From the Attic: Nonfiction Essay
Motherhood is one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences many of us will ever have. It is one of the most demanding roles in society yet there is no training manual, no official how to guide. Although it seems to be a trial and error venture, it is largely based on personal expectations and experiences as well as society’s values, norms and expectations. Society has assigned mothers the responsibilities of care giver, nurturer, disciplinarian, role model, cook, maid, etc. It is a flexible, ever changing role. Up until two years ago, I was the type of mother I would have wanted my mother to be. I had two children, worked full time, cooked, cleaned, chauffeured, mediated, coached, nurtured, disciplined, educated and enlightened my children. There was nothing I wouldn’t do for them; in fact there were few things I did without them. The more I did for them the more they expected and the more they expected the more I did for them. I was effectively lost. I was a mother, but ceased to be myself. I had wandered, willingly and feet first in to the depths of motherhood and I was drowning.
Sometime after my separation I realized I was gone. It had been so long since I had other interests that I had no idea who I was or what I liked outside of the world I had created with my children. I had plunged in too deeply. According to The Marriage and the Family Experience “the cultural expectations attached to mothering impose high standards of devotion and labor-intensive, self-sacrifice on mothers,” (Family 128). Not only was I behaving like a superwoman, society expected me to. Housekeeping’s Helen is at the other extreme. She chooses to drown in the lake rather than to drown herself in the world “full of responsible opinion about discipline and balanced meals,” (Housekeeping 110). She prefers to remain on shore while from a distance “presiding over a life so strictly simple and circumscribed that it could not have many any significant demands on her attention,” (Housekeeping 109). Helen’s perception of motherhood can be seen in her relationship with her mother. She leaves Fingerbone, which symbolizes the traditional society and moves to a more modern society. In Housekeeping Helen is at one extreme, rejecting society’s expectations while Sylvie is at the other, embracing them and losing herself in the process. However, Helen’s suicide and Ruthie’s longing for her mother shows the need for a balance between being a mother and remaining oneself. This is one of the most poignant mother/daughter relationships in the book. To appreciate their relationship, I must begin by briefly analyzing the relationship between Helen and her mother.
Sylvia symbolizes the woman Helen does not want to be. Sylvia remains in Fingerbone after her husband’s death and raises her daughters in a state of domesticated “perfect serenity” (Housekeeping 13). It is a feminine world of habit with flowers and cookies and without “the troublesome possibility of success, recognition, advancement” (Housekeeping 13). All of the roles within the family are fulfilled by women, still Helen “was the abandoner” (Housekeeping 109). Although traditionally when a white woman “leaves adolescence, she is expected to either go to college or to get married and have children,” (Family 125) Helen uses her marriage to escape the traditional values of Fingerbone. Helen becomes a single-working mother, providing the necessities while treating her children “with a gentle indifference” (Housekeeping 109). Sylvia is the mother of “whited shoes and braided hair and fried chicken and turned back bedclothes,” (25). While Helen “swept and dusted, kept our anklets white, and fed us vitamins,” (Housekeeping 110) she abandons the expectations of her mother and thus society, turning her back on them and never mentioning Fingerbone or her own mother to her children.
The legacy Helen passes to Ruthie is of a single mother who according to Sociology in a Changing World accepts the traditional male role as the financial provider “because one of the breadwinners leaves the family” (Sociology 487). Her job provides the financial security Ruthie’s non-existent father does not. In reality as well as in literature, the concept of family is changing. It is adapting to fit new molds and new lifestyles. There are more households headed by single mothers than in the past yet some children are still affected emotionally, mentally and/or physically. It is interesting how much of their relationship revolves around Ruthie’s memory and longing over the letter Helen tears with “neither doubt nor compassion” (Housekeeping 52). She is able to feel anger over her loss where before there was only astonishment (Housekeeping 52). Helen’s decision to tear up the letter and later to commit suicide makes Ruthie and Lucille orphans. It also binds Ruthie more closely to her.
Ruthie spends much of her adolescence on the shores of society. She is neither willing nor capable to adjust to the demands of traditional gender expectations. She is the opposite of the woman of her day. Ruthie is awkward and confused, uninterested in fashion and make up. She does not attempt to understand society and is clumsy within its confines. She is happiest when she is finally accepted by Sylvie and knows she can rely on Sylvie. Helen’s suicide “established in me [Ruthie] the habit of waiting and expectation which makes any present moment most significant for what it does not contain,” (Housekeeping 214). Ruthie will carry Helen’s memory as a wound. When Ruthie speaks of her mother, it is typically as Helen. Helen’s escape was successful. Her drowning in the lake was a symbolic drowning, an escape inward and away from society’s gender roles and expectations. She is seldom considered as a typical mother, submerged in her duty. In other regards her suicide was a failure, she is still considered, though not as often, as mother. Her plunge into oblivion has frozen her in the state she least desired in Ruthie’s mind.
It is difficult to judge whether Helen’s abandonment causes Ruthie’s mental deterioration but it likely contributes to it. Helen’s plunge into oblivion sends her away from society, from responsibility and from her daughter. It is perhaps because of Sylvie’s dramatic departure that Ruthie has plunged within. She is forever left wanting the mother who has learned to balance individual expectations with those of society. Helen was expected to pursue the traditional route and conform to society. Instead according to …” Helen had internalized a masculine concept of individuality as detachment” (who). Some of her traditionally masculine traits are her smoking, working and choosing. Helen is the only woman mentioned in Housekeeping as smoking; as a single mother she joined the ranks of women responsible for providing for their families and Helen had the freedom to make her own choices. She chose death over life, freedom over responsibility, individuality over society. In the end, Helen chose Helen.
Her choice affected her relationship with her daughters and their relationships with society. Lucille chose to conform to society’s expectations for women, to drown in them and lose the self of her youth. By choosing to live with her home economics teacher she is choosing the domestic life of cooking, mending and keeping house. She chooses to accept the values society has deemed appropriate for a young woman and turns her back on the nonconformist ways of Sylvie and Ruthie. Ruthie chose to remain on society’s shores remaining separate and having nothing to do “with these ceremonies of sustenance, of nurturing,” (Housekeeping 214). She turns her back on the norms of society, burns down the house and the symbols of domestic stability it represents. Ruthie has found the stability within chaos. She is a traveler, belonging no where, everywhere. She is constantly watching but not absorbing and certainly not seeking to conform. Though she sometimes wishes to belong she only wades gently in the water and only with land in sight.
Land and stability for Ruthie are now meshed within her relationship with Sylvie and their devotion to one another. Sylvie fills the hole left by Helen’s suicide. Neither Sylvie nor Ruthie can return to Fishbone, as it symbolizes society. Free of the confines and gender restrictions imposed by society, they are either drowning together or both drifting further from shore.