The Incomparable Worth of Wife and Mother

Several years ago, I went to the much-publicized grand-opening of a new grocery store. Much to my surprise, the customer needed to fill out a virtual mortgage application at this store in order to receive a check-cashing card. As I filled out the form with several children in tow, I wrote in homemaker in the space provided.

The bubble-gum snapping, multi-earringed clerk in her late teens threw the application back at me and said, "Since you don’t work, put down his information."

Her message was eminently clear: a mother at home doesn’t work because she isn’t a paid member of the labor force and exactly "what" she does has no value of any significance. "His" (it matters not-husband, boyfriend, significant other) information is necessary since home making is not considered a legitimate occupation. A call to the store manager elicited a profuse apology but somehow I’ve just never had the desire to return.

What was once considered the vocation of motherhood has been degraded to a status just above drug dealer in the popular culture. Any woman smart enough to stay home and take care of her family and raise her children today had better be ready to defend her decision against those who will claim she is wasting her time, talents and energy and losing her spot on the corporate ladder.

And at the end of life, how many of these women will be yearning for one more closed deal, one more transaction or one more promotion? What will the epitaph read? Here lies Mother. I never really knew her. She left me in daycare.

Danielle Crittenden’s amanda bright@home is a remarkable novel with subtle commentary on the challenges faced by a witty but somewhat insecure former executive when she gets serious about raising her family.

Amanda Bright (her maiden name) is a mother at home doing the best thing in the world for her children, but the book begins with her own doubts about her reasons: she hasn’t yet convinced herself that what she is doing is of lasting worth. Compounding her problem is the fact that she hangs out with shallow, superficial women who sip white wine in the afternoon and raise their children in politically correct modes.

Amanda faces real life: the clutter on the living room floor ("objects you couldn’t throw away, but you didn’t know exactly what to do with them either. Four years spent earning a bachelor’s degree had not prepared her career as a domestic curator."), what to make for dinner and the arrogant educrats who run her children’s overpriced, feminized pre-school.

In the midst of figuring out what to make for dinner and feeling dejected, the phone rings as her husband Bob, an attorney at the Justice Department, calls her with some big news. While she’s on the phone, her almost naked three-year-old, Sophie, dressed only in one of Amanda’s good scarves as an Indian ("Natif Merkan princeth") enters for a scarf alteration. ("Amanda dabbed at her daughter’s tears with her sleeve and draped the scarf around the thin, shivering body, arranging as artfully as she could, to resemble a three-year-old’s conception of what Natif Merkan princesses would wear if Natif Merkan princesses shopped at Nordstrom’s.") Bob has been assigned to take on the software giant, Megabyte.

Bob’s star is rising quickly at the Justice Department. While Amanda is happy for her husband, she is simultaneously insecure about her own career choices and reluctantly jealous of her husband. While these feelings stew, Ben, the couple’s 5-year-old son, is having some issues at his upscale school. He needs therapy for proper "scissoring." He’s not stacking his cubes neatly or joining in for "circle time" and he’s much too "violent."

The real problem, of course, is that he is a healthy little boy not fitting into the mold of the feminized school. The coup de grace is his suspendable crime of bringing peanut butter cookies to school and waving them under the nose of another child. This was an outright, unforgivable violation of the "just-say-no-to-nuts" campaign.

Amanda continues to struggle amidst the pressures of her "friends" and even her mother, a feminist leader from the ’70s. Her mother’s political connections had enabled the couple to enroll their children in the school which was otherwise for the rich and famous. Ellie Burnside Bright never approved of Amanda’s marriage or deviance off the career path.

Bob is a good and loving husband and father to his wife and children. He does become consumed by the case against Megabyte, leaving Amanda holding the bag for much of the child rearing duty. As she goes to a cocktail party with Bob, she feels invisible because of her homemaker status.

After a blowout with Bob over a woman who hit on him at the cocktail party, Amanda resolves that she will return to work to regain her self-respect and be able to place their children in a school where they don’t get suspended for bringing in peanut butter cookies. Never mind the fact that no child in the school was even allergic to peanuts.

In a discussion with Bob, they both agree that they don’t want their children in public schools. There is another option. Amanda can return to work. She doesn’t want Bob to give up his calling to public service and they simply don’t have the money they need.

Leaving the kids with Bob, Amanda goes out for a breather one afternoon and meets with one of her friends, Susie.

Susie had spilled her guts to the National Standard and now Bob was in jeopardy of being taken off the Megabyte case and possibly losing his job. When Amanda returns home, she discovers Bob on the phone with the woman who had hit on him at the party but who was also a witness in the case. Amanda loses it when she discovers the kids have wandered off to a neighbor’s while he was on the phone. She wonders out loud to Bob why he hasn’t left her and the kids, at which juncture he points to his wedding ring and tells her that he’s sorry she thinks he is that kind of man.

Later, Amanda finds out she’s pregnant. She bursts into tears in Bob’s arms. She doesn’t know what to do. An unexpected pregnancy wasn’t in her plan and would really throw a monkey-wrench in her return-to-work proposal. Bob says he’ll support whatever she decides. Amanda consults her buddy Liz, a mother of four. She decides to keep the baby, which Bob has known all along is the way she would go. She simply had to find the truth for herself.

Erstwhile, Ellie Burnside Bright arrives for a visit with her usual bag of worn-out feminist lectures. In a classic exchange with a weary and pregnant Amanda over her career choices Ellie pushes Amanda to the limits of filial toleration.

"‘Instead you choose to do nothing with your life.’

Amanda felt pushed beyond endurance. She glared at her mother, whose own face was thrust into defiance, as if daring Amanda to contradict her.

‘I am doing something with my life,’ Amanda said at last, her voice barely rising above a whisper. ‘This’-she waved her hand to indicate the surrounding house and all it contained-‘is not nothing. It is something.

And it is more than you ever gave me.’

Her mother, trembling, returned her attention to reading her book."

Here endeth the lesson.

Bob doesn’t lose his job but is taken off the Megabyte case and transferred to another fraud with the Cuddly Wuddly diaper company. Amanda’s friends are shocked at her condition when she already had the perfect boy/girl family. After Ben gets a bloody cut in his head at play group, Amanda realizes she has nothing in common with these so-called friends.

As Amanda becomes more secure with her choice to raise her children, Bob is also growing closer in his relationships with his wife and children. Bob calls her one day with some special news that he promises to tell her later. She collapses that day while shopping with the kids for new baby equipment and is diagnosed with toxemia. Samantha is delivered early. Ten days later, she leaves the hospital and finally gets to hear Bob’s news. He’s been offered a job with Megabyte in Washington State at a phenomenal salary.

In the end, Amanda realizes with her mind what her heart had known all along. Children and husbands are not houseplants to be watered on the weekend and squeezed into the day planner after an exhausting day at work. A family, like a garden, must be tended and watered daily for optimum health, beauty and stability. Neglected plants wither and die: the tended garden yields bountiful fruit. Thank you, Danielle, for reminding us of that.