[ The outsider ] Housewife

[ The outsider ] Housewife

August 10, 2011, Wednesday/ 16:15:00

For years I envied the life of the housewife, the homemaker, the stay-at-home mom. My mom had to go back to work when I was 4 and my brother was 2; my mom was the only working mother (or divorcee) that we knew.

Then things switched around some, and the ‘stay at home mom’ was born. Now I started to be not so much jealous as I was annoyed. The religious right had castigated working moms to the point that SAHMs represented a new political voice

This was during the era of The Donna Reed Show, Leave It to Beaver, and Father Knows Best television shows, which weekly depicted the funny, warm lives of middle-class American families with happy, beautiful and well-dressed mothers. The modest faux pearls, the Peter Pan collars that never sagged, the tiny waists accenting the full skirts and the high heels, the rascally, funny kids, the calm, understanding dads always coming home from work, the funny neighbors in the nice clean neighborhoods -- these were the images viewed every evening by millions of viewers in front of their American-made TV sets.

While she was married, my mom had made a good stab at it. She was always neat and clean, kept the house nice, made clothes for my brother and me, made hand-painted gift tags for Christmas presents, produced homemade seasonal decorations that looked professional and had dinner on the table as soon as my father completed his after-work cocktail, which she also prepared. After he left, of course, much of that went by the wayside, but we still had a nice home and family life, just not so much like the one in TV land.

When I had my own child, times were different. The political changes in the culture had irreparably altered the popular image of the housewife and she wasn’t as enviable as before. Beaver’s mom was replaced by single parents, working moms, poor Dingbat (the mom in All in the Family) and cynical kids in their own worlds that didn’t include mom or dad. By now my husband and I lived in an apartment and wanted to buy a home, but we couldn’t do it on one salary, or so we thought, and I went back to work when my son was 2 months old. Donna Reed and Mrs. Cleaver were put, regretfully, on the back burner for several decades, until they were forgotten.

Through the years, I saw so many of our friends marry and start families and I was always jealous of the women who could quit their jobs to raise kids and be housewives. How nice it must be to have a well-run, orderly household, plenty of time for the kids and their projects, girlfriends to chat with and leisure time to read books, exercise and try new recipes.

The reality

That the reality of most families contradicted this jealous fantasy didn’t bother me a bit. I was always totally shocked when I would hear of a couple like this divorcing; how could a man not do everything he could to protect this haven of domesticity and how could a woman risk losing the freedom and control of running her own household and spending mommy time with her kids? I sturdily refused to consider such realities as money problems, friction with in-laws, the wives’ desire for more independence, the husbands’ need for more validation and the stagnation that occurs in many relationships. Nope, they all must just be crazy.

Then things switched around some, and the “stay at home mom” was born. Now I started to be not so much jealous as I was annoyed. The religious right had castigated working moms to the point that SAHMs represented a new political voice, one based not on experience in business, education or knowledge of government and political affairs, but on their capability of breeding and being a great soccer mom. Of course, these gals also utilized daycare so they could spend “me time” at the spa and utilized “play dates,” where you make a date with another mom and her child so the kids can play. Nannies and housecleaners were de rigueur at this point, because SAHMs needed time for tennis and/or shopping.

To me this was a serious puzzlement. What was the point of giving up a fulfilling, not to mention lucrative, career, and all the control of one’s destiny such a career implies, if one isn’t going to be the perfect wife and mother? I mean, what is one good at if one is not in the marketplace and one is not taking care of the home front either? I have decided the SAHM is some kind of a decorative hybrid, not good for much but probably not noxious.

When I retired and moved to Turkey, my husband and I were very busy for a number of years just getting things livable at the house. For four years I had Lute all to myself, 24/7, day after day, week after week. Our only son is grown, so it was just him and me, all the time, day and night. Needless to say, this took a little adjustment for both of us -- in America we had both had demanding careers and only saw each other for bits of days and weekends. But we adjusted to the extent that when he recently took a real Turkish job, gone 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week, I had a very serious new adjustment to make.

Unfortunately, I was trying to make this life change during the heat of July, so my distraction choices were seriously limited to indoor activity for, say, 10 hours at a whack. Gardens and chickens, tortoises and cats, all had to be cared for and visited in the early morning and late evening, leaving a huge, unoccupied void in the middle. Perhaps if I had had the Beaver and Wally to care for, the day would have had more form, but I didn’t, so I spent much of my time doing jigsaw puzzles. I didn’t feel like Donna Reed at all and the Beaver’s mom never did jigsaw puzzles; they are too messy, for one thing.

I slowly realized what I had here was an opportunity to do stuff that normally took too much time. I started to cook really involved dishes, like chicken and rice in filo dough, baklava and my world famous refried beans from scratch. I took apart some appliances and cleaned out hidden filters. I spent way too much time at the computer, examining my family’s ancestry. I figured out how to use my husband’s external drives with the music folders on them. It was getting better, but the big change came when I was outside, during the early mornings and after sunset.

Ever since I can remember I have always talked to my plants and animals. But somehow, except for apologizing to snails when I killed them, I have never really communicated with the other denizens of the garden, like butterflies, caterpillars and spiders, although I have always had plenty of respect, albeit silent respect, for ants. Anyway, one day I found myself trying to warn little flying things about the spiders that were lurking in wait for them on the back side of the yellow coreopsis flowers under the nectarine tree. Soon I was explaining in human talk to millipedes that it was pointless to head out over the frontier of the marble terrace because there was no water or food there and they were exposing themselves to cat attack. I was congratulating particularly clever ants on their spatial perception when they were able to push and pull large grass seeds down teeny little holes. There was so much going on out in the garden, heretofore unperceived, that I got so I couldn’t wait to get out there to talk to the insects.

Sharing my solitude

After the talking-to-the-bugs thing began, somehow it all came together. In the house and without, I started sharing my solitude freely with the other occupants of my little home in Turkey. Maybe I am getting a little coo-coo, but I hope not. I have adventures all day long now, feeding my little menagerie, protecting late-ripening cocoons, finding treats to entice the tortoises out of their bad temper, sharing my fresh tomatoes with the chickens, taking still-whole-and-living lizards away from my cats and cooking super meals for my husband and me. By maximizing this amazing load of time I never had before, I am being enriched by experiences that were too vague before, when I was always doing things with a higher priority. When nothing has a priority, many more things are interesting, and worthy of note and attention. It’s a fascinating world we have. I think I can finally say good-bye to Donna Reed and Mrs. Cleaver, and be my own kind of housewife.

*Elsie Alan lives in Gebze with her husband.