Apply for a Fulbright. That was my pre-childbirth plan for the summer I would spend at home with my newborn.
The postpartum reality: an inability to string together a coherent sentence, written or verbal. That summer, I had an academic essay to revise based on reviewer feedback, and I struggled through those few writing sessions in fuzzy-headed misery. Needless to say, the Fulbright application never happened.
With this memory in mind, reading about how Lillian Gilbreth drafted a Ph.D. thesis while helping her husband run their consulting business and staying at home with SIX CHILDREN AND A NEW BABY(!) evokes…complicated emotions. Awe. Amazement. A sense of inadequacy. Self-castigation.
But not envy. Oh no.
Educational psychologist and industrial engineer Lillian Gilbreth was indisputably a tour de force. If you have a hands-free garbage can in your home, you have been impacted by one of her inventions – an outgrowth of her work designing living and work spaces to foster disabled persons’ independence. Her pioneering collaborations with her husband Frank on motion studies and ergonomics impacted manufacturing plants and kitchen designs, retail spaces and schoolrooms. She was a president of the American Association of University Women (AAUW). The only female representative to the 1929 World Engineering Congress in Tokyo. An early advocate of equal work for equal pay. A campaigner against age discrimination, unsurprising given that she continued to work and travel the globe well into her eighties. We could go down a rabbit hole of her accomplishments (and I have, which is why this post is so damn long).
Dr. Gilbreth was also pregnant or postpartum pretty much non-stop from the mid 1900s to the mid-1920s. She had 13 pregnancies in total, including one stillbirth. Her daughter Mary died of diphtheria at age 5. After Frank’s sudden death in 1924, she found herself the single mother of eleven children and the sole breadwinner.
In 1916, Lillian Gilbreth co-authored a book called Fatigue Study with Frank, which applied their filmed motion studies of workers to simplify processes and redesign industrial spaces.
Fatigue study, indeed. Just contemplating her life - her endless state of pregnancy, her constant quest for efficiency - is exhausting.
Only once in her autobiography (a very strange affair in which she refers to herself in the third person) does Gilbreth mention that she is tired:
This time she had decided to make a break in the usual routine and go to the little cottage hospital. There were advantages to being home, especially in that one could take up family and household responsibilities more promptly. But she was tired.
It was not, alas, to be. Instead, she gave birth in a storage room in the family’s summer house in Nantucket. Only with the birth of her last child Jane would Gilbreth get her hospital vacation.
In Mothers and Daughters of Invention, Autumn Stanley notes that:
Too often…biographers have treated [Gilbreth] as an adjunct to her husband, or as a SuperMom combining a career and twelve children, instead of dealing with the unique and original force that she was.
This post might be a bit guilty of the latter.
But what draws me to Gilbreth’s “supermom” story is the way that her example – extreme to say the least – both inspires and intimidates, attracts and repels.
There are many layers behind her supposedly equal marriage to Frank Gilbreth – and in the ‘having it all’ image she both represented and advocated.
In her biography, for instance, she refers in parts to herself and Frank as “partners.” But in others she describes herself as his “tender” – the person responsible for reining in his wilder tendencies, for smoothing over the rough edges in his endless ‘systems’ and schemes. Her self-effacement in her autobiography of all places shows how she also fell back on her ‘femininity’ and gender norms of the time to both enable and disguise her professional ambitions.
In Frank's shadow:
Poster for the 1950 movie based on the Gilbreths' life (no relation to that Steve Martin flick from the 1990s...). Note how Frank dominates, with Lillian the size of one of their eleven children
On the one hand, the Gilbreths’ unusual experiment became a way to champion working motherhood, a counter to the rhetoric of the time that intelligent women had to choose between career and family. She was also an early advocate of rethinking men’s role in housework if working mothers were to pursue careers, and in recognizing the monetary value of women’s labor in the home (even if her own household division of labor looked pretty conventional).
And yet, an inextricable and insidious piece of this championing of work and motherhood was her belief in so-called ‘positive eugenics.’ The Gilbreths felt that Anglo-Saxons had a duty to reproduce, lest they be outnumbered by the less ‘fit’ offspring of Southern and Eastern European immigrants (e.g., my own ancestors).
At the same time, I find myself admiring Lillian Gilbreth’s unique self-experiment in integrating life and work, family and creativity. It’s a far cry from the depressing work-life balance concept or from the supposed objectivity of the scientist.
Instead, Gilbreth actively blurred the lines between professional and amateur, home and work life, industrial and domestic spheres.
This integration was admittedly part of their branding, generating business for the Gilbreths (which is why they never once mentioned Lillian’s stillbirth in public – it would be perceived of as a weakness, evidence she was taking on too much). There was endless publicity showing how the parents applied scientific management to parenting, from German lessons in the bath, kids putting in competing bids for household chores, and ‘standing orders’ for each family member.
Lillian’s maternal image also had a ‘softening’ effect given growing criticisms of scientific management, especially within the labor movement. The Gilbreths would cast themselves as the “good exceptions” within the field, who emphasized “the human factor.”
It seems, though, that Lillian took genuine pleasure in this great self-experiment. The self and the home became fodder for her scientific and discoveries, a source of managerial and psychological knowledge that she would apply to her industrial and retail contracts.
Or maybe the experiment was all a big mess. As Lillian confessed to her husband,
it isn't any wonder I do strange things for I work in the midst of confusion all the time...and the children rampaging all over the place and asking a hundred questions a minute.
Ultimately, I’m hesitant to see any takeaways here. Maybe Lillian’s advice, which she apparently heeded if “Mother’s Daily Schedule” is to be believed, to schedule in a daily nap?
Even if we are no longer in the golden age of scientific management and home economics, even though our experts are now self-help gurus rather than scientists, productivity and efficiency continue to obsess us.
This productivity question is amplified when it comes to creative pursuits that are separate from the job-that-pays-the-bills. Not only is there the push-pull between parenting and profession, but you are (foolishly) trying to introduce a third term into the mix. How do you indulge in this Something Extra when you are also a parent, while not treating it as frivolous, while being, in short, productive?
I’d always assumed that the relationship between productivity and reproduction was an inverse one. More babies = greater depletion of resources, greater diminishment of the creative self.
Gilbreth’s story suggests that, at least for her, parenting could lead not to depletion but to abundance – not just of babies but of professional and creative ideas.
But it also suggests that the line between exhaustion and inspiration, giving of the self and giving it away, is an uneasy one, a veritable tight-rope walk.