Last night, my husband and I watched a new movie called The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. As you may recall from high school English class, this was originally a short story by James Thurber, of The New Yorker fame in the early-mid 20th century, about a forgetful and imaginative man who escapes from his nagging wife and boring life into fantastic daydreams. (If you haven't read it, you're missing out. You should also read other James Thurber pieces, such as Nine Needles and The Night the Bed Fell on my Father. They don't write like that anymore).
The movie took artistic liberties, with beautiful results. Walter still escapes into his head, but he's now running from the new boss at LIFE magazine who is managing the "transition" to an all-online magazine - mostly by being a dick to everyone except his few favorites. The film's Walter, however, is triumphant; for most of the film, you wonder if these fantastic events are really real or just in his head, and you'll be cheering for this mild-mannered, balding "negative assets" man whose job is being phased out.
In a phone conversation with "Ted" from eHarmony, who becomes his shrink by default, Walter learns that "people who daydream lack contentment." For Walter, these dreams ranged from tiny verbal victories, perfectly timed jokes that socially destroyed his cynical boss but that never actually happened, to a Spiderman-style rescue of a dog in a burning skyscraper. I don't even have to exercise the imagination anymore - just open the laptop and gaze on the (mostly Catholic) mommy blogs, with homemade king cakes and Advent wreaths and lots of children and housework but also - and here's the kicker - the financial stability to stay at home with them.
Oops, guess I wasn't supposed to say that out loud. It's Not the Done Thing to say that stay-at-home moms require husbands with full-time jobs and sufficiently lucrative paychecks. Politicians learned this to their chagrin, not knowing that of course, these moms can only stay home because they make homemade broth and save pennies on homemade detergent and don't have to pay for professional wardrobes or day-care. "It's not a privilege to stay at home" was preached from the rooftops. Some moms just exercised choice differently. The upper-middle class family life of four-eight kids, home-schooled, perhaps on a few acres of land with gardens and chickens, is attainable by all.
Yes, I know that all stay-at-home moms aren't like that. My own mom hasn't had a full-time job - or even a steady part-time job - since before I was born. Her jobless state was sanctioned and approved by her old-fashioned mother while I was growing up, even though I was an only child who went to school, even though we desperately needed the income from even a regular part-time job. An aunt who once hinted to her that maybe she would be happier with a part-time job was told off in no uncertain terms by my father, who said that if my mother "wanted to stay at home and raise her child, that was her choice." The "child" in question was about 15 and rarely at home, because it wasn't about me at all. It was about my mom's severe depression which made her incapable of managing the most basic household tasks, much less a job on the side. Having a stay-at-home mom was less about homemade baked goods and more about waking her up at 2 p.m. on a Saturday because I worried about her health.
As a child, I idolized working mothers. They always had clean hair, polished nails - their fingernails fascinated me - makeup, high heels. Their kids went to after-school programs that looked fun to me, more fun than waiting thirty minutes to an hour for my perpetually-late mom to pick me up from school. They had a briskness and efficiency that I admired.
I grew up in the 90s, before the internet really took off, before Facebook and social networking, before blogs. My mom only had to compare herself with the working moms in suits or scrubs who were up at respectable hours and making money, or with her own idolized mother who raised five children on a large piece of property in the 50s-60s and never succumbed to something so embarrassing as depression. Thank God she didn't have the extra burden of mommy blogs. Even homeschooling wasn't big in our area yet - the Deep South is a little slow on the uptake when it comes to fashion, and people I knew bought chemical-laden shampoos and conventional medicines and cooked with condensed soup.
Well-meaning people always told me that "little girls turn into their mothers and marry their fathers." Do yourself a favor and never say this to anyone, ever. You never know whose mother is clinically depressed or whose father is emotionally abusive, or what other skeletons they hide safely at home. I escaped the second downfall, but now I'm the one sleeping in, staying up until 2 a.m., only working part-time, lacking motivation. Sure, there are differences: I'm on medication, and I see two therapists weekly. I'm not in denial about what's going on, and neither is my husband. Still, there are days when I look in the mirror and imagine a few more wrinkles, thinner hair, glasses. It's getting easier.
Like Walter Mitty, my fantasies increase as my contentment decreases. Unlike the old Walter, the internet is always here, always ready with a new fantastic vision of what another life could be. And how harmful could it be, anyway, as long as it's wholesome.
**I want to make it clear that I don't mean to disparage all mommy bloggers, or moms who just happen to blog, or stay-at-home moms, or non-working women with disposable income. Some of you I wish I could know in person because you seem like the bees' knees. These are my own personal demons.