Women's Studies 30

Being a Mom . . .

from the Fifties to Today


Perhaps because she helped to raise my own mother and has been like a grandmother to me, or perhaps because she raised seven children of her own and is currently watching their children grow up, I think of my aunt Jean McSharry first and foremost as a mother. And because Jean started raising her children (and my mom) in the fifties1, I tend to think of her motherhood as being situated in the home. So I approached her to discuss the influence of technology on home-making and child-rearing in her life. A mix of post-war American history and family anecdotes, the story that emerged clearly shows that Jean's life and technology evolved intertwined with each other. Through our conversation, Jean and I also identified what we see as social trends in the use and perception of technology by Americans; these trends have been reflected in (or perhaps influenced by) our own family members' experiences.

Before our conversation had really begun and I had only described to Jean the topic of the interview, she immediately said, "Well, this happened before we were married, but the television . . ." Interestingly enough, the subject didn't come up again until we got to discussing her grandchildren, whose visits are the primary occasion for Jean and her husband (Mack) to use their VCR. Though telecommunications and home electronics are perhaps the technologies which have changed most over Jean's life, these changes are not the ones which most affected the McSharry household. Today, the house Jean shares with her 84-year old husband lacks an answering machine and computer; in fact, they obtained touch-tone phone service only recently.

Instead, it is the day-to-day chores of raising small children which most affected Jean's life. She first recalled the point in her life when she had three children who were not toilet-trained, spending late nights in the basement cleaning diapers in her first washing machine, leaning up against the appliance to massage her sore back. When I asked how many diapers the kids went through a day, Jean gasped, "Oh gosh - thousands!" Before Jean and Mack moved to their current house in Greenwich, CT., they had lived in an apartment in Bronxville, N.Y.2, where Warren the diaper man came to haul off the diapers which the McSharrys didn't yet have facilities to wash. Jean recalled that he "never said boo" as she kept having more and more babies, as was common in Catholic families like hers and Mack's. In Jean's childhood home, the linens had also been sent out; this process is now obsolete due not only to the ubiquity of washing machines but the chemical treatments which make sheets wrinkle-free. In Mack's childhood home, laundry day was an ordeal even though his family had a washing machine of sorts - the heavy contraption had to be dragged into the kitchen and hooked up to the water pipes; after the arduous washing process, the clean clothes were carted off to be hung on the clothesline. This labor-intensive ritual is the distant cousin to the daily lives of Jean's children, who toss at least one load of laundry in their machines daily as their toddlers teeter about making messes left and right.

Food preparation is another central aspect of home management which Jean has seen change over the years. Jean recalled her childhood kitchen with its meat grinder and her mother ricing meat and vegetables for the babies. Yet when raising her children, Jean witnessed the advent of store-bought mixes, where simply adding ground beef could make a meal for the family. The nature of food consumption was greatly changing at this time: Jean clearly remembers her first trip to a supermarket, where customers helped themselves to pre-packaged foods instead of being waited on by clerks behind counters. She and I discussed how these processed convenience foods revolutionized "cooking," not only making it quicker, but less nutritious and made from fewer local or fresh ingredients. In the case of these foods and the washing machines, Jean explained that her perceptions were rooted in her middle class lifestyle - poorer people gained access to these technologies far later and Jean was rather unaware of what they did in the interim while she was getting her back massaged by that first washing machine in her Connecticut basement.

The subject of food was only one of a number of areas in which we discussed the ways people today seem to be returning to "the old-fashioned way," which Jean and I saw as a salient trend with significant class implications. Today, many people are turning against processed foods and, for example, making their infants' food at home instead of purchasing the Gerber-style baby food which has become so readily available in the past few decades. However, the families making these choices are those with the wherewithal to purchase fresh foods (many of which have now become more expensive than processed foods) and a Cuisinart. So as poorer families finally got around to catching up, the upper classes found a new way to exclude them from the vanguard which may soon become the mainstream. Jean and I saw this trend in disparate subjects like lawn care and child-birthing.

As the conversation went on and on with anecdotes of my cousins' childhoods, Jean and I grew more facile at describing social phenomena in terms of our family's stories and vice versa. It became clear to us that these domestic technologies are the ones which have affected the lives of the women in our family most because, although many of us have entered the workforce, the home has been the most constant element in our lives. Therefore, the different ways in which we have conducted these fundamental tasks are what ties us together more than how many channels we have on our televisions. As Jean mentioned the television first but then went on to discuss household operations, we are connected more by the similarities of domestic technologies than the radical changes in communication and entertainment technologies.

-- Moriah McSharry McGrath


1. Jean was born in 1930 and gave birth to her first child in 1951. My mother, her youngest sibling, was born in 1947.

2. Both towns are wealthy, primarily white towns outside New York City. Since Jean and Mack moved to the area, both have become more expensive and exclusive, but the fundamental aspects of the communities have remained the same.


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last updated 9/8/98