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Mommy Dearest

It is a truth universally acknowledged, the Republican Establishment would have us believe, that a stay-at-home mother has better “family values” than a mother who “chooses” to work. But even if we ignore the nagging little fact that most mothers who work today do so not by choice but from necessity, we are left with a huge definition problem. What does “staying at home” really mean? And what did it mean for the First Lady, now First Mother and First Grandmother of America, Barbara Bush? 

Vint Lawrence

The prevailing myth is that Barbara Bush was the kind of mother we all want—mothers who spend their days wiping running noses, attending Little League games, organizing Scout troops, driving car pools, and, of course, baking cookies. In her speech at the Republican convention, Barbara Bush implied that she cheerfully did all these things. When, like so many show dogs, her twenty-two grandchildren were trotted across the stage, even such hardened news analysts as David Brinkley and Peter Jennings expressed wonder. What a terrific family! Just count ‘em! And look at that beaming, white-haired granny who spawned this clan! What a role model for all of us in the decadent ‘90s! 

Perhaps it’s time to inject a little reality into this Hallmark picture. My daughter Carey was a classmate and close friend of the youngest Bush child, Dorothy (“Dordie,” as she was then known), at the National Cathedral School for Girls in Washington. Let me try to recall, especially for younger readers, How It Was in 1968, when Carey and Dordie were fourth-graders. The nostalgia industry has been turning out glowing images of motherhood in these turbulent but still pre-feminist years—pictures of a kinder, gentler America, when mothers stayed at home and loved it, when choice, whether in the case of abortion or of merely going to work, was not yet a major issue, because nice middle-class women stayed home and knew their place. 

The reality couldn’t have been more different. It is true that fewer middle-class and lower-class women worked, at least not while their children were preschoolers, although of course poor women did work, supplying the domestic help that kept the Barbara Bushes in the business of staying at home. But many of the NCS and St. Alban’s mothers, who were affluent enough that they didn’t have to work, did have careers. Emily Herzstein’s and Nancy Rathbun’s mothers were lawyers. Alan Rivlin’s mother, Alice, was an economist who later became the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Carter administration. Elizabeth Chew’s mother sold real estate, Fran Alexander’s mother was a mathematician. Among the other mothers, there were physicians, social workers, journalists, owners of Georgetown boutiques, and, not surprisingly, many teachers. I myself was teaching English at Catholic University, where, incidentally, a good number of my colleagues were mothers. 

Most of us worked hard at having flexible schedules: as a professor, I could arrange my classes so as to be home by 4 p.m. or so when Carey and her older sister Nancy came home. Others worked long hours at the office but always managed to come to the Christmas play, the Halloween party, or the football game. Still others decided not to work till their children were older. Many of those later reported a feeling of intense liberation when they finally had a chance to pursue careers outside the home. 

NCS mothers who didn’t work (and seemed to have no intention of ever working) fell into two classes: (1) those who had so many children they could never quite get out from under so as to pursue any job consistently, and (2) those who were very wealthy or socially prominent or were the wives of public figures and hence had heavy social engagements and estates in the Hunt Country or elsewhere to manage. Barbara Bush, of course, fell into both classes. Having given birth six times (she lost one child), and having to attend endless social functions as Mrs. George Bush as well as taking care of the Kennebunkport estate, she was a perfect candidate for “stay-at-home” motherhood. 

But does it follow that Barbara Bush was a devoted mother? That she spent lots of time with the children, supervising their games, their meals, their schoolwork? I knew her only slightly, but from what I saw of Dordie, I would say the evidence was less than convincing. Dordie, who was much younger than her four brothers, seemed to be largely on her own, a classic poor little rich girl. She was very sweet and shy, and had difficulty with her schoolwork. Sometimes when she came over to play with Carey, I would help her with her homework, and she often came over to use our World Book Encyclopedia. I recall once asking, “Dordie, don’t you have an encyclopedia at your house?” The answer was no. And I must confess that when I drove Dordie home and the maid opened the door, she revealed a house that looked singularly devoid of books. Barbara Bush’s fabled literacy project, it seems, didn’t begin at home. 

Carey and Dordie frequently spent the night at each other’s houses, but both girls preferred our house, since most evenings the only person at home at the Bushes’ was the maid, as the live-in housekeeper who took care of the children and did most of the household chores was then called. It was the maid (or maids) who cleaned, cooked, did the laundry, and ordered groceries on the phone. Indeed, it is the former Bush maids (and other personnel) who should have been on the stage in Houston, taking their bows as the perpetrators of the Bushes’ Family Values. For without them, the household of the Bush superfamily wouldn’t have functioned at all. 

