It’s been nearly a hundred years since The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher was published (1924) and I wish I could say that more had changed in the meantime. Sadly, if the recent (ongoing) pandemic has proved anything, it is that the traditional division of labour within the household is still alive and kicking and gender inequality in the workplace is on the rise again. So this book was radical in its day, but still has a lot to tell us about gender roles and ‘parenting instincts’ in the present day. What is revolutionary about Fisher’s work is that she sees domestic work as undervalued and soul-crushing regardless of who does it:
The little things of life, of no real importance, but which have to be ‘seen to’ by American home-makers, is like a blanket smothering out the fine and great potential qualities in every one of us.
Eva Knapp is a force of nature, an energetic and driven woman, but she is not a natural mother. Described at some point by her husband as ‘a Titan forced to tend a miniature garden’ or ‘a gifted mathematician set to paint a picture’, she does not find her greatest fulfilment in domestic tasks and childrearing, but feels it’s her duty to do her best for her family. The author shows remarkable insight about subjects which even now seem to be taboo for a mother to admit.
These were the moments in a mother’s life about which nobody ever warned you, about which everybody kept a deceitful silence, the fine books and the speakers who had so much to say about the sacredness of maternity. They never told you that there were moments of arid clear sight when you saw helplessly that your children would never measure up to your standard, never would be really close to you, because they were not your kind of human beings.
We’ve all been there, Eva love! Needless to say, she cannot admit anything like failure, so doesn’t discuss any of this with anyone. Instead, she sticks rather grimly to her daily tasks, prefering cleaning and cooking rather than actually talking to the children, much like present-day mums driving their children from one after-school activity to another. She fusses over the children’s health and over her youngest’s wayward ways and is heartily dissatisfied with her husband Lester. Nobody in the family is happy but they don’t know or expect any different.
Meanwhile, Lester is a bit of a dreamer and a poet, unhappy with his work in finance in the local department store, not overly ambitious. He feels he is missing out on his children, but doesn’t dare to interfere with Eva’s iron fist rule over the domestic domain.
He never had time to know his children, to stalk and catch that exquisitely elusive bird-of-paradise, their confidence. Lester had long ago given up any hope of having time enough to do other things that seemed worth while, to read the books he liked, to meditate, to try to understand anything. But it did seem that in the matter of his own children… Lester never doubted that his wife loved her children with all the passion of her fiery heart, but there were times when it occurred to him that she did not like them very well – not for long at a time, anyhow.
When he is kicked out of his job, he feels like a complete failure and seriously considers suicide – his last act of love for his family, or so he believes. That way, they could at least get his insurance money; but this is of course not the case if the cause of death is suicide, so he has to make it look like an accident.
Sure enough, an accident occurs (deliberate or not?) and poor Lester is incapacitated, so Eva has to become the main breadwinner. This role reversal suits the family perfectly: Eva has a real talent for business, while the children thrive under Lester’s benign parenting (and considerably lower demands of cleanliness and gourmet cooking). But what will the neighbours think? Is their small town ready for such a revolutionary role swap?
Of course, this book is reflective of its time, in that it doesn’t really offer a creative solution for both partners that is sustainable in the long-term. The couple are still not really talking to each other, although they are each secretly pleased with their new role. They are not really brave enough to break out of the mould just yet. The book is about more than just gender division of labour and this is what makes it feel fresh even today: reminding us to slow down, enjoy what we have and not allow ourselves to be pressured into society’s definition of ‘success’. Having seen so many cases of dual-career couples (in academia, among expats) where the woman has had to give up her career to follow the husband, and finds it difficult to admit even to herself just how bitter and dissatisfied that makes her, I would say the novel still has many many recognisable moments and messages.
You can find more reviews of The Home-Maker from Vishy, the Captive Reader, and Juliana Brina. It was reissued by Persephone eight years or so ago, and has become one of its most popular titles, but I’ve come late to it.