Since this year marks the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the CBC was running a collection of old interviews that spanned the last five decades. I never read the book or knew much about the author, and as I listened to the radio program, I realized what an uphill battle this lady had. Of course, she was promoting an idea that went against mainstream thinking of the middle class mind after World War II. But she could hold her own. She was feisty, intelligent, aggressive, and, at times and to her detriment, petulant and defensive. Whatever it took to get the point across. Even later, when interviewers wondered if she thought feminism was a failed experiment, Friedan insisted that it wasn’t. She offered solutions that we are still working out today such as free universal daycare, division of labour within the home, flexible work hours for parents, and so on.
I’ve never given the feminism of the 60s its due. As I listened to her and her contemporaries debate the existence of the woman whose life revolved around her husband, her children and her home, I found myself relating and was reminded of a recent conversation with my best friend on the topic of maternity leave. We are two women born in the mid 70s, educated by nuns (You don’t know feminism until you’ve known a nun. They practice a quiet feminism honed over centuries in which they accumulated education, wealth, and power.), part of the labour force since our teens and with university degrees.
We discussed the sense of meaninglessness we felt during our one-year maternity leave. I suppose that part of the reason for the one-year is medical society’s current insistence on breastfeeding. (My next post might be titled “The Human Dairy Cow”. Time will tell.) We felt isolated from the world in spite of all the communications technology available. Our lives suddenly centered on the home: a daily grind of cook, clean, take care of the baby. That was it. We never left home without the baby and the diaper bag. When we took our children out for activities and socialized with other parents, we talked about our babies. When we met up with friends and family, we talked about our babies. No one asked “How are you?” or “What do you think about (insert major world event)?” It was “How’s the baby?” Before we became mothers, we were people. Yet suddenly, our children defined us. Ironic since parents are the ones doing the raising.
Don’t get me wrong, we did enjoy being with our children. We spent hours staring at our babies and pondered the wonder of nature, the miracle they are, that we all are. We tried to hold on to the memory of that first smile, that first step, that first sound that was more word than baby noise. We could have gone back to work early, but how could we intrust the care of this defenseless little person to another who considered changing diapers a job as opposed to the creation of comfort for someone who couldn’t do it for themselves? Looking back now, perhaps the ability to work from home or even a part-time return could have relieved the thoughts that we as people had become meaningless. I don’t have a solution. It probably exists on a case by case basis. What I do have is a new respect for the post WWII wife and mother. And I am grateful to the feminists of the 60s who forced society to recognize that self-actualization should be defined by each individual and not imposed on us by a group, a government or the media.
What do you think of feminism, Betty Friedan or The Feminine Mystique? What was your mat leave experience like? If you’ve chosen to be a stay at home mom, how do you remain you?