest of us into spirals of insecurity. A rule to follow: Apologize not for the speck on your carpet lest you make your sister feel guilty about the log on her own.
Once we’ve cut out the things we worried about simply for appearance’s sake we can focus on ridding ourselves of those which, while worthy, are simply impossible. I can scrub my kitchen until it shines, but nothing short of a serious injection of cash is going to turn faux wood laminate counters into glistening granite. Impossible. I may wish to eat all whole food, organic, fresh from the farmers market. If only the farmers would market around here. Impossible. Somehow I turned out happy, healthy and fit eating normal grocery store foods prepared in an ugly kitchen. Hopefully my kids can make it too. Other obstacles may be interior. I may wish to teach my son trigonometry. I may also wish trigonometry didn’t exist at all. That second is more likely to happen than that I will ever ever grasp it well enough to teach it. Whether a thing is economically, intellectually or just plain physically beyond our reach, no amount of hand wringing will bring it closer.
Unfortunately, the last step is a little more painful. Without the distraction of all those unattainable things, we’re left looking squarely in the face of the things we really should be able to do. I can keep my house tidy, the dishes clean and put away, the floors vacuumed and the laundry folded in the drawers. I have done it. Some days I don’t. Again and again I ask myself why this is so easy for everyone else? Ah but is it? Maybe I really have unconsciously bought into the idea that housework is for lazy, stupid, oppressed women. If they can do it, then surely it is easy. What evidence do we have that this was ever anything but hard? Housewives have always had a tough slog of it. Isn’t that why feminists were trying to liberate them? Chances are also good that women have always second guessed themselves and wished to do better. From the crack of dawn until well after dark there is work to be done. Some tasks are mindless but that doesn’t make them any easier to face every morning; and there are plenty of more artful tasks like cooking, entertaining, teaching, and caring for every need of our loved ones. Some tasks come naturally to one but challenge another. Some can be enjoyable while others are pure torture at times. This is hard work; but it is noble work. Not everyone can do what we do, and those who can may not always do so flawlessly or gracefully. The bad news is: nothing but dedication and perseverance is going to get me where I want to be as a wife, mother, and woman, and my work will never be done. I will always be trying to improve. But difficult as it may be, it is possible. After all, I’ve already got my degree in it.