Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Mother 'Hood

Sunday I read an article in the Daily Poop by Judith Warner, who posted the original on her blog for the New York Times, "Domestic Disturbances." So, of course I went to the source to find the post, "The Choice Myth" in its original provenance, since the Poop can't be trusted to print anything in its entirety.

In the article, Warner explores evidence that while many women are staying home with their kids, this fact alone may not represent a choice on their part, and that the "myth" of women opting out of high-power jobs in droves to go home and raise little Chauncey is baloney.

Warner is actually responding to an article in the Washington Post from earlier in the month, ("Debunking the Mommy Myth," by Donna St. George and Pamela Stone) which presents statistics that indicate less choice-making than media attention implies. In fact, the number of mythologized drop-outs may be rather small and select.

My response to the whole thing is that I'm bothered by the need to choose at all. I'm beginning to think that my generation's demand for equal rights might well have led to equal opportunities to become harried cogs in the industrial machine. Mind you, I burned my bra with the rest of my cohort, but then stayed home to raise my kids.

I'm reminded of this choice (and for me it was a choice; in fact, I chose to stay home not only for my kids, but because I thought I might be taking a job away from someone who needed it more) whenever I get my Social Security statement in the mail. There, between 1976 and 1986, is a large gap: zero income for all ten years. Once I got my first TAship, the money started dribbling in until I got my first full-time teaching gig only fifteen years ago.

There are several problems with questions about who's staying home and why. One is the lingering notion/prejudice that stay-at-home moms aren't doing "real" work. I can't tell you how many times I had to respond snittily to remarks like "Oh; you stay home with your kids. So you don't work." Of course I worked. Just like the people who take care of working women's kids work. Only harder, because I did it 24 hours a day.

When my children entered school I started volunteering: Montessori school art teacher and materials designer, elementary school library and Junior Great Books, school district's library committee and outdoor learning center. This experience kept me in touch with my son and then my daughter even when they weren't home, and also helped prepare me for teaching once they'd fled the nest for high school pursuits and college. I went to grad school in the evenings when their father was home, and full time when they were in high school. My own family's rule had always been "18 and you're on your own" (because nobody could have afforded to send us to college), and even though my kids did get their college paid for, they were still pretty much independent from the moment they left the public school system.

I certainly didn't fall into the high-achieving power-job category (although I did "give up" a promising college administration career at Penn), nor was I married to a six-figure earner like one of the women in the Washington Post panel. There were some sacrifices, but I don't think any of us missed anything we did without. And even though it wasn't all peaches and flowers, I did like being with my kids and keeping house--and reading and writing and cooking and gardening--all the things I seem to have so little time for now that I have no kids at home and a "real" job.

The core question about the kind of work people do reminded me of similar questions posed by Wendell Berry, the agrarian philosopher I read more than almost anyone, who wrote an essay years ago about why he wasn't going to buy a computer, and then followed it up with one called Feminism, the Body, and the Machine (both were published in What Are People For, 1990).

Berry is a true essayist in the sense that his prose represents a journey from one idea to another, with connections made through stops along the way. So, what starts out as a response to comments made on his original essay ends up as a small treatise on craftsmanship--and because of this I'll probably put it on the reading list for my Winter course on the evolution of the Arts and Crafts movement. It's also a defense of choosing to stay home and practice home economics, the nobility of meaningful work, and everybody's stake in not succumbing to the power of industrial civilization to turn us all into robots.

This strikes me as being at the center of all of these "mommy wars" discussions about whether we should stay home, "work for a living," or somehow combine the two without driving ourselves nuts and bringing up spoiled brats or little monsters: meaningful work. Does it really benefit anyone (except perhaps manufacturers of stuff we may or may not need) if a woman goes to work on an assembly line, tightening the same set of screws every day of her working life? Do men find this kind of work worthwhile? What kinds of work are women choosing (if they do choose, that is) when they stay in the workforce after having kids? Is it more worthy, intellectually challenging, or rewarding than teaching youngsters how to bake bread or grow tomatoes?

