Monday, February 27, 2012

When Housewife Was Not a Dirty Word

In my day, it was a young man's ideal to marry, get a decent job to support his wife who would stay home, clean, cook and raise the kids. When I asked my wife to marry me, I promised to support her for life, a promise which I have kept.

She, on the other hand, readily and proudly accepted her role as wife, mother, and housewife. It is how she had been raised in a Mexican family of five girls and one boy.

Her mother was the ultimate Matriarch. Strong, moralistic, and hard working who instilled into her daughters the traditional role of women. The woman's place was in the home.

However, these roles came in conflict when my wife joined me in the United States and she came in contact with American women. My mother warned in reference to Mexican girls and this cutural clash: "Cuando llegan a Los Estados Unidos llegan muy 'songuitas', pero con el tiempo sacan las uñas "(when a girl arrives in the U.S. she is very docile, but soon begins to show her claws). The word "songuito/a" was and idiom conjuring the image of a pliant, innocent, obedient and docile creature.

In the 60's as the Women's Liberation Movement took wing, my wife and I were caught up in the changes. On one hand, I welcomed the idea of women moving out of the house to embrace new gender roles and careers, but I feared there would be a cost, a price to pay in the home and family.

For years, she suffered guilt as a result of my intellectual and sexually liberated female friends. Most were educated, and worldly and she a mere "housewife." She loved her home and prided herself in keeping it spotless. She adored cooking for her husband and children. She was a model mother. But she had to spar and deflect the overt and covert contempt of her newly liberated American peers. The effort to change the negatively charged moniker from "Housewife" to "Homemaker" did little to comfort her. They viewed her as "quaint."

To counter this I told her one day, "The next time an American woman asks 'Oh, and what do you do?' Tell them you hold a Master's Degree in Home Making!" She did, and it worked. They usually backed off.

Once, while living in Oakland we met some distant friends on her family's side, a young Chicano couple who loved to socialize. However, after attending a few parties at their house we noticed a sharp division between the men and the women. The men, sat at the kitchen table, smoking, playing cards and drinking beer. The women, retired to a bedroom where they talked about babies, cooking and shopping. We joined in on the rigid order, until one day I told my wife "Why don't we really shake up the place next time we are invited to a party, with you sitting with the men at the kitchen table, and me joing the women in the bedroom?"

It took and immense amount of courage, but we did it. The place was never the same.

One day, when my Mother-in-law visited us from Mexico City, as she sat on our couch knitting, my son's girlfried came over with a pair of trousers that needed to be hemmed. She frantically beseeched my wife to sew them up for her. My wife readily took the trousers and in her mother's presence, hemmed them with a needle and thread.

Not one minute after the front door closed and the frantic girlfriend left, my mother-in-law launched into a tirade! "What is it with these American girls? My God, they don't even know how to sew!!" Not to mention the fact that the girl had not even acknowledged my "suegra", or even offered her hand to greet her when she arrived, or when she left. Such manners.

What's prompted my writing all of this, I suppose, is that recently one of my wife's sisters from Mexico visited us. She had just turned 60 and when her husband asked her what she wanted for her birthday, she told him she wanted to visit her sister in the U.S. Joining us, was another sister who lives in town, and I relished watching and listening to them share childhood stories and memories in our living room. On one occasion, the sisters were sharing knitting "secrets", probably taught to them by their mother, as the three knitted together on the couch.

What a sight! What a pleasant hike into the past, into what is being lost, into what has already disappeared. When I shared the insight with my wife later that night in bed, I asked her "Do all your sisters knit?" "Yes, they all do. But the master knitter is my sister, Marta. She is so fast, she knits a sweater in a day. You can hardly see her hands move." I marveled at the image.

"But Marta does not sell any of her work for personal profit. All of it is donated to the parish and sold and the profits from her knitting has paid for nearly all of the pews in her church."

To this day, my wife and her four sisters, are proud housewives, with the exception of one who is divorced and now works for an outfit that buys used auto batteries, and sells refurbished ones, an odd resume, don't you agree?

1 comment:

V said...

There is no shame in being a housewife. Unless of course housewife is synonymous with reality star. I think when the "Real Housewives" franchise launched is when people began equating "housewife" with " a grown woman with too much plastic surgery who drinks and parties too much and behaves like a 12 year old." But a homemaker, a woman who works hard to keep her family (and her sanity!) together is amazing!