posted in Parenting
When my mother was much younger, she once looked over the shoulder of her general practitioner and saw this written on her file:
“Joan is a pleasant housewife who lives in her own home with her husband.”
Today that housewife is 93. She still lives in her own home, but she outlived her husband. Now she lives with me and my husband and my two daughters. More specifically, we live with her.
Even though she’s my mom, she holds a certain mystery about her. Like how on earth could she have given birth to and raised five children in the very house where she still lives, and still be so happy and healthy and gracious and… normal?
So I asked her a few questions:
What was it like to raise five children during the 60s?
Me: How did you know you were pregnant the first time and subsequent times?
Mom: I got nauseous. And I couldn’t stand watching romantic scenes in movies. It made me feel terrible. It made me feel physically sick, but I didn’t know I was pregnant. Finally, I would go to the doctor, Doc Harwood, and Doc would invariably say, ‘Yep, you have a little passenger on board.’
Me: What did you do then?
Mom: I guess I went to see Doc Harwood every month, and he really never did much that I can remember. I guess he examined me. I was gaining weight. I asked him what I could to to stop gaining weight and he said, ‘try cutting down on the corn on the cob.’
Me: Did they have prenatal supplements back then? I hated those.
Mom: I will never forget the prenatal vitamins Doc Harwood gave me. They were huge, horse pills.
Me: What sort of things did pregnant women worry about back then?
Mom: I don’t remember that much about it. I do remember we were painting the room upstairs when I was pregnant with one of your sisters, and I wondered if the fumes might be bad for me. Back then you could smoke and drink. I never smoked, but I did have two Tom Collins the night one of you was born. I did worry about falling on my stomach. And, after I had babies, I was self conscious about not losing weight fast enough. Wearing maternity clothes after baby was kind of embarrassing.
Me: What did pregnant women wear?
Mom: A skirt and an over blouse, like a smock. You could also get skirts with a hole in the front, rather than having to buy a huge skirt. Then you wore an over blouse. I didn’t have to buy much. People loaned clothes to me , and I made a couple of clothing items out of calico material.
Vintage “open bump” patterns, image courtesy Free the Bump’s Kickstarter site
Me: Did you take childbirth classes or read books?
Mom: No birthing classes. My method was to just whistle through all my contractions. Nurses would pass by my door and say, “There goes that whistle.”
Me: And what about Dad? Did he take part? Your father never came in once I went into the labor room. Hospital staff would come into look at me once in while. But I was mostly alone. But you don’t feel alone because the door is open.
Me: What about pain relief?
Mom: During delivery, they wheeled you into the delivery room, and at the last possible minute when you are supposed to be “enjoying” the whole experience of birth, they put something over your nose (ether) and they knock you out and you don’t know what happened. I didn’t want them to do it when I was having you, because I has having trouble breathing,
“No, don’t do it, please don’t do it,” I said. But they did it anyway.
Me: What about breastfeeding?
Mom: I know they didn’t show me how. I was on my own. I don’t remember my friends doing it, but I got the idea that I should. I had three babies so close together, you couldn’t do both. Sally got the most, Andy got some, Nancy… I don’t remember. I remember Aunt Cele tried to encourage me to do it in the middle of a room once, and I didn’t want to.
Me: How did you choose our names?
Mom: I just chose names I liked, or names of people I had met and thought they were nice. I liked Nancy. I knew a lot of nice Nancys.
Coming home from the hospital
Me: What was it like bringing your babies home.
Mom: I drove home with babies in my arms. We stayed in the hospital for a couple of days and then we were home alone. My mother in law hovered around a bit, but we were mostly on our own. It’s a wonder you kids ever grew up to be normal.
Me: Did you ever get the baby blues?
Mom: I remember crying when Sally was a baby and still nursing. I was crying about all the poor starving children in the world, and thinking this was a bad thing to be feeling when feeding my child.
Me: Did you like being a stay-at-home mom? A housewife?
Mom: Not particularly. It’s just something you had to do if you were married with children.
Me: Did you feel that having kids was expected of you?
Mom: When we got married, Dad said, “Let’s get married and have lots of children, what else is there to do.”
Me: Did you ever think you would do something else with your life?
Mom: Oh yes. I wanted to save the world. That’s why I applied for a job at the U.N. after college, but when they called me for an interview I was busy traveling with my friends.
Me: Did you enjoy motherhood?
(She’s making a funny face.) It wasn’t one of my favorite things to do.” I always felt pressure to play with my kids, and I wasn’t very good at it, that was a problem. I could do it up to a point. It was great when you all got old enough for nursery school. I spent a lot of time picking up little things, like Legos, and always wondered why I didn’t have a smaller waistline because of it.
One thing I remember enjoying was washing diapers and then hanging them out in the sun. Going to the clothesline was an excuse to go out into the sun, carefully hanging each diaper, and try to get a tan.
And we had playpens in those days. That was a nice thing. You can pop a kid in the playpen and put toys in for it to play with. But then when the baby got big enough to climb out of the play pen, it was all over.
Me: Were you ever lonely and or bored?
Mom: Yea, a little bit. Babies aren’t very interesting.
Me: Did Dad help at all?
Mom: Yes. He helped when he was here. He changed diapers, sozzled them in the toilet. He helped around the house, and vacuumed. He held babies and he put you to bed. He read to you. But I also remember sitting at the dinner table one night and telling him that he wasn’t fun anymore.
Me: Were you exhausted?
Mom: One time when I got really fat, I got desperate and went to Dr. Harrigan and he said my weight gain was because of frustration, so once a week I had to take an afternoon off for myself. Then he gave me diet pills.
Me: Did you have any help?
There was no such thing as daycare. By the time you were a toddler, there was a place to take children, and my friend Judy and I took you and David there so we could go skiing. I felt so guilty using daycare, because we weren’t working mothers.
But I never felt pressure to be a working mother. There was a group of us who had kids the same age, and none of us worked while our kids were small.
Me: Did you have playdates?
We started the “dirty Thursday club.” We would get together in the afternoon with our kids at each other’s houses and have coffee and snacks and let kids play and make a mess.
Me: I was secretly hoping dirty Thursday club involved martinis.
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