Read an Excerpt
The Second Oldest Profession
By Erma Bombeck
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 Erma Bombeck
All rights reserved.
So You Want to Be a Mother?
One of the biggest complaints about motherhood is the lack of training.
We all come to it armed only with a phone number for a diaper service, a Polaroid camera, a hotline to the pediatrician, and an innocence with a life span of fifteen minutes.
I have always felt that too much time was given before the birth, which is spent learning things like how to breathe in and out with your husband (I had my baby when they gave you a shot in the hip and you didn't wake up until the kid was ready to start school), and not enough time given to how to mother after the baby is born.
Motherhood is an art. And it is naïve to send a mother into an arena for twenty years with a child and expect her to come out on top. Everything is in the child's favor. He's little. He's cute and he can turn tears on and off like a faucet.
There have always been schools for children. They spend anywhere from twelve to sixteen years of their lives in them, around other children who share the experience of being a child and how to combat it. They're in an academic atmosphere where they learn how to manipulate parents and get what they want from them. They bind together to form a children's network, where they pool ideas on how to get the car, how to get a bigger allowance, and how to stay home when their parents go on a vacation. Their influence is felt throughout the world. Without contributing a dime, they have more ice cream parlors, recreation centers, playgrounds, and amusement parks than any group could ever pull off.
They never pay full price for anything.
How do they do it?
They're clever and they're educated.
Some people think mothers should organize and form a union. I think education is the answer. If we only knew what to do and how to do it, we could survive.
It's only a dream now. But one of these days there will be a School for New Mothers that will elevate the profession to an academic level. What I wouldn't have given for a catalogue offering the following skills.
CREATIVE NAGGING 101: Learn from expert resource people how to make eye contact through a bathroom door, how to make a senior cry, and how to make a child write you a check for bringing him into the world. More than 1,000 subjects guaranteed to make a child miserable for a lifetime. "Sit up straight or your spine will grow that way" and "Your aquarium just caught fire" are ordinary and boring. Creative Nagging gets you noticed! Child is furnished.
SEMINAR FOR SAVERS: No one dares call herself "Mother" until she has learned to save and horde. Squirreling away is not a congenital talent, as formerly believed. It can be learned. Find out where to store thirty pounds of twist ties from bread and cookie packages, old grade-school cards, and boots with holes in the toe. Learn how to have a Christmas box for every occasion by snatching them from a person before they have taken the present out of it. Learn why hangers mate in dark closets and observe them as they reproduce. Mature language.
INVESTMENTS AND RETURNS FROM YOUR CHILDREN: Frank discussions on how to get your children to believe they owe you something. Each day mothers let opportunities for guilt slip through their fingers without even knowing it. The child who was ordered to "call when you get there" and doesn't can be made to suffer for years. Find out how. Special attention is paid to Mother's Day and the child who once gave a $40 cashmere sweater to a girl he had known only two weeks, while you, who have stomach muscles around your knees, received a set of bathroom soap in the shape of seahorses. Class size is limited.
PERFECTION: HOW TO GET IT AND HOW TO CONVINCE YOUR CHILDREN YOU'VE GOT IT: The art of never making a mistake is crucial to motherhood. To be effective and to gain the respect she needs to function, a mother must have her children believe she has never engaged in sex, never made a bad decision, never caused her own mother a moment's anxiety, and was never a child. Enrollment limited to those who have taken "The Madonna Face Mystique."
LEGAL RIGHTS FOR MOTHERS: Know the law. Are you required to transport laundry that has been in the utility room longer than sixty days? Do you have the right to open a bedroom door with a skewer, or would this be considered illegal entry? Can you abandon a child along a public highway for kicking Daddy's seat for 600 miles? Are you liable for desertion if you move and don't tell your grown son where you are going? A panel of legal experts will discuss how binding is the loan of $600 from a two-month-old baby to his parents when there were no witnesses.
THE HISTORY OF SUSPICION AND ITS EFFECTS ON MENOPAUSE: Due to popular demand, we are again offering this course for older mothers. How to tell when your child is telling the truth even after her nose has stopped growing. The following case histories of suspicion will be discussed: Did Marlene really drop a Bible on her foot, keeping her from getting to the post office and mailing the letter to her parents? Did twenty dollars really fall out of your purse and your son found it and kept it and didn't know how it got there? Was your son really in bed watching Masterpiece Theatre when he heard a racket and got up to discover 200 strangers having a party in the house and drinking all of Dad's beer?
