Remembering a Generation of Stuck Women

As I rose from my spot on “the facing bench,” the only place of prominence in the house of worship designed by my hierarchy-phobic Quaker ancestors, I felt calm, clear—ready to honor a woman who’d died just days before her 94th birthday. “Grandma gave me the most wonderful gift,” I began solidly enough, “not just acceptance of my flaws, but refusal to believe any such thing could exist.”

Scanning the rows of mourners, I confessed. “I half expected her to be here today,” I explained, in the whisper my voice had become. “She wasn’t one to miss a party.” Those last few words came out chokingly, the force of her absence closing around my windpipe like a set of hands. But I held it together as I remembered aloud my visits, how every stop—from the Post Office to the hair parlor—began the same way. “This,” she would say, with a sweep of her hand and pause, as if permitting time for an amazed gasp or preliminary applause, “is my granddaughter.”

All of which seems odd in light of the fact she never wanted my mother.

C.C. Chapman / Creative Commons

Lois Plumb enjoyed traveling the world with the American Friends Service Committee in her twenties, perfecting French and picking up German, Spanish and Polish while helping rebuild war-torn countries and people. But she stopped and got pregnant anyway, and then did it twice more.

“One didn’t not have children,” she told me in the mid-90s while dipping a corner of her grilled cheese sandwich into a cup of tomato soup: “It just wasn’t an option.” White eyebrows raised to match her mocking tone, she continued, “being a spinster was considered a terrible fate.” Indeed, 95 percent of all women married in the 1950s, reports Feminist Studies Professor Eileen Boris in Home to Work, and very few of those who remained childless did so by choice.

Nevertheless, my grandmother’s twenties lacked the clarity of her own mother’s. The great-grandmother for whom I’m named was never heard to complain about a life spent raising children, sewing and cooking. She came of age in the 1910s when women’s suffrage was discussed as a men’s rights issue. (It would be unfair, many argued, to give married men two votes.) My great-grandmother may have suffered discontent, but a career was something she didn’t consciously miss, existing as it did only in rarity and theory, like a vestigial human tail.

My grandmother’s youth, on the other hand, followed the path blazed by Rosie the Riveter, just a few years behind at each juncture. When women across the country, including Barack Obama’s grandmother, were put to work to replace “our boys abroad,” mine was still in school as one of Haverford College’s first female students. When Rosie and most of her peers bowed to social and political pressure to return to homemaking at the conclusion of World War II, my grandmother headed for Europe. There she met my grandfather, when he requested access to one of the large trucks falling within her purview. Upon their return to the states, now both bearing the surname Stanton, he pursued work in academic administration while her world shrank to the confines described in A Feminine Mystique.

Bouts of depression came and went as her children grew, but one companion never left my grandmother’s side: resentment.

A generation later, my mother entrusted me to a daycare center three days after my birth. She had a Radiology rotation to resume, after all. In elementary school in the 80s, I’d set an alarm to rise before dawn, knowing if I didn’t interrupt Joan Lunden, I’d be permitted a few precious moments watching my mom apply makeup. Ever since she’d arrived at the hospital one day in a black right shoe and a navy blue left one, she’d bestowed upon me the job of making sure her feet matched, and I swelled with pride. Then, just after my twelfth birthday, the same week my mom paid off her student loans, she became a stay-at-home mother. 

My uncle sent me an email the evening of my grandmother’s memorial service. He recognized his mother’s gregariousness and humanitarianism in my stories, but he knew nothing of the adoring woman I described. Pain and rejection rippled through his memories of her. My mother paints a similar picture with my grandmother as a social star, the most in-demand chaperone in town; but when the house emptied of guests, the young people who remained were made to feel a burden to be dispatched with as quickly as possible.

There’s a familiar generational dynamic at play, of course. My mother-in-law is able to dote on my eight-year-old daughter in part because the bitter business of boundary-setting falls on my plate, and their time together rarely exceeds a week. Lesley Stahl, the longtime 60 Minutes correspondent, writes about this phenomenon in her book, Becoming Grandma. But there’s more to it than that. “She … instructed me to put my career ahead of family,” Stahl says of her mother, “saying outright: ‘don’t have children, they ruin your life.’ Yes, she said this—to me.” In A Really Good Day, author Ayelet Waldman similarly recounts her mother’s life as “a series of compromises and intermittent disappointments, from the moment my father encouraged her to drop out of graduate school and marry him.”

Highly educated women these days rightfully protest the torturous trade-offs required in pursuit of “having it all,” but we tend to forget our forerunners: a generation of women stuck between distant history and modern struggle. For many of them, the only mistress crueler than hopelessness was hope. My mom set aside a career to be with her children by choice; her own mother, Stahl’s, Waldman’s and other middle-class women of that generation, did not—not really, anyway. I know now the years my grandmother and I shared came after she had reclaimed personal ambition, becoming a full-time social worker as an empty-nester. By the time of my trips, she’d stopped zipping around the county making house calls, and my presence displaced nothing more than a bridge game here or a paint-by-numbers there. Unlike my mother, I never stood between my grandmother and her vitality.

It all reminds me of a warm day when a handful of children chased one another across a patch of grass, screams of protest belied by obvious delight. A new swing set, a slip-and-slide, and popsicles had transformed a Missouri backyard into an adventure. I sat watching on the back porch with my preschool teacher, my little face covered in the red bumps that had appeared too recently for me to either cancel or attend my fourth birthday party. 

Today, moms like me often end up in the kitchen decorating cupcakes (watching the kindergarten performance) when we’d rather be on the slide (finishing a draft), or we miss out on opening the presents upstairs (first lost tooth) while building a castle of gumballs by the tree (speaking at a conference). Most women of means, however, have more awareness than my great-grandmother—who sat firmly inside the house—and more freedom than my grandmother, who had to watch from the porch. 

Gail Cornwall is a former public school teacher and recovering lawyer who now works as a stay-at-home mother and freelance writer in San Francisco. Her work has been published online by The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Salon and Parents among others. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter, or read more at gailcornwall.com.

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