Housewife Confidential

A tribute to the old-fashioned housewife, and to Erma Bombeck, her champion and guide

My mother's copy of The Settlement Cook Book (1948 edition) begins, as cookbooks used to, with instructions on the proper way to run a household. To air a room: "Lower the upper sash of one window and raise the lower sash of an opposite window." To remove a glue stain: "Apply vinegar with a cloth." There are sections on the feeding of infants and of invalids: "Use the daintiest dishes in the house. Place a clean napkin on the tray and, if possible, a fresh flower." My reaction to these household rules—and especially to the daily schedules for small children, which suggest thrilling mini-narratives of carefully lived days, of cooked cereal at seven o'clock and diluted orange juice at nine o'clock—is in the nature of avidity. The way a lonely man in a motel room pores over Playboy, I pore over descriptions of ironing and kitchen routines; I have never made a solution composed of one part bleach and nine parts warm water, but the idea of such a solution and its many practical uses—wiping down an emptied refrigerator once a month, sanitizing a kitchen sink—commands my riveted attention. The notion of a domestic life that purrs along, with routines and order and carefully delineated standards, is endlessly appealing to me. It is also quite foreign, because I am not a housewife. I am an "at-home mother," and the difference between the two is vast.

Consider the etymology. When a woman described herself as a "housewife," she was defining herself primarily through her relationship to her house and her husband. That children came along with the deal was simply assumed, the way that airing rooms and occasionally cooking for invalids came along with the deal. When a housewife subjected herself and her work to a bit of brutally honest examination, she may have begun by assessing how well she was doing with the children, but she may just as well have begun by contemplating the nature and quality of her housework. If it had been suggested to her that she spend the long, delicate hours between three and six o'clock squiring her children to the array of enhancing activities pursued by the modern child, she would have laughed. Who would stay home to get dinner on? More to the point, why had she chosen a house so close to a playground if the children weren't going to get out of her hair and play in it? The kind of childhood that many of us remember so fondly—with hours of free time, and gangs of neighborhood kids meeting up after school—was possible partly because each block contained houses in which women were busy but close by, all too willing to push open a window and yell at the neighbor boy to get his fool bike out of the street.

But an at-home mother feels little obligation to the house itself; in fact, she is keenly aware that the house can be a vehicle of oppression. She is "at home" only because that is where her children happen to be. She does not define herself through her housekeeping; if she is in any way solvent (and many at-home mothers are), she has, at the very least, a once-a-month cleaning woman to do the most onerous tasks. (That some of the most significant achievements of the women's movement—specifically liberation from housework and child care—have been bought at the expense of poor women, often of poor brown-skinned women, is a bitter irony that very few feminists will discuss directly, other than to murmur something vague about "universal day care" and then, on reflex, blame the Republicans.) The at-home mother defines herself by her relationship to her children. She is making sacrifices on their behalf, giving up a career to give them something only she can. Her No. 1 complaint concerns the issue of respect: She demands it! Can't get enough of it! She isn't like a fifties housewife: ironing curtains, shampooing the carpets, stuck. She knows all about those women. She has seen Pleasantville and watched Leave It to Beaver; she's made more June Cleaver jokes than she can count. (In fact, June Cleaver—a character on a television show that went off the air in 1963—looms over her to a surprising extent, a sickening, terrifying specter: Is that how people think I spend my time?) If she has seen Todd Haynes's sumptuously beautiful recent movie, Far From Heaven, she understands and agrees wholeheartedly with the film's implication: that being a moneyed white housewife—with full-time help—in pre-Betty Friedan Hartford, Connecticut, was just as oppressive and soul-withering as being a black man in pre-civil rights Hartford. The at-home mother's attitude toward housewives of the fifties and sixties is a mixture of pity, outrage on their behalf, and gently mocking humor. (I recently received a birthday card that featured a perfectly coiffed fifties housewife standing in a gleaming kitchen. "The smart woman knows her way around the kitchen," the front of the card said. Inside: "Around the kitchen, out the back door, and to a decent restaurant.")

The at-home mother has a lot on her mind; to a significant extent she has herself on her mind. She must not allow herself to shrivel up with boredom. She must do things for herself. She must get to the gym, the spa, the yoga studio. To the book group. (She wouldn't be caught dead setting up tables and filling nut cups for a bridge party—June Cleaver! June Cleaver!—but a book group, which blends an agreeable seriousness of purpose with the kind of busy chitchat that women the world over adore, is irresistible.) She must go to lunch with like-minded friends, and to the movies. She needs to feed herself intellectually and emotionally; she needs to be on guard against exhaustion. She must find a way to combine the traditional women's work of childrearing with the kind of shared housework arrangements and domestic liberation that working mothers enjoy. Most important, she must somehow draw a line in the sand between the valuable, important work she is doing and the pathetic imprisonment, the Doll's House existence, of the housewife of old. It's a tall order.

