December 20, 1977
The New York Times, Op-Ed Page
The Satisfactions of Housewifery
and Motherhood In 'an Age of
By TERRY MARTIN HEKKER
South Nyack, N. Y. - My son lied about it on his college application. My husband mutters it under his breath when asked. And I had grown reluctant to mention it myself.
The problem is my occupation. But the statistics on women that have come out since the Houston conference have given me a new outlook. I have ceased thinking of myself as obsolete and begun to see myself as I really am. An endangered species. Like the whooping crane and the snow leopard, I deserve attentive nurturing and perhaps a distinctive metal tag on my foot. Because I am one of the last of a dying breed of human females designated, "Occupation: Housewife".
I know it's nothing to crow about. I realize that when people discuss their professions at parties I am more of a pariah than a hooker or a loan shark. I have been castigated, humiliated and scorned. In an age of do your own thing, it's clear no one meant me. I've been told (patiently and a little louder than necessary, as one does with a small child) that I am an anachronism (except that they avoid such a big word). I have been made to feel so outmoded that I wouldn't be surprised to discover that like a carton of yogurt, I have an expiration date stamped on my bottom.
I once treasured a small hope that history might vindicate me. After all, nursing was once just such a shameful occupation, suitable for only the lowest of women. But I abandoned any thought that my occupation would ever become fashionable again, just as I had to stop counting on full-figured women coming back into style. I'm a hundred years too late on both counts. Now, however, thanks to all these new statistics, I see a brighter future for myself. Today, fewer than 16% of American families have a full-time housewife-mother. Comparing that with previous figures, at the rate it's going I calculate I am less than eight years away from being the last housewife in the country. And then I intend to be impossible. I shall demand enormous fees to go on talk shows, and charge for my autograph. Anthropologists will study my feeding and nesting habits through field glasses and keep notebooks detailing my every move. That is, if no one gets the bright idea that I'm so unique that I must be put behind sealed glass like the Book of Kells. In any event, I can expect to be a celebrity and to be pampered. I cannot, though, expect to get even. There's no getting even for years of being regarded as stupid or lazy, or both. For years of being considered unproductive (unless you count five children which no one does). For years of being viewed as a parasite, living off a man (except by my husband whose opinion doesn't seem to matter). For years of fetching other women's children after they'd thrown up in the lunchroom, because I have nothing better to do, or probably there's nothing I do better, while their mothers have "careers". For years of caring for five children and a big house and constantly being asked when I'm going to work.
I come from a long line of women, most of them more Edith Bunker than Betty Freidan, who never knew they were unfulfilled. I can't testify that they were happy, but they were cheerful. And if they lacked "meaningful relationships," they cherished relations who meant something. They took pride in a clean, comfortable home and satisfaction in serving a good meal because no one had explained that the only work worth doing is that for which you get paid.
They enjoyed raising their children because no one ever told them that little children belonged in church basements and their mother belong somewhere else. They lived, very frugally, on their husband's pay checks because they didn't realize that it's more important to have a bigger house and a second car than it is to rear your own children. And they were so incredibly ignorant that they died never suspecting they'd been failures.
That won't hold true for me. I don't yet perceive myself as a failure, but it's not for want of being told I am.
The other day, years of condescension prompted me to fib in order to test a theory. At a party where most of the guests were business associates of my husband, a Ms. Putdown asked me who I was. I told her I was Jack Hekker's wife. That had a galvanizing effect on her. She took my hand and asked if that was all I thought of myself, just someone's wife? I wasn't going to let her in on the five children, but when she persisted I mentioned them but told her that they weren't mine, that they belonged to my dead sister. And then I basked in the glow of her warm approval.
It's an absolute truth that whereas you are considered ignorant to stay home and raise your children, it is quite heroic to do so for someone else's children. Being a housekeeper is acceptable (even to the Social Security office) as long as it's not your house you're keeping. And treating a husband with attentive devotion is altogether correct as long as he's not your husband.
Sometimes I feel like Alice in Wonderland. But lately, mostly, I feel like an endangered species.