I Do Know How She Does It

The real supermom message of the original Cheaper by the Dozen.

The patron saint of supermoms

In a nod to its midcentury predecessor, the remake of Cheaper by the Dozen salutes “Great-Grandma Gilbreth” as the inventor of the “apple schmear” game—a family bacchanal that has Steve Martin (as Tom Baker) and his big brood splattering mashed apples all over the yard. It’s a curious way to remember Lillian Moller Gilbreth, the matriarch of the clan celebrated in print and on screen five decades ago. In fact, she was 20th-century America’s pre-eminent female industrial-management expert, with more ergonomic (and less idiotic) innovations to her name: among them, the foot-operated trash can, those egg and butter compartments in refrigerators, waste hoses for washing machines, and an oeuvre that includes The Psychology of Management. Compared to her, Bonnie Hunt (in the role of Kate Baker, Martin’s wife) looks like a bubbleheaded throwback.

You would think that in our dual-career-family era, the secret theme lurking in America’s classic comic family saga would finally have gotten out: Lillian Gilbreth was a hard-driving advocate of having it all, the nation’s pioneering supermom. Professionally, she got her due during her lifetime; for work that went well beyond kitchen concepts, the “Mother of Modern Management” was festooned with honorary degrees when she died in 1972. But in popular iconography, she’s been tamed. Prior to her resurrection as a jolly granny, she’d spent years on the pedestal as an ever-solicitous mother and the self-effacing “junior partner” to her husband, Frank Bunker Gilbreth, the motion-study maven as famous for importing factory methods (and madness) into his family as for joining Frederick Taylor in spreading “scientific management” in the workplace.

To be sure, in a brief foreword to Cheaper by the Dozen, the memoir published by two of the 12 Gilbreth progeny in 1948, her kids proudly identify her as a founding partner of Gilbreth Inc., a consulting firm that worked with countless American industries between 1910 and 1924. And a coda to the original movie of 1950 (starring Myrna Loy and Clifton Webb) notes that she was “Woman of the Year” in 1948. Yet in between the tacked-on tributes, Mother is tagged with “shyness and ladylike demeanor” and repeatedly assigned a role almost as conventional as Dad’s is colorful.

Her children’s portrayal of her has been echoed in most accounts of America’s notable “team.” In the couple’s work, he’s the “hard” expert on managerial systems who steered her toward the “soft” psychological side of the business and whose daring ideas she made it her business to back (never buck). In the family, she’s the gently sensible foil to the grandstanding head of the household: She exudes enlightened empathy and appreciates her children’s individuality, whereas he blusters with old-style gruffness and insists on efficiency. Here on home turf, it’s she who holds ultimate yet unobtrusive sway, ever ready to bail out the biggest, most boisterous child of the bunch (without embarrassing him too much). “As I always say,” is Frank Sr.’s aw-shucks refrain, “you’re the boss.”

This Life-With-Father focus fit the fecund, comparatively hidebound 1950s, when Cheaper by the Dozen was quickly enshrined in popular lore as “a document of American life at its best”; that’s what the Hollywood director Walter Lang called it in Parents’ magazine when his movie came out. But read between the lines, and consult Cheaper by the Dozen’s sequel, Belles on their Toes, which follows the family’s fortunes after Frank Gilbreth’s untimely death in 1924: Then Lillian Gilbreth’s legacy begins to look more revolutionary—and relevant. She endured far more “I don’t know how she does it” sniping than Kate Reddy ever has to face in Allison Pearson’s best-selling novel by that title. But Gilbreth wasn’t daunted. Nor was she driven to feel, as many a guilty working mother seems to these days, that she must play the martyr or the miracle-worker in order to prove herself.

Instead, Lillian Gilbreth set out to be—what else?—a well-organized manager, as she explained in a matter-of-fact book called Living With Our Children, published 20 years before her children turned the spotlight on their high-spirited Dad. What her vision did not entail was precisely the kind of specialization and micromanagerial supervision generally associated with the time-and-motion ethos. (Streamlining work, according to the firm’s credo, involved breaking every job down into its fundamental elements, called “therbligs”—Gilbreth spelled backward, almost.) She saw that true cooperation required that power be delegated and responsibilities rotated. No, it didn’t always conduce to household efficiency. (Toddlers don’t dust very briskly, and she had even them doing their bit, batting at the furniture legs.) But Lillian Gilbreth’s real goal was to build group harmony and to promote adaptability and a spirit of industry. It was a collaborative enterprise designed to encourage productive “self-assertion … the most important urge of all”—not just for dads and kids, but for mothers, too.

And it worked: Lillian Gilbreth was not tied down, physically or psychologically, by that I’m-indispensable-and-all-hell-will-break-loose-without-me mentality that is the trademark of contemporary supermomhood—and that Hollywood plays on in the current domestic-disaster pic version. Her children were inclined to downplay her independence (as children often do), depicting her as a fearful woman who “wept easily” and “wasn’t accustomed to making decisions”—until her husband’s death transformed her overnight into a forceful leader, ready to take on the world. But it’s clear that Lillian Gilbreth actually did it her way from the very start—and got her way, too.

She’d begun practicing in girlhood. Long before she had her own brood, she was the big sister charged with the care of her eight siblings—which didn’t stop her from commuting to the University of California-Berkeley, despite her parents’ resistance. In 1900, she was the first woman ever to deliver the commencement speech there (not exactly a wallflower). Over the next decade and a half, her husband (who never went to college) was busy with bricks and mortar (discovering the “one best way” of bricklaying had been his managerial breakthrough)—and she was piling on the academic degrees. She didn’t need Frank Gilbreth to steer her to psychology, which she’d already studied during a brief graduate school stint at Columbia before she ever met him; she just needed him to support her ongoing education and help with the kids. It was evidently her idea to quit the construction business and embark on consulting—the better to manage the work-family balancing act from home, with him at her side, in charge of just the job he was cut out for: making it slightly unnerving funfor the kids to learn how to run the household (and how to juggle their roster of extracurricular enrichments, from language tapes to Morse code).

In 1951, when her kids were all launched (not a learning disability or screw-up in the bunch, though one daughter died young of diphtheria), Lillian Gilbreth added a “Backward Glance” to a new edition of Living With Our Children. In her typically unhortatory way, she offered a message that was bold then—and hasn’t gotten old yet:

I must say I feel rather sad that today’s children seem to get so much of the “either-or” teaching. “A girl is either smart or pretty.” “A man can be either a top-flight technical person or a top-flight human relations person.” “A woman can be a success at marriage, or at a career.” Such thinking seems to me basically wrong. Why not try to be both smart and pretty? Adequate both technically and in human relations? A success at both marriage and a career?