Introducing our Historical Motherhood series! First up: Jackie O.

Jackie O Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
If you’ve been reading here a while, you may remember that I love, love, love to dissect and analyze the experience of motherhood throughout history, and often do this via the stories of historical mothers, fictional and real, from literature and pop culture. 

Guess who else shares my obsession? One of my favorite bloggers, Kristen from Motherese. So Kristen and I are excited to partner up on a series of posts about mothers through history: the fictional and real-life, the high-profile and “regular moms.”

Kristen kicks off the series today, with this profile of a woman who experienced motherhood very much in the spotlight: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. I am so excited about this series and hope you’ll love it, too! – Meagan

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When I was little, I loved looking through the tall books that lived on the bottom shelf of the bookcase in our wood-paneled family room. My favorite of all was a slim, heavy volume celebrating the 50th anniversary of Life magazine. Among affecting photos of the Normandy landing, newly liberated Holocaust Survivors, and snow monkeys in Japan, one picture always stood out: a young woman, dressed and veiled in black, standing ramrod straight, while a girl – a little younger than I was – played with her purse and a little boy stood by her side, saluting.

I was old enough to know that the woman was in mourning, but not old enough to know the story of who she was or whom she had lost. After I read the caption and my mother filled in some of the details of her story, I learned a name I’ve heard many times since: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

As I got older and became both a student of history and a regular reader of People magazine, I learned the details of her life that have become familiar to many of us: the scion of a wealthy New York family, Jacqueline Bouvier grew up being shuttled between the homes of her divorced parents. A popular debutante, she eventually won the heart of then-Senate candidate John Kennedy. They married and had two children, he became President, and she wowed the country and the world with her elegance and style. After his assassination, she remarried, was widowed again, and lived out the rest of her days wearing big sunglasses and serving as an editor in New York City.

Until recently, I had filed “Jackie O.” in the place in my head I reserve for women from an earlier generation whom I generally like, but don’t know much about – women like Princess Grace and Josephine Baker. Despite what I later learned about John Kennedy’s extra-marital affairs, I was attracted to the fairy tale qualities of their “Camelot” years in the White House. (So enamored of her fashion sense was I that I chose my wedding dress from the “Oleg Cassini Collection” at David’s Bridal. Oolala.)

But then I learned more about Jackie Kennedy, more than the skeleton of her life that I’d gleaned from the gossip columns, and I realized how hard she’d worked to create a life where she balanced her work, her passions, and her family – and did it all despite countless personal challenges.

Before marrying JFK, Jackie worked as a photographer and journalist for the Washington Times-Herald, doing man-on-the-street interviews. Although she eventually gave up her job, she supported a woman’s right to work, later noting, “What is sad for women of my generation is that they weren’t supposed to work if they had families. What were they going to do when the children are grown – watch the raindrops coming down the window pane?”

The early years of her marriage were full of both hardship and joy. John Kennedy suffered from Addison’s Disease and from a debilitating back injury he sustained during World War II. In the span of three years, John had two life-threatening spinal operations and Jackie suffered a miscarriage, delivered a stillborn daughter, Arabella, and gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Caroline. Pregnant again in 1960, Jackie worked tirelessly during John’s presidential campaign, but mostly behind the scenes. Their son, John, Jr., was born two weeks after JFK was elected president.

Only 31 when she became First Lady, Jackie strived to retain as much privacy for her children as possible, generally keeping them out of the spotlight and trying to make their childhoods as “normal” as possible. (It’s probably not much of a stretch to assume that Jackie’s own peripatetic upbringing made her especially protective of the sanctity of her children’s youth.) Meanwhile, she used her status as First Lady to pursue a passion of her own: historical preservation. She oversaw the updating of the White House interior with pieces of historical significance and became a vocal advocate for the preservation of historical places. Her popularity at home and abroad deflected negative attention away from her husband. She served as an unofficial ambassador for the country during her trips to Europe, India, and Pakistan, nurturing her own love of adventure.

Jackie’s last days as First Lady were tragic ones. Just three months before her husband was assassinated, she gave birth prematurely to the couple’s son, Patrick. He lived only two days. In the midst of her grief, she traveled with John to Texas and sat beside him in a motorcade when he was killed and then was called upon to lead the nation in mourning. Of Jackie’s stoicism, Lady Jeanne Campbell remarked, “Jacqueline Kennedy has given the American people…one thing they have always lacked: Majesty.”

Jackie left Washington, DC not long after John’s death, relocating her children to New York City. Not long after her brother-in-law Robert Kennedy’s assassination, she felt deeply concerned for Caroline and John, Jr.’s safety and for her own. She soon married Aristotle Onassis, a second marriage that was also marred by tragedy: Onassis’s son died in a plane crash and then his own health quickly deteriorated. Jackie became a widow again at age 46.

Despite the tumult that marked her marriages, Jackie nevertheless raised two happy, successful children, both of whom had tremendous affection for their mother. No forerunner of today’s reality stars, Jackie prioritized her children’s privacy above all else. About being a mom, she said, “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do matters very much,” advice she seemed to follow herself. Her daughter Caroline, a writer, attorney, and mother of three, has written and spoken extensively about her love and respect for her mother. Her late son John, Jr., a journalist and magazine publisher, was equally devoted to her. In his eulogy for her, he noted her love of books, family, home, and adventure.

In addition to safeguarding her children’s lives from the increasingly prying eyes of the media, Jackie also managed to nurture independent aspects of her identity. Professionally, she started a new career as a book editor after she became a widow for a second time. She also continued as an outspoken advocate for the preservation of historical buildings and traveled widely until her death in 1994 at the age of 64.

Jackie Kennedy raised her children with privileges that many of us cannot begin to imagine. So, in some ways, it’s hard to imagine her as a role model. Then again, her life was filled with more heartache than most of us will ever have to bear. And through it all, she took care of her kids, fostered her own passions, and carved out a career – and she did it all with tremendous grace (and, yeah, okay, style).

In terms of moms to look up to, you could do a lot worse.

Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

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