From the archives:

"The Mystique of Betty Friedan" (September 1999)
She helped to change not only the thinking but the lives of many American women, but recent books throw into question the intellectual and personal sources of her work. By Alan Wolfe

In a recent Los Angeles Times article the Hollywood producer Lynda Obst decries the tendency of upper-level female studio executives to quit their jobs once they become mothers; she implores, "Doesn't anyone remember how painfully poignant it was to grow up with a brilliant mother stuck in the suburbs with nothing to do?" This, of course, is the politically correct attitude about such women. The general idea, implied in countless nitwit books and articles and in a variety of popular movies, is that shortly after President Truman dropped the big one on Nagasaki, an entire generation of brave, brilliant women—many of them enjoying the deep satisfaction of doing shift work in munitions factories (the extent to which the riveters' lot is glorified by professional-class feminists who never set foot on a factory floor is shameful)—was kidnapped by a bunch of rat-bastard men, deposited in Levittown, and told to mop. That women in large numbers were eagerly, joyfully complicit in this life plan, that women helped to create the plan, is rarely considered. To be a young woman during the war years was to know that many of the boys from your high school class were overseas and, perhaps, that several of them had died there. It was to have a steady, often unspoken fear that a future including children and a husband and a household—women used to be unconflicted and unashamed about wanting these things—might not be in the cards. For it all to change on a dime—for the men to come home in vast, apparently unscathed numbers, and for there to be the GI Bill and GI mortgages and plenty of good jobs for returning servicemen (remember, these were women who had experienced childhoods in which there were not enough jobs, in which it was highly possible for a family to be ruined)—must have been a relief beyond measure. That women, en masse, reconsidered their plan in fairly short order—The Feminine Mystique was published within twenty years of VJ Day—also gets scant mention. The postwar housewife era, whether one views it with horror or nostalgia, was short-lived.

Hollywood has a curious double obsession these days: lionizing the World War II serviceman and demonizing the fifties husband; what the brain trust fails to grasp is that he is the same man. The central heartbreaker of Saving Private Ryan is that Tom Hanks never makes it home to his adored wife; but if he'd gotten back to Pennsylvania in one piece, he would have been just another pot-roast-demanding, afternoon-newspaper-reading monster like Ward Cleaver (who was an engineer with the Seabees before dragging poor June off to his lair). Husbands lurk menacingly in the backgrounds of so many contemporary works set during the housewife period, emanating a threatening maleness (just the ticket at Normandy, but oh well), tramping their dirty feet across freshly scrubbed linoleum, demanding sex and clean laundry and subservience. In Michael Cunningham's spare and excellent novel The Hours, Laura Brown, a postwar California housewife so stultified by her lot that she ends up going cuckoo, kissing a neighbor lady, and eventually abandoning her children, must endure a day in which the responsibilities to her war-hero husband include not only the hellish complexity of baking a cake from scratch but also marital relations, an activity that forces her to make the ultimate sacrifice: putting a bookmark in Mrs. Dalloway. "There will be no reading tonight," the narrator informs us ominously. (Was Laura too oppressed to switch on the bedside lamp after the brute had been satisfied? Apparently so.)

Most curious about all of these representations is that they run so completely counter to my experience of housewives. I was raised by a housewife; my friends' mothers were housewives. Many of them, in retrospect, seemed mildly depressed; perhaps fulltime employment would have alleviated that depression quickly and completely (although the number of working mothers I know who are at sheer wits' end makes me question that central assumption of the women's movement). But what I remember most clearly about those housewives is not their ennui but, rather, their competence. They never served takeout for dinner; they cooked dinner—a protein, a starch, two vegetables, and dessert. They knew how to iron and mend and how to cope with the endless series of domestic crises that unseat me on a daily basis: the unraveled sweater sleeve, the chocolate stain on the tiny button-down shirt, the expensive set of sheets with the torn hem, the child who turns up with a raging fever two minutes before the Christmas pageant, the husband who announces that he'd like to invite someone from work to dinner that night. I would like to be the kind of woman who can cope—easily, effortlessly, while gabbing away about something else altogether—with all those things; I'm not. I'm an at-home mother, far too educated and uppity to have knuckled down and learned anything about stain removal or knitting or stretching recipes. My mother tried to teach me, and God knows I was a rapt student (like most adult obsessions, mine has its roots in childhood experience), but my attention kept attaching itself to the least important part of the lesson. "Now I'm ironing the placket," she would say, and I would stand beside her, thinking, "Placket." Good word. Perhaps I didn't have a great enough sense of urgency. I knew there were college and perhaps graduate school to contend with before I'd need to know how to line a baking sheet with rice paper. And as it turned out, by the time I had a household of my own, the world had changed. I have been married a total of fourteen years to a total of two men, and never once have I been asked to iron a single item of either man's clothing or to replace even one popped button, for which I suppose I have the women's movement to thank. But I realize now, late in the game, that we'd be much better off if I had a few of those skills.

