Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Incredibly Boring Post No One Will Read

That's a pretty literal translation of what would be the logical title of this post, something along the lines of "The Mommy Wars Revisited: Women's Work in a Historical and Economic Context." That would make a good dissertation or something, if I wanted to write something that long. But I don't. That's why I blog.

It strikes me that the ammunition on both sides of the Mommy Wars tends to ignore most of history and the world at large. Zooming out a bit gives some thoughts for some more to be said on both sides.

So let's start with the Other Side (from me, that is)--the working mom. Mothers laboring to support their families was not something invented by Second Wave Feminism, as is sometimes insinuated. Actually most people capable of walking have, throughout human history, faced a basic choice of Work or Starve.

It is very traditional for Mom to be out working in the fields while Grandma, too old for field work, watches the kids. If Grandma isn't handy, the kids will probably be helping out themselves. It is also very traditional in many cultures for women to do practically all the hard physical labor. (Though this itself may suggest that the much-maligned distinctions between men's work and women's work may be less a legacy of male repression and more a secret and successful plot by our foremothers to get the men out of the forum/lodge/village square/pub and have them Do Something Useful. In which case it should not be lightly discarded.)

The difference in modern times is that work has, for the most part, been severed from the home and community. Before rapid forms of transportation, pretty much everyone (men and women) except for sailors worked in or very close to their homes. This meant children even of working mothers were unlikely to spend most of their waking hours in idleness supervised by strangers; they were integrated into their parents' world at the first opportunity.

The other difference is that the modern standard of living has risen drastically, making it much more open to debate whether a mother's work is necessary for survival. Few of us are living at subsistence agriculture levels, but then few of us could get away with it without CPS investigating. A job requires a car and houses have to have electricity and plumbing and so forth and so on. But just how much of these things is needed is open to debate, leaving lots of room for guilt-tripping and hand-wringing on either side.

Another thing that is not a feminist innovation is mothers preferring to hand over much of the child-rearing duties to others. Those model homemakers, the middle-class Victorians in their elegant tea gowns, were not raising their own children. They had nursemaids and nannies and governesses. (And in an era before the invention of waterproof diaper covers, one can sympathize.) Throughout history, most people rich enough to hire or buy someone else to change the diapers and wipe the runny noses have done so. Small children are hard, unglamorous work. It's much more fun to show up in the nursery for a couple of hours and tell stories.

Now for some things to be said on the side of the stay-at-home mother. Many of the charges laid against her seem to boil down to her role being unproductive (or underproductive). Even the psychological charges that her work is boring and unrewarding reflect this.

A book on the Middle Ages pointed out that the lady of the manor and the peasant woman both filled their days with activities as challenging and productive as those of their husbands: the lady running a nearly self-sufficient micro-economy occasionally enlivened by defending against a siege; the peasant woman doing essentially the same work as her husband. However, the wife of the emerging merchant class had little to do with her life except spend the money her husband made. How dull.

The life of a consumer only is, ultimately, a boring and unfulfilling life. People were made to be productive. The caricature of a stay-at-home mom is that she is only a consumer, a leach on her husband's productivity. In reality, few of us are rich enough for this to be so. Clean clothes in the drawers and hot meals on the table are, in fact, goods, even if they don't get calculated in the GDP. So, of course, is child care. Their status as goods is not so obvious as when mother spun the thread and milked the cow herself, but the modern mother is in fact providing a luxury level of goods compared to her industrious eighteenth-century predecessor, with multiple changes of clothing and meals that actually vary.

Whether the mother is being as productive as she could be is a rather personal question. Nobody criticizes a man who decides to give up the corporate fast-track to hand-carve trivets, if he values such a life over the more productive (in dollars) corporate job. Surely it is just as legitimate for a woman to decide she would rather produce the goods of her home life herself rather than outsourcing them, that she places a value on time with her children over potential economic advantages, or simply that she and her family prefer a slower-paced life. We are born to be producers, but not to be slaves to the economy.

And of course there are women (whom I applaud from a respectful distance) who also produce things for the GDP--and family cash flow--while at home. This is valuable, not because women should never set foot outside their doors, but because the real problem is the fragmentation of modern life. Children are not just separated from their mothers, they are separated from the adult world entirely. We work with one set of people and live with and among others and often enjoy our leisure with a third set, few of whom have more than the most casual contacts with each other.

This fragmentation, in turn, makes being at home with children isolating to a degree that would be unheard-of in past eras. A lot of the work is really gross, too, and not every mother naturally has her greatest gifts in standard domestic realms. That doesn't mean raising her own children is not essential work, but it can be nice to do something else once in a while. The challenge is finding ways for the mother to remain connected to the world and to work she personally enjoys without simultaneously disconnecting the children from her life.

It is a reconnection of life--of family life with leisure life and work life (not the annexation of all of life by work), of children with the adult world, of mothers of small children with the community--that ought to be the goal. Finding ways to reconnect life will require thoughtful choices on everybody's part, not just on mothers.


SK: ) said...