I don't know the answers to any of this. But I do know that the so-called choices we are making are being framed by people who care far more about profits on Wall Street than about real lives of real people, and by people who care fare less about the environment and the world as a whole than they do about their bottom line.

Unlike Wendell Berry, I've adopted the computer precisely because I don't write for a living. If I want to write, I have to write fast, and the computer helps me do so. But if I had my druthers, and if I were flush enough to buy a cabin in the woods, grow my own food, and ditch the car, I'd happily go back to pen and pencil, or to my Olivetti portable, to get the writing done. Nobody would read it, of course, but I'm not sure that's why I do it. Not many people read this stuff as it is, computer or no, but there's some satisfaction involved in organizing ones thoughts and essaying through ideas when they come pressing in from the ever-present outside world. Thankfully, the children are grown and gone and working at jobs they seem to like. So I think I made the right choice.

By the way, it's raining again.

Image credit: Carl Larsson's idyllic domestic paintings came to mind immediately when I was thinking about the combination of Arts and Crafts movement, family, work, and living without much technology. This one, Kitchen (1898), seemed an appropriate illustration. Wikimedia Commons.


GEM said...

Carl Larrson's illustration is perfect for this post. Good choice.

I too am of the generation which burned bras, and I have always had mixed feelings about working for a living while my son was young. Having had little choice in the matter of whether to stay home and work (most valuably) and go out into the wider work for external work I experienced many ambivalent feelings about the road I had chosen to take. As a teacher of art, I tinkered with the minds, imaginations and plastic skills sets of young people with great committment and pleasure, while at the smae time trying to reserve some residual energies to teach my son, maintain a smoothly running household for us and organize our lives for maximum effectiveness. It was wvy enervating to try and do justice to demands of both situations. As a result, I was constantly exhausted and operating on two separate gerbil wheels, jumping from one to the other. This is by no means an ideal way to live a life. I ended up hating my paying job.
I think you had made the correct choices for yourself. Even though your social security statements may not be as plump as you might wish, you have something far more valuable than mere money to take into your old age - and that is, satisfaction for having successfully mothered and wifed a family, with all the thoughtful labour which goes into those roles, and you have practiced your chosen craft in work of your own selection.
That is much to be thanful of, even though it may be raining chez vous. If it makes you feel any better, it is pretty soggy here, chez moi. GEM

Owlfarmer said...

Thanks for your usual good insights. I was indeed fortunate that I had the choice, because I did know women at the time who hadn't that luxury. And although I think women are the ones who're hormonally predisposed to being the ones who stay home when there is a choice, I'm sorry that our culture makes it so hard for fathers to "opt out" of jobs that require what Morris called "useless toil" to do the real work of child care. I still find it difficult to believe that Western culture (and, increasingly, Eastern) devalues child-rearing to such an extent that people have to make these choices in the first place.

I'm hoping that with the increase in job-portability, at-home work opportunities, and flex-time, that more parents can begin to raise their own kids. I don't mean to denigrate those who do the bulk of this work today (day-care workers, pre-school teachers, and nannies), but parents really do need to be more involved in bringing up baby than they seem to be around here.

Martha Z said...

I always look forward to your essays, probably because you say what I believe but are much better at expressing it.
I hear people say that it takes two incomes and I wonder. Do people really need a tv in every room, a computer for every member of the family, a car for everyone replaced at least every three years?
I grew up in a two parent, three child home, all in a house with 2 bedrooms and 1 bath. Eventually they added a room so that my teenaged brother wasn't sharing a room with two young girls.
One car, no clothes dryer, no dishwasher, eventually one tv. We didn't think we were lacking anything.
Some families need two incomes to put food on the table, some women just can't stand to be around small children (perhaps they should have thought about this in the first place.) I think most couples just think that they are failures if they don't have all this "stuff". As a culture I wish we could change our priorities.
As to who should be the caregiver, I have know couples where the father was better suited to that roll but society denies men the opportunity or at least tries to exact a cost to his self esteem.
I won't give up the computer, though. As hard as I try, I just can't spell. Why isn't there a spell check on comments?