The Captivity of Motherhood

What has—and hasn’t—changed since The Atlantic published a 1961 essay on the plight of the housewife


“Wives are lonelier now than they have ever been,” Nora Johnson wrote more than half a century ago.

Those words became the first line of a searching and startling essay, a unique amalgam of first person narrative, popular ethnography, and call for social change entitled “The Captivity of Marriage.” It ran in The Atlantic in June 1961.

Fifty-four years later, I read Johnson’s sentence on my iPhone, in the midst of the blaring chaos that I have come to think of as the psychopathology of everyday working motherhood—one kid on his iPad, another rattling around the house, my mind working over dinner and a deadline, my husband in the house somewhere, all the other details.

An Atlantic editor had sent the essay along, and now I was tugged powerfully by the sentence to follow Johnson through the entire piece, rapt as she wove her observations—wry and insightful and, somehow, deeply hopeless— about the state of housewifery and mommy consciousness in Cheever times.

In writing a deceptively simple and straightforward article about her own life and the lives of other women, Johnson’s mission was profound. She was searching for a language for “the problem without a name,” two years before Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. She wanted to tell us something about the way some people live, people one didn’t normally think of as interesting or worthy of ink, and what it did to them. Her descriptions did something to me as I scrolled, word by word. I wept.

I hid my face as my younger son approached, needing something right that moment, in the impatient way of the youngest child. I anticipated his question: “Mommy, what’s wrong?”

“I read something sad,” I thought I’d say.

The next question was likely to be, “What was it about?” Then what?

“It’s a story about some other people.”

* * *

Things are undeniably different for women now than they were for Nora Johnson, the daughter of the producer Nunnally Johnson. The Pill was new when Johnson sat down to write her essay, and it had not yet revolutionized women’s ability to delay childbearing in order to pursue personal fulfillment and career success. And so only 38 percent of women worked outside the home, most of them in rigidly gender-scripted and relatively low-paying, low-status fields—nursing, teaching, secretarial work. Those who stayed home spent an average of 55 hours a week on domestic chores. Women’s ambitions and autonomy weren’t just undermined by their domestic duties, but institutionally and legislatively as well: With the exception of a right to “proper support,” wives had no legal claim to their husbands’ income or property, while in many states, husbands could control those of their wives through “head and master laws.” How easy could it be—on the days when the thoughts came at you, and the piles of laundry and the obligations like the PTA and your husband’s boss’s wife and the other items on Johnson’s unrancorous but unsparing list piled up—to feel good in your captivity?

Johnson was groping toward feminism’s second wave before it came to be, feeling for a toehold. She listed, in her catalogue not of grievances so much as unsentimental facts about the lives of herself and her conspecifics, the following: isolation, worries about illness and money, and sexual boredom. She referred to the whole schmear as “the housewife’s syndrome, the vicious circle, the feeling of emptiness in the gap between what she thought marriage was going to be like and what it really is like.”

She concluded flatly that the “college-educated mother with a medium amount of money is the one who reflects all the problems at once.” With a keen intellect, but no maid or nanny to whom she could delegate some of her tasks, she found herself marooned on an island of disappointment, ruminating, “This isn’t what I wanted. What did I want?”

You can feel the brutal bursting of a million girls’ dreams as Johnson notes simply, “Marriage, entered upon maturely, is the only life for most women. But it is a way of life, not a magic bag of goodies at the end of the road.”

The third person telling, the removed quality of her narration, her calm disengagement from her own propensity to strip all the window dressing away from the ideological frou-frou of marriage and motherhood is at once dignified, balanced, and riveting. Its dispassion is the very heartbeat of despair. A participant-observer in the bizarre social reality she describes, Johnson conveys without rancor the existentially isolated, restless feeling that my mother’s generation grappled with, and that Friedan wrote about when she quoted one of her subjects: “I’m a server of food and a putter-on of pants and a bed-maker, somebody who can be called on when you want something. But who am I?”

And Johnson might have added, “Why am I the only one?” Johnson starts off with the demographically inflected observation that women are cut off from their extended families and friends by the idealized nuclear family, with its ostensibly perfect evenings of popcorn and TV in PJs, but moves toward darker realities, including the impact of this existence on female consciousness.

Wives are lonelier than they have ever been.

* * *

We no longer call women who stay home with the kids “housewives”—unless we are seeking to at once put them down and sex them up, as with the Real Housewives of Virtually Everywhere franchise. Now they are “full-time mothers,” or “stay-at-home moms.” On internet chat boards like these women use the acronym SAHM. A recent uptick in their numbers, reported by Pew, had demographers intrigued and journalists scratching their heads and, quite often, missing the point.  A 2014 Economist article, “The Return of the Stay at Home Mother,” noted that the number of stay-at-home mothers ebbed from 49 percent in 1967 to 23 percent in 2000, but then began rising steadily again. Poor and immigrant mothers who cannot justify the cost of childcare for menial wages are one part of this trend. But a quarter of the mothers who stay at home have college degrees (and then some).

