Gender roles and parenting: “The Home-Maker” serves up rich food for thought

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A while back, a friend of mine posted a simple graphic on Facebook. It was a triangle, with something written at each of the three points.  One point said “A Clean House,” the second said “Happy Children,” and the third was labeled “Sanity.”  Underneath the triangle was written the slogan, “Choose Two.”

I laughed when I saw it.  It was the laughter of recognition, and no small amount of resignation.

And that little triangle flashed upon my inward eye as I was reading the novel The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher.

The Home-Maker is published by Persephone Books, the most excellent London publishing house dedicated to reviving the “forgotten” classics.  (I adore PB; read my thoughts about another of their titles here.)  It was first published in 1924, and I can only imagine how subversive it was for the time.  Even now, ninety years later, it somehow still feels radical in its portrayal of an unconventional family.

But when the story begins, it’s all highly conventional.  It’s small-town America, and Evangeline Knapp, mother of three, is busy scrubbing the floors.  It’s immediately apparent that though she’s a fiercely competent housewife, she’s not a happy one; little messes and disruptions to the routine bother her intensely.  She can’t relate to Stephen, her youngest son, the “problem child” with a fiercely protective love of his filthy Teddy, and her two older children receive a constant stream of criticism and commands.

Obviously, Evangeline has chosen “Clean House” and “Sanity,” though her grasp on the latter is somewhat questionable.  Her house is clean, but she’s miserable.

So too is her husband Lester, a clerk at Willing’s Emporium, a downtown department store . He loves poetry and loathes his job.  Eventually (I won’t say how — no spoilers here) he suffers a paralyzing accident.  Out of financial necessity, Evangeline enters the workforce, getting a job at Willing’s Emporium, while Lester stays home with the children.  And — unconventional though it is in 1924– it ends up being the best thing that ever happened to the family.

There’s so much that made me think in this novel.  First of all, I was struck to realize that all these years later, the roles of the Knapp family (mom working, dad keeping house and watching the kids) are still far from the norm.  At one point, contemplating re-entering the work force which he loathes, Lester muses on how much social resistance there would be were he to continue to stay home: “It would be easier for him to commit murder or rob a bank than to give his intelligence where it was most needed, in his own home with his own children.”  That statement may not be entirely true today, but it’s probably pretty close. I know exactly one family where the dad stays home and the mom works; shouldn’t I know so many more, in 2015?

And while this novel is very advanced in its treatment of women, showing that women deserve the chances to develop the parts of their potential that have long been denied to them, it also extends the same courtesy to men.  If women have traditionally suffered from “too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation” (as Charlotte Brontë wrote in Jane Eyre),  perhaps men have suffered the same.  Evangeline is a smart and innovative retail clerk, one who comes to life in her job in the emporium, and her happiness rubs off on the family.  Lester is an endearing character, one who has an intuitive grasp of his children’s emotional selves;  more contact time with him is just what they need to flourish.

In fact, another reason I loved this novel is the way it highlights two contrasting ways of parenting. There’s Evangeline’s way, the don’t-put-your-shoes-there-it’ll-get-the-floor-dirty way, and then there’s Lester’s way, which is to give kids things that make messes (an egg-beater, a dog, a sandpile) and let them discover and create.  It’s pretty clear which one is better for the kids … and the novel is a reminder that if you have to sacrifice a spotless home for happy kids, that’s a great trade-off.  I’m far less obsessive about cleaning house than Evangeline is — the dust-bunnies can tell you that themselves – but I do see some of myself in her.  If I were to tally up the things I say to my kids on a daily basis, how many of them are “Don’t” statements, and how many are “Dos”?  How many are instructions geared at keeping the house neat,  and how many are invitations designed to broaden their imaginative horizons?  I know where I am in this, and where I’d like to be.

So it’s not just a novel about gender roles; it’s also a novel about parenting.  It’s a thought-provoking reminder that families work best when the parents are leading from their strengths, when they don’t routinely bring bitterness and disappointment to the evening dinner table.  And from this working mom’s point of view, it’s a call not to get so wrapped up in my to-do list that I forget the inner lives of my kids.

