Putting Myself Last for the Last Time: A Call for Women to Challenge Societal Norms

McCall's Magazine, Nov. '76: How We Lost The Family Maid—Me!

McCall's Magazine, Nov. '76: How We Lost The Family Maid—Me!

In 1976, my first article was published in a national magazine and I was actually paid for it! McCall’s was running a contest for true life stories. When I opened the congratulations letter and saw the $1,000 check, I was sure my writing career was going to take off and soon I’d be a successful author.  

It sort of did and didn’t. Since then, I’ve done a lot of writing and some of it was quite successful in garnering millions of dollars in grant awards for The Rose. But becoming the world-famous author never happened, at least not yet.

Recently, I was proofing one of our recent e-newsletters and something in it hit me in the face. I literally stopped reading mid-sentence, stunned at the message—much of which I had initiated.

The message was about all the different ‘things’ a woman, especially a young mother, has to juggle in her daily life and how the demands of those ‘responsibilities and tasks’ often means she puts herself last.  We were asking for support, donations to help us take care of her. Asking on behalf of other women is part of our daily work, and this summer loomed before us with 400 women needing help.

But what stunned me was that message was the same gist of my first published article.  It was titled: ‘How We Lost The Family Maid—Me!” And it told the story of a young mother who held a full-time job while juggling all the domestic and household duties expected of women in those days.  It spoke of how mired she had become in the dreariness and deathliness of tasks so overwhelming she did not have time for herself, not one minute to call her own.

Then, being a true woman of the 70’s, determined to better herself and pull herself out of a dead end low paying job, she returned to college.  She took on more classes than she could possibly handle, all of course which were held at night. Now both her days and nights were filled to maximum. Back then hiring someone to help with the household chores was a luxury, something for rich folks, not that she’d ever even considered it or had the money for such a thing. So she trudged on, working harder to be the good mother, good wife, good employee, good student. She was so intent on taking care of everyone else that she lost all sense of self.  

Here it was almost 42 years later and I was reading the same story. Women were juggling too many ‘things’ and putting themselves last. How could that be? Had nothing changed in these last four decades?  

Of course, it has, I reassured myself. In the late 70’s, women earned 67 percent of what men did doing the same job, today it’s more like 83 percent. That’s a change. In the late 70’s,  women could be the teachers or the nurses as dictated by society, but only a handful were granted entrance to medical, law or engineering schools, and that grudgingly. In 1980, 11 percent of physicians were female, 4.9 percent were in law careers and only 5.8percent were engineers, while 76 percent of public school teachers were female. Today, more women than ever before have college educations and have entered those professions once held almost exclusively by men. In medicine, 35 percent of all physicians are women.

Many women are waiting later to have children and don’t feel that they have to work right up until the day of delivery. If they do work outside the home, and the majority do, hiring help for household chores is common. At least that’s true for some women, but certainly not all.  It’s definitely not true of the women we serve. Those are the women whose families depend on their paycheck, who struggle to make it to Daycare, so they aren’t fined for being late and who wash clothes at 9:30 at night after feeding the family, transporting kids to activities and running errands.     

I’ve come to believe that there is another thing that hasn’t changed for many women.  And therein lies the rub.

Women still take care of everyone else first, just like in the 70’s and too often they put their health at the bottom of the list.  Maybe not all women but I hear this same story way too often, even from my friends and co-workers—intelligent, educated, and accomplished women. They are self-reliant, in impressive careers, earning good money.  I know them well, I’m one of them.

We’re tired, exhausted, still working too hard, doing too much, and seldom have time for ourselves. We answer emails while on vacations; we dance between kids in college and parents needing assistance and when it comes to health issues we put off checkups.  Our days are dictated by overscheduled calendars and we are still trying to meet some illusory set of expectations. It’s true many of the expectations are self-imposed but who knows where the others come from? For whatever reason, we keep on keeping on.

And we find ourselves wondering how did another year pass? When was the last time I had a checkup? Where have the months gone? How long have I had this pain or been aware of that change in my body?

My story in 1976 concluded with the young mother finally reaching a point of breaking, physically, mentally and emotionally, and the day came when she said: No more.

I have to laugh at my naivety back then because my answer to ‘losing the family maid’ and still managing work, school and household was to insist husband and son take on their share of tasks. I have to admit they tried. They listened and rallied, at least for a while. But before long, I slipped back into that role I knew so well and they, of course, let me.  

Thank goodness another story emerged over those next 42 years, more because the players changed than anything I did. With a different husband, son grown and plain ol’ aging, life is different and so much better. I have more support than ever before and am happy to accept it.  

But if I’m honest, I have to admit I’ve never managed to include enough ‘self-care’ in my routine, or be consistent in eating healthy or getting the right amount of exercise.  And, like so many other women I know, I still allow the needs of others to take priority over my own.

As I finished approving our e-newsletter, I found myself torn by the irony of the words and wondering if another 42 years will have to pass before we as women learn to care for the most important person in our world: ourselves.