Even if I were not deeply inclined towards introspective navel-gazing (which I clearly am or why else I would I be laboring over this blog thing) I know a sign when I see one. There it was in a 42 type font, staring at me from the library shelves. A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN: LARGE PRINT EDITION.
Oh please, is it just me, or does that fairly scream oxymoron? A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN was on my 9th grade reading list in my all girl English class. I remember the provocative little paperback volume inviting us, urging us to think independently, to nurture our creativity, to never allow ourselves to be quashed out there the wide, wide world. And while all these years later I couldn’t recall the actual details of the book, the words “a room of one’s own” has held this allure and resonance that has lingered over my thoughts and hovered over my senses. It has to be true for so many of us. Wouldn’t it be amazing to see what each of us could create with a private space, secure funding and untethered responsibility?
Virginia Woolf gave the revolutionary talks that became A Room of One’s Own in 1929 when acceptance of women in any area outside the home was at best grudging, at worst, openly hostile. My classmates and I were bequeathed the scruffy paperback versions of the book nearly fifty years later. Times had changed.
Let’s briefly dial back the clock to approximately 1980. The flickery TV is on and the Enjoli perfume commercial blitzes onto the screen. You remember. An “8 hour perfume for the 24 hour woman.”
“I bring home the bacon! Fry it up in a pan. And never let you forget you’re a man.!”“ Ouch. Changing times indeed. But think about it, if thinking is even possible as you watch that feathered blond strut with a combination of aggression and suggestion towards the camera. What’s being sung here loosely translates to this: “Hey, Baby. You want it all, you can have it all. Do it. You asked for it, didn’t you?”
What’s particularly galling is that this twisted little passive/aggressive advertising fantasy was most likely penned by some guy. Under the guise of celebrating “womanhood” there’s this underlying challenge. So now women were to aspire to working a full-time job, having a house full of kids, looking fantastic at all times and still having enough energy to “read his tickity tock.” Do it, baby. She can.” Game on, right?
Hey, he bought her the perfume after all. But while I am not a social scientist nor do I have any claims on making an exhaustive study of women’s rights in the 20th century, I would argue that for all of the gains for women in that ensuing fifty years, making it as a woman had not really gotten that much easier than in V. Woolf’s day. We can’t do it all.
The gung-ho girls of Miss Rode’s 9th grade English class tried. I know I did. I went to college and then into book publishing which I will tell you honestly was intellectually stimulating, hugely fun and in some ways thoroughly annoying as most business are. Getting married at age 30 didn’t slow up the work life in the least, letting me indulge my “bringing home the bacon and frying it in a pan” fantasies to the fullest. Good for me.
I then dropped the frying pan when my husband and I had twins when I was 33. There was no part-time at that time, at least where I was working. While the job itself was sort of glamorous (the best perk being the free books) the balance was the very modest salary. Had I gone back full-time I still couldn’t quite afford to pay a sitter to take care of my sons. I chose to stay home with the boys. At least it was a choice—that in and of itself is a remarkable gain from Woolf’s time.
But the other parts of the Woolf equation continued to slide just out of my reach. For those of us who decided to have children no amount of money saved ever feels like quite enough. Parenting, difficult and wonderful as it is, is in many ways the definition of responsibility. And the only “room of one’s own” in a house with children is the bathroom and often not even that. But if I wasn’t a fully developed intellectual wolf in my previous life I liked feeling that I was little by little working my way towards a world of deeper thinking. There was definitely a part of me that liked being defined by my business cards.
On the home front, driving on the squirrely back roads of the suburbs, straining to see over the massive hood my SUV (we needed the space in that thing, not the cachet of driving it) I was often dismissed as nothing more than a lamb of a soccer mom. Even though my children didn’t actually play soccer. But of course there is a massive difference in being a dutiful wife and mother because convention dictates that’s what one must be and actively choosing to be one. At least for a period of time.
But in spite of that, all these years later, squeezed into black spandex exercise wear and clutching Trader Joe’s bags, there’s a niggling sense of failure that taunts me. Of not being that bell-bottomed, hip-swinging,do it all, bacon bringer of the perfume ad. I felt thwarted. I felt ridiculous. I felt lost. Which is how I eventually found myself in the large print section of the library. I was pretending I was there because the large print section is an excellent place to snag hard-to-find titles. The truth, of course, is that the big type a whole lot easier on my middle-aged squint-vision. But then, right at my eye level, was A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN. In very big letters so maybe I wouldn’t miss it. Choice? Of course I had a choice. What I chose to do was stop pretending and think about Woolf’s provocative invitation once again.
Maybe when one comes face to face with a book like that, especially in very large letters , it’s not an oxymoron at all but instead a sure sign that perhaps one is not quite done yet. Woolf was encouraging women to stake a claim for themselves, to have courage in their thoughts and convictions, to not accept that things just are as they are, to find themselves and move forward. Excellent advice back in the day and for the future.
But rather than pine for a room of my own, perhaps I could just settle for some clear, quiet space in my head. Rather than feel defeated and demoralized because I couldn’t and can’t balance work/home/husband all at once all I can accept that maybe “having it all” doesn’t mean “having it all at precisely the same time. “ Maybe A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN is not simply about inventing one’s self but reinventing one’s self. A large print battle cry. Time will tell. Welcome to my attempts to live bravely and well. Welcome to the thinking that will fill that private “room” in my head. See you soon.