Up the Sandbox by Anne Roiphe is one of the feminist-themed novels that seemed to be published in abundance in the early 1970’s. Its protagonist, a young housewife in Manhattan with two young children leads a double life: the daily grind of childcare and housework, and a rich fantasy life. It won’t take long to read, but its sensitive and perceptive treatment of the inner life of a stay-at-home mother is a rich reward.
I lived that life myself, when my children were young. I was very, very busy, indeed had less time for myself then than I do now with a full time job, but I was overcome with the monotony, with the perceived meaninglessness of doing the same tasks over and over again. I think the worst for me was lunchtime. Having to say, day after day, “What do you want for lunch?” and then put out plates of sandwiches and tediously cut up fruit, most of which would end up on the floor or in the dogs. And no sooner was lunch accomplished, then they were clamoring for a snack, and then it was time to cook dinner, another ordeal, although somehow easier because there was no asking, “What do you want…”
And so it is for Margaret of Up the Sandbox, who spends her days at the city playground, measuring out her day by inches, avoiding the housework, and trying to shield herself from her mother’s disapproval.
I feel like a traitor to my old self, writing this way about being a stay at home mother. I don’t mean to say that such an existence is meaningless. I felt strongly that I should not work when my children were little. I didn’t want to miss a single second of their babyhoods. I didn’t want the cost and guilt of childcare. It was meaningful when looked at from a larger perspective, but I have to admit that the day-to-day life was far from fulfilling.
In the book, Margaret’s husband wants her to go to grad school, so she will not become dull, but this option seems to her more like another burden rather than a path to opportunity. In the end, circumstances make grad school impracticable.
Nowadays there’s a weird dynamic with being an at-home mother. It has practically become a competitive sport as highly educated women channel their energy to engineering perfect childhoods for their children. And why not make wheatgrass smoothies and birthday cakes shaped like Eiffel Tower if you have the ability? Virtually all of my daughters’ clothes—even play clothes—were hand sewn and smocked by me. I had the time and the ability and I desperately needed an outlet for my creative energy. Which is exactly why motherhood has become so intensely focused on production, on accomplishments: because this is what we’ve been raised to expect out of life. There is not much sense of accomplishment in making a peanut butter sandwich, but a sandwich on home baked whole wheat bread with jam you canned yourself and organic sugar-free nut butter—now that’s an accomplishment. I’m not convinced the new standards are unreservedly good for children, but it’s unlikely that former lax standards of motherhood will become fashionable any time soon.
Anyway, if you’re a mother, if you’ve ever felt ambivalent about how you spend your days, you’d probably like Up the Sandbox.