97: Just Is a Four-Letter Word

97: Just Is a Four-Letter Word

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks to My Mom

Just Is a Four-Letter Word

The phrase “working mother” is redundant.

~Jane Sellman

I’m not sure when I first heard it, but now when someone says it, I cringe. Yes, I cringe, but then I quickly send up a prayer of thanks for what my stepmother told me years ago, as I approached my own season of motherhood.

I came of age during the late 1970s, a product and beneficiary of the women’s movement. College and career opportunities abounded and every time I turned on the television, I would see a sharply dressed woman telling me that I could bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let some mystery man forget that he was a man! When I turned on the radio, I would sing along with Helen Reddy, letting the world know that I was a woman, I let them hear me roar, and, look out people, because I was part of a large number of us that were, apparently, too big to ignore.

It was a powerful, wonderful time of change for women. It was a time of great expectations, because to whom much is given, much is expected. Women were given more opportunities than ever and I felt an unspoken expectation to do it all, to be that superwoman—to get a college degree, have a career, marry Mr. Right, have children, continue the career, be the president of the PTA, and still cook the bacon! I think it was during this time of change in our history that “just” became a four-letter word.

I would hear it come up in casual conversation and it always followed the well-meaning question, “So, what do you do?”

“Oh,” the woman would say, somewhat sheepishly. “I’m just a housewife.” Back in the day, we called stay-at-home moms “housewives.” There would usually be a special emphasis on the word “just” and the woman would often look down or away, as though she had somehow failed her gender, or at least Helen Reddy, by being a housewife.

I often wondered why would someone want to be just a housewife? Especially when there were so many opportunities, so much a woman could accomplish? When I graduated from high school, I had plans. I was going to get my college degree, have a career, and write stories on the side. Then I would marry Mr. Right and have a family. It was all planned out, and in that order—but life had other plans.

In my sophomore year of college, I met Mr. Right. We decided to get married during spring break. Not long after, I decided to reconsider my major and future career and started taking some classes at the local community college. And somewhere in the midst of that change, I got pregnant—without a college degree or career in place.

That wasn’t part of the plan, but I liked being pregnant and was excited about being a mom. Unfortunately, the timing of my pregnancy made it too difficult to finish that year in college, so I took a sabbatical. I can still remember the mixed emotions I saw on my father’s face when I told him the news—happy to be a grandfather, skeptical that I would ever finish my degree now that I was pregnant.

I, too, struggled with the decision to step off the ladder, as I watched others continue to climb up rungs far above me. But as the birth of our first child approached, I grew more and more excited about being a mother. My nesting instincts were high, my desire to make a loving and nurturing home paramount. I felt conflicted. If only I could get that woman out of my head who kept singing about bringing home bacon and frying it up in a pan!

One day I shared my inner conflict with my stepmother, who had become my surrogate mom after the death of my biological mother years earlier.

“Mom, what if I just want to be a housewife?”

I will never forget, and be forever thankful for, the words she said next.

“Lynne, if all you do with your life is to be a housewife and mother, you will have done a great thing. You will have done enough.” That was hard to believe at first. Wasn’t it wrong to stay home and spend time with my baby and focus my energy on making a nice home for my little family instead of going back to college and embarking on a career? Even if it was my heart’s desire, wasn’t it beneath me to just be a housewife?

But my stepmother’s words, spoken with such truth and certainty, stayed in my head. “If all you do with your life is to be a housewife and mother, you will have done enough.” Maybe she was right. And maybe Helen Reddy and the woman with the bacon were right, too. The problem wasn’t in whether I decided to put my energies into being a full-time homemaker or a part-time homemaker and full-time career woman or any combination of the two—the problem was with the word “just.” The word “just” devalued the decision to be a housewife, or stay-at-home mom, but my stepmother showed me there was value in being a homemaker and that gave me the emotional permission to make that choice.

During the years of being a wife and mother of two, I was a stay-at-home mom, a part-time career woman, a part-time college student (I did eventually get that college degree) and a full-time career woman. Over the years, I did a little of it all and I appreciate the blessing of having choices and being able to choose what was right for my family at any given time. Now my daughter, a wife and college graduate with a fulfilling career, sees a season of motherhood in front of her. She, too, will be faced with wonderful opportunities and choices about how to live her life as a mother—as well as pressure from others about what that should look like. I have tried hard to encourage her to make the choices that are right for her and her own family, and on many occasions, I have shared the loving words my stepmother shared with me, “Alicia, if all you do with your life is to be a housewife and mother, you will have done a great thing.” And there is no “just” in that.

~Lynne Leite

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