By Grace Cooper
I’M COMPOSING this post in the middle of a week in which my beau and I drove down to visit my daughter, son-in-law and two beautiful, healthy grandchildren. They’ve recently moved into their first home in a tidy suburb of a thriving southern university town. Their lovely newish house has five bedrooms, four bathrooms, a playroom, a movie screening room, lots of closet space and even two pantries. All of this is encircled with a large lawn, a fenced kitchen garden of raised beds, an adjacent pond resplendent with water lilies and irises. Their two cats and a dog round out this peaceable kingdom.
Superficially everything looks like the American dream come true, but we old gals who grew up during the Ozzie and Harriet and Donna Reed era know better, don’t we? Donna didn’t maintain that wasp-waisted figure and immaculate apron by finishing the kids’ leftovers or hugging babies smeared in peanut butter and applesauce. A TV sitcom illusion of home and hearth perfection requires an army of set designers, hair, makeup, and wardrobe artists, and a nanny team to look after little Ricky and Wally so their parents could learn their lines.
Yes, reality, as we know is a bit different. Yet, codependent nut job that I was, I raised two kids who still believed that an educated mother could birth a few kids, set up and run an attractive, clean, and well-functioning household, and hold down a high-paying and responsible job too . . . and that the husband would leave in the morning to do whatever he does until he returned later for cocktails, dinner and TV in his easy chair.
Or at least that’s the way I remember it all those years I was married.
Many years ago I did have a brief reality wake-up call that shattered my delusions of emulating the perfect sitcom wife and mother for my audience—friends, neighbors, and even my own children. My son was in second grade and brought home one of those cute stories that kids write in anticipation of Mother’s Day. I still get a knot in my stomach when I recall what my sweet child composed in response to the prompt: “I love how my mother . . . bakes cookies and cakes. My mother sews all our clothes. My mother is always pretty and smells like roses.”
Total fantasy fiction! My kid was describing Harriet and Donna—not me. His real mom left for work at 6am in OR scrubs, dirty hair tucked beneath a cap. As an anesthetist, my patients were literally unconscious to my grooming lapses, and that extra half-hour of sleep I needed was too precious to sacrifice.
My children ate every dinner on the days I worked in a different restaurant, because after 12-hour shifts I was too tired to cook. For his eighth birthday my boy begged me to make him dinner at home for once. Feeling a bit guilty I pulled out all stops with roast beef, mashed potatoes and even a homemade cake. ‘That was the best chicken I’ve ever had,” exclaimed my precious son.
“That wasn’t chicken, honey. It was roast beef,” I explained.
He looked puzzled. What’s roast beef?
Then it hit me in a wave of motherly guilt . . . there is no roast beef on a children’s menus. No wonder my boy child fantasized about a mom like Donna or Harriet, I rationalized and then vowed to do better going forward.
Today, my daughter took me aside after she and I made breakfast for the adults and something else for the picky toddler.
“Did you yell at E (my beau)? my daughter inquired. I can’t help but notice he was being exceptionally helpful in the kitchen and with the kids. And I just heard him ask Ev ( her husband) if he wanted help installing that pile of speakers he bought six months ago.”
I admitted that I had chastened the beau for sitting on the sidelines texting while we ladies cooked dinner the night before, then cleaned the kitchen, ran a few loads of laundry and looked after the kids.
Later that morning she and I loaded up the children and set off to do the grocery shopping, a run to the garden center for spring flowers and supplies, and even detoured to the wine shop in the two-hour window before hungry and tired kids would need to be fed and napped. By the time we returned the men were busy sawing holes in the movie-room ceiling above our heads. Ah, happy noises that indicated the men in residence were “getting s**t done.”
We looked at each other with understanding. “I hate that I have to threaten to maim my husband in order to motivate him to help out around here. I feel like most men I know act clueless and entitled, ignoring the reality of what it takes to raise kids and run a household. Why is it like this? my daughter complained.
I began to apologize to my girl child for taking the easier way out with her own father, opting to act like a doormat during her childhood. “I never challenged dad because he sulked for three days if I so much as asked him to put the cap on the toothpaste. Your father was more like my third child, I said, you know, the obstinate, angry teenager who you can’t wait to drop off at college . . . or divorce one day.”
We began to discuss why we married two men who stuck so closely to misogynistic and sexual male roles. She explained that her guy was simply emulating his own macho father. She assumed she could change him eventually . . . oh dear . . . another misguided delusion many women buy into.
As we dished about misogyny, it occurred to me that I’d done little to challenge her brother’s idea of masculinity when he was young. It wasn’t until he was in his third year of college and begged to move off campus into his own apartment that I finally put my foot down.
“You’ll starve, for one thing,” I remarked. “Not only do you not have the faintest idea how to plan meals or cook, you’ve never visited a grocery store on your own. And because you don’t clean or do laundry you’d probably die of some resistant bacterial infection the likes of which arise in unsanitary barnyards. If you want to move off campus the following semester, we need to do a crash course in home economics first.”
And so my son—thus motivated—finally learned to cook a few meals and keep the environmental microbes in check.
Today I’m proud to say my son is a self-sufficient feminist. He also married a whip-smart-wonderful-but-messy gal who does not raise a finger to help out around the house. But she was an only child and that’s another story for another day.
I guess rather than complain about our men folk that we mothers of young boys have a golden opportunity to rewrite the future. I pointed out to my daughter that I love how she motivated her son to run the stick vacuum around the house. She invites him to cook with her. He may miss wide swaths of dust bunnies and drop a few raw eggs on the floor, but he’s proud of being a helper.
And I reminded her of something her husband once said to me on another long visit during the start of COVID when tension in the household was running high. One day my daughter blew up at him over some minor oversight on his part. I asked him if he needed me to talk to my daughter about lightening up a bit.
“No, do not do that! he exclaimed. “She’s making me a better man!”
A better man . . . as good as it gets . . . now there’s a movie I’d pay to watch again and again!
—Grace Cooper (a nom de plume) left her long marriage more than a decade ago, and with it went all sense of her identity—but not for long. Now 68, she has begun chronicling her tales of looking for love in all the wrong places, and unexpectedly finding herself.