Not that Barbara Bush wasn’t sometimes at home. Whereas most stay-at-home NCS mothers played golf or tennis at the country club, went to countless lunches and charity affairs, played bridge, and shopped, Mrs. Bush, Carey recalls, preferred to shut herself up in her third-fioor sewing room, doing needlepoint. At Christmas each of Dordie’s friends received a pincushion with her name on it, embroidered by Barbara Bush. 

But, as Carey remembers it, Dordie’s mother never spent a moment with the girls when they were playing at her house, never inquired about homework, and Carey never sat down to a family dinner. George Bush was then director of the CIA, and the Bushes were out almost every night—at cocktail parties, dinners, receptions, charity balls, political events. Dinner, under these circumstances, was prepared by the maid and served to the girls in the family room. Barbara was often out of town for a number of days, accompanying George on his professional trips. As for George, he was pretty much the Invisible Man in Dordie’s life. I do recall that once Carey was invited on a Sunday afternoon to go sailing on the Chesapeake with Dordie’s father. On that pardcular Sunday, as Carey reported when she got home, Barbara Bush, evidently not a keen sailor, stayed home. 

Barbara Bush’s family values thus had little in common with those of the average stay-at-home mother of the ‘60s, who worked a fourteen-hour day fixing meals, doing the laundry, cleaning out the oven, trying to entertain the toddler while the baby finally took a nap, and so on. At the Bush house in Spring Valley, these chores were performed by the help, the one exception being the driving of the car pool. Just as the great ladies of the eighteenth century had their “at home” days, so the mothers of the ‘60s had their car pool days, when they presented themselves at the school entrance on Woodley Road in their station wagons, ready to drive home five misbehaving children (though the carpool hour was the one hour when Johnny, anxious to impress his little peers, could ignore Mother completely). 

What, then, makes Barbara Bush such a powerful role model? Young people today, exhausted by their daily round of working and child rearing, look with envy at those photographs of Barbara, surrounded by her brood of children and dogs, a picture of placid contentment. But behind that image there is the reality of a rich woman whom many of us recall as seeming to enjoy her dogs more than her children, a woman who rarely smiled. Indeed, I flinch when Barbara Bushmania takes over the T.V. screen, as it has so often over the past few years. 

I ask myself: Is the quality of motherhood really to be measured by the number of children one gives birth to? More important, what have those fabled “family values” done for the Bush children? Dordie and the boys did not distinguish themselves at school or at college. None of the four Bush sons pursued a career in public service, in the professions, or the arts. Rather, they have chosen the straight and narrow path of making money. Neil Bush, as everyone knows, was heavily involved in the Denver-based Silverado S&L scandal, and very nearly went to jail. George Jr., a Texas oilman like his father, has specialized in get-rich-quick schemes like the selling of tax shelters of questionable legality. Jeb Bush, a Miami real estate operator and the most politically active of the brothers, was investigated in 1984 by a House Government Operations subcommittee for the part he played in the affairs of International Medical Centers. (See “The Brothers Bush” by Mark Hosenball, TNR, April 3, 1989.) Marvin Bush is part-owner of a Blockbuster Video franchise in Georgetown. As for Dordie, until she remarried just a few months ago, she was a divorced 32-year-old mother of two, who was not working outside the home but evidently living quite comfortably—proof of how nicely family dollars complement family values. 

Both George and Barbara come from moneyed, suburban New York families. If the fortunes of their offspring seem less auspicious than their own, it is hardly surprising. For the values Barbara Bush really represents are those of a smug know-nothingness. In a convention interview with Judy Woodruff, Barbara Bush, newly self-confident in her role as discussant of political and foreign affairs (now that she has been declared the most beloved Republican of them all), confused NATO with the European Community, and then, realizing her error, pooh-poohed it, remarking that it’s so hard to get the names of those “foreign” institutions straight. 

Here is the woman whose popularity has been soaring throughout the campaign, unlike that of her rival, Hillary Clinton, who was found by 35 percent of those polled recently by Time to be “too pushy.” The contrast between the two is, of course, generational, but as the counterexample of Marilyn Quayle testifies, it is much more than that. A sizable portion of the electorate continues to perceive accomplishment in women as threatening. And of course the Bush administration is doing its best to capitalize on that fear. 

The stay-at-home/go-to-work debate is in need of urgent reformulation. The question is not whether Hillary Clinton would be a “better” mother if she “stayed at home” like Barbara Bush. The question, and perhaps we should put it to our children, is this: Whom (I still use the accusative case, especially when talking to children, where it’s important to set standards, even if George’s new campaign slogan is “Who do you trust?”) would you rather stay at home with: Barbara Bush, which is to say, with her surrogate, a woman who is being paid to watch you watching T.V., or Hillary Clinton, who, once she has come home from a long day at the office, talks to you and teaches you things about the world?