Physical examination required.
THREATS AND PROMISES: Four fun-filled sessions on how to use chilling threats and empty promises to intimidate your children for the rest of their lives. Graduates have nothing but praise for this course. One mother who told her daughter she would wet the bed if she played with matches said the kid was thirty-five before she would turn on a stove. Hurry. Enrollment limited.
GUILT: THE GIFT THAT KEEPS GIVING has been canceled until an instructor can be found. Dr. Volland said his mother felt he had no business teaching others when he ignored his own mother.CHAPTER 2
What kind of a mother would ... tip the tooth fairy?
Donna (Donna Seed Show),
Harriet (Ozzie and Harriet),
Barbara (Leave It to Beaver),
Shirley (Partridge Family),
Marjorie (Make Room for Daddy),
Jane (Father Knows Best),
Florence (The Brady Bunch)
Among them they had twenty-two children, six husbands, and three maids. For two decades, during the Fifties and Sixties, they were role models for every mother in the country.
They looked better cleaning their houses than most of us looked at our wedding.
They never lost their temper, gained weight, spent more money than their husbands made, or gave viewers any reason not to believe they were living out their lives in celibacy.
They never scrubbed a toilet, were never invaded by roaches, never shouted, and no one ever knew what they did between the time their families left in the morning and came home in the evening.
Every week you viewed a miracle—seven out of seven women who got their figures back after having children.
Their collective virtue was patience. There was no situation too traumatic for them to cure with milk and cookies, no problem that could not be resolved in twenty-four minutes, plus four minutes for commercials and two minutes for theme and credits.
I often wondered what would happen if one of their children had slammed a fellow student against the paper towel machine in the school restroom and extorted his milk money.
There's no doubt in my mind:
Donna would have called a family conference.
Barbara would have met Ward at the door and said, "Dinner's ready."
Shirley would have taken away his drums for a week.
Marjorie would have changed her nail polish.
Harriet would have sent Ozzie out for ice cream.
Jane would have invited the rip-offee to dinner.
And Florence would have her live-in bake extra brownies.
It was the age of God, Motherhood, Flag, and Apple Pie. All you had to do to be a mother was to put on an apron.
No one did it better than the prime-time mothers.
I was one of the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time mothers.
I never wore hose around the house all day, nor did I know anyone personally who did.
My kids were the ones the prime-time mothers forbade their kids to play with or else they would get into trouble.
I never ironed my husband's pajamas.
If I raised my hand to wipe the hair out of my children's eyes, they'd flinch and call their attorney.
We all knew prime-time mothers were too good to be true. (I once bragged that I saved a diabetic's life by throwing my body in front of a Donna Reed rerun.) But God, how we wanted them to be.
I had a fantasy once about Jane.
She had one of those pantyhose-on-backwards days. You know, the kind when you don't know if you're going or coming. Betty had borrowed and sweated in her new Christmas sweater, she discovered a nude calendar stashed between Bud's mattress and his dust ruffle, and Kathy hadn't spoken to her for three days.
Her mother volunteered the advice, "You should be more strict with those children," and the ground was real mushy around their septic tank.
The bank called and said she had written a check to cover an "overdraft," the cleaner called to say the patches fell off Jim's favorite jacket, and someone sprayed an obscene set of directions on her picket fence.
The fantasy always ended with Jane standing in the middle of the mess and delivering a four-letter word before she fell apart. I felt rewarded somehow.
Whatever the television mothers were, they got the message across that they were doing something important. They were the hub of the family that held it all together. And it only took thirty minutes a week to do it.
It was the not-ready-for-prime-time mothers who questioned it in the late Sixties.
They questioned the long days. The lack of fringe benefits. The run-and-fetch syndrome. The question, "What kind of a day did you have?" and the answer that fell on deaf ears.
It started out as a ripple of discontent, gathering momentum through the Seventies. By the Eighties the dissidents were a force to be dealt with, as fifty-two percent of all mothers had jobs outside the home.
Whatever happened to the Insulin Seven: Donna, Barbara, Shirley, Harriet, Marjorie, Jane, and Florence? They disappeared beneath a tidal wave of reality.
Oh, occasionally one of them returns to the tube in mid-afternoon on reruns. There are few mothers home to watch them at that time, only latch-key children, eating pizza in front of the set, who must wonder what indeed they are ...these dinosaurs in aprons who roam the Earth smiling wisely and pouring milk.
