“My Ever Present Past”

by Mary Shipp Bartlett

Mary Bartlett with children

My mother-in-law sits at my breakfast table, nestled at the end of my avocado and mustard galley-shaped kitchen. I cook up a plate of over-easy eggs on lightly buttered toast and serve it to her with a cup of Taster’s Choice coffee, the house favorite. It is 1973.

I finish the morning’s rituals: iron my husband’s shirt, pack lunches for two pre­teens, check backpacks, and wave goodbyes. Now, it’s time for conversation with a woman I admire.

Taking a sip of coffee, the mother of my husband looks out the east window, with mid-morning light streaming into the room, and notices, I hope, the family silver mugs I recently polished on the glass shelves.

I expect compliments. “Looks like someone tried to clean the windows,” she pronounces, seeing not the shine of silver but the streaks of neglected glass. I wince. Caught again in my attempt to do it all, and failing.

Then, I laugh, because the journalist in me knows I have a telling anecdote. She is from a different age, having had a full-time job raising two sons; I am a mother working outside the home trying to balance multiple demands. My choices don’t always result in sparkling windows.

Yet, the comment stings. Why is this my “failing”? Why does what I value — only a little shining vanity in the midst of controlled chaos — pale beside her expectation of a perfectly ordered, well-maintained home?

Perhaps, it is because I was raised in the ’50s, when many mothers didn’t work, and when roles seemed natural and easy. When most women were expected to simply maintain a sparkling home, with happy children and satisfied husbands.

Then, I married in the ’60s and had children, and also wanted to find a place for myself in the outside world.

I wanted compromise between the way I had been raised and what I knew was possible — and found this hard to come by. The marriage produced two great kids and a struggle, but no solution in the balance of work and family. I still cooked and cleaned 100%, and oversaw the children; he brought in most of the money to maintain the household, and mowed the lawn. We divorced in 1987, when the children had left home.

Now, 20-plus years later, I look at the problems women, and men, face today in balancing work and family. There are many unanswered questions. Or have we just created new questions with expanded expectations?

I’d like to be optimistic, but await more answers from new generations.