“That shakes things up a bit, doesn’t it?” Antoine Vilar, editor of Building Design & Construction magazine and my boss, smoothed his striped silk tie with nervous fingers. I had just told him I was expecting a baby in six months in May, 1969.
Earlier that month, when I shared the news of my pregnancy with family and friends, it had been received with unalloyed delight. After four years of trying to conceive without success, Jay and I had pretty much given up hope of becoming parents. So, of course, the people who loved us best were joyful to hear we crashed through that barrier.
Loving my job
Ironically just six months before, I drove the fear of infertility into a dark corner of my psyche, and channeled my energies and dreams into work. For the first time, I had a job I loved. True, only an associate editor, I wrote mostly small, short one-page articles, mostly about new products. Nonetheless, I envisaged writing longer, more important stories once I showed what I could do. In the meantime, I thoroughly enjoyed being a part of the overall process of producing the journal, the gathering hundreds of different bits and pieces together and creating a beautiful, coherent whole.
Antoine’s words could have been mine. As pleased and relieved as I was to be pregnant at last, I didn’t want to leave the magazine. But I didn’t see any way out of it. Every single woman I knew had left the workplace following the birth of her first child.
The Feminine Ironique
Betty Friedan had published The Feminine Mystique, five years before,
claiming that the societal assumption that women could find fulfillment through housework and child rearing alone had given rise to a pervasive dissatisfaction among women in mainstream American society. https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Feminine-Mystique(Her book sparked the second wave of feminism, but the twenty-something women I knew had one-by-one abandoned outside employment in favor of staying at home with their new babies. Nannies were the prerogative of the very rich. Daycare centers didn’t exist. Our mothers would have been horrified if asked to care for their grandchildren. I didn’t process any of these facts as rational at the time. I simply knew I would be staying at home with my baby and that would mean leaving the magazine. The second wave of feminism washed ashore on distant beaches, but I didn’t feel its surge.
The allure of suburbia
Swept up in the allure of another mystique, Jay and I began to search for a place to live in the suburbs. We never considered remaining in the city to raise our family. On a sunny April Sunday, in far flung Palos Heights a forty-five minute drive from Chicago Loop, we found what seemed the perfect place. Thorton Meadows, set in a landscape of woods and rolling hills, offered two-bedroom units at a very reasonable price. Although somewhat dark and featureless, the apartments were twice the size of our place in the city. Best of all, the lawns behind the complex teemed with young parents, toddlers, and babies in bassinets. We signed a lease for May first.
On Monday, I took extra time with my hair and make-up and wore my chicest maternity dress to work. By noon I’d completed several pieces and took them to the assistant editor to review. I didn’t need to hand carry them to him, but I did have to talk with him. “Bill, Jay and I are moving to Palos Heights at the end of the month. I’ve decided it would work best if I resigned on the fifteenth.”
The unexpected opportunity
He spun in his chair. “Sit down.” It wasn’t a request. I sat.
“Tony and I have been talking about this.” He spoke slowly as though working things out while he spoke. “It looks bad for the magazine to have added new staff less than a year ago only to drop the name now. Not only that, you’re turning in good solid work. We hate to see you go.”
I tried smiling but ended up sighing. “I don’t want to leave, but having a baby doesn’t give me a choice. There’s really no one else to take care of it. And even if there was, I can’t imagine not taking care of my own child.”
He nodded. “I get it, but what if you could do both?”
Visions of installing a baby bed next to my desk filled my imagination and I giggled. “I don’t think a baby exactly fits in here at the office.”
He got the picture and laughed. “No. But you could do this work at home. You have a typewriter, right?”
“Yes, but …I’ll be taking care of the baby. I won’t be able to write.”
“Trust me,” Bill said. “I’ve got two kids. When they are little, they sleep a lot and even when they aren’t asleep, you don’t necessarily have to be doing stuff with them. You’re going to have time on your hands you don’t know what to do with.”
He expressed concepts I’d already considered, but I’d always understood the motherhood role to be an all or nothing proposition. That I could be a mother and something else at the same time didn’t compute for me. But now that my colleague had put the proposition in front of me, mixing childcare and some other work didn’t sound so preposterous. There were sixteen hours in a day. Surely caring for my baby couldn’t consume that much time.