Housewives, however, were not concerned solely with housework. Once I asked my mother why she didn't go to PTA meetings; she said, "That's for women who don't have anything better to do with their time." She was a housewife through and through, yet she had a sense of herself—highly accurate—as a purposefully busy woman. One reason that the women's movement took off in this country the way it did was that its organizers eventually realized that housewives were capable not only of weeping into their teacups and trying to name their unnameable problem but also of political action. In fact, they had a long history of political action. Consider the League of Women Voters, which during the period in question was mostly made up of non-employed, college-educated mothers married to professional men. These were women who cooked the family breakfast and sent the children off to school with packed lunch boxes, and then vacuumed their lovely living rooms and used them to host not book groups but, rather, meetings on civil-rights initiatives and opposition to the Vietnam War. These meetings tended to be somewhat proper and highly ladylike. They were run by women who had learned the finer points of parliamentary procedure in their college sororities; they were attended by women who had a firm belief in the civilizing power of combed hair and fresh lipstick and not talking out of turn. These were women, one might argue, badly in need of a consciousness-raising session. But if a truly raised consciousness includes an awareness of the injustice done to others and a willingness to try to stop it, then these women were at least halfway there.

Housewives were the people who put Trick or Treat for UNICEF boxes in millions of small hands. They were, of course, thrifty (thrift is the signal virtue of the housewife), but many of them were also high-minded, convinced that people ought to help one another out. George Harrison may have held a Concert for Bangladesh, but it was the mothers on my block who sat down and wrote little checks—ten dollars, fifteen dollars—to CARE. Many housewives shared a belief in the power of boycotts, which could so easily be conducted while grocery shopping. I remember hearing my mother's half of a long, complicated telephone discussion about whether it would or would not undermine the housewives' beef strike of 1973 if the caller defrosted and cooked meat bought prior to the strike. Tucked into the aforementioned copy of The Settlement Cook Book, along with handwritten recipes for Chocolate Diamonds and Oma's German Cheesecake, is a small card that reads FREEDOM AND JUSTICE FOR J.P. STEVENS WORKERS. The organizers of that long-ago boycott understood two things: first, that if you were going to cripple a supplier of household goods (J.P. Stevens manufactured table linens and hosiery and blankets), you had to enlist housewives; and second, that you stood a better chance of catching their attention if you printed your slogan on the reverse of a card that contained a table of common metric equivalents, a handy, useful reminder that 1 liter = 1 quart and also that the makers of Finesse hosiery exploited their workers.

The success of the women's movement depended on imposing a certain narrative—of boredom, of oppression, of despairing uselessness—on an entire generation of women, a narrative that has only gained strength as the years have passed, leaving people with a skewed and rather offensive view of those women. Consider the case of the most famous housewife of the era: Erma Bombeck. To think about her life in any depth is to realize that even the most "typical" housewife of them all—Erma Bombeck—led a life of infinitely greater complexity, worth, and dignity than any of the modern mythologizers, with their subdued and shrinking heroines, could imagine.

