The Captivity of Marriage - Page 2
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he third truth is that there are only twenty-four hours in a day. The pressure to join is apparently very heavy in the suburbs; in New York, and, I suppose, other large cities, one can do as one pleases. Joining things is one solution to the vaguely frustrated, my-mind-is-rotting feeling. As at college, it is often considered a virtue in itself for a group of women to get together and form a committee, to do something useful, to pursue culture or play bridge. If the activities get out of hand, they can run mother and father into ulcers. Besides, joining things contradicts the real need, which is to be alone and feel unique again, to be less urgent and more cerebral.
It is important to have a solid grasp of time. The makers of household appliances say that they have given the modern housewife great amounts of free time, such as her mother and grandmother never had. This, of course, is nonsense. The truth is that mama is freed from the hard work that used to be done by grandma's maid. The free time comes in dribs and drabs, fifteen minutes here, half an hour there. The bogey of the young mother is in believing that she is simply abounding in leisure and so she really ought to cram in a few more activities and be a better wife than ever.
The young mother also seems to feel that she ought to have a few more children. This is a fairly recent development and quite a change from our parents' generation, when married couples had one or two children at the most. Women who had more were deprecatingly referred to as brood mares. Now that women have stopped trying to prove how emancipated they are, some of them think that a lovely family of six is a step toward utopia. Other women, for some private neurotic reason, are only happy when pregnant or nursing a baby; the rest of the time they feel useless. And some women just stumble into pregnancy. Even in these advanced times, there are a great many women, B.A.'s included, who, though hardheaded enough about most things, occasionally forget the facts of life in the romance of the moment. (A small and admittedly inconclusive survey in my neighborhood revealed that half the children in the park were unplanned.) However, the explanation for large families apparently lies in some notion that the world is cold, lonely, and dangerous, and children will make it less so, or shield us from it. It is a strange notion for such a practical generation in a dangerous world; one would think it would be exactly the opposite.
Young wives, particularly those who feel that their minds are rotting and their backs are aching, should remind themselves that maturity is more than simply accepting one's present condition and somehow muddling through until things are better. The beginning of wisdom comes with looking at one's life from the viewpoint of eternity and realizing that the hard years are part and parcel of loving and having children, and that rather than just getting through them, the thing to do is appreciate them. The happiest women are the ones who can do that. No magic is going to happen when this child is out of diapers or that one in school. Things certainly get easier as children get older, but this does not solve the personal problem.
Young mothers need time more than anything else, time for whatever fancy suits them. Time to have lunch with a friend and talk over the problems of the world; time to see a play, browse in a library, or simply sit and stare out the window. A lot of women feel vaguely guilty about doing these things, as though one got points of virtue for simply staying around the house. But the restoring effect of simply going off by oneself is more important than they realize. It restores joy to our lives and reminds us that we are not only part of a family but part of a community or a city or a society. This wider view gives us a feeling of personal importance and causes us to greet our children with greater affection than usual when we come home, because we have been reminded that we are the ones who know the world and sort out its complexities for them, who clarify its diffusiveness for them, and who gradually lead them out into it.
Time is an expensive commodity, and it must be bought. This is perhaps the most forceful lesson of marriage, and the housewife constantly chooses between buying a little more time and resisting. Should she walk eight blocks to the A&P and carry home the groceries, or phone Gristede's? Should she send the shirts and sheets to the laundry, or do them herself? Should she buy a cake or bake one? There is, it seems, no such thing as a cheap timesaver. This somewhat dreary discovery is hard to take, as are a good many of the facts of life. Her choices depend upon her budget.
It is precisely at this point that the young wife must decide about her life and what she wants of it, whether a job or some more education or more social life or theaters or just the leisure to "loaf and invite the soul," as Whitman said. Now the expensively bought time must be absolutely free and clear, which means hiring someone to take care of the children rather than someone to clean the house. A cleaning woman saves work, but she does not magic away the children. A baby sitter does magic them away, so mother can clear out. This is the precious time, the time spent alone or away in the rest of the world. The money can be saved by being persistent about never phoning Gristede's, but taking the children to the A&P, by doing the laundry at home, by making the old coat do for another year.
Doing housework with children around can be exasperating if one is particular, but part of the plan for buying time is to be less particular about cleanliness and tidiness and to let the children help. At the age of two they become frighteningly helpful, but they should not be discouraged; one should just be tactful until they are about four, at which time they are capable of doing such things as making their beds, drying dishes, polishing their shoes, and more or less picking up their toys. They may not do these things very well, but if they learn early that such things are expected of them, life will be pleasanter for everybody.
Hiring a baby sitter may seem like an obvious suggestion, but a great many women resist it; they would rather buy another machine, or they are defeated by the misery of the children at the moment of departure. One must be strong-minded about this sort of thing. I recently heard of some people who gave up a ski weekend because at the moment they were walking out the door with their suitcases, the children broke into such heartrending sobs that the parents stayed home. They might have been surprised—and slightly hurt—to realize that, if they had gone, the crying would have stopped within ten minutes. I do not see that the present crop of children—one out of ten of whom is emotionally disturbed—is benefiting much by the constant harassment of their mothers, and when mother never gets out of the house, she is very likely to take it out on the children.
If a mother loves her children, she will not feel guilty about leaving them occasionally, and disciplining them, and generally keeping them under control. If the children are under control, then mother's life will be too; and there will be none of the frittering away of days when nothing gets done because mother cannot pull herself together to go out, to make the beds, to eat lunch, or to do anything, and the children are allowed to stay up until ten o'clock.
The point is that time, even if one has three preschool children, is infinitely more important than a spotless house or new clothes or a dishwasher. And even if the time is expensively bought, it must be freely used. As Sinclair Lewis said, the real truth of a human being isn't found in his feelings about God, or life, or love; it is found in the way he fills twenty-four hours a day. It is a rigorous test. It is a test that is taken alone, for there is no help anywhere in the planning of a day. And the only way to do it is to know how little time there is and how fast it goes, and how fast the mental muscle, the desire to learn or create, can weaken beyond the point of repair. If one has a skill or an interest of any kind, the time to use it and cultivate it is right now, not in the magic future.
It is asking a lot to expect women to push themselves in this way and to make the hard years, from one point of view, even harder. Of course, the women who find complete satisfaction in their families and who can use their creative instincts around the house are beyond this entire discussion. But for the great number who cannot, the rewards are only found, as always, in hard work. If the dearly bought time can be made to pay off in solid cash, so much the better. But even if it cannot, the mental muscle is being kept in use, the ties with the world are strengthened, and this means that the time spent with the house and family is more appreciated. If one has been generous to oneself, one can be twice as generous to one's family.
Copyright © 1961 by Nora Johnson. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1961; The Captivity of Marriage - 1961.06; Volume 207, No. 6; page 38-42.