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

The_Home-maker_Classic

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.

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