By Sarah Baxter in The Sunday Times, 12 April 2020
My mother died of Covid-19 last weekend. It was a tragedy for her and our family, but not for the country, because she was already fading gently away. Her death will have contributed to the frightening spike in the number of people who have lost their lives to the pandemic, but it need not alarm the healthy. She was 90 and perilously frail when she slipped into the “undiscovered country”.
If there is a cause for concern, it is that she contracted the coronavirus in hospital. This came as a shock to my sister and me, who were kindly allowed a last farewell. We are grateful to her nurses for this consolation, because our mother felt loved near the end. However, she had previously tested negative.
She had been admitted to hospital after an accident and we thought she had contracted pneumonia, “the old people’s friend”. But a final swab proved otherwise. Our mother received wonderful care, but clearly hospitals are ferocious super-spreaders (even in non-Covid wards), which makes the bravery of NHS staff all the more remarkable.
My grandmother’s generation used to dread hospitals as places you go to die, not to be cured. Admissions to A&E have plummeted, not only because the streets are so quiet but as a result of the age-old fear of the plague house.
It has set me thinking: will this crisis send us back in time in other ways — to a world where the smell of baking fills the home, the whole family goes on nature walks and plays gentle parlour games and we leave the city for garden suburbs, pulling up the drawbridge behind us?
I hope not, as my mother stood for the exact opposite. She struggled too hard for all we take for granted to turn back the clock.
The domestic goddess is back in fashion. “Gosh, I’ve turned into a 1950s housewife,” Shane Watson exclaimed in The Times. For her, working from home means whipping up a fancy lunch for her husband, blow-drying her hair for cocktails at 7pm (with the perfect G&T) and dressing for dinner. He might do a spot of vacuuming as a nod to the 21st century.
It was all tongue in cheek, but our young mother, Virginia, knew the reality of being a homemaker. She was a child of the Depression in Cleveland, Ohio, with dreams of adventure that took her to Paris, where she met our father, a pilot who reminded her of the actor Ronald Colman, to Alabama at the height of the civil rights movement, and to Britain. Clever and studious, she had won a scholarship to Smith College, one of the “seven sisters” group of women’s universities at a time when the Ivy League was for men.
Another Smith graduate was Betty Friedan, as was Sylvia Plath. Friedan drew on the experiences of highly educated graduates of the college for her pioneering bestseller The Feminine Mystique. The “problem that had no name” that she identified in the 1950s and early 1960s was the unhappiness of women locked in the role of housewife and mother.
Friedan observed that women who had given up their careers were then “left in the lurch by divorce. The strongest were able to cope more or less well, but it wasn’t that easy for a woman of 45 or 50 to move ahead in a profession and make a new life for herself and her children alone.”
So it proved. Separated, with three children, my mother tried to live like the future heroine of Marilyn French’s 1970s feminist novel The Women’s Room, by returning to university in Ohio for a PhD. But we were on the other side of the Atlantic.
Returning to Britain for her children, she found work as a secretary and then as a teacher, one of the few careers available for educated women. She was then stuck in the suburbs near the M25 when she longed for the artistic and intellectual life of the city. Her glamorous but threatening status as a single woman and an American was viewed as eccentric (we were proud of that fact).
She enjoyed teaching but her subject, French, which she loved for its literature and romance, was hard to convey to children in underachieving schools, who weren’t interested. Later she found her vocation teaching English to immigrants who desperately wanted to learn. Like all Americans of her generation, she viewed language as the key to assimilation.
The “golden age” of the 1950s has cast a spell that is hard to break because of the hold of the nuclear family on the popular imagination. But it is no accident that my sister and I grew up determined to make our own way in life. Today’s career women sometimes imagine they are the first to juggle work and home, but women have always had to go out to work. The difference now is that more of us have a choice, as well as the chance to be better paid.
At one stage, looking for a care home for my mother in Washington, I actually met Friedan, then in her eighties and very much the doyenne of the home. In the end, to our surprise, our mother felt more at peace in Britain after spending so many years with her family here.
I think of her as having had a full and interesting life, which began in the year of the Wall Street crash and ended in the year of the coronavirus. She lived to see the condition of women improve hugely and I’m thankful for it.