From the Archives: A 31-Year-Old Mother of Four Reinvents Herself in New York

By
“Notes on a Recycled Housewife,” in the issue dated 45 years ago today.

Editor’s note: Exactly 45 years ago, in the issue of May 22, 1972, New York published this cover story by Jennifer Skolnik, called “Notes of a Recycled Housewife.” The magazine’s cover headline went into more detail: “The Suburban Housewife Who Bought the Promises of Women’s Lib and Came to the City to Live Them,” and the essay was a strikingly open personal account of the ways this young mother’s life had been changed. She discussed job-hunting and babysitter headaches, bad dates and good dates. It was a story that received its share of criticism at the time, in part because her children appeared in the photographs that accompany the essay. On the anniversary of its first publication, Jennifer Skolnik—who is now Jennifer Rogers—revisited her younger self. Click here to read what became of her after this story appeared.

***

There is a particular woman who has decided to take on the city alone (but for the four small children clutching her thighs). She is fresh from the suburbs and a worn-out marriage. She is 31 and has her share of guilts, ambitions, memories, regrets, confusions, and experience teaching elementary school. She is very intent on the big issues — like whether or not you are allowed to boss your own life — and she is determined to find out about that one. For her New York represents headquarters, the giant risk, the place where you really have to perform. There was a time, many years back, when she dreamed of coming here, but she was sidetracked then by a boy out of Harvard whom she loved, by his dreams, and by his babies. Now, so much later, New York suddenly seems possible again.

The woman I just described is me, of course, but I could tell you about my friend who began a very normal existence at the Masked Ball in St. Louis. She departed her husband and many children this winter in favor of hitchhiking around the country with a counterculture hammock salesman.

We are not unusual any more, we wives and mothers of long standing who are reshaping our lives.

By the time I looked up from a car pool in Baltimore to announce defiantly, “Oh hell, I’m going to New York,” it was a tossup which of our band of questioning housewives would be the first to leave. The move abroad in the land to chaпge wоmen’s expectations for themselves had reached us too. We wanted to be taken seriously. We thought that so far we had been pretty seriously taken.

So it could as easily have been Carol, my closest friend, wry, sexy, sensitive, just discovering herself to be a gifted potter. But Carol had never had any other life than as a daughter or wife or mother, and told herself for the moment that she would have to be more independent emotionally in order to enter the world of adult competition.

Or it could as easily have been any of the shifting background of others who came and went, spending hours and hours drinking too much Dubonnet with Carol and me, while we all told each other too many intimacies and dared each other to make really too few changes. One would not make those changes only because she needed to fulfill her idea of the compleat mother; another because pressing family crisis kept her. I had written and sold a book — ironically enough, one which touched heavily on the strengths of my life with Barney and the children. That event allowed me some confidence (bravado by any other name) and some money. It was clear that I would be the one to break away. Still I hesitated a few months.

“Do you want to come with me?’ I would ask Carol. “We get this really terrific apartment and put the boys in one bedroom and the girls in another — it’s dormitories — and we take your housekeeper with us. I write and you open a store called Carol Pots and we have dashing dinner parties with devastating men.”

“Six kids in one apartment,” Carol would repeat. “It really sounds swell. No, New York is for you.”

And then one day the what-if and do-you-think and my-God-the-kids conversation stopped. Carol drove me to the Metroliner in her Country Squire, and split a Stelazine tranquilizer with me (“My God,” my doctor had said once, “those should only be used in an institutional setting”). My journey and her abandonment had started. She gunned the gas pedal.

My plan was to play out my college-girl’s dream. I am going to New York to become this famous writer. Or this working writer. Failing that, I will get a job in publishing.

I did not wait to line up a job before making the move — nothing ordered or sensible like that. Not trusting my resolve, I made sure first that I was here, saddled with a lease and pride. Barney had decided with my departure to take a campaign job in Washington he’d been wanting. It would be at a cut in salary, and there would not be much money for the rest of us. There could be no looking back. I would have to make it.

