If you read the New York Times announcement of my daughter Eleni’s wedding last year, you might think the mother of the bride was dead, hidden away in the attic, non-existent or had never held a job in her life. The New York Times (free-lance!) writer, Devan Sipher, who wrote the announcement cited the professions of the mother and father of the groom and the father of the bride, but refused to mention the fifty years I had spent writing for national newspapers and magazines, even though 21 of the articles I’d written had appeared in The New York Times.
(You may remember Devan Sipher as the writer of the notorious “Vows” column in the Times celebrating a couple who dumped their spouses for each other after they met at their kids’ pre-kindergarten classrooms.) .
While the snub was painful, I put it aside until yesterday, when I read a new post on my daughter’s blog “The Liminal Stage” called “Nice Work if You Kin Get It.” Eleni studied folk lore and mythology in college and will publish her second book “Other Waters” in February. She usually writes in her blog about “psychological thresholds, times of transition…The biggies are birth, marriage, death.” The subject of yesterday’s post was “kin work” which she explains as “the term anthropologists use to describe the ‘conception, maintenance, and ritual celebration of cross boundary kin ties’” –in other words, hosting Thanksgiving dinner, remembering birthdays, sending Christmas cards…you get the idea.
Eleni went on to say that it’s usually women who do kin work and their work is usually unpaid and therefore undervalued. She continues:
“I also think it’s a question of identity. If someone goes into an office every day, society knows how to define him or her–by his or her title or job description. The fact that a person goes somewhere and does something that someone else pays them to do renders them, inherently, worthwhile. Those of us who work at home, juggling work that pays us along with kin work, are considered dilettantes.
“This was brought into high relief for me during my wedding, by the writer who wrote up our New York Times’ wedding announcement …
“The reporter asked where my mother, a writer, had been published in the past year. I said Vogue and Budget Travel.
‘If that’s it, that’s exactly what the Times is trying to avoid–-part-time work,’ said the man, a freelancer himself.
“This angered me for any number of reasons: First, who gets to decide how many publications per year make one a full-time freelancer versus a part-timer? What if your sole publication is a groundbreaking article or book? (I mean, if my mother had been Harper Lee, would he have said, ‘And what has she published in the last 51 years since To Kill A Mockingbird?’)
“And second, what’s wrong with part-time work anyway? In an economy such as ours, and a world in which technology enables us to work from home, more and more people in any number of fields are going freelance. Does the fact that they don’t go into an office every day mean that they don’t really work?
“But what angered me most was the misogyny of it all. My mom had gone into an office before she started raising kids. As did I. And the fact that she re-shaped her career to make room for kin work, as well as paid work, had rendered her so unimportant in the eyes of a paper she had contributed to well over a dozen times, that she was omitted from the graph describing the jobs of the parents of the bride and groom in the wedding announcement of one of the children she’d made time to raised. So yes, as Mary Elizabeth Williams pointed out in Salon today, the New York Times does have female trouble.”
Eleni’s right. I did go into an office for many years—working first for Ladies Home Journal, then in London, editing a small magazine called “Homemaker’s Digest”, then, after returning to New York and marrying a reporter for the New York Times, I worked for a syndicated features service that published my articles around the world. By the time the second of our three children was born, I only went into the office a few days a week, working at home on other days.
When our third child was born in 1977, our family was moved by the New York Times to Athens, Greece, where I raised the children while my husband spent most of his time in Turkey and Iran covering revolutions and war as the Times’ foreign correspondent for the Middle East. (He usually made it home for Christmas.) During the five years in Greece, I wrote a number of articles for the Times about entertainers, politicians, artists, travel and archeology.
Among the journalistic gigs I’m proudest of is the series of essays I wrote for the Times “Hers” column in 1979. People born since 1970 cannot imagine what a journalistic milestone it was for the Old Gray Lady to launch a weekly essay written by women about women’s issues.
During the 1980s I wrote a monthly column called “Kids in the Country” for Country Living, and have continued to publish free-lance articles everywhere I can, including several in Vogue, as well as writing a number of movie scripts with my husband (which have been optioned but so far not made it to the screen.) So, from my point of view, it feels like I never stopped working
Daughter Eleni ends her blog post with a thought about her baby daughter Amalía: “This attitude towards women–and work–this idea that any work done at home is irrelevant, is something I struggle with now that I am doing more kin work than ever. How can I raise my daughter not to think that her father’s work is more valuable than mine because papi gets dressed and drives off to the office, and mama stays home and writes in between loads of laundry…Maybe by the time Amalía does kin work of her own, we’ll have figured out a way to reward it, beyond just giving it a name.”
I share that wish, and I hope that when Amalía gets married some 30 years from now, her mother will be included in the New York Times announcement, acknowledged as a real person who had a real career.