Thursday, April 16, 2020

The Legacy of Housewives Past

I am an empty nester. Even though my house is no longer clamoring with children, I certainly had my own Mount Everest to climb back in the day, when I was a twenty-something widow with two little boys, a full college schedule, and a job besides. So, don’t think for a minute that I don’t empathize with the struggle of millions of moms and wives out there right now. At one point, I ran an in-home daycare when my little ones were toddlers, and I well remember the endless scurry of cleaning sticky jelly fingers while the Sesame Street theme endlessly rattled around in my head. 

During this time of worry and the daily heavy-lifting of optimism, even though the house is very full, it can still be a very lonely place for the housewife.  

'But Those Who Trust in the Lord Will Find New Strength,' Isaiah 40:31 A reminder that I look at every day above my kitchen sink.

Crisis brings out the mama bird—or even mama tiger—in a traditional woman. It is a biologically proven fact that pregnant women in the weeks before birth tend to have an irresistible urge to ‘nest’, to prepare their home for the new little arrival. And emergency has much the same effect upon us. Suddenly, I find myself looking for gaps in pantry shelves and reassessing the contents of the medicine cabinet. I wake up in the morning wondering how to stretch the leftovers in the fridge to make another meal. There are more rounds made wiping down doorknobs and telephones with disinfectant, and the washer seems to run constantly, as I try to keep bedding, scarves, and clothing a bit more sanitary. There is a new, more intense focus on the budget, as emergency funds are used for extra supplies—within reason, as I abhor the behavior of hoarding. And so many moms out there are running on overdrive formulating lesson plans and activities for the kids. There is an old Mexican saying, “A house is built upon a woman.” And there have been established psychological studies that demonstrate the female brain is significantly more focused on details, while males are all about 'the big picture.' As we cope with shortages and caring for the needs of people who are suddenly without work or school, it is easy to think there is just too much on our shoulders. It is easy to get lost in the fog of gloom and doom and fears of the future.

Library of Congress
But we are not alone, not by a long shot.  History quietly but firmly bears witness to how important home--and especially the housewife--have been every time our nation has hit hard times. I am reminded of how desperately the men of 1600s Jamestown tried to persuade women to come to the New World, putting out vast sums for the hope of a hand in marriage. These men knew that family, settlement, and even civilization simply could not happen without the domestic management of women.
Library of Congress: Rural Life in Nebraska, Solomon D. Butcher, photographer, 1886. Prints & Photographs Division
I personally come from settlers in North Dakota, and on one side of the family tree the ancestral home in the 1800s was a sod house. I imagine the challenges my great-great grandmother must have faced, sweeping a dirt floor, continuously trying to get clean water and keep things clean, keeping bellies full with only the contents from bags of flour, cans of lard, occasional salt pork, and whatever could be scavenged from the brush. The loneliness must have been a constant enemy, and I cannot imagine the courage it would take to deliver a baby in the middle of the wilderness with no doctor. There is many a story out there of women chasing off snakes and wolves from their very doorsteps. No shrinking violets here, no women ‘with a problem that can’t be named’ as Betty Friedan famously said…these were women willing to fight right alongside their husbands and definitely for their children.

Library of Congress: Mother of family of five to be resettled on Ross-Hocking Land Project near Chillicothe, Ohio, 1930s 

When times are tough in my home, I think of the Depression era housewife and it never fails to give me perspective on my own troubles.  My husband and I live right on the cusp of middle and working class, and on one income. We live by the old time slogan, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”  Whenever I am feeling sorry for myself, I think of what it must have been like to battle huge waves of dust blowing through a tar-paper shanty, what it must have been like to coax the company store shop-keeper to put a few more essential food items on the debt list--just to feed my babies and man for one more day. It must have seemed that they would never get through to prosperity again, but they scrimped and they worked and they prayed, and yes, they made it. 

In the past few years, feminists have rallied around the icon of “Rosie the Riveter” from World War II. They claim the famous poster as their own, a symbol of the birth of the ‘liberated’ woman. The problem is that they are only looking at a small part of the story. 'Rosie the Riveter' was crucial to the manufacturing effort, this is true, but she could not have supported the troops if housewives were not in turn supporting her. Women in aprons kept up the home front, prepared meals under the limits of extreme rationing, tended to the children, rolled bandages and mended clothes, volunteered in social events and raised morale in hospitals.

  So, what am I trying to say in this rather long-winded speech on trial and tribulation? I am saying, 'Remember, ladies, you are stronger than you think.' Seeing the challenges from the past should not frighten us, in fact, it should inspire us. It's easy to fret when sensationalized hypotheses and death tolls are flashing constantly across the TV screen, but it is crucial to remember that, although every death is a tragedy, tens of thousands of people are recovering from this virus too--as we speak. I am not saying this lightly. In 2016, I contracted bi-lateral pneumonia that turned into infection in my blood, and if I hadn't gone to the doctor that day, I was told I would have died of cardiac arrest. I deeply empathize with those who are ill, and know what it is like to use an oxygen tank to breathe. But I carry on because I know other women before me have carried on, too. The housewives of the past triumphed over tough times because they believed in their God, and they believed in themselves. They didn't whine about their circumstances; they just got on with what the day ushered in. Today, as you pick up the living room for the umpteenth time or perhaps settle yet another squabble, remember that not only are not alone, you are among some of the best company in history. 


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