Lately I’ve been watching episode after episode of “Mad Men.” It’s addictive, this study in sociology. I look at the oppression and the belittlement and the inflexible gender roles and can’t help seeing my own past. All my life I’ve watched women in movies and TV of the ’50s and early ’60s and thought secretly to myself that I would not be like them, that I came from a different generation, the one after bra-burning, and that things had changed for me. I was wrong.
Five months after my ex and I were married, my world changed. Five months pregnant, I quit my high-stress, high-responsibility job that came with a mobile phone and a company car and moved with my new husband across the state to live in the house we bought together with his money. We combined the contents of his rented apartment with those of the house I had owned and loved and paid for. I trundled up to the door of our new house pushing a wheelbarrow marked “Chattel” that contained my books and CDs and the two teacups my grandmother had given me and my shoes and the strings of faux pearls I took from my mom’s jewelry box, and I rang the doorbell, climbed on top of the wheelbarrow and presented the whole lot to my new husband as a wedding gift, connected by a thin gold chain to the $12,000 wedding ring on my finger.
Suddenly, I was without an identity save that of “wife” and “mother.” I was asked to close my checking account. I no longer had a secretary or an expense account; I no longer wrote memos and planned million-dollar budgets. Now I painted the living room walls, unpacked boxes of books, grew a baby in my belly, and opened mail addressed to my new husband: account statements from myriad banks and stock portfolios, accounts that bore his name only.
“Here, you address this envelope,” he’d tell me, handing me the check that I had filled out but that he signed. “You’re so good at it.”
Good! I was good at something! Ego stroked, I’d address the envelope. I had a job.
Marriage became not the partnership I had once dreamed of but a study in identity. He was the man who earned the money and mowed the lawn and took out the trash, and I was the woman who cared for the children and the house and mailed the checks he wrote, in the envelopes I addressed. And I did this willingly. I was the one who had loaded the wheelbarrow with my former life and draped the sign marked “Chattel” around my neck.
Motherhood became the only thing that mattered to me and all the energy I had once wanted to put into building a marriage partnership went into becoming the best mother I possibly could be, a mother who protected her children from everything she was afraid to feel herself, like loneliness and isolation and worthlessness. I could keep my kids from that pain by being a Mother with a capital “M”. That kind of motherhood leaves little room for a father, especially a father who is emotionally distant to begin with.
Everything changed, then, when I left Pennsylvania a year ago. I stepped back from trying to be everything for my children. I left room for a distant father to become closer, to step into the space I left. My kids, rather than falling apart in my absence, seem to have become stronger: they are still straight-A students, they have more friends than ever, and they are growing into their independence.
My children’s father and I spent several hours talking by phone and email this month, a big change for us. Our communication had been reduced a few years ago to a bare minimum — sparse, terse, and necessary — when the conflict of the divorce courtroom began to spill over into our face-to-face interaction. Instead of vulnerability, which in the past had always led to hurt, I opted for the safety of stoniness and learned to use as few words as possible. He did the same. After I left Pennsylvania a year ago it became clear that I couldn’t keep up with everything the children were doing simply by asking them — because after all, what child thinks it’s important to mention doctor visits and report cards? I asked my ex-husband to include periodic updates that would fill in the chinks left gaping by my phone calls and the sporadic emails I received from the kids. He complied and sent infrequent but long and often detailed glimpses of their life together.
This month, though, we had to plan our son Eric’s future and prepare for lengthy meetings with specialists and therapists about the options in special education available for him. That’s when I noticed that my ex-husband and I had become a team of sorts, something we never were when we were married. The dynamic between us has shifted, and I think it has a lot to do with the creation of a different balance between us in parenting. We’re on more equal footing now. I stepped back and he stepped in.
It’s odd thinking that I had to put 3000 miles between myself and my children in order to somehow become a more complete mother than I felt I was during the years when we all slept in the same bed. My picture of motherhood now has nothing to do with trying to overcome emptiness or trying to be someone else; it has everything to do with being the best person I can be for my children in a given moment.
The wheelbarrow has overturned and the “Mad Men” legacy has ended. The motherhood model my kids now experience is neither the power-suited high-heeled semi-executive nor the barefoot unhappy housewife I once was. I’ve broken the mold of motherhood that I spent years trying to squeeze into. We all define motherhood on an individual basis, whether it’s a leftover ’50s ideal, a new interpretation of feminism, a Mother with a capital “M,” or simply what works best for us and for our families. My new mold of motherhood will continue to change, and every day brings a new piece to its creation.