Friday, March 4, 2011

The Donner Party, Women’s Lib and me

My fascination with the Donner Party began a couple of years ago after reading Ethan Rarick's novel "Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West." This book was given to me by a colleague who thought I might like it.

And like I did.

Since then I've been quietly drawn to this group of American pioneers who set out for California in a wagon train. Having had no memory of this event in U.S. history class, I became engrossed in the story of the Donner Party's ill-fated journey West, particularly the women and children. I mourned those who perished and rejoiced that anyone survived. And still I can’t get over the fact that this all happened in 1846-47 - less than 175 years ago! This is history, yet so near to us.

Earlier this year, via National Public Radio's Book Notes, I happened upon another book, which filled me with more information about the Donner Party, and also gave me a sense of personal peace as a working mother. Gabrielle Burton's 2009 memoir "Searching for Tamsen Donner" gave name to what I’ve been feeling for several years — a yearning to change the dynamics of husband-wife roles.

Until I read this book it never occurred to me that my own desire — to make married men whose wives work outside of the home more accountable in raising the family — may already be part of the Women’s Liberation Movement.

My husband and I more than once have said in jest that we need a wife. To me it is not a laughing matter, however. I REALLY could use some regular help. Animosity creeps in my relationship with my husband when I compare my workload to his. Sometimes the grocery shopping, meal preparation, laundry, housework, children's homework, setting and keeping doctor appointments, etc. overwhelm me, and I ask, "Why aren't husbands sharing equally in these tasks?"

Since hiring a “wife” — a housekeeper, personal assistant, nanny, cook, etc.— is out of the question, I believe sharing half of the responsibilities of raising our family with my husband would make ME happy.

It seems right. I believe ...

Then I realize that there’s a guilt that accompanies my idea, like my loyalties would be divided. If I were to relinquish some of my duties, I would be going against something that all of the women in my family have had to endure for decades. I also cower because my husband does help with some of the chores and the children, and I appreciate that.

So for a while I put it out of my mind. But it always resurfaces.

Our foremothers were expected to carry the burdens of the home and children, while their husbands labored outside of the home. It was hard work then and it is hard work now, for women — especially women who now work outside of the home. Times have changed.

In mid-1977, five years after being introduced to the Donner Party's famed heroine Tamsen Donner, Burton and her family set out on a six-week cross-country trip tracing the path of Tamsen. Burton had become obsessed with Tamsen, making parallels between her life and Tamsen’s. Tamsen was mother to five daughters (three were her husband George’s daughters from his first marriage). Burton and her husband Roger have five daughters.

During that summer and the years that followed Burton's writing trip (that never materialized into a Donner-related book until now) she takes us through a “personal odyssey,” telling how her children’s needs threatened to swallow her, reliving the guilt and personal conflict associated with wanting to have an identity other than a mother and wife. She struggled to be both a writer and a mother "and vice versa, giving equal weight to both, as men do."

Burton, unlike me, quickly identified her dilemma and joined the Women's Movement. She became filled with knowledge and inspiration about what could be.

Burton, in her book, says that women are still fighting the same battles as 35 years ago. "We're still the only industrialized nation not to have government child care; most employers haven't changed to accommodate their workers; and though fathers are doing more parenting, for the most part the bulk still falls on the mothers, employed outside the home or not."

Somewhere along the way, the dynamics of Burton's family's roles changed.

“Roger and my daughters allowed me to be a writer. I don’t mean that they gave me permission, I mean they didn’t consume all my time with their demands … the nicest husbands and children will eat you up alive if you offer yourself on the plate, and they’ll ask for second,” Burton said.

I don’t know yet what I will do with my discovery made through my preoccupation with the Donner Party.

At least I am feeling some peace about my idea — peace knowing that at least one other woman has struggled with the same feelings and survived.

Will I join a women’s lib group? Will I make my husband read this blog and will it make any difference?

For now I think I'll just keep on blogging and reading — my rewards.

Burton has a just-published novel that I am currently reading called "Impatient With Desire," which is written from Tamsen Donner's point of view.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. (Though I must say government-run health care in the U.S. might not be a great things, considering how the government has managed to botch a lot of things.) :)