While holding down her traditional job of family caregiver, wife and mother, today’s working mom pursues a full-time career outside the home.
To help her accomplish this, she employs a variety of necessary essentials for running a modern, well-organized home: cell phones, au pairs to watch the children, nanny-cams to watch the au pairs, and a pager so she can be reached at any time. And, for a fee and a password, she can log on through her computer to a video service that connects her to her children’s daycare center.
The coming millennium promises to bring even more to modern motherhood. Today’s working mom seems a far cry from the Harriet Nelsons, Donna Stones, June Cleavers and Margaret Andersons of my childhood – dedicated homemakers who were once the epitome of America’s housewife and mother. Television’s ubiquitous primetime moms were the role models for a postwar generation of women who dressed better doing their housework than some of us did on our last job interview.
I knew Margaret Anderson and her television counterparts were too good to be true. But oh, how I wanted them to be. Contrary to real-life moms, there was never a problem these lovely homemakers couldn’t solve in a span of 30 minutes – no situation so devastating that milk and cookies couldn’t set it right. June, Harriet, Donna and Margaret led a storybook existence in a world of laughter and fiction, where the biggest problem June Cleaver had to face was how to get rid of that irritating Eddie Haskel, and Harriet’s toughest decision was deciding which flavor of ice cream to serve Ozzie and the boys.
Donna Stone’s only frustration? How to stop son Jeff from drinking out of the milk carton. And the seemingly unflappable Margaret Anderson, a role model for “The Stepford Wives,” was content just shelling peas, preparing supper and calling young Bud, Princess and Kitten to the dinner table.
Unlike the real world, these TV moms never scrubbed a toilet, killed a cockroach or used profanity. But despite her lack of reality, the 1950s TV mom had a major impact on the way young women saw themselves and what they aspired to become.
Women who once read fashion magazines were now tuning in the family sitcoms to see what their fashionable TV peers were wearing. American women got a chance to select from a fundamental wardrobe of cotton dresses, frilly aprons, white pearls and high-heeled pumps. It was Donna Reed’s dress style that first ushered in what some fashion critics called the “paper doll” look.
These delicate, ladylike fashions of the ’50s reflected the changes in our postwar generation. In an era of God and country and Mom’s apple pie, women were dressing more feminine in a way that symbolized American ideals.
By the 1960s, the women’s movement had put an end to the romanticized version of the stay-at-home mom. America’s idealistic bubble had burst and housewives all across the country were about to undergo a dramatic change in lifestyle.
Wash-and-wear synthetics had been invented; fabrics such as cellulose, acetate, nylon and acrylic revolutionized daily homemaking and ironing became a chore of the past. Until that time, housewives had spent 10 to 15 hours a week over a hot ironing board, pressing out the wrinkles in their family’s wardrobe of cotton and starched linen.
With new fabrics came new attitudes. Quick-care polyester gave the modern homemaker more leisure time. The miracle of no-iron fabrics and microwave cookery set housewives free to pursue new goals. Discontented with her job as housewife and caregiver, and unhappy with her lack of a good retirement plan, the modern Mom began searching for work outside the home.
This trend began in the 1960s, festered in the ’70s and became a full-blown epidemic in the 1990s – with 75 percent of all mothers holdings jobs outside the home. Wives and mothers began carving out careers for themselves in the business and corporate world. A dynamic generation of working women was born and the words “simple” and “housewife” would never again be used together.
Several generations have passed since television’s consummate Mom set the standard of style and behavior for the post-war housewife. Unlike these pristine role models of yesterday, today’s Mom has settled into a more flexible style and dress.
Like most modern women, I consider myself nattily dressed when wearing a new pair of 501s, and a one-size-fits-all sweatshirt. The last time I wore a string of pearls was to great-aunt Hatty’s funeral in 1958.
Mom, like her TV counterparts, never knew the benefits of today’s technology or felt the desire for a career goal. But there are days when I envy her, for never knowing a world of wash-and-wear, fast foods, computers, pagers, video cams or microwaves.
But mostly, I envy the unmitigated satisfaction she derived from her full-time job as wife and mother.
And so, today’s millennium mom continues in her role as housewife and family caregiver. And, as she has done since the 1960s, she adapts to it, changes it, alters, even revises it, but never will she abdicate it.