“The American mantra is that we have choice, but we don’t have the choices other people have in other countries. ”
My mother’s earliest memory dates back to World War II in her childhood home in Kristiansand, Norway. Her older brother was huddled in the corner of the family’s large basement. My three-year-old mother stood on a chair, peeking out a small window, ignoring her own mother’s calls for her to step down and get away from the glass.
Outside the early morning air was green from the smoke of firebombs the Nazis had spent the night dropping across the city. Since the onslaught began the night before, my grandfather had been on the roof of the house, intent on brushing off any bombs that might make contact and harm his family. When they finally had the courage to leave their home that morning, my family would learn that whole sections of their town had been decimated, flattened to rubble, burnt beyond recognition.
Eventually, Norway recovered from the devastation of war. My grandfather prospered as his canning business thrived. He and my grandmother became pillars of society in their small but growing city. My mother remembers dinner parties with visiting dignitaries, and the night her parents were honored with the privilege of dining with the king and queen of Norway.
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But it’s another wartime experience that seems to have predestined the course of my mother’s life: the arrival of the Americans who came to liberate her country. They brought food, clothing, wood, and nails. They also brought candy for the children and pantyhose for the women. They were handsome, young, conquering heroes. It’s no wonder then that when she was sent to London to “finishing” school and met my American father, she fell in love not only with him but with the idea of living in the country where freedom and opportunity reigned.
In preparation to be married to the dashing American, my mother, at the insistence of my grandparents, attended housewifery classes where she learned the important art of killing a chicken by snapping its neck, how to properly set a table (salad fork farthest left, dessert fork due north), and embroidery. She spent the year of their engagement working on her trousseau, which included handmade tablecloths and linen pillow cases. My parents were married in December of 1960, and my young mother arrived in the United States prepared to be the perfect wife just as her new country was on the cusp of the tumultuous ‘60s.
Like the United States, Norway experienced significant advancements in the lives of women after World War II. In the 1970s, a series of laws and programs intended to break down workplace inequality were passed in both countries.112 But it is how each country approached the idea of “working” mothers that speaks to the deep differences in our cultures and reflects our truest values.
Despite the rise of the feminist movement both in her home and in her adopted country, my mother remained a housewife, raising the children, hosting dinner parties, and being the ambitious executive’s gracious “better half” as she had seen her own mother be. My mother, who never went beyond high school, would not start her own career as a clothing consultant for Doncaster until well after my siblings and I had left for college.
Meanwhile, my Norwegian aunt, Sidsel, who was born a few years after the war and came of age during the ‘60s, always assumed she would have a career. Although she didn’t go to college, she attended vocational school and became an esthetician, a profession in Norway that is more akin to dermatology than being a facialist, as it often is in the United States. Eventually, my aunt built a company distributing beauty products across Europe. She was often a keynote speaker at industry conferences and created a magazine targeted to her profession. She also married, had two children, and was deeply proud she had created the career of her dreams and the family life she wanted. My aunt was a trailblazer and model of what women could achieve in the New Norway. And she did it before the country had enacted the family-friendly policies for which so many of us consider it the Promised Land. She never said it directly, but other things my Aunt Sidsel communicated led me to believe she felt sorry for my mother and her lack of career. I remember her telling me, “I did it. So can you.”
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