But I had not dropped out of my conventional ways easily, and I pondered and anguished still. Was I spoiled because I was taking so many other people — like my husband and children, just to pick some at random — over the hill with me in my decisions? Or was I moral in the deepest sense because I would no longer in the name of sacrifice to others — like my husband and children, just to pick some at random — let slip away the one life I was given as wholly mine to do something with? Those were not easy questions at all, and are not yet.

I don’t know the answers. I don’t. All I know beyond doubt is that some women today have to leave and start over, and that I am one of them.

***

Am just back from sloshing through the rain looking for a job. I have been writing letters and going to interviews and taking tests all over the city in the effort to find myself work which will pay me something toward the $10,000 I need to finance the rent and a housekeeper. Those are staggering expenditures, I know, but I asked for it by moving to this city. Barney promised to contribute $400 a month but it is uncertain how long this money will continue to come in.

I can hardly count at this point how many places I’ve been or people I’ve seen about jobs. I’m supposed to be very up and bright throughout this, naturally, convincing possible employers that not only am I friendly, trustworthy, loyal, etc., but also that I am just the answer to their problems.

What I really want to do is write the words which come out of Roger Grimsby’s mouth on the ABC Eyewitness News. They gave me a test to see how well suited I was for this, and I may have blown it, I can’t tell.

ABC was the first interview I had — it seems months ago now. I sat nervously in the lobby waiting, conscious that I had not asked anyone for a job in a long time. There was a giant color monitor that Let’s Make a Deal was playing on, and the male receptionist and I watched it. He kept asking me what I thought the price of everything should be, and I had no dreaming idea, though I did hit the eight-ounce jar of Dijon mustard right on the button. I have to report that even though I was thinking bitchy things like why am I Wasting baby-sitting money on watching daytime television, I was really sort of losing myself in Let’s Make a Deal.

That is why I was caught off guard when the man I had been waiting to see whisked in — gorgeous — and invited me to talk with him as we rode downtown in the back seat of a car to a speech he had to make. Strange experience — mother of four, liberated feminist, Dijon mustard goes for 89 cents, and it is like this blind date we are on back there in the back seat. He is telling me about his wife and children and how hard it all is, and we are both these people who are feeling knocked around and too old, but of course I am a college girl asking him to give me a chance at the typewriter and this is no date, or pass either, much as I might fear or wish.

When he gets out, Joe the driver suggests I come up in the front seat for the ride back. Taking quite literally my remark that I am new in New York, he points out places like Columbus Circle to me. He also advises me that working at ABC is a “groove.” I think I know that.

***

I was homesick today. There is really no denying that that happens; nor is it possible to put any other name on that emotion, much as I all glad to be in this city, much as it feels right for me at this point.

It happened first when we were wheeling the laundry to the Laundromat. We have to cross Broadway, and that can get to be a complicated maneuver because it is such a major thoroughfare and I have the laundry and lagging children. The light changed when we were only halfway across, and so we had to stand and wait in the middle. There is a sort of mall there, and there are benches and a few blades of grass — a kind of improbable parksite struck to separate uptown from downtown traffic. Spring has been making tentative advances recently, and I think, as a matter of fact, that the children and I had just been commenting on the changing weather. Sarah saw them first — little orange and white and blue crocuses pushing up in that impossible setting.

That was when I began to feel funny and sad. Spring in Baltimore is early and very beautiful. What will it be like here? For me, it is clear that — as in tradition — it will have to do with rebirth and new starts. I am anxious about that. I don’t know what is coming, and though I do not dislike that fact, I can’t help feeling frightened anyway.

