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Domestic Affairs: Enduring the Pleasures of Motherhood and Family Life

Domestic Affairs: Enduring the Pleasures of Motherhood and Family Life

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Domestic Affairs: Enduring the Pleasures of Motherhood and Family Life

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Apr 17, 2012


An unforgettable collection of essays on the everyday thrills and challenges of marriage and motherhood, from one of America’s best-loved memoirists
Witty and insightful, Domestic Affairs is an extension of Joyce Maynard’s celebrated, widely syndicated newspaper column of the same name that ran from 1984 to 1990. Each essay gives an unfiltered look at the ups and downs of family life and a remarkable window into the challenges of modern motherhood. Topics range from babysitter woes to family visits to coping with a child’s burgeoning independence. These collected writings represent nine years’ worth of stories about the greatest adventure of Maynard’s life, or, as she writes, “the difficult, exhausting, humbling, and endlessly gratifying business of raising children, of ensuring the health of both body and soul.” This ebook features an illustrated biography of Joyce Maynard including rare photos from the author’s personal collection.
Apr 17, 2012

Sobre el autor

Joyce Maynard is the author of twelve books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoir At Home in the World, translated into seventeen languages, and the New York Times–bestselling novel Labor Day. Maynard’s most recent novel, After Her, also tells a story of sex and murder.    A former reporter with the New York Times and longtime performer with the Moth, Maynard teaches writing at Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, and makes her home in Northern California. 

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Domestic Affairs - Joyce Maynard

Domestic Affairs

Enduring the Pleasures of Motherhood and Family Life

Joyce Maynard

For my mother, Fredelle Maynard, who inspired me with a longing to raise children, because it was so clear she loved doing it




A Visit with My Grandmother

Pie Crust

Thinking about My Father

The Yellow Door House


Babysitter Problems

Tuning in to Ozzie and Harriet

Getting Off the Plane

Death of the Full-Time Mother

Mother of Nine


The Ninth Month

Baby Longing

The Six A.M. Report

The End of Diapers



The La-Z-Boy Lounger

Counting Heads



Audrey Gets a Brother

The Third Child

Willy Walks

Night at the Ramada Inn


My Kids and Money

The Going-Out-of-Business Sale

The Ice Show Comes to Town

Chance of a Lifetime

Buying the Tent


Softball Season

Ursula Leaves Town

Marlon Brando’s Phone Number

The Norton Fund

School Play

Travelers Pass Through

More Babysitter Problems


Cutting Down the Tree

Shopping at Three in the Morning

Barbie’s Shoe

Charlie’s Birthday


Oklahoma Friend

Visitor at the Mental Hospital

The Lure of the Roller Rink

Greg and Kate’s Wedding

The Love Boat

On the Sidelines

Stranger in the Night


Dressed for Snow

Tomato Sauce

Mom’s Problems

Flipping Out

Five-Mile Road Race


Car Pool

Reported for Child Neglect

Perilous Journey



Audrey Turns One

I Want You

Lost Purse

My Daughter Gets Dressed

The Dollhouse

My Children Move On

Sailing Boats



Joan Baez Concert

The Baby Stroller

Selling Our Land

Greg and Kate Have a Baby


How I Married Steve

AJ’s Divorce

Argument at the Muffler Shop

Christian Marriage

House Hunting

The Knives





SOMETIMES THE SUN RISES first. More often, it’s my two-year-old, Willy, who does. And that’s when my day begins.

I roll out of bed and put on water for coffee, and Willy opens the cupboard to choose his cereal. (Maybe a combination of Kix, Honey Nut Cheerios, and Rice Krispies. Maybe oat flakes, Shredded Wheat, and Raisin Bran, with sliced banana, because that’s what they show on the front of the cereal box. Or he wants the toy pictured on the back, that you have to send away for. Or he may put in a bid for his Halloween candy, in which case, when I tell him no, he’ll cry and swear that if he can have just one, he’ll be good forever.)

