Friday, October 5, 2012

Lessons from my nana: the social construction of women's caregiving role

I recently sat down with my nana to gain insight into her life experiences as a woman and her take on feminism.  My nana is a fascinating woman.  At the age of twenty-four my nana packed up her car and drove to California, leaving behind the small Illinois town in which was raised.  She was engaged to be married that fall.  She wanted to see more of the world before she settled down, so she and a friend decided to head to California for a summer adventure.

Two weeks before they were set to leave, my nana’s friend got engaged and cancelled the trip.  She wanted to stay in Illinois and get married that summer.  My nana had a decision to make: stay in Illinois with her own fiancé or venture to California alone.  She chose the latter, promising her fiancé she would be back at the end of the summer.  She ended up breaking that promise, as well as the engagement.

When I asked my nana why she stayed in California, she told me that the easiest thing to do would have been to return to Illinois and “marry that fellow.”  She wasn’t ready to give up her independence.  Plus, in California, “the salary for teachers was double.”  

My nana explained that her sense of independence was a product of her upbringing.  She grew up on a farm with three brothers.  Her father was a butcher.  She told me that she was not close with her mother, but her father had always encouraged her to do whatever she possibly could to get ahead in life.  He told her that she could be whatever she wanted to be.  He wanted all of his children to go to college.  None of her brothers ended up graduating from college, but my nana did. 

She worked her way through school and received her degree from the University of Illinois in only three years.  After moving to California, my nana took advantage of the higher paying teacher’s salary.  She taught school during the day and pursued a masters in music with a minor in elementary education at night from San Jose State.  She lived with two girlfriends.  They had very little money but saved up whatever they could for weekend road trips to San Francisco and Yosemite.

My nana eventually moved down to Salinas where she met and married my papa at the age of twenty-nine.  Despite my nana’s fiercely independent twenties, she had a fairly traditional marriage.  She packed my papa’s lunch everyday and made dinner every night.  She had my mom within a year of getting married.  She told me that having children was very important to her.  If she could go back, she would have four or five kids instead of two.  

I wanted to dig deeper into my nana’s transformation into a homemaker.  I asked her why she only had two children when she wanted to have four.  She explained that my papa was hesitant about even having a second child because “he knew he would have to help out more.”  She explained that my papa was a great father but practically all of the childrearing responsibilities fell on her.  She didn’t think she could handle more children.  My nana stayed at home with the kids until they were old enough to attend school.  At that point, she returned to teaching.

I then brought up the concept of the “double shift.”  Did she like being responsible for breakfast, lunch, and dinner on top of her job as a teacher?  She said that she embraced it.  She loves cooking for people just like she loves hosting parties.  She thinks it has more to do with her personality and less to do with her being a woman.  

Finally, I asked my nana how she would define feminism and whether she considers herself a feminist.  She quickly answered that she is not a feminist.  After some thought she said, “I think feminism is the belief that a woman can do anything a man can do, which I believe, but I still want to be treated like a lady.” 

In many ways my nana was ahead of her time.  While most of her friends married and had children after high school, she chose to go to college and pursue a career first.  Her story also represents one of the greatest challenges that women face: it is assumed that women will be the care givers for their husbands and fathers.  Her lifestyle after she married in many ways reflected this traditional role.  She took care of the children.  She made all of  the meals.  She maintained the private sphere before and after she returned to work.

Listening to my nana’s story made me think about how the traditional role of women is so embedded in our culture that many women do not question it.  My nana emphasized that she enjoyed cooking, and, besides, “the only thing [my papa] knew how to make was boxed macaroni and cheese.”  She didn’t question whether it was fair that she made all of the meals or push him to expand his cooking repertoire.  She also accepted that my papa was not going to be much help with the childrearing, and it played a part in her decision not to have more children.  My nana did pursue a career, which many women in similar circumstances did not do.  However, she chose a traditionally female profession, and put her career on hold to stay at home with the children without a second thought.  

My nana loved her care giving role.  Some feminist scholars would argue that her passion for care giving was biologically ordained.  See Kingsley R. Browne, Sex and Temperament in Modern Society: A Darwinian View of the Glass Ceiling and the Gender Gap, 37 ARIZ. L. REV. 971 (1995).  I believe that my nana’s definition of feminism and her reasoning for not labeling herself as a feminist exemplifies that traditionally feminine characteristics, such as embracing care giving, are socially constructed, not human nature.  While my nana believes that women should be able to do anything that men can do, she “still wants to be treated like a lady.”  

How a lady should be treated and what it means to be female are socially constructed ideals.  It isn’t easy to deviate from this traditional role when it is often accepted by both sexes and enforced by our laws and institutions.  My nana represents a different generation.  She pushed the envelope and lived a far less traditional life than most of the friends she grew up with.  My mom’s generation questioned that traditional role to a greater extent.  Laws were enacted and opportunities for women increased.  

My generation has learned that equal opportunity is not enough.  Every day I am confronted with images and messages of how society thinks I should behave to fulfill my role as a woman.  I do not have a solution, but I know that we need to do more than question the role.  We need to refuse to accept it.  We must lead by example and teach the next generation that, not only can women do anything that men can do, we can do anything we want to do because there is no such thing as "lady like."

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

Your nana's story reinforces an idea that I've been thinking about lately. No matter how independent and "nontraditional" a woman's life is before she becomes a mother, once she has children, she invariably takes on the more traditional role of caregiver.

It's no longer dependent on when she gets married, because a lot of women maintain their careers and independence after getting married. It's really when kids come into the picture that a woman is forced to confront serious choices about work-life balance.

Will this ever change? I don't think so. The biological pull of motherhood plus the social expectations of mother as primary caregiver mean that women continue to take on the role of primary child care giver. Yes, there are more stay-at-home dads then there used to be, but I would venture a guess that they are mostly from progressive, upper-middle class homes, a small portion of the overall child-rearing population. I think having children will continue to be the pull towards traditional domesticity for a lot of women.