IN APRIL 1900, she was born – Elizabeth Francis Flynn. And in April 1980, she was honored. It was a celebration of life – 80 years of it, and a hope for many more. It was a party for Elizabeth Flynn Hogan, mother of four, grandmother of 30 and great-grandmother of seven. Champagne flowed, and cousins, aunts, uncles and grandchildren mingled and reminisced about family picnics and Christmases, about times well spent and of times to come.
After dinner, the whole family sat in the packed banquet room, waiting for Elizabeth’s toastmaster son-in-law to speak. He stood, and we all quieted. He raised his wine glass and toasted my grandmother, Elizabeth. He noted her strawberry-blonde beauty and then he thanked her – for all of us- for her love. Then he raised his glass even higher and asked us all to join him in a toast to the “true 20th-century fox.”
How accurate he was – in our eyes. To us – her children and grandchildren – she has represented family life. When she raised her four daughters, she provided a home for them – a place where they felt comfortable and secure. She was their source of comfort and security. She taught them how to walk, how to talk, how to read, how to tie their shoes. She bandaged their bruises, quieted their restless nights and hugged away their tears. She cooked for them, cleaned for them and kept them warm. But she didn’t stop there. She taught them to sew and to use the right fork at dinner. She was there when they were taller than their dates to the freshman dance and when they didn’t make the lead in the school play. And she was there when they met their husbands and kissed their childhoods goodbye. When they were grown, her values and her morals were ingrained in them. And those values trickled down to the next generation.
But the 20th century isn’t over yet.
My mother, one of her four daughters, is the same type of mother. Since 1953, she has devoted her time, her energy and her love to raising five children. But while society is praising my grandmother for being such a wonderful mother – such a 20th-century fox – it is telling my mother that she is a bit of a social zilch, a backward, unliberated woman. It seems that there’s a double standard: Those women who devoted their lives to motherhood 40 or 50 years ago represent “the good ole days” when life was simple, but those who tried to do the same thing during the Sixties and Seventies were “unfulfilled.”
Who will be the 21st-century fox, the model of super womanhood, the representative of feminity? No doubt she will change faces again and again through the course of the century, but I wonder if her image will ever be that of an individual proficient in the fine art of mothering or if that will be considered a freak quality – or not a quality at all.
As a woman facing the prospect of motherhood, I can’t divorce myself from my background. When I think of the time and the careful hours my mother spent with me, my brothers and sisters, it’s hard to imagine life any other way. It hurts me to see her being put down – directly by her career-oriented friends and indirectly by the media – but after watching her with my family, I can see that it doesn’t hurt her. She can smile knowingly.
I DON’T KNOW exactly how or when women at home became lower-class citizens. Maybe it began when the word “housewife” was coined. I was a child of the game-show era, when people thought of a woman at home as a dingbat who dubbed herself “just a housewife” and whose biggest thrill was grabbing a treasured spot on Let’s Make a Deal, guessing what was behind Door Number One and crossing her fingers in anticipation of a shiny new washer and dryer. Television commercials are the worst – flashing images of simpletons dressed in gingham and sneakers, singing the praises of spotless floors and frost-free refrigerators. The image they paint is ridiculous.
It’s not real – at least not to me. It takes more than bonbons and baby aspirin to be a good mother at home. It takes a woman with self-motivation, intelligence and a definite desire to be the one significant being in her children’s lives. My parents’ values are simple, but as my mother says, they can’t be taught per se. That’s why she’s never bought the “quality vs. quantity” theory of mothering: “Okay, kids, I’m home from work; let’s have some quality time together.” That always seemed unrealistic to me. Aren’t toddlers their crankiest at 5 p.m.? And how can women have the energy to be so responsive to their children’s needs after eight hours of other work?
I suppose it all depends on the values a mother wants to pass on to her children and the values she feels comfortable letting someone else pass on. One of my mother’s favorite sayings is “Live, love, laugh and be happy.” In a simple form, these are the values she has taught us – carefully, around the clock, for 29 years. And counting.
My mother values life – every form and every phase. As a result, I don’t think she could choose what parts of our lives were more important than others. She couldn’t find a time when she was able to turn our care over to someone else, no matter how qualified that person was. To some people, this inability to forfeit the rights of motherhood may seem unhealthy and damaging to a woman’s self-image. But down to bare bones, what is the reward of any job? Producing something. Who is to say that producing five individuals is such a terrible track record?
While we were growing up, an outsider might never have guessed that my mother didn’t have a job outside the home. Someone with “all that time” should have a spotless house, he would muse. But what about that time? She was with us. Period. That was her job. I’m sure it took practice, but she didn’t stick to a schedule – she didn’t make many deadlines for herself; time took on a whole new meaning when she became a mother. If one of us was sick, she often spent several hours straight with that sick child on her shoulder. It wasn’t necessary but, oh, did it feel good.
As a result of her nonconformity to schedules, she has become a very calming force. I recently spent a day with her – her ability to stroll, not run, was therapeutic.
Mother, O Mother, come shake out your cloth.