He wants to pour the milk, and I always let him, and he always spills it. We turn on Sesame Street. He wants to carry his bowl into the living room himself. He spills cereal on his pajamas and demands a fresh pair. I say, reasonably, that once we’re changing him anyway, we might as well put on his shirt and overalls. But my son is two years old: This kind of logic does not apply. He wants different pajamas—for the ten minutes that remain before daybreak. He wants his Superman pair that are in the wash. And he wants to put them on himself. Which (after I retrieve them from the dirty clothes) he does, with two feet in one leg hole, and inside out.

Now my son is angry, indignant. And because just about everything in his life right now is involved with me, his current problem is all my fault. He cries. He says he doesn’t like me anymore. He hates this cereal. He wants to put the peel back on the banana. He wants cartoons, and the fact that this isn’t Saturday is immaterial, because (once again) I should be able to conjure up a few Smurfs if I really try. No cartoons today, I say, in a calm, level voice—though I am in fact nearing the breaking point. And now Willy’s wailing has roused my son Charlie, who thumps down the stairs, with his bear in his hand and his thumb in his mouth, requesting oatmeal with maple syrup and raisins to look like a face, while from her bed my daughter Audrey is weeping that I let her sleep in too late and now she’s missed everything.

It’s five minutes to seven. The coffee water has just come to a boil.

I make the peanut butter sandwiches for Audrey’s lunch and get to work braiding Audrey’s hair while my husband Steve attempts to round up the right number of shoes, socks, hair clips, mittens, and little boxes of juice. Steve warms up the car, Audrey searches frantically for her piano book. Willy insists on putting his own boots on. Charlie wants help with his. Mr. Rogers is just placing his suit coat on a hanger and lacing up his sneakers as I zip up the last pair of snow pants. My coffee sits on the counter, cold.

At times, in the middle of the chaotic morning rites of getting everybody up and dressed (some out the door, some not) my mind flashes to an image of the old Donna Reed Show that I used to watch when I was my daughter’s age: Donna Reed, in her immaculate starched apron and her perfect hairdo, standing at the door of her tidy home, handing out the lunch bags and kissing her husband and children goodbye as they head out to face the day. Her husband forgets to kiss her, and Donna looks vaguely distressed, but in the end he always comes back and gives her a peck on the cheek. Then she smiles contentedly and gets on with her day. Which is what I try to do also, although sometimes, by eight A.M. I feel more like taking a two-hour nap. I might have been climbing a mountain or competing in a triathlon, but in fact all I’ve been doing is arbitrating disputes over mittens, pouring out cereal, and sponging off counters. Some adventure.

I was a newspaper reporter in New York City once, and I wrote about fires and elevator operators’ strikes and dog shows and murders. It was a pretty exciting line of work for a young single woman who’d grown up in a small New Hampshire town. I loved having a job that allowed me to earn my living doing what I like best anyway, which is observing life and asking questions. But I knew from the first that it was no life for a married woman with young children, and so when I met the man I wanted to marry and with whom I wanted to raise children, I quit my job and left the city. We moved back to my home state of New Hampshire, to this two-hundred-year-old farmhouse at the end of a dirt road with no neighbors in sight, five miles outside of a small town with no stop light or movie theater, no elevator operators’ strikes or, for that matter, elevators. Steve, my husband, is a painter, who sometimes paints canvases and sometimes houses. He built himself a studio; I got pregnant. At first it was enough simply to be together in our new home, and having a baby.

But when, after the first idyllic months up here, the reality began to hit us that we’d both have to do something about earning a living, I fell into despair. Truthfully, I guess I also missed the excitement and adventure of my former career in this new life of mine, in which the big news of the day might be the ripening of our first tomato or a trip to the town dump. I was a reporter without a story—and where once I could always hop on the subway and find one, now I was seven months pregnant, with the snow piled so high I couldn’t see out my kitchen windows and our only car buried deep in the drifts.

I made bold plans that as soon as our baby was born I’d get right back to business as usual, and from a tip I’d picked up I even got myself an assignment to do a story about houses of prostitution in midtown Manhattan. Six weeks after her birth, I strapped Audrey into the infant seat beside me and drove to New York to conduct my research. I made phone calls to an underworld character who could be reached only between three and four A.M. I even made it to one East Side town house, whose shades were all drawn—where, I was told, there was a woman who would talk to me round about the same hour of night, if I’d meet her at a certain corner.

