I grew up in the kind of small, sleepy, rural midwestern town that comedians joke about. You’ve heard the joke. “If I had only six months to live, I’d move there because the time would seem twice as long.” There were few opportunities for employment, for teens or anyone else. The few small businesses in town were family-owned and staffed by family members.
It was about 15 miles to an area where multiple job opportunities were available. However, like most of my high school friends, I didn’t have transportation there, nor the funds to support gas, upkeep, and insurance for a car. My first job didn’t happen until after I graduated from high school, and only then because my father got me a job in the office of the warehouse where he worked. I rode back and forth to work with him every day.
In my little town in the late 1960s, a young lady’s expectations of life and career were narrow, restrictive, and simple. Nobody told me I could be anything I wanted to be. If they had, I wouldn’t have had the imagination to come up with a career other than becoming a wife and mother. There were few female role models to inspire me. If they’d told me, “The world is your oyster,” I’d have asked, “What’s an oyster?” I don’t think I’d ever seen one. The only restaurant in town didn’t serve seafood.
Most of my classmates married soon after high school. It was understood that soon after marriage, our sole duty would be to provide comfort, ease, and children to the man of the house. Few of the men I knew, either in my childhood home or among friends and neighbors, did housework or childcare. If they did, it was referred to as, “helping out a little” or “babysitting.” The very terminology implied that if he did, he was just, “doing the little woman a favor.”
Some of my classmates went to college and began careers, but after the babies arrived, those careers usually were put on hold, sometimes permanently. If she wanted to return to her career, she’d better have a competent, reliable friend or relative willing to watch her children. Pre-school and daycare centers were rare in the sixties and seventies. There were none in my small town.
She’d better be prepared for the judgmental whispers among the stay-at-home moms in the neighborhood. When women began to enter the workforce in greater numbers, there often was open hostility, and even shunning, between working moms and stay-at-home moms. For a couple of decades, the lack of respect for each other’s choices made us our own worst enemies.
The men also did their part in keeping us at home and out of the workforce. It was an embarrassment for a man to have a wife who worked outside the home. And it was shameful if she earned more than he did. It was possible to support a family and run a household on a man’s paycheck alone if they kept a tight budget, but there was nothing in the budget to cover a second car or a vacation. Any large and unexpected expense or serious illness could devastate a family and force them into poverty.
Opportunities and expectations have grown immensely, but it has been frustratingly slow. The pay gap is still too wide, the harassment too prevalent, and the glass ceiling too often impenetrable. In this century, it’s rarely possible for a family to subsist on one source of income. When both parents are working full-time outside the home, it becomes essential for household duties and childcare to be shared. In many cases, men have stepped up to the plate. You’ll see them pushing strollers, wiping little runny noses, changing diapers, mopping floors, doing laundry, and cooking. Women are scientists, attorneys, physicians, home builders, auto mechanics, CEOs for large corporations, and serving in powerful political positions.
It’s tough to keep up those duties when both parents are out of the house all day, and playing catch-up all evening. It’s physically and emotionally draining. I admire that kind of commitment. My figurative hat is also off to couples who can afford to have one parent, of either gender, at home running the household and caring for the children.
Gender is less of an issue in career expectations and household duties. We’re heading, albeit slowly, in the right direction. We’ve come a long way. Even in my little rural hometown, you really can be anything you want to be if you’re willing to work for it. The world is your oyster, and from that oyster just may come a pearl.