My Mother, the Hausfrau

I often tell my audiences that I am the daughter of an engineer. And this is true. But it is only half true. I am also the daughter of a hausfrau.

A hausfrau. That’s how my mother described herself in an oral history interview we did when I was in graduate school. It’s German for “housewife.” My mother had studied German in school.

When we were little, and she would reach the end of her rope, she didn’t call you by your full name, like the other moms did. She would start talking in German. When I heard “setzen sie den tisch,” I knew that was my final warning to set the dinner table.

She had also studied Latin, so when any of us kids were struggling with a word, she’d break it down by its Latin roots. “And if you’d taken Latin,” she’d finish offhandedly, “you’d know that.”

It’s no surprise that all four of her children earned advanced degrees: MA, JD, MD, PhD. My mother was a teacher, and we were her star pupils. She told me she loved teaching. Said it was “her thing.”

This was a curious turn of phrase for my mother. She sounded more like a free-thinking hippie than a middle-class Catholic girl from White Plains, New York. But she deeply believed that everyone has their “thing.” She encouraged me to find mine. When I announced that I was going to study to become a dance critic, of all things, she wasn’t exactly sure what that all meant, but she was thrilled that I had found “my thing.”

Claire Ann Daly had studied American History at a small, private women’s college, and taught high school for two years. She had even been awarded a graduate fellowship, but news of the scholarship arrived two days after she signed her teaching contract, and she didn’t think it right to renege on her commitment.

When she got married, she quit her teaching job. That’s when she turned hausfrau.

When I interviewed her, I was in my late 20s, living my dream. She tried to make me understand what it was like for her and her friends at that age. “I ran with the hausfraus,” she explained. “We all stayed home to take care of the babies and were good wives and that’s the way it was. Nobody questioned it that I knew of. Lucky or unlucky, I only knew people who were like me. What we did, like going out with lady friends, we did after housework and child work.”

When I was a teenager, I didn’t have much in common with my mother. By then, home had become her thing. She was all about the ruffled curtains and the spotless floors and an occasional hospital fundraiser. As a model of womanhood, it left me chafing at the bit. I wasn’t a particularly admiring daughter. I saw, and felt, how claustrophobic her domestic life was. And I hankered for something much bigger and more real. In fact, when my parents dropped me off at college, after having driven me across several states and moved me into the dorm up several floors, I simply said thanks and waved goodbye. I was so eager to start my life that I didn’t notice what they were feeling.

My mother did try, once, to make a break for it. She started some part-time substitute teaching at the local high school. But my father and younger brother couldn’t bear a single unwashed dish in the sink and didn’t think to wash it themselves. She quit the job by Christmas and used her earnings to buy my father a camera.

She realized then, she told me, “that going out to work meant taking two jobs.”

My mother understood quite clearly that she and my father were a product of their time. “When I worked at the high school,” she told me, “if I didn’t have the tea ready, no one else was going to do it but me. And whose fault was that? The 1950s.”

And yet, I struggled for a long time to make sense of her life.

In one respect, she loved being a hausfrau. She aimed to raise four smart, capable kids, and she succeeded. She got what she told me she expected from marriage: “to grow old gracefully with a guy I thought was the greatest.” She said she had no regrets, and, you know, I do believe her.

And still, there was that road not taken. My final interview question was about what else she might have become. I will never forget her exact words, and I will never be able to describe the way she spoke them. “I think,” she said, “I would have made a good lawyer.”

Even more, she allowed that, at another, later, time, she might have approached childcare and housekeeping in a way that gave her more options.

For me, it was my father’s words of encouragement that propelled me out into his, public world. That much I always understood. It took me decades, however, to realize that it was my mother’s silent permission that released me from her domestic sphere. She was the one who gave me the newspaper clipping about the writing contest that sent me to Brazil as an exchange student. She was the one who gently questioned my decision to marry so young. “You have so much that you want to accomplish,” she reminded me.

My mother never made it out the 1950s. She hadn’t been equipped to reinvent herself. But she made sure that I was. I intend to keep on reinventing myself as many times as the ambition arises. That’s the legacy from my mother, the hausfrau

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