Empty the dustpan, poison the moth. Hang out the washing, make up the bed. Sew on a button, butter the bread. Where is the mother whose house is so shocking?
She’s up in the nursery blissfully rocking.
Oh, I’ve grown as shiftless as Little Boy Blue,
Lullabye, Rockabye, Lullabye Loo.
Dishes are waiting and bills are past due, Lullabye, Rockabye, Lullabye Loo.
The shopping’s not done and there’s nothing for stew,
And out in the yard there’s a hullabaloo, But I’m playing Kanga and this is my Roo,
Lullabye, Rockabye, Lullabye Loo.
Cleaning and scrubbing can wait till tomorrow
For children grow up, we’ve learned to our sorrow.
So quiet down cobwebs,
Dust go to sleep.
I’m rocking my baby, and babies don’t keep.
IT WAS MY first day of school. I was dressed in my plaid shift and patent-leather Mary Janes. Immunization card in one hand, my mother’s hand in the other, I walked through the doors of the school. And I froze. Within seconds, I did an about-face and was tugging my mom out the door. I started to cry. She gently guided me back into the room, where 30 new faces gazed at me. Several other children were crying, too. She dropped my hand and 1 grabbed her skirt. When the class finally started, Mom pulled one of the little chairs into the hall and sat down. “I’ll be right here,” she said. “You go inside.” I did, and I calmed down. Every few minutes during that first part of my first day of school, I glanced over my shoulder to see my mother sitting in a kindergarten-sized chair in the hall. After awhile, I turned around and saw her stand up. She waved at me and mouthed an “I’ll be back.” By that time, I knew she would.
Someone once said that there are only two things a mother can give her children: roots and wings. There is a time for both.
Right behind the value of life is the value of love. We gave my mom a hard time over this one – “If you love me, why won’t you let me do what I want?” But love didn’t always come in the form of cheers and strokes; it often took the form of discipline. Looking back, it must have been tough for her; how easy it would have been to let someone else do the hard part. There were few absolute rules in our house. There were no magic words. I remember the frustration I felt when, after being sent to my room for committing some wrongdoing, I appeared at the top of the stairs and apologized. “Sorry isn’t a magic word,” she said. “Go back to your room and think about what you did.” She was sometimes considered one of a few “mean” mothers in the neighborhood. She certainly wasn’t a pushover. It took each of us a long time to correlate her discipline with love. Until we did, she had to live with being the heavy.
Love also came in the form of honest emotions. We learned from example that in every relationship there are disagreements. Whether the subject was politics or gas bills, my parents didn’t hide their disagreements. We also learned from example that we often lose things we love. There was a period while I was in grade school when several of my relatives died. After my uncle died, 1 closed myself in my room. Mom came to me and explained that the whole family was feeling the same pain and urged me to mourn with the rest of them. We lose and we gain.
And often, we laughed. To my mother, laughter is an essential part of living and loving. Laughter is humbling; it makes people take themselves and their problems less seriously. Some people have beautiful smiles; my mother has a beautiful laugh. She seldom chuckles, and she rarely just smiles, but often she throws her head back and really laughs. She admits that she flops now and then. Last year, while she was at a party, she noticed that she was wearing one brown shoe and one blue shoe. But she didn’t slink to the door and leave – she laughed! And she helps others laugh. Once, while in high school, I had to stand on a cafeteria table and teach a dance routine to a group of classmates in preparation for the school musical. In the middle of the routine, I took one step too many and wound up in a heap on the floor. When I got home from school, I told Mom. “Are you all right?” she asked. “Yeah,” I replied, a little dejected. Then she laughed. I did, too.
The night before my brother’s first speech-class presentation, he stayed up past midnight preparing visual aids and practicing his speech over and over in front of the mirror. Walking to class the next morning, he dropped his posters in a huge puddle. When he came home, she asked how the speech went. He simply held up the charts – the colors running in every direction, the words and lines blurred beyond recognition. “Oh, Pete,” she said sympathetically. Then, naturally, they laughed.
The last of my mother’s four basic values is happiness; the only way she could teach us this one was to be happy herself. I don’t exactly know how she has remained happy. She’s been lucky, no doubt. She’s been healthy; her family has been healthy. Her decision to stay home with her children has always been supported by my father, and he has considered her time as important as his. She developed the talent of mothering through practice, and her belief in the value of her talent kept her going. But, more than any other factor, there is one thing that I’ll bet is the key to her happiness: She is a giver. By giving her time and her love, she’s given herself the greatest gift of all – happiness. She lacked selfishness, but she wasn’t selfless. She doesn’t find fulfillment in cleaning a house or driving a carpool. She’s not thrilled by crying babies or smart-mouthed teen-agers. But she’s patient and she’s wise, and when she steps back to look at her life, she can see that her generosity has paid off, and she is happy.
Now, after 29 years of being a mother, her youngest child is in high school -and society is telling her that it’s time she got to work. As she looks around at her five children, four grandchildren and fulfilling marriage, she can say, “What do you think I’ve been doing?”
Then she can laugh.