Article - Spring 2022

Women’s Burden

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We like to think the painful sacrifices our mothers made are in the past. But are they?

By Garry Wills | March 1, 2022
Classicstock/Alamy; Photo-illustration by David Herbick
Classicstock/Alamy; Photo-illustration by David Herbick

“… the acute burden of being female”
—Michelle Obama, Becoming

Since I was insomniac in my early teens, I heard my parents quarreling at night. It took a while for me to puzzle out what was causing these arguments: my father Jack’s philandering ways. My mother, Mayno, I would later learn, had long been so tolerant of his ways that she offered to raise, along with my younger sister and me, one of his children from an unmarried woman. Nothing came of that, but I was up late one night when my father was absent on a hunting trip, and I heard my mother sobbing deeply during a long phone call. I finally went out to the living room, where the phone was, and I kept listening while she continued to cry and comment on what she was being told. After she hung up, I asked her why she had said something or other. She saw that I had guessed enough of the truth that she might as well tell me the whole of it.

The mother of a young woman who was a hostess at the hunting lodge where my father was staying had called Mayno and said that Jack (then in his early 30s) was asking her daughter (then in her teens) to carry on their affair after he left the lodge. The young woman’s mother was tearily begging my mother to stop this, even though Mayno told her she did not know what she could do in this case, as in similar ones that had earlier (and often) happened.

But after that painful phone call, and when she saw that I was aware of what was going on, she resolved to tell my father when he returned that she was going to divorce him. He thought he could survive this, as he had other affairs, and he did not want to leave us. So when he learned that I would not back up his bid to remain, he told Patsy, my younger sister, that her mom was driving him away for no reason. I thought it was noble of my mother not to tell Patsy the truth, which could curdle Patsy’s love for her father. I thought I should follow her example and not tell Patsy what I knew. This was probably a bad decision, since it made Patsy resent our mother for years after this—so much so that when at last she learned the truth, that Jack had been lying to her, it made her so angry at him that, later on when he died, she refused to come to his funeral. I had to plead with her, through several phone calls, to show up, however briefly, at the cemetery, where she said nothing to anyone about Jack.

When Jack’s pleas with Mayno did not work, he went to our parish priest (though he was not a Catholic), since he thought rightly that the church of that time did not recognize any justification for divorce. Couldn’t Father Sullivan, a crusty old Irishman, plead with Mayno, a devout Catholic wife and mother? Father Sullivan certainly could. He came to our house to tell Mayno that it was the duty of a good Catholic woman to pray for a husband’s reform rather than to divorce him. I did not like Father Sullivan. When I was serving as an altar boy at one of his High Masses, I entered the sanctuary beforehand to light the tall candles with a long metal taper-holder, and then forgot to put down the latch when I returned the holder to its slot on the wall in the sacristy. It clattered noisily down during the Mass, and Father Sullivan ferociously screamed at me, after we had returned to the sacristy, that I would never serve at his altar again.

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