My mother was no stranger to hard work and she made sure that I was also well acquainted with its benefits. “Idle hands are the devil’s tools” was certainly the mantra of our household. She also grew up in the generation that had some definite ideas about the division of labor between men and women, and she had mixed feelings about women with careers. While she admired and encouraged the ones she knew, she made it clear, at least to me, that they must never neglect their husbands, homes, or children in exchange for a salary. If the family needed the money a woman earned then she was obligated to provide it, but she had to also have a clean home, happy husband, and well-behaved children. I blame her generation for the “superwoman” myth that still haunts us.
It’s no wonder that my mother seldom worked at a paying job until after we were nearly all grown. The work of maintaining a home was so different then that there was little time or energy for much else! My mother washed clothes with a wringer washer and hung them on the line. She kept chickens and collected the eggs for breakfast. She tended the garden and spent hours harvesting and processing the vegetables it produced; we usually had rows of canned goods and a packed freezer. She cooked nearly everything from scratch. She was a “move the furniture once a week” kind of housekeeper. She made our clothes and her own. And when we lived in CA she usually worked beside us in the vineyards or cotton fields! I get tired just thinking about how much she did.
My mother was also very keen on the notion that children were a part of the household and must help take care of it. I learned to wash dishes when I was still young enough to stand on a chair to do so. I folded clothes and swept the floors and snapped beans. I learned to iron when I was about nine. My brothers picked up their toys and made their beds (most of the time) and set the table. If we ever complained about being “bored” Mom quickly found a remedy for our condition!
Although my father will tell you that he taught my mother to cook and that he was and still is a better cook, I don’t remember him “helping around the house” very often. He worked at his job or in the fields, or both. He maintained our frequently ailing cars. He took care of the larger animals. He mowed the yard. He took care of home repairs. He did all the “guy stuff” that fathers of his generation were supposed to do.
My own working life was somewhat erratic, but although I spent a few years as a stay-at-home mom, I certainly didn’t have to devote as much time or effort to my household tasks as my mother did. Modern appliances and packaged foods and store-bought clothing made a tremendous difference for my generation. If my mother had any criticism of my less-than-super cleaning or cooking skills she kept them to herself. She was much more likely to give advice about caring for my children and she didn’t do that very often. I suppose the only thing that hasn’t changed much for any woman is the time, effort, energy, and attention required by our children. Child-rearing is still the 24/7 job that it has always been, so she usually had a sympathetic ear if needed.
My mother eventually got a job outside her home and made the necessary adjustments in her expectations about housework and cooking and laundry. We’ve all had to change our priorities in those areas as we’ve joined the workforce, but I still feel lazy compared to her. I can tell you that if she was still alive I’d probably dust more often! I might even cook.