Only Audrey didn’t cooperate: She needed to be nursed when I was supposed to be taking notes. She cried in the background while I attempted to carry on my interview with the underworld character. The problem wasn’t confined to Audrey, either. I realized, once I left my hearth and home, that by my hearth, in my home, was really where I wanted to be with this new child of mine. By day two of work on my assignment I knew the whole thing was impossible. Not simply this particular project, but also the notion that having a baby would change nothing in my life but the number of exemptions on our income tax return. Walking down a particularly fashionable section of downtown the day before returning home, with my empty notebook and Audrey strapped on my chest in her corduroy front pack, I saw a chic-looking woman stare at us, stop, and then do a double take. Oh, she said, seeing that I’d observed her. I was just surprised to see you had a real baby in there. At first I thought it was just an accessory.

I had a real baby all right. And I had learned something from my ridiculous, impossible attempt at combining investigative reporting with mothering a newborn. Having a child changes everything. If I was still going to write, I’d do better to acknowledge and adapt to my child’s existence than to pretend she wasn’t there.

So I made my child and my home my new beat. I set up my typewriter on my kitchen table and I began reporting on my own life and the little dramas that happened in the sandbox and the supermarket, and discovered that there was in fact plenty of action to be found without having to venture past the end of our driveway. Over the years there have been more characters added to the scene (Audrey’s two brothers, plenty of friends, and strangers passing through). A few summers back, Steve built a little house for me to work in, out behind our own bigger one and his studio, so I no longer work surrounded, as I used to, by the smells of dinner cooking and the sight of laundry in need of sorting. But my situation remains in many ways the same: My mind is always on the home front. I could get on a plane to New York City, by myself, and write about the goings-on of the big world beyond our little town a little more easily these days than I could have nine years ago. But the fact is, the adventure that occupies me now is making a home, making a marriage work, trying to have a career. And central among them all: the difficult, exhausting, humbling, and endlessly gratifying business of raising children, of ensuring the health of both body and soul.

For nine years now, I have been reporting on and ruminating about domestic affairs. This book is the result: nine years’ worth of stories and reflections on the things I care about and think about, the things that move my heart. Finally, though, this is not a book about me or about my children. Because the reason for telling these stories, I have come to believe, is not that they’re so rare and amazing—headline material—but that they’re not. In my newspaper days I wrote chiefly about isolated events and extraordinary phenomena. Now I document ordinary daily life. And I think one of the chief pleasures in doing that comes from the knowledge that what’s going on here is not unique or rare. What I went through this morning to get my son’s sneakers on and my daughter’s hair braided was probably the same thing a million other mothers were going through at exactly the same moment. And while it’s often said that parenthood—motherhood, anyway—is a pretty isolating experience (and it’s true, I have never felt so lonely as I used to sometimes, home alone with a new baby), the opposite can also be said. Having children is one way of feeling a connection with the human race, and all the other inhabitants of this planet, who—however else their lives may differ from your own—are doing precisely the same thing you are.

I was in New York with Audrey a while back, and we were riding a crowded bus. Audrey (eight years old now) was carrying the turquoise purse she takes with her everywhere, that contains all of her greatest treasures. A mother and a little girl who looked just about Audrey’s age got on the bus and sat down next to us in the only two vacant seats. The little girl was also carrying a scaled-down shoulder bag, although hers was purple.

We had fifty blocks to travel. Audrey unzipped her bag, then (partly, I think, as a way of establishing silent communication with the child beside her) began taking items out to examine them. A handful of jelly bracelets, a couple of ribbon barrettes, a miniature Cabbage Patch doll, a bottle of pink sparkly nail polish. Her birthstone (amethyst), her address book, featuring the names of several dozen pen pals. Scissors, hair bows, glue, a Chinese fan, an eraser in the shape of a banana.

