Society . . . makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner . . . without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic."
Who said it?
Not Bella or Gloria, but Karl.
In "The German Ideology," Marx magined the new man who would emerge after communism had eliminated all division of labor. But what he also conveyed, unwittingly, is the kind of role-juggling open to the new woman in the United States today. Sometimes she chooses her roles with her eyes open; sometimes she is backed into them by life's demands. But no longer need she be locked into any one of them without access to others. Today she can be career person in the morning, mother in the afternoon, and wife in the evening -- or the other way around.
After my husband was elected to Congress, we bought a small house in Washintton and furnished the livingroom in a spare manner, with a few good modern pieces. Unlike our New York house, it contains no ancestral portraits, no hand-me-down sofas, no mementos, not even photos of our four children or their combined 10 offspring. When a daughter in her 20s came to visit, a funny thing happened -- she was apparently startled at not finding her baby, or herself, represented in our living room, so she fished out a family photo from a shelf in the den and plopped it onto the central table. The moment she was gone. I plopped it back again. My role as mother and grandmother, a source of profound and repeated gratification, is not something I now want to be the focus of others', or my own, attention upon entering that room.
Jonathan and I, like geese or penguins, have formed what is known as a pair-bond, and after 40 years we opt to live together. It is a couple that we currently like to think of ourselves. Yet when we go back, as we frequently do, to the big old-fashioned New York house where all 20 members of our nuclear family can and do gather, we are happy to be matriarch and patriarch again.
Unconsciously and symbolically, through the Washington decor, I must have been signaling that I was shifting roles. I will not deny that I suffered severe twinges when the empty-nest syndrome first made its inevitable appearance, but I will not deny the surprising and glorious liberation I feel today, with my partner, my nest and, to a great extent, my time, to myself.
There are two general points to be made here, I believe. One is that, although there is much still to be done in winning equal opportunities for women, women are already far freer than ever before to choose their roles, change their roles, and combine their roles, in their own individual ways. The other is that when a woman changes roles, either through choice or necessity, she should be more aware of it than I was, and perhaps also signal it better than I did.
"You know, Mom," a grown daughter once confessed to me, "whole days go by without my thinking of you."
To her surprise, I exclaimed with delight, "But whole days go by without my thinking of you."
In addition to the increased quantity of roles to women, there is also an increased range of quality within a single role. But it is important that other people not continue to expect too much and the woman run herself into the ground trying to meet those expectations. "There is only one form of original sin," said one of my eight sisters-in-law. "That is to let yourself become seriously overtired; from that stem all the other problems."
For women today who are striving, by juggling several roles, to be superpersons, I would like to offer my own hard-earned conclusion that "anything worth doing is worth doing badly."
"Badly," in this instance, does not mean inadequately; it merely means not striving for perfection, or even always for excellence, in all of one's roles all of the time. The jobs on which women used to concentrate, or which they delegated to a pro, were frequently the kind that could be done to perfection: the roast in the oven, the ironed napery, the blended floral arrangement, the matching hat, gloves, scarf and purse she would wear when she went out, and the dustless, neat living room to which she would return. Her children were "seen and not heard," partly by training but also by having their own, easily available, keeper. Even families of modest income used to be able to afford at least one domestic.
Today, perfection -- even excellence -- in all roles simultaneously is impossible. And, to paraphrase George Orwell, it is more impossible for women than for men. For the one ineradicable inequality between the sexes derives from the time limit Mother Nature places on the female's capacity to become a parent. Ideally, a woman produces her children before the age of 35. Yet these are also the years when she is likely to be consolidating her career. With good domestic help as rare as it is, not to mention good nonexorbitant day-care centers, something has to give. And in order for this something not to be the new mother's health, she should be able to opt for doing just the basics, with no extras, on the job or at home, her employer or her partner being willing.
For a given number of months -- or years -- she and/or her spouse would not be expected to stay on the job after hours or work weekends or put in the kind of extra effort that earns promotion. Instead of marks, they would be working for "pass/fail." Just as the football player who catches the punt can signal "fair catch" and opponents will not tackel him, so the employe should be able to signal "basics only" and employers will not count this period in considering promotion.
