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How I Learned About the Economics of Women

The truth: maybe I always tried to look at things with rose-colored glasses. But I've wised up. I’m hardly a Ben Bernanke or Alan Greenspan, but I learned a little about economics from being female, from enduring loss, and from my mother. She was petite, thin, and dressed inexpensively, but with taste and care. And she was a powerhouse of energy and resolve.

The effective operation of women’s bodies by comparison to men’s has been elaborated on elsewhere, and it’s dismaying therefore that men still earn more than do women. Women are more economically engineered than men: we have smaller, more efficient selves that require less fuel, and we eat less. We also, in non-war life, endure more physical distress. My mother valiantly gave birth to four children without any anesthesia, not even an epidural in her back. Obviously, she had a high tolerance for pain. And she was keenly aware of economy in all things.

Of course, having money matters. I’m lucky enough to have been left a small Trust by my father when he died, and I started collecting Social Security at 62. I have enough to scrape by, and I indulge my love of writing with all the joy that not having to slave for a boss can bring. Economy is hard-won; I can’t always buy the clothes I crave and things I want for my apartment, and I don’t travel or own a car or dine out. But the great part of not having to work anymore is that I feel a tremendous freedom to spend my time doing what I love.

I learned optimism from my mother, no matter how deep the hole you’ve dug for yourself, “things always look better in the morning.” Her sense of good faith carried me through many a bad job, breakups of relationships, periods of depression and angst. And she gave me an opening into writing, always encouraging me as a child to create poems, stories, essays. Often, on a summer morning, she’d hand me a blank journal in which to write my childish thoughts and expound on my little life. She was creative herself. And my mother was extremely industrious, but almost always cheerful, when she wasn’t screaming at us kids to stop fighting with each other — wich we did, often.

She said once, after raising a family of six, that if she never had to cook another meal, she’d be ecstatic. She got so sick of shopping for groceries and preparing food for the rest of us it’s a wonder she didn’t keel over in despair. But even while holding down a full-time job as a public school teacher, my mother still did those things — and she also ran the vacuum every week, scrubbed the toilets, did the laundry, made the beds, scoured the kitchen, taking it all in stride — but not only those tasks; she brought baskets of flowers to old, shut-in ladies, painted landscapes, gardened, edited the church newsletter, threw dinner parties, directed plays which were cast with children at school, wrote two novels for kids by the time she was 50, and wallpapered every room in our house to save on decorators' fees. Most of this was unpaid labor. And she never ran out of energy. Her two children’s novels opened the opportunity to get published, a possibility that almost happened twice, but the publishers cut back on their publication list and she missed out, much to her everlasting sorrow. Now that she’s gone the single thing I regret most for my mother is that her novels were never in print.

She often told the family she felt like a single parent, toiling away at the chore of raising kids by herself. She thought my father took little interest in raising kids and preferred reading American mysteries at night and watching football or golf games on TV, unconcerned with what his adolescent children were doing. But despite this, my mother seized the opening of a new career as an elementary school teacher and ended up being as much of a bread-winner as my Dad. She took the job teaching partly because she wanted to go to England every couple of years, and fulfill her fantasies of drinking tea in floral-wallpapered bed and breakfasts, and studying watercolor painting, and taking the QEII across the Atlantic. She traveled many times with her earnings, conscious of her independence from my Dad, and unabashed at traveling by herself. Fellow tourists found this unusual: “You’re traveling alone???” Yes, she was, and it made her feel happy and adventurous. Most women are so busy taking care of other people that they have little ability to indulge themselves, and many women of my mother’s generation wouldn’t consider traveling without their husbands. But a sense of independence was one of my mother’s greatest gifts, so she indulged herself that way every other summer, by taking painting and writing classes alone in England.

She also bought property — land — on her own. When I was 20, my mother paid $20,000 for two New Hampshire cottages, a country get-away. There were five acres and a brook running in the back, and the place was fully furnished. The family spent many a weekend there during the ensuing fifteen years, until my father got tired of mowing the lawn at our vacation spot, and we kids had moved away — the place wasn’t used much anymore. But it was a grand investment of my mother’s and she’d always wanted property of her own.

As for me, I’ve remained unmarried and am glad for that status, as I’m not expected to clean and cook for someone else, even if my husband and I split the work. I can’t afford to be a landowner or travel much, but I am 65 and spend my retired days writing — and it is partly owing to happy solitude that I’m able to do this. I thank my parents for being generous in their wills with what they’d managed to save, and the artistic foundations that have awarded me grants, so that I’m able to keep writing without having to work all day for someone else. And I always try to maintain the optimism, the imagination, and the sense of new chances that my mother everlastingly had.

The economics of women is a conundrum: how does one get what one wants when so much of a woman’s time is spent just in service to others? My mother got more done in an average day than I get done in a week; I’m sometimes dismayed by my dreaminess and lassitude. My mother taught me a valuable lesson about the hard work of serving others: once, while washing dishes in our kitchen, she spoke regretfully about what could have happened with her career as a writer if she hadn’t gotten married and had kids.

So I made a promise to myself not to waste too much time with “romance,” to look through a different window, and to keep writing myself — even though I’m afraid I don’t get a fraction as much done as she would have with so many free hours. It’s not that having a family of one’s own is a waste of time, but it’s a sacrifice.

It is mainly through solitude and economy that I’ve achieved what I have today, which is a one-bedroom rental, a graduate degree, enough food, plenty of other writer friends, time to dream, and the companionship of my radio for news and music. The openings in life seem almost endless, even at 65, whenever I create on my laptop and feverishly write what I imagine is a well-crafted sentence.

I love the financial and artistic rewards I get, and if it weren’t for my mother’s tireless work, I wouldn’t be half the person I am today. I think she taught me resilience, to use my brains and imagination, and to take every day as an opening into a new economic and artistic opportunity.

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