Later in the day, not able to shake the homesickness, I phoned Carol. I heard about what everyone is doing and who’s mad at whom and who was flirting with whom last Saturday night. Big stink at the swimming pool. An insurgent faction, led by everyone’s favorite child psychiatrist, feels that unless curtains are provided for the dressing cubicles there will again this summer be rampant nudity in the locker rooms. This will result in sexual excitement which there will be no way of satisfying right there at the swimming pool, particularly if you are, say, a six-year-old person (the chief concern, after all, of everyone’s favorite child psychiatrist).

The other faction — bravely non-Victorian about such things — points out that it’s really only the little boys who get into the dressing rooms of the opposite sex because they are with their mothers, and big deal. So the child psychiatrist is footing the bill for the fabric himself and has deputized his wife to sew up the curtains. I cracked up at the picture of the latter-day Betsy Ross sitting at her Singer putting an early end to all the little boys’ fun.

I am so lonely. There doesn’t seem to be any way of handling the loneliness, either, other than by getting on the phone. But that is so temporary in its satisfactions. I wish for the circle of carping housewives with whom I had such solidarity. But I tell myself that this loneliness cannot last. I will find a job where I will meet people. I will continue to go to large cocktail parties where I know one person. I will join a women’s group. It will pass, the loneliness. My friend the established journalist tells me to hang on, and is convinced that in a year’s time I will be involved in “something which is at least interesting in the way of relationship.”

But right now it is hard, and right now I am not always so confident that the feeling of being alone is transient. Loneliness is the only thing which in the end could shake my goal of making it in the city. Is it better to be sane, free, self-respecting — and lonely — or crazy, hobbled, self-loathing, with someone — even just Carol — to laugh and talk with? That is the dilemma. I miss my child-worshipping friends with nothing to do when the children are asleep but go to the movies or drink coffee. At the same time, I will not involve myself so heavily in that world again because it is ultimately depressing and childlike itself.

***

At nine o’clock the children are finally quiet after much use of beds as trampolines, many stories, some threats. Mrs. Trent came today. She is marvelous, cheerful and unruffled. She will sleep in during the week, and go home to her husband on the weekends. I wonder if she will last.

She was a little late in arriving, and nervous about that. It turned out she’d had her purse stolen in the subway, and that that was what had slowed her down. I keep feeling disbelief that anyone would want to work in my shattered household, but I am grateful and relieved in the true sense. I wonder if it is possible that supporting herself is as important to Mrs. Trent as it will be to me.

***

Another humiliating phone call just now, and so we come to it. What am I supposed to do for sex, much less love and mutual understanding? I am the revolutionary who did not run off with a lover when I left my hearth and home and kitchen. I have run off with myself. So sex. What do I do?

Are you hanging on waiting to hear? So am I.

Bravely I remark, “C’est la guerre.” But note the French. It is inconceivable to me that somewhere in this city there is not my opposite number out of A Man and a Woman. I do not think that a Gallic hotblood who will drive his prize-winning sports car and his prizewinning self through the night just to walk in on me serving up Froot Loops and orange juice one dawn is too much to ask.

I suppose that the problem is the children. One man wrapped it up rather neatly when he said to me, “Who do you think is going to come around? Anyone who is looking for a lasting relationship doesn’t want instant fatherhood with it. And anyone who is looking for an easy lay who is as old as you are usually has a wife and children of his own in Greenwich. He needs an apartment to come to, yes, but he doesn’t want to have to watch Nanny and the Professor and fix somebody’s Dancin’ Dawn doll before he can get to you.”

Contrary to this wisdom, however, I have managed to participate in one brief, wonderful little series of encounters with a person I knew was all wrong for me, but with whom I, of course, in my precarious emotional state, fell madly in love.

And this wasn’t just love, mind you. Not just your run-of-the-mill responsible caring. This deal had complete adolescent worship thrown in. He’s so funny. He’s so nice. He has such a nice smile. You have the picture, I’m sure. Focus in on me making a total fool of myself.

