Recently I had the privilege of interviewing a woman who became a mother in 1940s America. The following script contains my questions and her answers from that interview. It is a bit long but I encourage you to read to the end. I believe perspective is one of our most valuable gifts. I hope her story speaks to you as profoundly as it has spoken to me.
How old were you when you became a mother? 21.
How many children do you have? 6.
What was their age range? My first five children were 15, 11, 7, 5, and 2 when my last baby was born.
Were your children planned or were they surprises? Our first three were planned and the last three were unplanned. I thought I would have four children because I was one of four.
What was your husband’s job? He was a mechanic when we met. Eventually he went to work for a company that sold auto test equipment. He was an excellent mechanic. He taught a mechanics class every Monday night for free. He could diagnose a car’s problem over the phone.
Did you work outside the home? Not until my husband died.
Where did you work? When my husband died I had five children at home, my oldest daughter was married and lived nearby. At first I sold whole hog sausage from the hogs on our farm. When the hog market took a nosedive, I became the bookkeeper at a flower shop and delivered flowers to churches on Saturdays. I left there to deliver early morning newspapers and go to school. That was the best paying part time job I had. I worked from home as a dispatcher for a health care company while I was getting my masters degree. Then I worked in a mental hospital and after that a mental health center in children and adolescent services.
Tell me about going to college: I started classes at the local college a few years after my husband died. At first I was opposed to this idea because I believed my life would be short due to hardship and sorrow. What is the point of pursuing a degree you will not live long enough to use? But my friend encouraged me to go. I received a degree in psychology. My kids gave me my education, I had to go to college to get my academics.
What type of schooling did your children have? They attended public school. I would drive them to school but after my husband died they had to take the bus. My youngest rode a pony to school for a while. She would leave the pony in the field next to the school, there was a fence and a gate. She would go to class and at the end of the day ride the pony home.
Tell me about food and meal times while your children were still living at home: We ate around the table as a family, for the most part. After we moved my husband began traveling with his job but we still ate dinner together and breakfast too. We had meat every meal and a couple of vegetables. I didn’t do any fancy cooking. We bought our food at the supermarket, I did grocery shopping once a week. I would freeze our milk in the big freezer. I did canning when I had two kids, but we quit gardening after that and bought our produce. I would freeze a lot of food.
Tell me about traveling and family vacations: We took very few trips, very few vacations. My husband didn’t do vacations, he considered it a vacation if I took the kids to see my parents and he would stay home and work. When we had just two or three children we would go visit my family. We didn’t do any traveling.
What type of father did your children have? My husband was very strict, especially with our oldest son. He was a good teacher, good instructor. He spent the most time with our oldest son and taught him mechanics. He worked on the farm with all of our children. He noticed how bright our youngest son was. He treated each son differently, but our daughters he treated the same. When he was present, he was really present.
What type of parents did you and your husband have? My husband’s mother was very domineering. He was close with his dad. His dad was quiet and gentle, very brow beaten by his wife, he worked diligently on their farm. His dad had a third grade education, his mother had one year of college. They sent his sister to college but kept him home to help pay her tuition. His mom tried to have his dad committed to an insane asylum. They divorced when my husband was 25.
My parents were great individuals but they didn’t do much parenting. My mother was not an affectionate person, she did not like people, did not like females. We had to kiss mom on the cheek before bed every night, I don’t remember her ever hugging us or kissing us. Mother said there were only four kids in the world that she loved but I could never figure out who they were, I knew it was not us.
Did you have a support system when you were raising your children? No. We did not live near family. We had two friends but they never wanted to drive out to our house. I did not trust my brothers to care for the kids and my husband’s sister was a doctor and not involved, though she did say she would find homes for the children if anything happened to me after my husband died.
What was the easiest age range? What was the most difficult? Each age range presents its own challenges, there is not an easy age. I did not feel like I was a good parent or had learned how to be a parent and after my husband died I was just putting out fires, surviving.
What was your favorite age range? Babyhood was my favorite age range. My youngest son was the easiest baby though all were relatively easy. He slept all of the time and the other kids would hold him and respect him when he was sleeping. Babyhood was a sweet time, very nice.
What parts of you changed when you became a mother? I can’t be specific but I changed a lot when my husband died and I became a single parent. I was very dependent on my husband. His death changed me more than becoming a mother did.
What parts of you improved with having children? What parts suffered? During my first pregnancy, and all of my pregnancies, I was more particular in taking care of my body and getting exercise every day. I’d always been relatively healthy but my general health improved. I can’t think of any part of me that suffered by becoming a mother.
What effect did becoming a mother have on your marriage and other relationships? I think that it strengthened our marriage, I think we both cared for the children as best we knew how. I think what little bit of social life we had continued much the same.
Did motherhood consume you or did you maintain a life outside of it? It didn’t consume me. And we had somewhat of a social life outside of parenting.
What did you do for yourself when you were raising your children? I went to college. And I spent a little time with my friend, Betty.
If you had to describe motherhood in just a few short sentences how would you describe it? Well, first thing I would say is it is on the job training. Actually it would have benefited me to have some gentle person talk to me more about caring for a baby. But my children survived. If you had good parents, that helps.
How would you describe motherhood in American culture? There is such a wide range of abilities and of interests because some people just do not have the interest and they are very ill prepared and they do not understand how the learning process develops from infancy on and that is sad. And I guess that is all I have to say about that. I think Dr.Spock and his books helped change some of that but then you have a faction that disagree. There are many people who want to improve their childrens’ circumstances, others don’t. I was isolated so I don’t know that I’m much help there. I enjoyed watching my children develop and learn different things.
What effect does consumerism, screens, social media have on motherhood and children in our culture today? Kids learn much faster now. Well, some do and some don’t. Parents who are interested in their children learning have to keep balance with technology. Parents need to keep the balance even if the children are interested in technology. In my childhood we had to play outside much more than kids do in the world we live in now.
What advice would you give new mamas? What advice would you have given yourself? Learn how children develop, learn about their learning process. Talk and communicate to your children.
What is the most important thing you can teach your children? Connection. To always talk to them. I admire my youngest son. He will hold his grandchildren and talk to them, even when they are tiny. I see you take the time to talk to your kids and I think that’s the most important.