Friday, June 23, 2006


The wave of dicussion sloshes around the blogosphere again, and this time, I'm inspired not just to taste the spray, but to wade in. Specifically, I'm inspired by this question, which refers to the notorious book by Linda Hirshman, an excerpt of which is here. (Dated, curiously enough, before the Norman Conquest.)

The question, which I think deserves a fair answer, is this:
What are the implications, personal and political, of the choice many highly educated women make to bend their (advanced) education to the primarily quotidian pursuits of child care and housekeeping?

To clarify further, Hirshman believes that that great goal of humans throughout the history of Western civilization, the flourishing life, can only be reached by choosing a lucrative and prominent career path and storming full-steam down it to the end of one's days. She advises women not to study art, nor the contents of their refrigerator, nor to take time off from their jobs, for this will limit them from pursuing the other Grand Thing they might be doing.

I cannot deny that achieving One Great Thing with one's life can be a satisfying and flourishing way to live. But I do question whether that is the only manifestation of the flourishing life. If everyone is off pursuing a single end in a single-minded fashion, there is no one left to tie the loose ends together.

Division of labor is a wonderful idea. But it can be carried too far. Imagine a world where our laundry is all done by professional laundries, our food all cooked by professional kitchens, our entertainment all supplied by professional entertainers, and our confidences all received by professional counselors. Oh wait; you don't have to imagine such a world. It is the one we live in. But though each one of these things can no doubt be done very well professionally, and from time to time any one might make use of the professionals, when they are all done by different people something vital to human life is lost.

The lost thing is, I believe, a sense of wholeness. A sense of connection; a sense of who we are and how we fit in the world. If everyone is off pursuing one thing, no one has time to stop and look at all the things.

That is what I do. I am the hub of the wheel. I am the wall on which the paintings hang. I am the station where the trains come in. I say this with all modesty, not to brag about how well I do this job, but simply to point out that it is my job, as it is the job of everyone who keeps the home.

I say this with due consideration, as one who has worked at the job I always wanted, a job that meant going around and influencing people on ideas in which I truly believe. (Never mind what Ms. Hirshman would think of the ideas themselves; it's my passion for the work that matters here.) And a large part of the reason I quit and chose . . . CHOSE . . . to marry a patriarchal monster who would expect me to take care of any children we might have, was because I was dissatisfied, not with failure, but with success.

I could go around and speak to different groups; I could write articles and books; I could teach a class of students for a year. Ten years later, would anyone remember or care? Would anyone's life be different? Very little, at best. My influence might be relatively wide, but it was so very shallow.

I wanted something different. I wanted depth. I wanted to influence people, not just by talking to them, but by living with them. Day in and out for decades. I wanted to build and maintain not just a home, but a community. I wanted to stand up for the value of the life as a whole, not just life as a fragmented part.

To answer the question at the beginning, the personal and political implications of educated women opting to stay home is the recognition that life needs its generalists as well as its specialists; that depth of influence is as worthy an end as breadth of influence; that there is much, much more to life than making money and making partner.

As to why women do this more than men, beyond such obvious details as the inability of men's bodies to make baby food, I think it is simply because women are better at it than men. Women, on the whole, are more likely to see how much these things--life, home, beauty, manners--matter. They find it easier to look after it themselves than to persuade the men.

Ms. Hirshman does not see that these things matter. I am sorry for her that she does not, but a blind person is hardly a qualified critic of the path chosen by one who can see.


© 2003-2007 M-mv said...

Thank you for the link and the insightful response. I've linked your post and blog in a recent entry at M-mv:

Jane said...

uBeautifully and eloquently put.

Now at the "empty nest" stage of our lives (all three sons grown and out on their own), I admit to a little bit of identity crisis about what next to turn my hand to. I have been home for 28 years. It has been maddening and challenging and wonderful beyond anything I could have expected, and now at the end I honestly can say I have no regrets at all about the choice I made to be a fulltime mother and wife. I wish everyone such contentment with the choices they've made. My husband always told people that he made the living, and I made the living worthwhile. We have been very blessed.

Ann V. said...

A very well-articulated response to a very thoughtful query.

I hope more have opportunity to read your considered reflections, as I have linked to it.

Ann V.

the Joneses said...

It is particularly irritating to have someone else assume that my highest and most fulfilled life must be spent in a career, or even on one driving passion. My ideal life is much smaller, much more modest, and certainly not so focused. It ends up, however, in being full of people, love, and growth, and much bigger than the mere success of the material world. Even if the material world happens to remember me after I'm dead.

-- SJ

Sharon said...

"Amen!", from another mommy who "gave it up" to gain it all.

disa said...