Ironically, I miss them in spite of their maddening perfection. And I envy them a little because they seemed so fulfilled.
I ask myself why. Maybe it was because they got paid so well for being a mother and the season lasted only twenty-six weeks. Maybe it was because they only had the kids for thirty minutes a week and then they could send them back to wherever they came from.
Maybe it was even a little applause when they did a difficult scene.
Or maybe ... maybe it was because they never had to face life between the hours the family left in the morning and returned in the evening.
End of show.
End of an era.CHAPTER 3
What kind of a mother would ... go an entire day without shaving?
On October 15, 1979, Frank Rutledge became the mother of Adam, fourteen; Caroline, twelve; and Teddy, age six, thus becoming the first suburban mother in Rochester with a mustache who wasn't on estrogen.
The new role came out of a conversation six months earlier, when Frank confessed he was "burnt out" from working at the ad agency. He was sick of cereal boxes that tap danced and termites wearing tutus. All he wanted to do was to stay home and work on his novel.
His wife, Ann, was ecstatic with his decision. She had missed the sexual revolution, arrived late for the women's movement, let the kids borrow her self-esteem, and refused to begin her midlife crisis until she lost ten pounds. The idea of going anyplace where she didn't have to cut up everyone's meat titillated her.
They agreed to try it for a year. Ann would go to work and sell office supplies and Frank would stay home and write. It seemed like a simple decision. After all, the President of the United States had been working from his home for years.
There were, however, a few appreciable differences.
1. The President of the United States was never summoned from a high-level phone conversation that could alter the course of history to hear a voice yell, "We're out of toilet paper!"
2. Pest-control men did not shuffle through the White House spraying his feet with insecticide.
3. The First Lady never called from her downtown office with instructions for him to "go to the garage. Turn the power mower on its back and just under the right rotary blade see a serial number. Copy it down and call it in to the repair shop so we won't get caught again when the grass needs cutting."
By November 22, after a month of chasing escaped gerbils and listening all day to "I'm telling," Frank ripped the blank piece of paper out of his typewriter and made a second decision.
He decided to put off writing his novel. Instead he would keep a diary on his experiences as a house-husband.
It would sell. He knew it would. He couldn't go into a bookstore without seeing an entire section of books on domestic drolleries, the covers showing frazzled-looking women in aprons and dogs nipping at their heels. After all, how many men had experienced what he was going through? It would be a book of humor. He would call it, "A Frank Look at Mothering." (God, he loved the title.)
It should also be noted that on November 22, 1979, Rochester, New York, began its coldest winter on record, with eighty-nine inches of snow falling in a six-month period.
At first Frank loved the snow. Sitting at his typewriter, he would call to one of the children as they scurried past his door and patiently explain there were no two snowflakes alike. He even insisted they trace the patterns of ice that they made on the glass.
On December 3, school was closed due to "an act of God."
For the next ten days, Frank was charged with the responsibility of keeping three children from killing one another. He found himself saying nothing while watching Teddy force a button up his nostril.
He watched Caroline color his marriage license and all he could mumble was, "Stay in the lines."
He was numb as he observed the chandelier over the dining room table shake as Adam used his bed for a trampoline.
The house had wet clothes drying all over it and smelled like a wet possum in heat.
By December 30, 1979, Frank had scribbled only three entries in his diary:
1. There is no God.
2. Cute Teddy story. He can't say "spaghetti." Pronounces it "gasphetti." Needs work.
3. Ann got me trash compactor for Christmas. (This was crossed out and a note made, "No humor here.")
There were a few entries after that. "January 15, 1980: Loneliness in suburbs is a myth. Teddy is on half days and changes clothes eight times between 8 AM and bedtime. He has a costume for everything, from watching Captain Kangaroo to spitting on sister's dessert. I have not been alone in the bathroom since October.
"Jan. 17: Have much to learn. Beverly from next door was here having coffee when I started to clear the table and scrape leftovers into garbage can.
"She said no one throws away anything straight from the table. It is written somewhere no one buries garbage 'before its time.' Garbage, if it's made right, takes a full week.
"Jan. 26: Tried new liver casserole from Better Homes and Gardens (serves six, takes sixteen minutes to make). Blew budget on mushrooms, scallions, Brie, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
"Ann had it for lunch.
"Caroline's teacher called. I'm a homeroom mother.
Excerpted from Motherhood by Erma Bombeck. Copyright © 1983 Erma Bombeck. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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