Identity, Legacy, motherhood

How Did They (Do We) Do It?

I often wonder how mothers of our mothers did it. In the age of keeping up appearances and, in the generation before that, of simply surviving.

There were no therapists, no LICSWs, no yoga retreats and meditation circles. There was no opportunity for a facial and hot stone massage. There was no medication to make the pain go away – except for those self-prescribed.

There was alcohol sipped in secret. There was valium – and laudanum in the early days. There might be lashing out at the children when the husband or society did the same to them.  Catholics might find solace in confession – if the guilt of their perceived shortcomings and ungrateful attitude didn’t keep them away.

I wonder how many women thought they were flawed because they didn’t love the life handed to them.  That they were failures because they didn’t find rearing children and keeping house easy.

But that’s not even the point.

Mothers today still flounder with the many resources available to them.

How the hell did women of previous generations keep it together?

Was it the lack of a pervasive media that kept us from hearing about children murdered by their own mother’s hand? Did bubbling anger dissipate through more readily accepted floggings? Were extended family and neighbors more readily available and willing to step in and pick up slack?

Did women suffer in silence?

I wonder how many women devolved into mental illness from the stress of responsibility, relentless duty, stifled desires. I wonder how many Academy Award worthy actresses were forged in the face of an uninterested audience.

And what do we do for them now? How do we celebrate the uncelebrated?

By feeling guilty as hell that we don’t like this comparatively golden portion we’ve been dealt?

Or by saturating the dry earth of hopelessness with resources for women struggling with themselves, with motherhood, with life?

Part of me yearns for the ironclad persona of the women and mothers of my thrice-removed family. But another more unwilling part realizes that armor came at a merciless price. Not only are these women I cannot question because of space and time, but because they would never answer. Perhaps one small admittance would open the chink that would crumble the entire suit. They would never take that chance. Nor would society let them. They did what they had to because there was no other choice. Their own mothers had it hard and so, then, would they.

I wonder if in this age of modern convenience we have too much time on our hands to ponder our existence. However, I’d like to think, even amidst the stirring of lye and slaying of chickens, our female forebears wondered the same things. They probably wouldn’t have lived so fiercely if they hadn’t.

How do we live fiercely in their honor while fighting for what we all need?


10 thoughts on “How Did They (Do We) Do It?

  1. Little Mighty says:

    They did it because it was expected, they did it because they had to; some did it because they wanted to do so; but thank you for being their champion and voicing what many of them couldn’t say. Great write as always.


  2. I’ve often wondered the same. Any image of ‘classic’ housewives shows cheerful ladies with immaculate homes, preparing wonderful meals. Kinda like our Pinterest today;-)


    • Jennifer Butler Basile says:

      Angela, I still haven’t figured out if the facade is what kept them together or it was a horrible form of shackles. Are we better off with our full-disclosure society? Or have we just embraced the misery while still seeking perfection (i.e. Pinterest – which I still haven’t joined by the way 😉 – not that it’s kept me from any sort of misery!)


      • I also think that the smaller amount of ‘stuff’ like we have now made it easier to keep a house clean. Homes were smaller & simpler (only one bathroom) so a clean house was a possibility. And what else could you do for 40 hours a week? 🙂


  3. How indeed? Reading your wonderfully written (as always) post Jennifer got me thinking about my own family. My grandfather left my grandmother for her best friend after 35 years of marriage. It was the 60s and she lost her home and was forced to rent an apartment. She looked after her own mother, my great-grandmother, and her mother’s sister, who both lived with her for 30 odd years, waiting on them hand and foot until they both died, at 85 and 92 respectively. She never once complained, just got on and dealt with what life threw at her and maintained that she loved my grandfather to her dying day.
    She had so many unfilled dreams – one of which was to drive a sports car, although she never did learn to drive, but she did ride an adult’s tricycle around her local town!
    When she was in her 80s she used to take care of her ‘elderly’ neighbours by doing their ironing and making meals for them. Dear Granny lived to 94. She was and is my inspiration. If I can be half the woman she was then I will feel I have accomplished something in life. She always told me to follow my dream and never to give up. Her love and care of others in the face of her own deep disappointments in life always shone through, as her quiet Christian faith kept her steadfast. I try to remember this when I am overcome by life’s troubles…


    • Jennifer Butler Basile says:

      “Her love and care of others in the face of her own deep disappointments in life always shone through” – this is what I struggle with. Women like your granny still managed to show a brave face – and in her case, a loving one. Has the modern world birthed a bunch of cry-babies? Or is the more open dynamic we live in a way point on the road to wholeness (i.e. a balance between selflessness and selfishness)?

      Thank you for sharing your touching family history.


      • That’s a very good point that you raise, both here and in your post, getting the balance between selflessness and selfishness. It would be nice to think that we could be on our way. Only time will tell 🙂
        Have a lovely weekend Jennifer.


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