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by Lisa M. Roberts
Something curious has emerged in my daughter's
manner this past year. I can't quite put my finger on it, but
it has something to do with the way she likes to wear her hair
(short and perky), the way she sings to "Achy, Breaky Heart,"
the way she rolls her eyes when she doesn't like what she hears,
and the way l catch her looking at me, softly and intently, as
I tend to her younger brothers and the house. She's turning nine
next month, and I have an uneasy feeling I know what's going
When I was nine years old, back
in 1970, something curious was emerging in me too. It compelled
me to sit at the top of the stairs outside my bedroom every Tuesday
night, from 8:00 to 10:00 p.m. There I listened in the dark as
the doorbell would ring over and over, a new voice shuffing in
as a draft of cold air drifted up. Then seven women would settle
into a circle of chairs, a circle of faces I would never see,
but with voices distinct, strong and enduring. The eighth clear
voice was my older sister's.
"So where are we tonight?"
she would begin.
These meetings were known back
then as "conscience-raising" groups. And as the women
who participated learned about themselves, I instead learned
about "the struggle" -- the burdensome, remarkable,
resolute world of womanhood. I realize now that I was about my
daughter's age when I would climb trees in the backyard by day...and
eavesdrop on the women's movement by night.
Something else was going on then
too. I was also beginning to identify with two other generations
of women: my mother and my grandmother. I often sat contently
at the kitchen table beside my grandmother -- who was Italian-born,
jovial, independent and absolute. Together we played cards while
my mother bustled about preparing dinner, or clearing the dishwasher,
or unpacking groceries. As I sat with my grandmother searching
my hand for Rummy, I again listened quietly -- this time to the
lyrical sound these two women would make, their easy exchanges
sometimes rising into an Italian pattering that went purposely
above my head but would always ease back down to the practical
purposes at hand. Time to set the table. Time to call the family
in. Time to pick up the fork, twirl the spaghetti, and eat "the
These moments were warm, comfortable,
unassuming, unquestionable. Sometimes my sister joined our domestic
activities and became part of us, her laughter strong and familiar.
Other times she would disrupt the scene with a simple murmur,
a comment with a sharp edge, words that sounded important. Her
voice echoed the two Glorias: Stivic and Steinem. Pop culture
and the media. The conflict was all around me. It reached inward,
touching the women closest to me, and reflected outward, from
teachers to television.
Some time during those formative
years I think I misplaced parts of my original self in the wake
of the movement going on around me. And that's what it felt like
-- movement -- a swirling of accusations, love, demands, hope,
desperation...gestures of peace and challenge... moving forward,
looking behind...in a circular path of urgency and intention.
The waves of my sister and mother and grandmother and Gloria
and Gloria lapped over me again and again.
Recently I found myself still
drifting in this wake, now with three young children in tow.
After twentysomething years of trailing behind this movement
I decided to propel myself forward. I traded in my part-time
home business for a full-time career. This was it. I sat my children
down and said, "Stay here -- I have something important
to do," and dove right smack in the middle of it all.
I discovered that it was true
what the Glorias taught me, what that circle of women touched
upon long ago. Independence and power does take the form of a
paycheck. It's in your hand, it's in the bank, it's proof --
of your brain and your time and your skill. It is freedom from
domestic ropes that bind and restrain your mental energy.
Paychecks do more than fuel the
economy; they fuel a person's sense of worth. I know this has
all been said before. But never by me.
It's also true what my mother
taught me, what my grandmother, married at sixteen, came to learn
herself toward life's end. Independence is an individual notion.
Power comes strongest from the heart.
For myself, the dependence
on nannies to care for my children overpowered any independence
I felt as a bread winner. That powerful feeling of pay could
not balance out the powerless feeling of being absent
from home, unaware of the day's moods and motions, unavailable
to my children.
My quest for more control of
my life backfired. I had never felt more vulnerable.
And I was trailing again...circling
the movement of others. Was I working to set an example for my
daughter or to settle a score for my sister? To lead the autonomous
life my grandmother had longed for and my mother had rejected?
I was reaching, reaching, reaching; stretching, stretching, stretching;
giving my mind, body and soul a work out like never before. But
who was gaining from my "pain"? Certainly not my children.
Not the Glorias whose age had passed. Perhaps the movement, which
had given me the choice to begin with. But was it asking now
for my children's formative years? Was I willing to risk
No. I pulled in the ropes. The
ones I had untied from my domestic bind now became lifelines
that reeled me back home.
Here I am now, in calm waters,
picking up the debris left behind from the deluge of the nannies.
As I prepare and serve breakfast, clear the table and sweep the
floor, I move with the ease of Italian voices. But there are
times, especially at day's end, when another voice from deep
within spills out -- restless and urgent -- full of life and
ambition and strength. "Get me out," it demands.
I continue to search for harmony
within and without, for peace and challenge to unite. But something
has changed now, something heavy rests on my search. I turn around
and there it is. My future, my past. My unequivocal present.
It's time for my search to end, for the stakes are clear.
Someone else is listening now.
- © 1996 Lisa M. Roberts, all rights reserved. The above essay
was first published in The
Mother Is Me: An Alternative Publication on the Motherhood
Experience, Summer 1996 Issue. Lisa Roberts is author of
How to Raise A Family
& A Career Under One Roof: A Parent's Guide to Home Business,
a title highly recommended by La Leche League, Home Office
Computing and the Family Christian Bookclub. Order
your own copy today!