I would have gone to the ends of the earth with him — chattering merrily on the trip about all the things teenagers will discuss. But since the ends of the earth didn’t really look feasible, or even very desirable, when you got down to it, what with just having made that big move from Baltimore and all, I found myself staying right here in reality. No ends of the world for me. Bed instead, and that was quite marvelous enough.

There was wisecracking and laughing. There was lying together and then leaping up to play and sing the entire Sesame Street Songbook on the piano, I dressed in his challis robe and very happy. There was mimicking each other and gently making fun of one another for our mutual entertainment. There was snow outside one morning when the clock radio went on. There was one long, perfect drive to the shore with the sun all around and nature seeming fine, and this funny, funny, very smart person revealing just a few of the inner tensions he normally kept securely locked away even as he was a champion at listening to other people go on about theirs. I thought we could be very close.

But then he was ready to move on to other things. He was busy. He wanted to be by himself for a while. He was tired. It had been a hard day. The rain was too fierce to come outside.

There was someone else.

Would I let it go? Certainly not, I don’t give up easily. The phone is always handy. Call him and chat. Win him over. Hear his voice. Do this at any hour. Even interrupt him one evening indulging with the someone else.

I know that I behaved badly, that I committed the unpardonable sin in sophisticated New York of losing control. I know that I should have had the inner strength to realize immediately that it was great fun but it was just one of those things. But I couldn’t get over it.

I had had a tense marriage for a long time. I had had sex without passion for a long time. I had last received a compliment sometime circa 1966. So I was ready for an affair. When it seemed a good affair, and when the person who was all wrong for me professed attraction and hinted (or did I make that up?) that I was the girl of his dreams, the one who got away, who was I to know he didn’t mean it? “I believe in recycling,” he told me at last. “Women who are leaving their husbands are my reclamation project.”

That hurt. I thought I had been enchanting him too. I didn’t want to be his pal now, just friends, one of a tremendous number of formerly-laid-by-him good-sport women who understood there could never be anything singular enough about them to attract him finally. (How practiced he seemed the night he told me he was ending it. How practiced I was in taking his rejection, phrased now as we-have-different-lifestyles. How right it felt to be taking my medicine. I did not walk out on Barney guiltless. I had to allow someone to walk out on me in retaliation.)

So that’s what’s happened with sex so far. I am very horny and walk around with a funny restlessness which is difficult to cope with if you are on Amsterdam Avenue and the music blaring from the loudspeakers at the Puerto Rican discount appliance store is “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.’ That happened once, and, lyric-struck adolescent that I am, I stopped and listened to it all the way through. Just stood stock-still.

I also, despite my disgusted awareness that I have done the full Corliss Archer number with the person who is all wrong for me, and despite a 23-dollar overcharge in message units last month, continue to pursue him. I send killing little notes to his office, think about him endlessly, phone incessantly still, and thrive on those one or two evenings every few months when he calls up, very drunk, to say he really wants to come over, but has vowed not to yield to this weakness. It will set up too many expectations for me and he cannot handle being involved with a not-yet-divorced woman who is a mother besides. Then, too, there is someone else.

Through all this I remain confident that one of these days he will come to his senses, realizing that we are destined for each other (despite being all wrong for each other). That will be the day when he is no longer frightened by the facts of my children, my brashness, my devotion. That will be the day indeed.

On the subject of sex, my friend says, “If you’re horny, jerk off — what is it?” and breaks me up. But just an orgasm is not what I’m talking about. Not that I wouldn’t settle.

***

A job! Indeed in publishing. I start Monday. It is a small house, does a series on parenting and one on crafts. Plus some other stuff like a very clever satire on the Vietnam war in the form of a prospectus. I am going to do some editing, but mostly I will be the publicity person. Can you picture this—me, who knows the city inside out? (At least I’ve got Columbus Circle nailed down.) Can you see me rushing around to various promotional events, and calling up people to say, “Listen, sweetheart, I’ve got the absolutely hottest new personality in the Western world for you over here on East Fifty-first Street.” Can you see this?