And then an interesting thing happened. The girl opened her bag, and without saying anything, began to do the same thing Audrey had been doing. It turned out she had a handful of jelly bracelets and a couple of fancy barrettes too. She also had nail polish and a little plastic figure, and a notepad, and a shell, and an eraser in the shape of a watermelon slice. The two girls (still feeling no need to converse) began to giggle. I found myself catching the eye of the other child’s mother, knowing the two of us had the same impulse: To see if we resembled one another as closely as our daughters did. And what I felt, observing the similarities between us, was not the kind of panic I can remember (when you discover someone else bought the same prom gown you did, in the same color), but a reassuring sense of kinship. We never spoke, that other mother and I—we didn’t have to. I knew some things about her life. She knew about mine. We are both adventurers in the same mysterious territory of parenthood.

I seldom feel like much of an adventurer—standing in this kitchen, pour cereal into bowls, refilling them, handing out paper towels when the inevitable cry comes: Uh-oh. I spilled. But sometimes at night the thought will strike me: There are three small people here, breathing sweetly in their beds, whose lives are for the moment in our hands. I might as well be at the controls of a moon shot, the mission is so grave and vast.


A Visit with My Grandmother

Pie Crust

Thinking about My Father

The Yellow Door House

THERE IS NO WAY to be somebody’s mother without having been, first, someone’s child; and the kind of mother I am is all wrapped up with the kind of mother I had. Some of what my mother did is precisely what I’ve chosen not to do. Some of what she did is imprinted on me so strongly that now and then I’ll hear myself saying to my children the very words that were once said to me. (Of cookies on a plate: What you touch you take. Or, to a child wailing over being sent to bed: That just shows me you’re overtired.) Some of those lines probably go back a generation or two before me, and probably one or two will survive, through my children, into the twenty-first century I think it wasn’t until I had children myself that I understood the power of inheritance and the meaning of heritage.

Of course I’ve rejected, railed against, and even cursed parts of my heritage, as most daughters have. But in the end, I guess I never for a moment questioned the essential belief my mother possessed (and possesses still): that there could be nothing more worthwhile and challenging than having and raising children. Fashions in raising of children dictate, now, that women leave their little girls more free to choose or reject childbearing. But my mother raised me to be a mother, and (though I’m always quick to say not when you have children, but only if) the truth is I am probably passing on a good deal of the same pattern to my children too. Patterns are hard to break. If I had to name one occasion on which I learned that, it would be this one. The year was 1979. Audrey had just turned one. I was twenty-five, my mother fifty-seven, my grandmother eighty-six. One day there were four generations. The next day there were only three.

My mother called to tell me that my grandmother was dying. She had refused an operation that would postpone, but not prevent, her death from pancreatic cancer. She could no longer eat, she had been hemorrhaging, and she had severe jaundice. I always prided myself on being different, she told my mother. "Now I am different. I’m yellow."

My mother, telling me this news, began to cry. So I became the mother for a moment, reminding her, reasonably, that my grandmother was eighty-six, she’d had a full life, she had all her faculties, and no one who knew her could wish that she live long enough to lose them. In the last year or so my mother had begun finding notes in my grandmother’s drawers at the nursing home, reminding her, Joyce’s husband’s name is Steve. Their daughter is named Audrey. She rarely saw her children anymore, had no strength to cook or garden. Just the other week she had said of her longtime passion, Harry Belafonte, I gave him up. She told my mother that she’d had enough living.

My grandmother’s name was Rona Bruser. She was born in Russia, in 1892, the eldest daughter of a large and comfortable Jewish family. But the comfort didn’t last. She used to tell stories of the pogroms and the Cossacks who raped her when she was twelve. Soon after that her family emigrated to Canada.

My mother has shown me photographs of my grandmother in the old days. Today a woman like her would be constantly dieting, but back then her stout, corseted figure was the ideal. She had a long black braid and the sort of strong-jawed beauty that would never be described as fragile. She was pursued by many men, but most ardently by Boris Bruser, also an immigrant from Russia, who came from a much poorer country family and courted her through the mail, in letters filled with his watercolor illustrations and rich, romantic prose. Precious Rona! his letters begin. If only my arms were around you. Your loving friend, they end (as little as one week before the wedding), B. Bruser.

My grandfather, like the classic characters in Isaac Bashevis Singer stories, concerned himself with heaven more than earth. He ran one failing store after another, moved his family from town to town across the Canadian prairies, trusting the least trustworthy of customers, investing in doomed businesses, painting gentle watercolors, while his wife balanced the books and baked the knishes.

