For International Women’s Day (March 8) I wanted to share one aspect of my mother’s life — when she first went back to working outside the home. In the years prior, she had given private French lessons in our dining room, but in 1968, she became a translator at Washington, D.C.’s Comsat. When discussing all the changes it would entail in our routine, my parents were very open about the financial necessity of her going to work. At 10, I didn’t understand that this was a subject only discussed within the family, and told a neighbor “oh yeah, my mother needs to work to get us out of the hole we’re in”. (I was gently schooled later that this was inappropriate sharing. Ironically, my clueless indiscretion got back to my parents via the same neighbor whose twin sons were paying kids a nickel to come into the woods, so they could smell their shoes and socks. You can imagine the embarrassment was far worse when my father told Mrs T. as diplomatically as he could about her sons’ “hobby.”)
Not only did my mom pay off the credit cards, she saved enough to take all five of us kids to France in the summer of 1969. After that, we moved to New York, and she almost immediately started working as a French teacher at Mount Vernon High School, where she introduced Latin as well, two years later.
My mother working had a big impact on me and my siblings. We suddenly did the dishes every night and the housework on Saturday. I bitched the most about that, but would later be the only one of my college roommates who knew how to clean a bathroom. She would chastise me about my complaining, advised me to just take cleaning in stride, to see what needed to be done and do it. If the carpet needed vacuuming, or the table needed setting, just do it without being asked. This is exactly what I would drill into my own kids (if I had any) and how I handle the work divide with David, whose mother also worked outside the home.
My mother was the primary family breadwinner after she started teaching. (My father’s income was variable, but always less.) The most basic economic feminism was baked into me and my siblings and never left.
She could stretch a budget miraculously. We always ate very well and only took out minimal loans for college — three in college at a time for six years! I literally do not know how she did it.