In fact, one of my favorite passages in the book is when the paralyzed Lester looks at Stephen, the formerly troublesome little boy, playing quietly and contentedly.  “‘I never saw one of my children just living before,’ he meditated.  As [Lester] lay in bed, a book was usually open before him, but he looked over it at the far more interesting spectacle of his undiscovered little boy.”  

Many thanks to Persephone Books for the review copy of this forgotten classic.  It deserves to be widely read, and pondered, and enjoyed.

The Home-Maker can be found through  Amazon.com, but I prefer to buy Persephone titles from their own website.  It’s so fun to get a package from overseas, and they arrive far more quickly than you think they will.  While you are there, check out their other titles — it’s a dream of mine to visit their London shop one of these years and to browse their books in person.

The pleasure of poetry

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Have you ever seen something that made you instantly recall a line of poetry?  I had a few of those moments last week, when I returned to Filoli for a visit. The potted hyacinths were in bloom — I have never EVER seen such beautiful ones.  They took my breath away.

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And T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” surfaced out of the depths of my memory:

“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
They called me the hyacinth girl.”

It was very nice to have the remembered poetry  to go along with the color and the scent.  (I have to admit, the flowers also made me think of a certain overbearing British matron.  “It’s not BUCKET, it’s BOUQUET.”)

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Later, coming across a field of daffodils, I naturally thought of Wordsworth:

“Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.”

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I didn’t see ten thousand, but I saw quite a few.  And it was a delightful sensation to walk down the little path, daffodils on my right and my left, before me and behind me too.

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“And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.”

That just about captures it.

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Any experience is better with a line of poetry to complement it.  I’m not sure why that is, exactly, except that connecting a poem with an experience somehow pulls the drawstrings of my life closer together: the strings of past and present, words and images.  It’s a great reason to study poetry, so you always have a line or lines to match to what you see around you.

Now if only I could think of a poem about camellias …

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Love Will Steer Me True: A conversation with authors Jane and Ellen Knuth

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My pre-mom life involved two extended stays in Paris: I studied abroad for one semester in college, then returned after graduation to teach English for a year.  Both experiences were exciting, rewarding, life-changing.

But I have to admit that at the time, I gave very little thought to how my mom was handling it all.

As a parent myself now, I have a sense of how hard that separation was for her.  My kids are still young, but when I think of one of them someday doing what I did and moving to the other hemisphere,  my pulse starts to race.  Although I know from my own past that living abroad can forever enrich your life, I know from my present that it must be extremely hard for a parent to see her child go so far away.

So I could very much relate to the book Love Will Steer Me True: A Mother and Daughter’s Conversations on Life, Love, and God by Jane Knuth and her daughter Ellen Knuth.  In fact, I didn’t just relate to it; I loved it.

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Love Will Steer Me True tells the story of Ellen’s experiences teaching English in Japan, and — here’s what makes it so unique —  it’s told from the point of view of both mother and daughter, alternating narrators.  As a result, you get an insider view on the relationship between a mother and her adult child, along with two perspectives on faith and culture and letting go.  It’s  real, honest, and touching, and I was delighted to have the chance to talk to both Ellen and Jane about the book.

What is the two-sentence description of your book? 

 Jane: This is a true story about women’s spiritual journeys told from the  perspectives of a mother and daughter . The daughter, Ellen, is working and living in Japan for four years in her mid-twenties, and the mom, Jane, is back in the USA worrying about how God fits into all this.

What was it like to collaborate on a book?  What were the challenges of co-authoring, and what were the unique joys? 

 Ellen: Having never written a book before, collaborating with my mother on the manuscript was a great way to enter the writing world. I was initially concerned about being able to maintain a distinct “voice” without becoming too influenced by my mom’s writing style, but once we hit our stride it was great fun discussing how our chapters would play together.

