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Rhonda Herrington Bulmer
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May 12th, 2006
My mother's day tribute–Here's to all the mice on wheels
by Rhonda Herrington Bulmer

CBC got me thinking this morning. I’m sure Sheila Rogers would be happy to know that. In honour of Mother’s Day, Sounds Like Canada examined different aspects of being a housewife in the 21st century, interviewing some minstrel moms who write and perform music for money and sanity, and talked to a producer on her show who chatted with different types of women who occupy that role.

What I thought was really interesting was a portion of audio the producer dug up from interviews with Canadian women in the 1960′s. It seemed they echoed women’s concerns today. “If what I’m doing is so important, why do I fight feelings of inadequacy?” “Is the world passing me by while I look after the interests of others?” It seems the old adage, the more things change, the more they stay the same, is correct.

I was pleased to find that my modern counterparts share my struggles, case in point: labelling yourself in social situations. Recently, my husband sold his business to a much larger company, and so our lives have returned to “executive professional” status where wives must be dragged to business-social occasions where everyone is going to have a good time, dammit. And you go, as a dutiful wife, because you love your husband and you want to fulfill expectations for his sake. Why do I hate those activities so much? Other people seem to be comfortable. Perhaps you can guess the first reason: I’m terrible at small talk, a characteristic which has nothing to do with being at home all day. But the other reason is because as a stay-at-home mom (a.k.a. house frau, household facilitator/manager/technician, domestic engineer) I feel like an underachieving mouse on a wheel in the presence of other wives whose lives positively spin with activity, children or no children. The conversation often goes something like this:

Tiffany (Part-time teacher, wife of company president): Stacy, I didn’t see you at ballet class. Your daughter is really improving! I couldn’t stay very long had to rush right back for a staff meeting at the school.

Stacy (advertising executive, wife of senior comptroller): Oh, I would have loved to go, but I had an emergency meeting after work—I’ll be so glad when this project is completed. The client is impossible to please. I didn’t get home until 10:00 pm. We ordered chinese and revamped the entire proposal. Gary had to take Jocelyne to ballet, because I just couldn’t get away at suppertime.

Deborah (nurse, wife of Senior Project Manager): Never mind my kids activities: I’ve missed a whole month of pottery classes! Bill and I have been working opposite shifts for about four weeks. I never see him anymore, the kids only see us one at a time. I can’t wait for July—we’re going to Cuba for three weeks, and we’re bringing a babysitter!

Here I am, listening to the other three, (who by the way, are chic, skinny, probably about ten years younger than myself, driving very nice vehicles) and the inevitable question comes as they aim to be polite and ask the stranger (who bought her dress at a second-hand store) the inevitable get-to-know-you question:

“So, Rhonda, you’re Kent’s wife…what do you do?”

I clear my throat and glance down at my drink, wishing the ground would swallow me up. “I’m at home with my kids,” I answer. Home with my kids is the more palatable euphemism for “housewife”. Housewife denotes a 1950′s June Cleaver archetype, subordination, underachievement, lack of ambition, and the execution of menial tasks that have no end.

There’s a brief silence and then the obligatory rejoinders. “Oh…that’s really great.” Stacy tilts her head. “I wish I could do that.”

Tiffany agrees. “That’s the most important job, isn’t it?”

“My mother stayed at home with us. It’s so nice that you do that for your kids.” Deborah comforted.

I shrug and smile one of those it’s-probably-not-very-interesting-to-you-and-besides-we-have-nothing-in-common-smiles, and they continue their chatter about difficult clients, students and patients, vacations abroad, and their busy children who they transport to 20 different weekly extra-curricular activities.

Okay, I have to be fair. Maybe they weren’t being patronizing. Maybe they really meant that they wish they could be content at home. Isn’t being a full-time mother the most important job possible? Isn’t it really great? Isn’t it so nice that I do that for my kids? Well, yes. Otherwise, why would I be doing it, in this age of equality for women?

So why do I feel out of place when I encounter this situation? Why do I feel like I don’t fit in, like I missed my opportunity to achieve, to carve out my place in the world? Why can’t I be comfortable in my own skin regardless of the perceived success of those around me?

The answer is simple. I did miss my opportunity to achieve. While my counterparts used their twenties and early thirties to study hard and build a career, I got pregnant and realized I couldn’t handle both, despite financial strain. So I dropped out, and put my energies towards giving my kids the best start possible. Twelve years later, technology and business has moved forward exponentially. My last full-time job was as a production manager at monthly business paper. Back then, we were still doing manual paste-up of pages. Now the whole process is digitized, it’s almost paperless. In addition, people’s lives have sped up—they communicate very little face to face, favouring email and instant messaging. The language of twenty-somethings is a dialect I don’t speak, full of computer jargon and shortened phrases. So even though my children are getting older, and I’m ready to think about my own goals again, I am faced with the difficulties of retraining to fit into a new business world. I have to reinvent myself.

But the deeper problem is that, like the rest of the world, I don’t get my value out of who I am…I get it from what I do. I’ve got it backwards, in spite of my sacrificial decisions, which I think were good ones. When achievement is the measure of value, intelligence, importance, and success, self-acceptance becomes a daily discipline.

So, in honour of Mothers Day, I want to thank all the faithful mice out there, running on their respective wheel, with no fanfare or recognition, including my own mom. She is now in her sixties. A couple of years ago she urged me to go back to work and make a living for myself. She was looking back on her own life, convinced she hadn’t achieved anything, because she quit work to stay home with my older brother and myself. She has reaped very little financial independence from all those years of investment. I understood where she was coming from—we all have a voice, and we want to use it. We all have talents, and we want to be appreciated for them. But I assured her that she achieved a great deal indeed. She produced two really great kids (if I do say so myself) who also have really great kids, and she made home a comforting place to be at the end of a stressful day. Home was the place you were expected, held accountable, the place you were loved, the place you would be missed if you didn’t show up. It was the place where bread was baking when you got home from school and someone said, “How was your day?”

Thanks, mom. But I have to go, my kids are getting home from school.

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