I’ve spent the last few weeks channeling January Jones. Like the blonde bombshell on Mad Men, I donned attractive frocks, carefully placed the crudités on the coffee table and, drink in hand, presided over receptions for my husband’s colleagues and associates.
When we moved into our new home I marveled at the entire floor we’d have for representational events. After rearranging the furniture, I carefully selected the placement of our artwork: the foyer would showcase our bright, modern art, offering a warm welcome. The formal dining room was for the dark Russian pieces, ideal for serious conversation about political affairs, and the far wall of the reception room would house our collection of maps, with one from each country in which we’ve resided, offering a starting point for conversation about international relations. Thumbing through my copies of Food & Wine Magazine, I imagined making bite size Crème Brule or finding an innovative way to combine quinoa with Russian beets. Our home would be a warm, inviting place with tasty offerings where diplomats, artists, politicians, and think-tankers mingled comfortably.
A few weeks after moving in to the “fancy” house, there was an onslaught of receptions. That’s when the other January Jones/Betty Draper emerged. You know, the somewhat bitter, uneasy character from Mad Men whom, behind the perfectly orchestrated events, is entirely uncomfortable with her position as homemaker. Since we live overseas and I don’t watch much television I can’t extrapolate on the Betty parallel, but I can tell you that my playing the role of a housewife is not pretty.
The first problem was that I came out of the starting gates with a little too much enthusiasm. One week we hosted three events; 53 people came through our front door. The husband was slammed at work and with entertaining visitors, which meant that he breezed in when the events started and left when they ended. That put me in charge of prep, cooking, cleaning, and oh yeah, childcare. In the middle of the third event, I made sure everyone had a cocktail in hand then went upstairs to put the toddlers to bed. When I returned, the guests and the husband had left for their working dinner. Staring at the empty beer bottles and half-eaten bowl of babaganoush, I couldn’t help but wonder why in the hell I stayed up until midnight the previous night roasting eggplant. After cleaning up the reception room and the kid’s dinner dishes, I found myself alone and bitter at 9:30 on a Friday night. I was officially a housewife.
Didn’t my mother burn her bra at Berkeley in the ‘60s so I wouldn’t have to do this? Wasn’t I groomed to be a career woman? What happened to that up-and-coming editor from the fancy publishing company? And, by the way, my frock wasn’t that cute.
When the husband came home, I was fuming.
He was confused: “If you didn’t want to make stuff, you should have said something. I would have just put out some cheese and crackers. You don’t have to do anything.”
As much as I don’t like to admit it, the husband was right. I’m not in any way obligated to participate in or plan these events. This is not my job. Still, conflicting thoughts raged through my mind: an overwhelming feeling that I need to be the perfect hostess, an urge to make our home a welcoming place that fosters smart dialect between influential circles, a desire to carve out my own career that is completely separate from anything related to my husband’s job, and the compulsion to remain the primary caregiver for my children. I couldn’t help but think of all the spouses like me (foreign service and elsewhere), trying to support our partners, be our own women, raise families, and find our unique roles amid dynamic lifestyles.
When we lived in Turkey, many of my friends were brilliant women who had won hard-to-get slots at university and after graduation landed top jobs. But as soon as they were married, they quit to stay home, never returning to the workforce. Often it seemed they floated between long afternoon teas or spending countless hours in the kitchen cooking each meal from scratch. How did they reconcile this dramatically different role? Was it cultural and ingrained? Or was a stay-at-home wife the role they had been working for all those years? Maybe it was what I had been working for all these years?
I thought of my expat friends that take the exact opposite approach. So afraid of looking like a tag-along spouse, these women completely opt-out of doing anything related to their husband’s careers. Forget seeing them at the big Christmas party or even out for casual drinks with a handful of colleagues. I’ve been to events at their own house where they didn’t show up.
Most trailing spouses it seems put all their time into raising families, or into their faith. As if they do nothing but dust the photos in the hall and cook warm meals each night for their brood. But I am being too simplistic. Because as much as it looks like the women I meet overseas fall into these narrow categories, the truth is that we are all complicated. Both abroad and in the US, no one is simply a happy homemaker or a career woman. When I do get a woman to take off her apron and stop talking about her husband’s office party or the next event with the American Women’s Organization, I find someone with doctorate in Physics who runs her own consulting business or a talented artist that is an avid reader of Chekov.
And the one common thread is that too many of us women are trying to do it all. My take away from the ‘60s bra-burning was thinking that having won our rights, women can do it all. It should come as no surprise then, that as the year ends, like many women I know I’m having breakdowns. Because of course, I can’t do it all. No one can. I can’t be a caterer, a nanny, an interior designer, the CEO of a small business, and a freelance writer.
Certainly, on some days I can passionately embody one of these roles and do it exceedingly well. The beauty of this overseas life is that I do get to pick and choose how I want to spend my time. The deadlines I make are my own. But I have to remember that taking on one thing is at the expense of another and if I don’t carve out time to do my non-domestic work, I’m miserable.
As I said before, I do like to entertain. I love it and plan to do a lot more of it. But I have to learn to outsource, to dabble in one role, and then carve out the time to return to my desk. A few days ago we hosted fifty people. Instead of giving up my writing time, I put the kids in daycare during one of my “mommy days” so I could cook. It was a holiday party that I was excited about and I wanted the menu to be my own. But I also hired a helper and during the event she and I traded off watching the kids and washing the dishes.
Later this week we’ll host sixty Russians. This party is catered. I’ve picked out my short and shiny frock, but to avoid future breakdowns, I’ve also planned exactly when I’ll write and edit this week. And a few days later we’re having my close friends over for Christmas. I’ve dreamed up the table decorations and menu and can’t wait for our intimate meal under the dark Russian art. I’ll wear an apron, set out the crudités and, drink in hand, enjoy the evening. Who knows, we may discuss foreign policy, medicine, or literature, or maybe we’ll just talk about our favorite floozy housewife characters from television.