One day in 1979 I was on a plane between Los Angeles and San Diego after a transatlantic flight from London, my first solo trip. I’d saved the fare while working in a friend’s restaurant. Three passengers, one of them me, were invited by the crew to enter the cockpit and chat with the pilot. He scrutinized me and asked, “What do you do?” “I’m a housewife,” I answered, unused to brash social intercourse and overlooking my part-time catering partnership as cook and bookkeeper. His eyes glazed over as he turned to the next passenger.
Over the course of two weeks holiday in San Diego with my lovely hosts, who introduced me to their mostly academic friends, the question “What do you do?” came up repeatedly. The same loss of interest as that shown by the pilot followed, although more discretely. It was exhilarating to meet a series of distinguished scientists and writers, but I was keenly aware of how little I brought to the party. Within a week of my return, I’d enrolled in a full-time university and four years later had a B.Sc. (Econ) attached to my name. In those days tuition was free, and a government subsistence grant was awarded to the student.
With four words the pilot had unwittingly done me a huge favor.
Until then I’d thought my full time commitment as mother of five sons sufficient reason for existence. Born and raised in a London suburb but now living in a rural town, I aspired to be a countrywoman. I threw myself whole heartedly into raising the boys, running a house, embracing rural traditions, preserving fruit and vegetables, cooking hearty meals, decorating, making curtains, sewing the children’s clothes, teaching them to cook and so on. I was happy doing that. We were fortunate that we managed on my husband’s income, a choice seldom possible today (In the ’70s we needed fewer “things”). By then our five sons were aged 8 to 16, old enough to be responsible for their own homework, straighten their duvets, brush their shoes and deliver homework on time. My commitment to lectures, seminars, study and essays between the time I dropped them off to school and picked them up afterwards made them more independent and considerate. During the holidays they reverted to seeking lifts, cooking lessons, outings and so on, but when we returned to school they all stepped up to the plate. They respected me for having homework too.
The three youngest later graduated from university, encouraged perhaps by the thought that “if Mum can do it, so can I.”
I was reminded of this process when a friend remarked this week that a man introduced his wife at a party as “just a mom.” We agreed that despite his disparaging remark, “being a mom” was a terrific preparation for the working world. By the time I landed my first job after graduation as a fundraiser in a children’s charity (choosing work I could support with all my heart), I had acquired the following skills for which a degree was unnecessary:
Time keeper (the boys were never late for school), schedule manager (doctor’s appointments, soccer matches, deadlines, meetings), record keeping (paying, filing bills and correspondence), budgeting, catering, shopping, laundry, human resources (keeping family in line while aware of their individual needs and temperaments). Techniques for motivating and managing children also apply to staff.
“Just a mom” acts as an alarm clock, waitress, teacher, nurse, referee, handyman, security officer, photographer, counselor, chauffeur, event planner, hairdresser, personal assistant, and all this often without holidays, sick pay or days off. A mom is on call 24/7, her ingenuity constantly honed and her attention focused on others. Because she is unpaid this is not regarded by others as “work”.
It is no mere platitude to say “If you want something done, ask a busy woman.” Shopkeepers noticed, but had done nothing about, shards of glass on the road one day which threatened passing car tires and pedestrians. I parked my twins in their buggy on the sidewalk, borrowed a broom from a nearby store and swept the debris away.
Motherhood can prepare women to be effective managers. At 50 I set up Export Connect to facilitate trading in Spain. Having worked in Spain in my 20s I was familiar with the scene. In my role as a consultant I listened to my client’s needs, identified suitable Spanish trading partners for British companies, arranged the managing director’s travel and accommodation, delivered him on time for a week of twenty appointments in Spain, interpreted, took notes and wrote a report with contact details, topics discussed, agreed actions and recommendations. I carried first-aid medications for digestive problems and headaches, although seldom needed. One client remarked that I was like a nanny to my charges. Just so. This service launched British products in Spain, opened export opportunities for manufacturers which had been inaccessible without my help, and in the process set me up for retirement.
Never. Ever … introduce your wife dismissively as “Just a mom”. That’s possibly grounds for divorce.