Their children, my mother in particular, were the center of their life. The story I loved best as a child was of my grandfather opening every box of Cracker Jacks in his store, in search of the particular tin toy my mother coveted. Though they never had much money, my grandmother saw to it that her daughter had elocution lessons and piano lessons, and the assurance that she would go to college.

But while she was at college my mother met my father, who was not only twenty years older than she was, and divorced, but blue-eyed and blond-haired and not Jewish. When my father sent love letters to my mother, my grandmother would open and hide them, and when my mother told her parents she was going to marry this man, my grandmother said if that happened, it would kill her.

Not likely, of course. My grandmother was a woman who used to crack Brazil nuts open with her teeth, a woman who once lifted a car off the ground when there was an accident and it had to be moved. She had been representing her death as imminent ever since I could remember and had discussed, at length, the distribution of her possessions and her lamb coat. Every time we said good-bye, after our annual visit to Winnipeg, she’d weep and say she’d never see us again. But in the meantime, while every other relative of her generation, and a good many of the younger ones, had died (nursed in their final illness, usually, by her) she kept making borscht, shopping for bargains, tending the most flourishing plants I’ve ever seen, and most particularly, spreading the word of her daughters’ and granddaughters’ accomplishments.

On the first real vacation my grandparents ever took, to Florida—to celebrate their retirement, the sale of their last store and the first true solvency of their marriage—my grandfather was hit by a car. After that he began to forget his children’s names and could walk only with two canes. After he died my grandmother’s life was lived, more than ever, through her children, and her pride, her possessiveness, seemed suffocating. When she came to visit, I would have to hide my diary. She couldn’t understand any desire for privacy. She couldn’t bear it if my mother left the house without her. Years later, in the nursing home, she would tell people that I was editor of The New York Times and my cousin was the foremost artist in Canada. My mother was simply the most perfect daughter who ever lived.

This made my mother furious (and then guilt-ridden that she felt that way, when of course she owed so much to her mother). So I harbored the resentment that my mother, the dutiful daughter, would not allow herself. I, who had always performed specially well for my grandmother—danced and sung for her, offered up my smiles and kisses and good report cards and prizes, the way my mother always did—stopped writing to her, ceased to visit.

But when I heard that she was dying I realized I wanted to go to Winnipeg to see her one more time. Mostly to make my mother happy, I told myself (certain patterns being hard to break). But also, I was offering up one more particularly successful accomplishment: my own dark-eyed, dark-skinned, dark-haired daughter, whom my grandmother had never met.

I put Audrey’s best dress on her for our visit to Winnipeg, the way the best dresses were always put on me for visits twenty years before. I made sure Audrey’s stomach was full so she’d be in good spirits, and I filled my pockets with animal crackers in case she started to cry. I scrubbed her face mercilessly (never having been quite clean enough myself to please my grandmother). In the elevator going up to her room, I realized how much I was sweating.

For the first time in her life, Grandma looked small. She was lying flat with an IV tube in her arm and her eyes shut, but she opened them when I leaned over to kiss her. It’s Fredelle’s daughter, Joyce, I yelled, because she didn’t hear well any more, but I could see that no explanation was necessary. You came, she said. You brought the baby.

Audrey was just one year old, but she had already seen enough of the world to know that people in beds are not meant to be so still and yellow, and she looked frightened. Does she make strange? my grandmother asked.

Then Grandma waved at her—the same kind of slow, finger-flexing wave a baby makes—and Audrey waved back. I spread her toys out on my grandmother’s bed and sat her down. There she stayed, most of the afternoon, playing and humming and sipping on her bottle, taking a nap at one point, leaning against my grandmother’s leg. When I cranked her Snoopy guitar, Audrey stood up on the bed and danced. Grandma couldn’t talk much anymore, though every once in a while she would say how sorry she was that she wasn’t having a better day. I’m not always like this, she said.

Mostly she just watched Audrey. Over and over she told me how beautiful my daughter is, how lucky I am to have her. Sometimes Audrey would want to get off the bed, inspect the get-well cards, totter down the hall. Where is she? Grandma kept asking. Who’s looking after her? I had the feeling that, even then, if I’d said, Audrey’s lighting matches, Grandma would have shot up to rescue her.

