Get a Real Job, by Diane S. Morelli

Before social media existed, bumper stickers were one of the most effective communication tools for broadcasting personal business. Nothing announced a neighbor’s family road trip to Disney World via I-95 in their 1976 Ford Country Squire station wagon quite like a South of the Border cactus-and-sombrero motif adornment on the rear chrome.

And just as people should use discretion when posting stuff on the internet, prudence should prevail when making statements on vehicles. I’m still ashamed of the bumper sticker I drove around with on the back of my dilapidated brown Skylark. In red letters on white, it touted a popular mantra from the 1980s: “Get a real job. Be a housewife.” 

I bought it in an artisanal confectionery during a day trip to Pennsylvania Dutch country. It was the only cute item in the store’s paltry souvenir collection. I located it while my daughters, ages 5 and 2, agonized over striped candy sticks, which came in 300 flavors. 

“You can have 25 each,” said their grandmother in an effort to move the purchase along. 

I shot my mother-in-law a dirty look. “What? It’s a long ride home. They’ve been so good today.”

I pushed past her to the counter. “How much do I owe you for this bumper sticker and 10 pieces of candy?” I said to the cashier.

Without meaning to, with my assertive behavior in Lancaster, Pa., I kicked off a series of feminist battles. The first one was a short-lived family feud brought about as I rushed my three whiny female relatives out of the shop with 40 fewer candy sticks than they wanted to buy. The next fight was a public one. And the struggle was ongoing. Even though the role of a housewife has changed over time, women have been slow to unify and support one another.

Before the women’s movement, a housewife was a married woman who typically had children and did not have a job per se. Her main responsibilities were caring for youngsters and maintaining the home. She was not paid monetarily for her efforts. Her compensation was feeling rewarded when Little Mavis went potty on her own and being satisfied when a morning of scrubbing yielded glistening plastic slipcovers.

Housewives didn’t earn their position based on competence or passion; their title was gender-based and issued by default. Feminism challenged women to stop making sacrifices and to recognize and pursue choices. Division ensued when women had access to better employment opportunities and some actually chose to be stay-at-home mothers.

As I chauffeured our sweet cherubs from piano lessons to ballet classes in the goshabong Buick, my bumper sticker got across my belief that the pursuit of unpaid domestic duties was undervalued and should be viewed as a real job. This meant that I took sides in the war between the dying ranks of stay-at-home moms and the burgeoning throngs of working mothers. Both sides called the other women lazy and irresponsible. And they had their reasons. The traditionalists argued that working mothers left the home to avoid housekeeping and child rearing. The progressives accused stay-at-home moms of lacking ambition because they dropped out of the work force. 

Neither camp had it straight. Even the most exhausted progressive women who could afford to delegate tasks to cleaning ladies, personal chefs, and au pairs sprang out of bed in the middle of the night to answer their sick or frightened child’s cry for Mommy. And the most relaxed traditional ladies, who could do anything they wanted to day after day into perpetuity, grew bored once their teens went off to college.

Now that we’re in the 21st century, it appears that the role of mother has become more inclusive. With the majority of moms with preschoolers focusing on full-time employment, stand-in caregivers are made up of paid help or a pool of unpaid people comprising working or retired grandparents and stay-at-home dads.

And, in 2008, the definition of housewife was altered, too. Bethenny Frankel was cast in a popular reality show. Ms. Frankel ran her own business, did not have a husband, and did not have any children, yet she was included with a group of momtrepreneurs from Manhattan in “The Real Housewives of New York City.” For women who do not live in stratospheric ZIP codes or dress up like soap opera divas, the level of liberation attained by Real Housewives is unreal. And oh, so sexy!

A signal that a societal truce has been reached will come when that Amish candy shop sells a bumper sticker that says, “All mothers and surrogate others are working mothers.” I’d buy one to snazz up the dull black visor on my vehicle of choice. Most workdays, I push around a City Mini double stroller with my amusing granddaughters occupying the seats.

Diane S. Morelli retired in 2013 after two decades as a regulator on Wall Street. She lives in Hampton Bays.