Jane: I thought it would be more difficult than it was. It was fun to read Ellen’s chapters and remember the events together. We spent one long weekend in a motel in Kentucky in order to pull the thing together, which was exhausting, but fun.

I always find that writing about my experiences makes me understand them in a new light.  What did you learn about your own experiences as a result of writing this book? 

Ellen: Putting the stories to paper really brought into focus how all of these seemingly un-connected events that happened over the course of several years were, in many ways, a fluid progression. It helped me reflect on how far I’d come and how much my relationship with my mother had grown during my time away.

Jane: I learned that my motherly worry is often not helpful. It can stunt the growth of the child and the parent both.

Jane,  I love the scene when your husband reminds you that worry and prayer are not the same thing.  How do worries change as your kids grow up?  How has your prayer life changed as your kids have grown up?

Jane: When the kids were very young, I worried that I wasn’t doing things right, teaching them enough, spending quality time, etc. Once they were in college, I worried that they hadn’t understood all I tried to teach them, and I began to teach them over again. That’s what people commonly call nagging. My husband pointed this out in a gentle way and encouraged me to pray silently instead. Prayer of this type is a huge leap of faith because you are turning over your heart to God and  trusting that he won’t drop it.

Ellen, it  was fascinating to read how your experiences in Japan helped you see your childhood faith traditions in a new light.  What is the biggest lesson that your time abroad has taught you about faith?

Ellen: That love is truly at the core of my faith journey. Even in the hardest moments when I felt confused or lost, love anchored me.

What did you learn about each other’s experiences of this time that you  didn’t know before writing the book? 

 Jane: I didn’t know the story of Ellen’s conversation with Ayden, her agnostic friend, after the death of her friend Rodger. Ayden is a loving, whip-smart, courageous young man who verbalizes the non-faith perspective of death in a touching way.

Ellen: I talk about a lot of things with my mom, she knows all about my insecurities and fears! However, I don’t think we’d ever really discussed HER insecurities, especially where our relationship was concerned. That all came out during the book-writing process

What is one thing your daughter/mom wrote in the book that really surprised you? 

 Jane: I was surprised that Ellen yearned for her parents to be proud of her and what she was doing in Japan. We have always been proud of our kids, so this struck me . I think what she wanted was that we would give our blessing to her . Our worry, and expressing our worry, was kind of like an anti-blessing. She didn’t need that.

Ellen: Though I could objectively identify my mother’s worries as coming from a place of love and good intention, it wasn’t until I read her chapters that I understood that no anger and disappointment factored into her worry. That was a huge surprise!

What is the best thing a mother can give her daughter before she moves overseas? 

 Ellen: Her blessing! My mother and father took the time to write a series of notes for me before I left. They were labeled with titles like “For a bad day” or “For when your head feels fuzzy”, etc and having those little affirmations of their love and support to read and save on the days I felt lowest were awesome.

Jane: A rosary.  It’s a prayer, a blessing, and a link to home, all in one little package.

Thanks to Ellen and Jane for being my guests here today!   And, gentle blog reader, do yourself a favor and read Love Will Steer Me True.  It’s available from Loyola Press, Amazon.com, and BarnesandNoble.com.  

Backing off so things can bloom

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Last summer, I planted this fuschia in a pot in the yard.  I kept watering it and plying it with Miracle-Gro, and it … barely grew.  I hardly got a bud all summer.

Then, over fall and winter, I basically ignored it.  (Primroses excepted, I ignored the yard in general, as the weeds will bear witness.)  But last week, I happened to go out on the patio and there was the fuschia: twice as tall as it used to be, twice as wide, and blooming with beautiful bell-like flowers.

I think there must be a message here somehow, one that applies to parenting as well as gardening: Too much attention can backfire, sometimes.  Maybe sometimes things need to be left to their own devices, to grow and bloom quietly, nourished by rain and sun and other things from above.

Is there anything in your life that you should step away from for a while? 