Like many housewives of her day, Bombeck had a rough Depression childhood, in Dayton, Ohio. Her father was a crane operator who died suddenly when she was nine; her mother—who had left school after sixth grade, married at fourteen, and given birth to her only child at sixteen—lost their house and their furniture. Together they moved into a front bedroom in her grandparents' house, and Erma Senior got a factory job. "One day you were a family," Bombeck recalled, "living in a little house at the bottom of a hill. The next day it was all gone." Erma Senior, a frustrated stage mother, sent her daughter to tap-dancing lessons, and pushed her into contests and radio appearances (the tap-dancing craze of the thirties was so powerful that a few minutes of frantic dancing by a girl Shirley Temple's age was the stuff even of a successful radio spot). But young Erma's inclinations ran in a different direction. She was clever and bookish; she loved James Thurber and Robert Benchley and H. Allen Smith. When Erma was fourteen, the famous newspaper correspondent Dorothy Thompson came to Dayton, and Erma—even though she was coming down with measles—persuaded her mother to let her attend Thompson's lecture ("I infected the entire hall that night," she remembered). For Christmas she asked for and received an expensive book by Thompson. Not surprisingly, given the times and her station in life, she attended a vocational high school, which required students to spend two weeks a month pursuing a "commercial alternate." She must not have been particularly interested in the kind of department-store and telephone-company jobs usually recommended for girls, because in a burst of chutzpah and innocence she wangled an interview with the managing editor of the Dayton Journal-Herald. She impressed him (one doesn't like to trade in clichés, but it's impossible to imagine the scene without the word "spunk" coming into play), but he said he had only one job opening, and it was a full-time position. On the spot she talked him into hiring a friend for the other two weeks a month, and so—at age fifteen, and with the title "copy girl" (hardly sexist, considering its opposite)—she began her newspaper career.

Let us pause for a moment to consider how the story already diverges from the standard cant. Apparently it was possible, long before Rosie tied on her kerchief and flexed her fetching bicep, for a woman to get factory work when she needed to support her family. It was also possible for a young girl to nurture dreams of a professional career, and for her to find—decades before Take Our Daughters to Work Day—a female role model already pursuing that work. It was possible for a bright, quick-thinking girl to storm as emphatically male an environment as a city newspaper and to create the exact kind of job-sharing arrangement that contemporary working mothers think they invented. Most important, it was possible in those days for a girl to overcome a considerable amount of adversity—poverty, and the early loss of a father, and a tight net of employment law clearly intended to favor men—to make something of herself.

It was also possible to do all these things and still dream of children and of staying home to raise them. Erma had met a young reporter, Bill Bombeck, and after he returned from the service, in 1948, they married. Erma by then had a college degree and had been promoted at the Journal-Herald, from part-time to full-time copy girl and then to full-fledged newspaperwoman. She became friends with the reporter Phyllis Battelle, who remembered "a bouncy kid in bobbysocks, knife-pleated skirts and baggy sweaters." But what Erma really wanted was children: "Putting on panty hose every morning is just not whoopee time. My dream was to putter around the house, learn how to snap beans, put up curtains and bake bread." Finally—through the adoption of the Bombecks' first child, their purchase of a house in a subdivision outside Dayton, and Erma's resignation from the newspaper—those dreams came true. And she began to go absolutely bonkers.

In her best book, the memoir A Marriage Made in Heaven ... Or Too Tired for an Affair (1993), she reports that the women of the suburbs were all "bored out of their skulls." In driveways and supermarket parking lots they "commiserated among ourselves as to what we had gotten ourselves into." What she needed, she soon realized—without benefit of Working Mother magazine or even a single book about achieving "work/life balance"—was a job. And with no fuss or fanfare (much the way my own mother did, when she realized she couldn't spend another afternoon washing the kitchen walls and climbed off the stepladder to take a curious look at the Help Wanted: Female section of the San Francisco Chronicle) she got one: editing the local shopping circular. In 1964, not long after her youngest child boarded the school bus bound for kindergarten, she combed her hair, braced herself, and asked the editor of her community's weekly newspaper for a job as a housewife columnist. Success came quickly, and it never left. She was soon back at the Journal-Herald, where, within three weeks of her return, her columns were syndicated nationally. A sensation.