In my own career as a writer there have been times of treading water as well as times of trying to flail ahead. When I have a deadline, Jonathan does not expect me to arrange dinner parties. When he is faced with a rough congressional campaign, I do not accept any deadlines.
At the same time, when I went off to Burma to gather material for my biography of U Thant, then U.N. secretary general, Jonathan came along, and received the unexpected bonus of finding that the American deputy chief of mission in Rangoon had a voting residence in the Bronx: "How could I resist voting for someone who traveled so far to influence me?" the deputy chief asked.
Perhaps because Jonathan's and my careers have become so braided, it is difficult for me to sort out, even in retrospect, which events in our lives were boons and which were disaster. When he was defeated for the New York State Senate in 1958, for example, I went into a decline. And yet, had he been elected, he would not have been available a few years later to be appointed one of the U.S. ambassadors to the U.N. Nor would I, in all likelihood, have met then-ambassador Thant from Burma.
Shortly after World War II, when Jonathan came out of the Army, it seemed as if his career would surely play hob with mine. We had three children under 5, an excellent live-in keeper, and I had found a part-time job at The Washington Post. When through with editing the "Letters to the Editor" column, I was allowed to write editorials. It was an ideal paid apprenticeship. But Jonathan wanted to go back to New York to establish a political base (D.C. being voteless). I wept. I was devastated. Today he says I should have asked him to wait a year or two. The fact that such a request never entered my mind tells something about the state of women's liberation at that time.
And yet, it was because Jonathan entered New York politics that we met Reinhold Niebuhr, the brilliant theologian and political thinker who became my first biographical subject. "Courage to Change: An Introduction to the Life and Thought of Reinhold Niebuhr" was the hardest work I have ever done.
I was deep into interviewing Niebuhr and his colleagues, and auditing one of his courses, when Jonathan was invited to Albany as an aide to newly elected Gov. Averell Harriman. This time I planted my feet. I said he could go but I could not. So he commuted, up and down the Hudson, arriving in the Bronx for ever-shorter weekends. The children became more and more fractious, the dog ever more badly behaved. Perhaps they were missing their paterfamilias, perhaps merely reflecting the discombulation of their materfamilias. There are disadvantages as well as advantages to being pair-bonded, the worst being the pain of separation.
When I told Neibuhr I was thinking of moving the family to Albany, he offered to write a weekly letter to take the place of our weekly interview. This collection of letters is worth far more to history than my notes of interviews would have been. The letters are now the proud possession of the Library of Congress, and every few months, even 25 years later, I receive a request from some scholar to peruse them?
Although the Chinese consider it bad luck to live in interesting times, the crises one goes through at a personal or national level are the fires that weld people together -- or sear them apart.
When Freud was asked what were the most important things in life, he answered, "To work and to love." And although he admitted that he did not know what on earth women wanted, I believe that he was, in this instance, close to the mark. Both work and love can provide wild thrills, even bliss. On occasion, in an almost holy way, as perhaps in childbirth, one feels, "This is what I was put on earth to do."
By now, I realize with a shock, I have been juggling the three classic roles of spouse, parent and careerperson for two-thirds of my life (the longest two-thirds, I shout, when Jonathan bugs me). Not only is the line between work and pleasure thoroughly blurred for me, but so is the line between my work and pleasure, his work and pleasure, and our joint work and pleasure. My exultation when he is accepted by the voters is the same as when my books are accepted by the publisher, or when our children achieve some long-held dream. Similarly my expletives are as colorful when something goes wrong for him, or me, or us, or them.
"A man's reach should exceed his grasp," and so should a woman's . . . But in the latter 20th century, with women's options ever growing, they may need at times to shorten their reach.
Options makes some choices difficult. But the choice, in the long run, is what makes the difference between feeling put upon or relied upon, between feeling used or feeling needed, between servitude and service-with-a-smile.