Joanna Schroeder shares how, when times got tough, she was able to take on a new role that challenged her identity in order to help her family.
For little girls these days, it’s all about the princesses.
Sure, there have are exceptions, the ones who like American Girl or even dinosaurs, but this princess mania is out of control. It was different when most of us were small; we didn’t have DVD players to loop Cinderella and indoctrinate us into the myth of the conquering hero who will save you from all your problems. We didn’t have that terrible Disney store wailing the siren song of Belle nighties in size 4T, made of polyester, and doused with flame retardant.
I, for one, never wanted to be a princess. I didn’t daydream about a fairytale wedding. Credit goes to lack of technology, but also to my mother. She didn’t read us princess stories; she read Shel Silverstein, Richard Scarry, Frog and Toad, and the like. She was a feminist—actually a “Women’s Lib’er”—a League of Women Voters board member, and a single working mother finishing the college degree she’d abandoned to marry my father.
She didn’t tell me not to idealize marriage, but she didn’t have to. My parents’ terrible marriage, though I hardly remember it, was enough to show me that there were no such things as fairy tales.
Like other tough-chicks in the early nineties, I wore Doc Martens to my Junior Prom and went to Senior Prom with my best gays. I quit shaving my legs (and everything else) just in time to fit in with the other girls at Hampshire College. Yes indeedy, ladies and gentlemen, I was a woman now, and if you listened very closely, you might hear me roar. I couldn’t have told you who Foucault, Friedan, Wollstonecraft, or even Naomi Wolf was, but I had me some hairy armpits.
At Hampshire, the late (great) Professor Eric Schocket assigned us a book that would haunt me for the next decade and a half: Not June Cleaver. Since then I’ve forgotten almost everything inside of it, but the title and the book itself stuck with me and directed who I was—or more accurately who I wasn’t—through two marriages and into motherhood.
I was never going to be June Cleaver. The whole idea repulsed me: women, perfectly coiffed and subservient, cleaning house and making dinner for their misogynistic patriarchal husbands? No thanks. I didn’t know how my life was going to unfold, but I knew it wasn’t going to look like that. Both my first and my second husbands are strong, sensitive men who never tried to control me or make me into their June Cleaver. The second marriage, so far, has stuck.
When I got pregnant with my eldest son, I vowed to go back to work as soon as I could. I never imagined myself in a mommy group or building block towers. I wanted an excellent nanny while my television producer husband and I were at work; I wanted the house clean and the baby fed when I got home.
But life never unfolds the way we want it to. I worked at a company that was run entirely by women until, at the end of my pregnancy, the arrogant, woman-hating, power-mongering brother of the owner went on a campaign of lies to have all of us in management discredited. I quit before I could be fired like everyone else and then stayed home with my son for five months.
When I went back to work, I had a peach of a job where I worked three to five days a week for an amazing salary. But then the recession hit and our store, like almost every other independent retail store in Los Angeles, closed. We were heartbroken. No retail job would hire me back at that wage, as there was a flood of over-qualified buyers and managers in the hiring pool. Anything less that what I was paid before would have been too little to justify the nanny. I decided to try staying home.
My husband’s company closed at the same time, and he had to find freelance work. We struggled financially, and soon I had a second baby. The nanny was gone, my husband was miserable, we were financially insecure, I had no sex drive, no career drive, and no life drive. We were empty shells of the sexy power couple we had been a few years earlier.
Finally he took a job out of desperation that required more than 60 hours of work per week. The house was filthy and my husband (who has never once pressured me to do anything aside from be nice to him and find what makes me happy), still never asked me to clean the house or cook dinner. He knew I didn’t like cooking or cleaning, and he didn’t expect it. Sometimes he got home from work at 10 p.m. and threw his own laundry into the machine. Cleaning the toilet pissed me off, and I grew resentful. It’s not that I felt I was better than cleaning or cooking; it was that I was not June Cleaver. I wasn’t a housewife … was I?
Eventually someone said something to me that is so obvious but somehow also so hard to make real: if you want something different, you have to do something different. I had to do it. I had to clean my own toilet, I had to cook dinner for my family, and I had to make my home peaceful for my poor husband who was sacrificing so much for our family so we could stay in our home in a safe neighborhood with great public schools.
Why was I resisting? Why was I so afraid to take care of my husband and my home? I had to face the truth that taking care of your family doesn’t make you June Cleaver. I didn’t have to chant, “Yes, dear,” to Ivan, like June did to Ward. Slowly, I stopped resenting the mop, the vacuum, and the stove as symbols of oppression. How moronic! They’re just tools. If I were cutting down a tree, would I resent the chainsaw? No.
As the anger toward my new role slipped away, my happiness and sense of self returned. I started writing again, and I rediscovered my sex-drive. I wrote my first novel (still in the works), started copywriting, started a sex and dating advice blog with my old Hampshire pal, Eli, and did all of it after I put my kids in bed, read them Frog and Toad, and turned out the light. If I am June Cleaver, I am June Cleaver in ripped jeans, unkempt hair, and Converse hi-tops. I am June Cleaver with a sex blog and a too-loud laugh.
Am I going to do this at-home-mommy business forever? Probably not. I admire and still sort of envy my dear friend Summer, who has an amazing high-pressure corporate job in fashion, a sweet, rock-musician hubby, and two kids the same ages as mine. But now I see how complicated her life is, too. We’re both feminists, we’re both crazy-tough, we’re both good moms, and we’re both a part of the fabric of womanhood.
As for my husband, he is still torn about all the June Cleaver-ing happening at our house. He is pleasantly surprised by, and sometimes feels guilty for, the clean underwear and socks that magically appear in his drawers, by fresh shirts hanging in the closet daily, by dinners that are often waiting for him no matter what hour he returns home.
He feels guilty because he knows this wasn’t my dream for myself, and he feels guilty because of how damn much he enjoys it. He tells me all the time, “You didn’t have to!” and I smile, because I know I didn’t have to.
And that’s why I did it.