The idea of a housewife confessional was not new. Jean Kerr had achieved extraordinary success with Please Don't Eat the Daisies (1957) almost a decade before Bombeck began writing her columns. Shirley Jackson trod similar ground in Raising Demons (1957), a book whose jacket cover—happy children surrounding a pull-toy ducky—is as far from the spirit of "The Lottery" as it is possible to get. Jackson was also the author of Special Delivery (1960), the title page of which describes it as "A useful book for brand-new mothers in which Shirley Jackson as chief resident provides a sane and sage approach to the hilarious and homey situations which accompany the advent of motherhood." And any serious study of housewife writers must include Peg Bracken, who wrote her best-known books during the early sixties, when the women's movement was still a sleeping giantess; her attitude toward the housewife's lot, however, is not unconflicted: the titles of her two most famous books are The I Hate to Cook Book (1960) and The I Hate to Housekeep Book (1962). Her writing reveals her to be a cheerful sort, possessed of a winsome prose style; she is, she confesses, "but destiny's plaything," and her approach to housewifery combines whimsy and practicality (the accompanying Hilary Knight illustrations capture the spirit of the text with a precision not seen since the great days of the nineteenth-century illustrated novel). Her jolliness may well have had something to do with the fact that she clearly liked her hooch: The I Hate to Cook Book was written, she tells us, "for those of us who want to fold our big dishwater hands around a dry Martini instead of a wet flounder, come the end of a long day"; powdered milk, she once observed, is preferable to the real McCoy not only because it is cheaper but also because it can be a component of "a good frothy punch," one consisting of "milk, egg, sugar, whisky, beaten with an electric mixer." Bracken's feelings about her domestic work take the form of good-hearted acquiescence, although some of her books' most offhand humor reveals the edge of genuine despair: the recipe for Skid Row Stroganoff includes the instruction "Add the flour, salt, paprika, and mushrooms, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink." (One hesitates to wander into the minefield of literary biography, but I find it impossible to read The I Hate to Cook Book without dwelling on the fact that while Bracken was writing it her husband told her it was the stupidest idea for a book he'd ever heard of; they divorced four years later.) Although her collected works are slightly less explicitly political than those of Beatrix Potter, anyone taking the historical long view can easily discover within them the seeds of the revolution that would soon be upon this country. How else to account for the fact that a book on housekeeping contains a chapter on coping with depression? "Every girl owes it to herself to hang onto her mind as long as she can," we learn in that chapter, which is called "How to Be Happy When You're Miserable." "If the fulfillment of your own purposes seems to be flickering," she writes, one ought to remember that many high achievers—Daumier, say, or Ogilby, who translated Homer and Virgil—got a late start. Women frustrated by the demands of motherhood ought to remember that "there is world enough and time," a bit of counsel as useful to the full-time mothers of today as to those of forty years ago. In fact, I found several bits of sound advice in The I Hate to Housekeep Book, among them "Each time you give the house a good going-over, start with a different room" and "Act immediately on whatever housewifely impulses come your way" (and, if I might add my own two cents on matters domestic: if you substitute the word "sexual" for the word "housewifely," you also end up with the best approach to conjugal relations I have hit upon thus far).

What is refreshing about the housewife writers is their candor about the tedium of raising children; although the at-home mother must think of the work as exalted (otherwise why isn't she back at the law firm, bringing home the big bucks?), housewives were willing to admit that the enterprise was often an emotional bust. And no one was more willing than Erma Bombeck, who—to be at once current and crass—"branded" the form. Why she was the one to have such out-of-the-park success with the subject has less to do with her prose than with the sheer force of her personality, her eye for the precise and homey detail, and her matchless way with a gag. I had expected to reread her work with a gentle, reminiscing smile, and was amazed by how often I found myself laughing. I do not want, however, to misrepresent her writing; she was, to a certain extent, a hack. How could she not have been? To write that frequently (she had written well in excess of 4,000 columns when she died, in 1996), on such tight deadlines and with such a tightly circumscribed length, is almost by definition to rely on formulas, to repeat oneself, to tread a few good one-liners almost to death. Even a true-blue fan will be shocked by Bombeck's almost shameless willingness to trot out the same jokes and observations over and over again. Certainly, her work achieved maximal effect in its original context: meted out regularly but sparingly, in 700-word doses on the women's page—snappy, chin-up reminders that everyone hates doing the laundry, and that even the most adored children can run you ragged with frustration and boredom. In those days no matter where you lived or what your local newspaper was, the women's page was firmly in the hands of a group of stalwart midwesterners. I grew up in Berkeley, where the front page often informed me of unsettling events close to home, of riots on Telegraph Avenue and of the Black Panthers (Huey Newton was once an honored guest speaker at a public school I attended) and, later, the Symbionese Liberation Army. But the back of the newspaper—a respite—gave me Erma and also the Iowans Abby and Ann, and the Minnesotan Charles Schulz. (Bil Keane, the creator of Family Circus, was from the East, but he and Erma became neighbors and great pals.) They all seemed connected to the fabric of an America that I didn't live in but believed in passionately, a place in which "student unrest" was rarely mentioned, in which the central elements of the national consciousness weren't up for complete reassessment and rejection, in which most of life's difficulties could be handled with a combination of good humor and endurance, and in which graver matters were quickly dispatched by scheduling an appointment with one's "pastor or clergyman."