The shift in language—from housewife to SAHM—suggests that where running a household was once a vocation, now motherhood is. And while the latter may seem “more important”—children are the future of our country and our entire world, after all, whereas a house is just a house—the social status of the woman who doesn’t work, despite our noisy insistence that “motherhood is the toughest job” and so on, has arguably never been lower.

Sure, today’s college-educated women have a degree of autonomy and self-determination that Johnson and her peers only dreamed of, and that required an entire second wave of feminism to engineer, through consciousness raising, lawsuits, and legislation. Thanks to Title IX, they played sports that were off limits to a previous generation. Now, as middle- and upper-income women who stay home with kids they have recourse to no-fault divorce, laws protecting them from workplace discrimination, and access to birth control and abortion.

And yet.

The educated woman who stays home now may face a measure of not only the longing and lack of fulfillment that Johnson and Friedan articulated, but also the awkward silence and turning away at a cocktail party—the lack of interest when she says she is a stay-at-home mother. She is in for a heaping helping of something relatively new: widespread cultural contempt. The Economist piece exemplified this socially sanctioned scorn when it referred to some women who stay home as “highly educated bankers’ wives who choose not to work because they don’t need the money and would rather spend their time hot-housing their toddlers so that they may one day get into Harvard.” The dismissive, judgmental sentiment, if not the precise wording, is commonplace.

Today, some women are more subject to certain forms of misogyny than they have ever been. Because in the post-World War II period, as competent Rosie the Riveters were being shoehorned into suburban domesticity by the G.I. Bill and the ideology of the nuclear family über alles, they were at least told, in so many ways, that their work in the home was important. The flourishing of home-economics courses, with their whiff of pre-professionalization, suggested that being a homemaker was a practice and an identity that mattered, something to learn and to be, proudly. If you did it right, you could save the family unit money. You could contribute, without participating in the labor force for paid work, to the financial health and well being of your household. There was a certain respect for the housewife, even as the very moniker relegated her to a second-class sphere: Her husband couldn’t do it without her.

And not infrequently, this led to a version—albeit a compromised one, easily eroded by forces outside the home—of equality under one roof. As Marlo Thomas told me when I appeared on her AOL webcast Mondays With Marlo, “I knew men who just handed their whole paychecks over to their wives. Their husbands might earn the money, but their wives were in charge of it.” It was a partnership of sorts.

And now? As I prepared to write a book about privileged motherhood and childhood on the Upper East Side, I came to think of the women I’d spoken with and befriended and mothered alongside—the ones I’d had access to because they didn’t go to offices after school drop off—as Glam-SAHMs, for Glamorous Stay at Home Moms. Like their ’50s and early ’60s counterparts, they live in a culture with relentlessly high standards of female beauty, and tend to their bodies, faces, and overall appearances carefully, frequently with stunning results. This is made easier by the fact that, unlike Johnson’s peers, many have delegated much of the domestic work—household management, organizing, cleaning, and cooking—to hired help.

The one thing the privileged mommies I studied were not willing to delegate completely was childcare. Often cut off from extended families, most depend at least in part on nannies to help them with the heavy lifting of motherhood, the schlepping across town, the playdate scheduling and supervising, the nose-blowing and the puzzle playing. And yet they stay home.

“I was offered my dream job. It really was perfect,” said more than one mother, telling me about her decision to stay home with her children. “I asked if I could do it part time and the answer was no. I asked if I could do part of the hours from home and they said no. I asked about flex time—some weekend hours, something—and the answer was no. So I decided to stay home with the baby.”

These women described their shift to stay-at-home motherhood as a choice, but a choice implies options. Work flexible hours while your child is in the care of loving, trusted caretakers—ideally in onsite daycare—or stay home with your baby and don’t work. That is a choice. No, the women I wrote about had been given what was clearly a false choice, even though the culture at large and even the women themselves often insist on believing otherwise. What kind of choice is it when your career as an attorney or investment banker demands that you stay at the office 60 hours a week or opt out of the workforce altogether? When a husband’s significant income gives a woman the “luxury” to stay home with her children, she’ll often feel compelled to choose that option.

As when Johnson penned her essay, we are in an interlude where our lack of vocabulary confounds us. If the wealthiest Glam-SAHMs still haven’t freed themselves from the captivity Johnson described, what does that say about everybody else? Perhaps, that women are as deceived today as we have ever been.