Mothers at Work
Over the years, it’s where, when and how mothers work that have changed
Mothers have always worked. Over the eons of human history, before this century, 99 percent of mothers had no choice over the terms of their work: They did as survival dictated for their time and place. It’s where, when and how mothers work that have changed.
The stay-at-home, cookie-baking Mom was created in America’s booming post-World War II economy. The role fit Lois Cynewski perfectly, as you’ll read in our reports on three mothers of that era.
But it wasn’t one-size-fits-all, or else the women’s liberation movement of the early 1970s would have had fewer takers.
Today’s mothers inherit both traditions. Even in a bad economy, they have more choices than ever — and perhaps more complexity. Mothers may be tired, but they’re great jugglers.
For this year’s Mother’s Day issue, Bay Weekly readers and contributors talk about their mothers’ work. Our stories, spanning eight decades and a variety of cultures, are illuminating.
~ the 1930s ~
recounted by daughter Mavis Daly of Shady Side
My mother was born in 1892 as the second-oldest of 10 children and reared on a small farm in central Minnesota. School was not a high priority, but helping her mother with the younger children and with work on the farm was. Her only paid work was as a nanny for such people as the local doctor.
At 32, she married my father, who had just returned from service in World War I and worked as a telegrapher on the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad.
Mom’s mission in life was to care for her family. She cleaned the house daily, made meals, laundered and catered to my dad’s wishes always. I am not sure Mom was insightful into the emotional needs of her children, but there was little discussion of such matters in that era.
For laundry, her tool was her Mighty Maytag. She would heat the water, have two tubs to rinse the clothes, one with bluing to bring out the whites. There was a wringer on the washing machine through which clothes were run to extract the water. She made the laundry soap, combining excess cooking grease with lye, and her laundry sparkled on the line. Dad and I did most of the hanging of the clothing outside. There was a definite order to them, all towels together, all sheets together. The clothing smelled so good when brought in to be folded.
Mom was a German cook, so our meals were hearty. She had a garden from which she had fresh vegetables: potatoes, lettuce, radishes, onions, carrots. My brother and I came home from school for lunch, a long, cold walk in Minnesota winters, often to homemade French fries. We had an apple tree from which sauce and pies would be made. Rhubarb grew in her garden, and her open-face pies with custard were wonderful.
My mother had not completed grade school, yet she encouraged me to go on to college at the University of South Dakota, where I’d won a scholarship. After graduation in 1945, I was recruited by the Civil Service Commission to come to work in Washington, D.C., to “help win the war.” I worked there for 25 years.
recounted by daughter Elisavietta Ritchie of Broomes Island
My mother, born 1905, dreaded becoming a housewife like other mothers then. Even during the Depression, few others she knew worked, though with WWII many took jobs or volunteered on the Home Front. While I was growing up, cared for by my Russian babushka, Mother worked in advertising, public relations and as publicity director for the American Red Cross Blood Donor Service Mid-Atlantic states. Later in Nigeria she tutored English and helped create a national museum; in Thailand she taught English composition. Her last job: interior decorator for State Department housing abroad.
When my firstborn was three months old, Mother asked why I wasn’t returning to work yet, though few mothers I knew did. I waited briefly before juggling three children and various writing, editing, translation and teaching jobs, which continue.
~ the 1940s ~
Elsa Olivetti Martin
recounted by daughter Sandra Olivetti Martin, Bay Weekly editor
For much of my childhood my mother worked at home, for we lived above our restaurant, The Stymie Club, a supper club and cocktail lounge in St. Louis. Downstairs, she was — all at once in the beginning and thereafter as occasion demanded — painter, janitor, cook, decorator, maker of curtains, remover of walls, waitress, house manager, main attraction. In the latter role, she dressed in business suits at lunch, cocktail dresses at dinner, three-inch heels always. Upstairs, she brushed my hair, sewed clothes for my dolls, drew paper dolls for me and held my head when I was sick.
Her immigrant mother, Catherine Olivetti, was the mainstay and often sole support of her family, including step-children and step-grandchildren. She grew the food she cooked and stored, made their wine and wine vinegar from her own grapes and fed boarders for pennies of income.
So it never occurred to me that a mother wouldn’t work, though my early career as a writing teacher and writer was a lot easier than theirs.
~ the 1950s ~
Ada Jane Lambrecht
recounted by son Bill Lambrecht, of Fairhaven: Bay Weekly co-founder
Before I was born, my mother, Ada Jane, worked just down the street from our home in central Illinois at a plant that made washing machines. Retrieving baseballs as kids, we grew suspicious of the windowless building when guards with sticks chased us away. I learned later that the factory also turned out anti-aircraft shells under a contract with the Navy. In our basement, we had a washing machine manufactured a fly ball’s distance from home.
I was a load as a kid, which may or may not have been why my mother didn’t work those years. I was in junior high when she went out to work again. Her job I remember most fondly was a part-time gig delivering pastries from the trunk of our ’61 Chevy. There were fringe benefits for the family, but it wasn’t long before Mom started complaining of “closet shrinkage” of her wardrobe. Her last job was working behind the counter at a dry cleaner a half-block the other way from our home. She liked that job because it involved chatting a lot with people from her neighborhood.