Read collectively, Bombeck's pieces offer a startlingly precise chronicle of her time. Anyone in search of a good topic for a women's-studies dissertation would do well to take a look at Bombeck's columns; it would be difficult to find a more comprehensive overview of the way middle-class women lived their lives—and of the way their lives changed—during the 1970s and 1980s. "Lady, you are the problem," a member of the women's liberation movement once wrote her. In fact she was not. She was a talented woman who had once dreamed of working for The New York Times and who ended up as one of the best-known figures in American journalism; she was a woman who combined work and motherhood as gracefully as it is possible to do, who championed working and at-home mothers with equal ardor, who campaigned tirelessly for the Equal Rights Amendment (her close friend Liz Carpenter, a press secretary for Lady Bird Johnson, recalls that the two were "the Thelma and Louise of the ERA").

There is no one my mother would less want to be compared to than Erma Bombeck, whose work—as far as I know—she never read. My mother was an accomplished hostess, a flirt, a reader. Her sensibilities were in no way midwestern. Yet in the two years since her death I have rarely remembered her more vividly—or missed her more keenly—than when I read all that Bombeck a few months back. In part this has to do with the simple household economies of the time, which I had forgotten about but of which Bombeck was a faithful recorder. To read Bombeck is to find a constantly updated economic index of her day: the problem with a bathtub faucet left on the "shower" position is that it ruins an eight-dollar hairdo; the problem with a bored child's deciding to put lime wedges in glasses of soda pop is that limes cost $1.49 a pound. I don't think I ever spent a day with my mother—even late in her life, when her fortunes had improved considerably—when she didn't mention the price of something. Like Bombeck, like a lot of housewives of her generation, she grew up poor in a hard time, which she never discussed but never forgot. Like Bombeck, she kept the household accounts, and she was careful about them. I grew up in the most solidly middle-class academic family you can imagine, but every couple of months my mother would borrow a bottle-capping contraption so that she could put up her own root beer—made from Hires elixir, absolutely delicious, and roundly complimented by my father for its pennies-a-glass economy. As for me, child of my time, I could not tell you the price of a single item in my refrigerator; all I know—from long, unpleasant precedent—is that much of it is going bad and headed for the trash can.

But what reminds me most of my mother is harder to pinpoint. It has to do with the way both women dealt with motherhood, which is for me an exquisitely overwrought enterprise, full of guilt-wracked, sleepless nights and over-worried-about children and the never-ending sense that I'm doing too little or too much or the wrong thing, or missing the crucial moments, or somehow warping these perfect creatures that my body—that witless dud—had sense enough to knit together but my heart and mind can't seem to figure out how to raise with my mother's unworried ease. Housewives didn't trot after their children the way I trot after mine—Junior All-Stars! Karate! Art for Tots! Their children trotted after them. I whiled a childhood away leaning on the counters of dry cleaners and shoe repairmen, and I was happy to do it. I liked being with my mother. To me, she never seemed diminished or unimportant because of those endless domestic errands; on the contrary, the work she did was wholly connected to the life we were living. The notes my father took on the flyleaf of Howards End apparently got translated into words spoken in a lecture hall I could hardly imagine; but the steak my mother spent five minutes choosing showed up on my plate that night.

If you asked any of the mothers in my set how motherhood has changed us, we would tell you—in one way or another—that it has introduced into our lives an almost unbearably powerful form of love and also a ceaseless, grinding anxiety, one that often propels us to absurd activities. (I know a working mother who FedExed breast milk home from a business trip; I recently hosted a birthday party for thirty-two children because I couldn't arrive at any sensible way to compose a guest list.) For many of us this transformation has included a helpless sense of repeated failures, both large and small. For the women of an earlier generation, however, motherhood brought a clear and compelling awareness of human vulnerability, and a sense of having somehow been charged with the care of others. I can remember my mother faithfully cutting the wrappers off cans of dog food because if she sent in enough of them, the manufacturer would make a contribution to Guide Dogs for the Blind; I myself have compassion fatigue, and have limited my "charitable giving" to a certain few circumscribed causes. At the back of Erma Bombeck's last book, published after her death from complications following a kidney transplant, is an organ-donor card that the reader can fill out, along with information on the Erma Bombeck Organ Donor Awareness Project. I keep meaning to fill that card out; my mother would have done it in an instant, without thinking twice about it. But I've been busy—I'm a busy woman; my children are two-sport athletes at age five—and I haven't gotten around to it yet.