“Are you resigning from being our mother?” my 25-year-old son sputtered into the phone.
The ink had just dried on a nine-month sublet, 30 miles from our suburban home.
“Moms don’t move out! — You’re crazy.”
Crazy — a term confused men sometimes cast on women.
After two years of commuting from our home to a university where I’d enrolled in a master’s program, I decided to sublet a small apartment 20 blocks from school. I wanted flexibility to stay late some evenings, to see a play or attend a lecture after classes. I wanted a space away from my adult children, who wandered in and out of our house with friends and significant others. I wanted freedom from stocking a house and a fridge; I wanted to retreat to a place of my own.
Three nights a week, bathed in the silence of my apartment, I indulged in a space where I had the liberty to make myself a cup of coffee without making one for someone else first. Sometimes my husband would come in for dinner or a show, sometimes I met one of my kids to go for a walk or visit a museum. But it was on the four nights when I commuted back to our family home where I embraced my role as mother-in-chief, hearkening to the noises that are family.
I first read Virginia Woolf’s essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” when I was an undergraduate, and though I understood her position that women were deprived of most social and academic advantages inherent to Anglican men, I didn’t appreciate the significance of the room. I had moved from a room in my parents’ house to a single in college. In that single I heard the beat of women writers claiming space away from their families to find themselves. Solitude engendered creative freedom, “… she would buy the flowers herself …” “Mrs. Dalloway” begins, and on that journey away from her family, we hear the creative rumblings of Mrs. Dalloway’s mind.
Though I wasn’t familiar with the verbiage, as I bore one child after another, I performed my gender, mimicking what I’d observed on TV. As I laid out our breakfast table, I was satisfied that I’d replicated those happy TV households. My primary home had been hollowed by a mom who fell ill when I was in kindergarten and died when I was in my teens. Barbara Billingsley, Florence Henderson and Phylicia Rashad — I wanted homes like theirs.
And then, my days were driven by my children’s routines, athletic practices and games, parent-teacher conferences, doctor and dentist visits, music lessons, homework checks, library readings, dog walks, scraping up pet hair — and too many visits to the emergency room. I ran a few miles a day (my time) while preparing three meals a day and attending to a job I molded around my family’s schedules, not my passions.
Making sure that everyone was where they needed to be, I forgot where I wanted to go.
I was so fritzed, I started watching reality TV. “This isn’t how I want to end my life,” I thought as I watched startling housewives injecting Botox and pulling each other’s hair.
My second husband had an off-site office where he grew our family business, and my four kids seemed to have their own spaces in our home, but I had no place designated as mine, a space where I could read and write and think. Even the mudroom where I taught young children Orton-Gillingham for years, a space where my husband had decided no heating was required — even in that tiny freezing room with my desk and two chairs — my family swung in and out as though I had no claim to privacy.
Heading toward 60, I made an attempt to fill the void.
“Are you resigning as our mother?” echoed as I unpacked my Nespresso maker.
“Of course not,” I said.
But I was also mothering myself.
We cast women who live alone as isolated cat-ladies; spinsters who have failed their gender. But when I open the door to my apartment, when I find the yogurts just as I left them, when the Brita is full and the printer has paper, I turn off my phone and savor the moments of quiet. Navel gazing has its place.
In Anne Tyler’s “Ladder of Years,” Delia Grinstead, the 40-year-old protagonist, walks along the beach in her bathing suit with $500 tucked into her tote as she leaves behind her husband and three children. Reading this I wondered, “How could she do that? — Why would she do that?”
Except it wasn’t a single she. As I continued reading stories written by women about women, the theme of walking away from domesticity persisted. I noticed a theme of motherhood detached from itself, of women drunk on afternoon martinis as their children fell into swimming pools. Women taking lovers on trains, women sinking in the quicksand of their own domestic bliss. Then I remembered “domestic” was a euphemism for a servant. And that servitude and bliss were an oxymoron.
My husband boasts to our friends, “My wife loves doing laundry.”
Do I? I flinch at the words. I did it for him, for them, no, I did it for me. To earn my A+ in homemaking.
Watching the housewives franchise engendered such self-disgust that one show winding into the next inspired me to make a change. “What about my unrealized dreams? I'm in my fifties,” I thought, “maybe the world will still have me.”
I realized that part of what had enabled my husband’s success was that he never collected his shirts at the dry cleaners or shopped for the apple juice he loves. I don’t serve dinner every night anymore, but the fridge is always full, the lightbulbs all turn on, and the counters are polished clean. For everyone else in my home, there is a sense of calm unless, of course, I’m yelling, “Who left the friggin dishes in the sink?”
When I signed the lease for the apartment with a bathroom so small my husband had trouble standing in it, I understood that though I had craved domesticity, had rushed into marriage to ensure that I would be married, would have children, would make a family, now, in my own way, I was running away from that role.
I thought of my grandmother in her kitchen preparing one meal after the other, meals that held our family together. She had taught me familial love, her arms always open. But one day she woefully confessed that she had always wanted to be a nurse and that her father had not believed in educating women. Arms open, she ensured that her four daughters were college educated. I wanted to take advantage of that, of all my learning.
Stocking the fridge, tending to our fragile septic system, the lost newspaper, sorting piles of mail — not to mention the bloody laundry — are surely happy problems, problems that indicate life and family. Nevertheless, they usurp minutes of the day while liberating those who aren’t doing them.
Did I deserve an apartment of my own?
I took it because I could.
Georgette Culucundis Mallory is a freelance writer.