Looking back, I see now that Ada Jane was lucky in one measurable way. Mornings, I see women in our Bayfront neighborhood loading up for their treks to jobs in Annapolis, Washington and even northern Virginia. Except for that brief stint distributing chocolate donuts and long Johns, Ada Jane had a commute of minutes each day. By foot.
~ the 1960s ~
recounted by daughter Phyllis Saroff of Annapolis
My mother, Agnes, got her master’s degree in parasitology just after World War II and studied malaria at the Naval Research Lab in Bethesda. Her first husband, an African-American medical student, didn’t want children so she had an illegal abortion. Divorced and remarried to my father, she stopped working in 1953 when my older brother was born. An activist to the core, she marched on Washington when pregnant with my younger brother and heard Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech.
She planned to return to work when my younger brother went to school, but she died of breast cancer four years later, when I was seven.
When my boys were toddlers, I worked two six-hour days a week in my studio and they went to day care. Later, I painted while they were in school or asleep.
–interviewed by Dotty Holcomb Doherty
recounted by daughter Dotty Holcomb Doherty of Annapolis
My mother, Ruth Holcomb, a Trust Department clerk for 15 years, stopped working when my twin sister and I were born because, she says, “I didn’t know any other mothers who worked.” Thus began her volunteer phase. We walked door-to-door with her as she counted for the census; ate TV dinners during elections while she worked at the polling booths; and fell asleep to her typing and running the mimeograph machine as she put together the Sunday bulletin for our Quaker meeting.
I so appreciated having my mother at home that I chose to stay home with my own daughters. I volunteered at their schools and led Girl Scout troops, and I coached high school teams part-time. I returned to teaching when they were in middle school.
recounted by daughter Jane Elkin of Cape St. Claire
My mother took a secretarial job when I was eight because my father feared lay-offs at his job. It wasn’t long before she decided that if she worked, it would be at something she enjoyed. She put herself through college to become a home economics teacher, but she always said housewife was her favorite occupation. An efficient woman can make a lot of time for herself.
Like her, I returned to work when my youngest was eight, teaching languages and music part-time, singing and writing. I think Mom was onto something about the rewards of staying home. I enjoyed the best of both worlds.
~ the 1970s ~
recounted by son David King of Prince Frederick
My Okinawan mother worked at home because this was the custom, her full-time job with us three boys and my little sister. She knew Okinawan and Japanese, and we spoke English at home. My father was stationed at the U.S. Marine base, and we lived in the Okinawan village Ojana.
Back in the Washington area, my mother managed Walter Reed’s special day care center for children of military families undergoing treatment. Now 71, she lives in Silver Spring with my sister. Today in Okinawa, as elsewhere, usually both parents work.
–interviewed by Elisavietta Ritchie
recounted by daughter Ana Rubio of Pasadena via El Salvador
Ana’s mother, Maria, was a homemaker with four children, 20 cows, 40 chickens, pets and a vegetable garden. After seeing the kids off to school, she cooked a large midday meal of black beans and rice with tortillas featuring her own hand-ground corn meal. She also made her own cheese and slaughtered her own chickens. Housekeeping was manual labor intensive. She did the laundry by hand.
Ana has three children and works part-time as a custodian, work she finds less tiring than childcare. An immigrant, she also goes to school to improve her English.
–interviewed by Jane Elkin
~ the 1980s ~
recounted by daughter Angela Worland of Annapolis
My mother was one month shy of 16 when I was born. She worked when I was little — from waitressing to accounting work at the old Ames department store — and my grandmother watched me. I remember visiting my mother at work and on lucky occasions got the very important job of stamping her paperwork. When my younger brothers came along, she stayed at home with them, returning to work when they got older. She’s working two jobs now, one as a substitute teacher in elementary schools. My own two kids love to play school with Grandma Penny.
~ the 1990s ~
recounted by daughter Jessie Elkins of Huntington
My Danish-born mother began teaching when I was about 10, my sister Gracie about six. Mother taught math and science in an alternative center for kids who didn’t do well in regular schools. When I was 16, she started teaching GED at a detention center.
–interviewed by Elisavietta Ritchie
~ the 2000s ~
recounted by daughter Tavia Robinette of Lusby
When I was little, my mom, stayed home with me for a while, but when she became a single mom, she had to work. She managed hotels to provide for us, and I remember having to get myself ready for school in the mornings.
I’m lucky. Even though it sometimes feels like I’m a single mom with my husband in the Air Force, I’m able to stay home with my kids, who are six and four. I’m glad to be the leader of my daughter’s Girl Scout Troop, the T-ball coach and part of the PTA.
And interim foster mother 26 times over.
Maryland law gives parents who’ve put a child up for adoption 30 days to change their minds. I am called in by adoption agencies to care for newborns over that decisive month.
I was blessed to have easy pregnancies and deliveries, and having a newborn is a joy. So I’m glad to help other parents through a hard time.
Motherhood doesn’t come easy for everybody.
–interviewed by Angela Worland