We were flying home that night, and I had dreaded telling her, remembering all those other tearful partings. But in the end, when I said we had to go, it was me, not Grandma, who cried. She had said she was ready to die. But as I leaned over to stroke her forehead, what she said was I wish I had your hair and I wish I was well.

On the plane flying home, with Audrey in my arms, I thought about mothers and daughters, and the four generations of the family that I know most intimately. Every one of those mothers loves and needs her daughter more than her daughter will love or need her someday, and we are, each of us, the only person on earth who is quite so consumingly interested in our child. Sometimes, when she was a baby, I would kiss and hug Audrey so much she starts crying—which is in effect what my grandmother was doing to my mother all her life. And what made my mother grieve, I knew, was not only that her mother would die in a day or two, but that once her mother was dead, there would never again be someone to love her in quite such an unreserved, unquestioning way. No one to believe that fifty years ago, she could have put Shirley Temple out of a job, no one else who remembers the moment of her birth. She would be only a mother, then, not a daughter anymore.

As for Audrey and me, we stopped over for a night in Toronto, where my mother lives. In the morning we would head for a safe deposit box at the bank to take out the receipt for my grandmother’s burial plot. Then Mother would fly back to Winnipeg, where, for the first time in anybody’s memory, there was waist-high snow on April Fool’s Day. But that night, she fed me a huge dinner, as she always does when I come, and I ate more than I do anywhere else. I admired the Fiesta-ware china (once my grandmother’s) that my mother set on the table. She said (the way Grandma used to say to her of the lamb coat), Someday it will be yours.

Steve traveled light into our marriage. (Few childhood possessions remain. His parents moved often while he was growing up, and always, when they moved, held yard sales to dispose of excess baggage.) I move through life weighted down with possessions: every Barbie doll I ever played with, and all of their outfits. Junior-high poems. Letters from camp. My collection of fifty-odd salt and pepper shakers. The family Christmas ornaments, including a virtually shattered, nearly forty-year-old egg with a Santa face drawn on that my mother made in the first year of her marriage to my father. (When my parents divorced, the Christmas decorations all came to me.) Like her, and like her mother, I cannot bear to part with things.

Still, it occurs to me, it isn’t things, chiefly, that will be my inheritance (or my bequest). When I am most likely to think of my mother, when my mother is most likely to think of her mother (and when my children will be most apt to think of me, I suspect), is in the kitchen. Baking. Baking pies, especially.

I make a good pie crust. I make pies fast, and often; my freezer’s full of last summer’s berries, and I’m never without a backup can of Crisco on the pantry shelf. At six o’clock on a Thursday afternoon, if I suddenly get the idea to invite a couple of friends over for dessert, pie is what I’ll bake; forty-five minutes later I’m ready, and all the guests need to do is maybe pick up the whipping cream on their way over. I particularly like the moment when I take the pie out of the oven and set it on the table, cut the first slice, watch the steam rise.

Later, as we’re sitting with our coffee, picking bits off the edges of the crust to straighten it, or forking up stray raspberries from the bottom of the pan, someone is likely to ask for my pie crust recipe. I could write it down for them, of course, but the truth is, there’s no such thing as a recipe for good pie crust. There are the novelty crusts, made with cream cheese or spun up in a Cuisinart. There are the classic debates—vegetable shortening or butter?—and there are state-of-the-art tools: rolling pins you fill with ice cubes, acrylic slabs on which to roll out the dough. But really, the secret to good pie crust is all in the hands, and not something any cookbook I’ve ever read has properly conveyed. I guess it must be possible to make good pie crust without having had a mother who makes good pie crust, whose mother before her made good pie crust. It’s just a little hard to picture.

I use one of my mother’s rolling pins when I make a pie, and a 1940s Pyrex dish of a weight and design she has always claimed superior to modern equivalents, and a wooden-handled pastry blender meant to duplicate hers. In my mind my mother is inseparably linked with her pies—the smell, the taste, the score of little rules she laid out for me long ago, beginning with how she assesses the baking day’s climatic conditions, right on through to the unthinkableness of serving a cold pie or failing to have whipped cream or vanilla

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