I read every word of this post--with great interest--because it's right up my alley as a budding "Stay-At-Home Daughter." Thank you for sharing this thoughtful and correct perspective on the work that (as the saying goes) is never done.

Eric and Wendy said...

Another excellent post!

I would like to add that there is a tendency to make the possible mandatory which influences both sides of this issue.

For example: it is possible, with modern appliances, to have more clothes washed more often than in any other era. It is therefore necessary to own at least one, possibly several, outfits for each day of the week with extra for accidents, varying weather conditions, social/sporting events,etc. Multiply this times self + spouse + # of children.

That is a ton of time, cash and space dedicated just to clothing that 100 years ago would have been fantastically excessive. Extrapolate this to food, child care, housekeeping, and whatnot!

Truly, I am not advocating having only 2 sets of clothes per person nowadays! I for one have been pretty well culturally conditioned that that would be gross! Still, have you heard the phrase, "Work expands to fill the time available?"

Rachelle said...

I recently reminded my mom that being a stay-at-home mom in the 50s was a status symbol. It stated that your husband had arrived and could support you. Most women have had to work outside their homes (or taking in laundry, etc...in their homes) throughout history. Being able to stay home and not HAVE to do domestic work for others is really a privilege. My own mother ran childcare in her home so we could make ends meet. Radical feminism ran a huge scam on women when it told them that they should want to work outside their homes; suddenly it was a status symbol. I think most women have come to realize that being separated from their children for 40 hours a week or more is not what they want. However, in today's economy (with today's priorities taken into account), working is often a necessity for moms. Marvelously, the internet and computers have made it possible for many moms to work from home. I'm grateful for a few hours a month of work from home that helps ends meet and gives me a break from simply feeling like a domestic servant on my bad days. But I remind myself that I'm privileged that I can be home and raise my children. And not have to take diapers down to the creek to beat clean.

Enjoyed your post. There's a lot here. Deep thoughts for a busy pregnant mom with little ones.

Rose said...

Very aptly put. I get so annoyed by the arrogance of people who presume to think they've single-handedly delivered the world a new concept, whether it be the feminists with their women's lib or many elements in the modern homeschool movement with their Only Biblical Way to raise a family.

Your next-to-last paragraph makes an excellent case for blogging. =)

SongBirdy said...

I also found this post thought enriching for myself. I come at this from an evolving situation. When my husband and I discussed our 'children' situation pre-marriage, I was much more of a "We'll share both the work and the children rearing."

Whereas my husband was 100% convicted that I would never work out.

Over time, our living situation became so atrocious [we averaged 30 mice caught and killed a week in that home, not to mention shovelling snow out of our living areas in the winter] that I insisted upon working to help get us out of that house and into something more homey.

My husband completely resisted the idea but I was totally concerned about the children's welfare and how the Province would view our 'provisions' for the children.

So I returned to work.

Later on, my husband finally found work that wasn't in the habit of laying him off. And the job more than meet our financial needs. So I told him it was time for me to exit the work force. Plus there was a strong need for our son to receive home school.

My husband strongly disagreed with me. Eventually I did quit. Against his wishes. But I was literally falling apart trying to do all the house stuff alone and work out full time and respond to our son's increasing needs.

Now my husband has gone so far from his initial beliefs and his childhood values. He averages 25 hours a week in overtime. Has had 1 day off without going to work at all since Christmas, and so forth.

He claims it is because I refuse to work.

We have more than enough money, really. We don't have riches, but have enough. We still have massive student loans that have been carried along simply because of our bad financial situation in the first 10 years of our marriage.

And so the struggle remains.

Your post has touched on so many thoughts mine are coming off random. But essentially, we would be better off if we valued a person's "home contributions" as much as we valued a person's monetary earning ability.

Our society would be greatly enriched if we could somehow truly realize the value of the home and its atmosphere.

anyhow... phone!

the Joneses said...

Well, I read it through and didn't find it incredibly boring. Granted, it took me two attempts to get to the end, but that was Daphne's fault, not yours.

I know all the arguments in favor of SAHMs... I LIVE them, of course. But I love your thoughts on the Other Side. I've thought it as well, and it's true, women have not historically stayed at home to raise children. They were too busy trying not to starve. I love it when you write out what are only vague thoughts. Now I don't have to form them myself, but will just adopt what you said. :)

-- SJ

CappuccinoLife said...

That was an awesome post!

One thing that has always bothered me about the historical argument for working outside the home is that women's work "back then" and women's work now are very different. And, bringing infants to work wasn't nearly such a problem (not counting the early industrial revolution and dangerous factories), and, it usually didn't involve dropping children off with 25 other children to be cared for by non-relations. And, many times it was possible for children to work *with* their parents, even at young ages.
Our culture is completely different from the one the Proverbs 31 woman lived in, and I really don't think she is (or was intended to be) a model for a female corporate executive. :p

I certainly count it a privelage and a blessing to be able to stay at home. I also have no problem with hard work, which some people on the Other Side don't seem to understand.

April said...

QOC... brilliant, as always. Thanks for laying this out so thoughtfully and concisely. It was not at all boring.