The Week That Wasn’t (or How A Virus Made Me Wiser)

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On last week’s menu

I got slammed with something last week – the doctor called it an “influenza-like virus,” though it felt an awful lot like the real thing.  It was a whole cocktail of symptoms: fever, chills, aches, sore throat, cough, congestion.  It started on a Sunday and went on for the rest of the week, and because of it I missed four days of school in a row.

That is the first time I have ever missed that much school.  I didn’t even miss that much when I had an ectopic pregnancy; I didn’t miss that much when I had a miscarriage.  It felt like The Week that Wasn’t, a huge black hole in my lesson plans and a complete cessation of my normal routine.  Trust me, this virus was nasty.  (Is nasty: I still have the cough and some of the congestion.)

But everything in life is  a learning experience, isn’t it?  As painful as it was to suffer through this lost week, I did gain some useful insights from it.

Here they are.

1.  It is easier to be a sick mom now than it was when the kids were younger.  I wouldn’t say it was easy, just easier.  Last Sunday afternoon, when this thing hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks, Scott was at an event at work and I was home alone with the kids. I gave them two things —  the remote to the TV and permission to watch any mom-sanctioned show they wanted — then burrowed under the covers in my room and tried very hard to get warm.  I spent most of the afternoon under layers of quilts, shivering to the sound of  “Wild Kratts” from the living room, and the kids for the most part left me alone.  This scenario could not have happened when they were babies, or even toddlers.  It does get easier, this parenting thing.

2.  I do a lot in my life as a mom.  Because I was essentially non-operational for the first two days, Scott had to do all the things I usually do in the afternoon/evening: pick up the kids, see them through homework, stay on top of the notes from school, pack lunchboxes for the next day, make dinner, find the clean laundry for the next morning.  That first night I lay in bed feeling guilty for being sick and dumping all these things on his lap. And then I thought, “But wait!  I do those things all the time.”  And I suddenly realized that I’m actually kind of a badass.  It was a good thing to discover.

3.  Morning TV shows vary widely in quality.  I never watch them because I’m always at work, but last week, I did.   I learned, somewhat to my surprise,  that I can’t handle Good Morning, America; it’s  too flashy and has too many graphics.  I was much happier with the more sedate CBS This Morning.  (I’m the world’s youngest old fogey.)

4.  Makeup helps one’s mood.  I didn’t wear lipstick for three days straight, not even to go out in public to the doctor’s office.  By Day Four I decided that I was tired of looking like death warmed over and put on some makeup, even though I was just hanging around the house.  And you know what?  I actually did feel better.  Maybe that just means I’m a slave to society’s standards of beauty, but whatever.  It worked, and that’s all I cared about.

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5.  “All About Eve” is every bit as good as I remember.  Nothing like witty one-liners and sparkling repartee to clear your head.

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6.  “Enchanted April” is even better than I remember. I first saw this movie when it was in the theatres, which was back when I was in college.  I enjoyed it then, but I can relate to it more now.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s about four English women in the 1920s who answer an ad to rent a dreamy Italian castle on the coast.  All sorts of renewal and rebirth ensues.

The movie has many scenes of the main characters sitting in deck chairs in the sun or lying in the grass of an Italian meadow or on the rocks along the coast, just dreaming.  Though that sounds like boring cinema, it was riveting.  I want me some of that, I thought, some of that silence and solitude and just lying there and doing nothing.

And then I realized  – odd though it sounds – that my illness was, in a way, exactly that.  It was a forced chance to do nothing.   I spent many hours last week just lying around, staring at the walls, not even with the stereo on, just being.  Once the worst of the symptoms had passed, it was undeniably renewing.

And it made me think about how I can work more of that downtime into my non-sick life.  I made a little resolution to work more “being time” into my routine – more time where I am just daydreaming, not on my phone or on Facebook, but just letting my thoughts wander.  (It would be more fun to do it in an Italian castle, admittedly,  but I’ll take what I can get.)

Overall, for a lost week, I guess I gained a few useful insights.  Now the trick is to remember them not just in sickness, but in health.