“How would it work?” I asked.
“Good girl.” He was elated. “Let’s go tell Tony.” The plan they laid out for me was decades ahead of its time, but none of us thought of it that way. It was simply the answer to a thorny problem for them and a way for me to continue doing work I loved. On a regular basis, Bill would mail me all the new product information that the manufacturers sent to the magazine. At home I would hone this myriad of information into short, informative articles, which I would mail back by the monthly deadline. Rather than the set wage I had been receiving, I would be paid by the hour. I’d be my own time keeper.
murphy’s law in the nursery
What could go wrong? We had come up with a dream solution.
By mid-May, Jay and I were settled in our suburb apartment. We had met several couples in the building, many of whom would remain friends long after we moved away from Thorton Meadows. My agreement with Building Design and Construction was not nearly so long term. That was because we failed to take into account the needs and desires of the third party to our agreement, my newborn little daughter, Kristin Margaret.
Breastfeeding had all but disappeared from the American infant care, but resurged in the 1960s as a part of the counterculture. Although a fairly mainstream sort of person, I decided to nurse my baby, having no idea what that entailed. No other mothers I knew breastfed their babies. Neither Jay’s mother nor mine had breastfed. I made my choice in knowledge void that took two children to overcome. Kristy was the experiment. Her sister Carrie born nineteen months later benefited greatly from what Kristy taught me.
Thus, I tried two innovative endeavors at the same moment in time – all on my own. I chose to breastfeed my baby and work from home.
The standard advice at that time had been developed for bottle-fed babies. It held that infants should be fed every four hours. No one could warn me that breastfed babies on the other hand nursed every two to three hours and fed on the average twelve times a day. https://www.romper.com/p/how-many-hours-per-day-does-a-baby-breastfeed-no-need-to-watch-the-clock-2957091
I learned that all by myself. Learned it as over and over again I left thought half-finished on the page. Learned it with deadlines looming over my head when I couldn’t bear to let my baby “cry it out,” another standard of the time.
I found myself rewriting articles over and over because I got so little sleep that coherent thinking evaded my consciousness. Jay came home expecting a peacefully sleeping baby, a smiling wife and a hot meal. He got chaos. He would take the baby from my arms and walk the floor with her while I fixed dinner, a meal I ate as I fed Kristy. By the time the dinner dishes were cleared up, my brain was too frozen for creative thinking.
By the end of the summer, even though Kristy was feeding less often, she slept less and sought attention in other ways. She was so charming, a smiley baby with big blue eyes who responded with ward delight to being picked up and sang to, who loved to be outdoors and who was entranced by other children. Putting her in her bed to stare at a wind-up mobile while I sat at a typewriter began to feel like criminal neglect. I dreaded the arrival of the thick envelope from the magazine. I had too often been up past midnight to meet my deadlines.
Jay’s income covered our expenses. We had almost saved the $2500 we would need as a down payment on a house. If I continued to write, I would be doing it for my own fulfillment, but it had become a stress not a joy. I convinced myself I’d become a lousy writer, that the magazine deserved better. If I kept up in that way, Kristy would miss out on key parental attention she required for healthy development. I was nothing but an imposter – neither real journalist nor true mother. Something had to go and it couldn’t be the baby! I made the dreaded call to Antoine and Bill. I pulled off the career track just in time to avoid a wreck. The relief was immense.
My choice may have been a terrible mistake. My opportunity to work from home came way ahead of the curve. The workplace mores I knew would shortly be nullified. Had I continued to work part-time from home, I might have been able to parlay that into a full-time job in journalism at some future point.
Instead, I devoted the next fifteen years to being the best mother that I could be. Did I simply cave to the feminine mystique? Perhaps. But maybe I simply chose an alternative freedom.
A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential — as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.
Despite the fact that it’s been over fifty years since The Feminine Mystique became a sensation, we’re still asking, “Should mothers stay home with their children?” Why do you think the question won’t go away?
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