But this is what I’m throwing it all over for. It’s a good job for a college girl who wants to learn everything about publishing. For soulful mothers who think they have to write, it may not be the Real Answer. It will pay me enough, though, so that, putting my salary together with whatever else I can turn over as a freelance, I should, with care, be able to pull off the new life.

I think the children will do just fine in my absence. They like Mrs. Trent. They have been quite resilient during all the change anyway. The other mothers in Baltimore were horrified that I was transplanting them from the suburbs to the city, and specifically horrified that the girls would attend a city school — a public city school. But they have made the transition nicely.

It’s a good school — really more like a community center than anything else, with all sorts of extra programs and interests. The mothers are always there, involved. You can’t simply arrange a fly-by in your nightgown in the car like in Baltimore because you have to go right into the room with them so they won’t be knifed in the corridors. This is a school rule. It works out well because you’re always seeing their teachers and their work and their friends. I will still be able to do this in the mornings. But it will fall on Mrs. Trent in the afternoons now that I will be working.

The school has the open-corridor program, not that that means the children go out into those unsafe hallways. They go into lots of extra rooms where they learn all sorts of things, including Spanish and how to make a skirt. Sarah was practically incoherent with joy when she produced from a paper bag for me one afternoon a polyester creation which she can actually wear. Someone taught her how to put elastic in the waist, to sew up the seams, and to put a sort of rocky hem in. You might think it would be too flimsy a thing for an active six-year-old actually to wear, but the trick is that she has sewn approximately 9,000 stitches to the inch. That skirt is solid.

Debbie has already picked up reading, and she is only in kindergarten. Cheryl, one of the paraprofessionals, found out she could do it a little, and told the head teacher. The head teacher, in turn, told Cheryl, “You discovered her. Now you make her a star.” I loved that. Now Cheryl reads with Debbie every day. You don’t get that in those jam-packed suburban classes.

The boys are still at home, but are as active as the girls are. They all four, in fact, seem to be bouncing back from our turmoil, hanging in there. I am very proud of them. That is not to say I don’t worry about them all the time. I went for a conference with Debbie’s teacher, for example, and felt during it that I should tell her Barney and I had separated — she might want to be watching for strain in Debbie. I had told quite a number of my acquaintances by then about the separation, and I certainly thought it wasn’t that big a deal to me any more, that it was something belonging to another life, even another person. I suppose you can guess what happened. Sitting there, in those little tiny kindergarten chairs, with the gerbils and the guinea pig and the doll corner staring me in the face, I broke down and cried and cried.

It was Debbie I was identifying with. How awful for a little girl not to have her father.

How is she — how are any of them — really reacting to seeing Barney so little? Is it terrible for her? Does she think it’s something she’s done which has sent him away? How much longer can we tell them, as though it’s perfectly normal to do it this way, that Barney lives in Washington because he works for a man there who wants to be President? Certainly they can figure out that we could live in Washington too. How are they really reacting to the new home and new schools? How puzzled and upset and frightened are they? Are they really all right? How can I tell?

I can’t completely — that’s all. I guess it can only come out gradually, and that I will have to live with that. But the fact that the children have not chosen their tensions, as I have mine, seems very unfair to me. What is worse, I do not know if I have the strength or intuition or skill to help them work things through successfully.

Monday, with the job, it really starts, my new life. This is what I want from it: the chance to be independent, paid, and respected, yes. The chance to dress up and meet people who do not talk only of nursery schools, interior decor, and fund-raising, yes. The chance to respond to the bright lights and civilization of the Big Apple, yes. The chance to compete, yes. But most of all, the chance to have some fun. Fun is what’s been missing. I wonder if there will be time for that now finally, or whether I am stuck with so many responsibilities that it will still be impossible.

A 31-Year-Old Housewife Reinvents Herself in New York City