Monday, June 13, 2011

Homebody Somebody

Spice of Life!

A few additional Homebody thoughts, compiled after reading:

1. The Ten-Year Nap
by Meg Wolitzer

and

2. Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists
edited by Courtney E. Martin and J. Courtney Sullivan


After re-reading Anna Quindlen's bothersome late twentieth century essay on the topic of "Nesting," I thought I'd take a look at the new generation of writers in Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists. Some get it, some don't. Nellie Beckett, for example, can see that it's all real work. She writes that "Being a feminist means making my own choices but it also means supporting the choices that women in my life make. I'm a feminist for my mother, who chose to stay home with her kids and was criticized for doing so. She's now applying to be a lawyer. Despite her excellent credentials, law firms seem to think that fifteen years as a stay - at home mom don't qualify as "real work" (34). Thanks Nellie!

J. Courtney Sullivan, on the other hand, takes another tired old swipe at cookie - baking. She observes that her mother was successful professionally yet punished for not simultaneously being the perfect homemaker, victimized by a culture that devalues caretaking in the home while at the same time fetishizing it. . . . Those other mothers in my neighborhood, with their brownies and their wreath-making and their long dull days in the house, were no doubt victims of this too" (196 - 97). Wow, Courtney! Way to devalue!

Okay, I understand about her mother and our culture's schizophrenic attitude toward housekeeping and homemaking, but was their neighborhood really filled with women who spent long dull days stuck in the house making wreaths and brownies? Again, I hear an annoying echo of Quindlen's upholstery appointments and empty hours. For me and my parenting acquaintances, however, the hours were never empty. The years and days have been neither long nor dull. They have been fleeting and packed from morning until midnight with tasks and errands, and work of all kinds: free - lance, part - time, professional, communal, volunteering and fund-raising; grading, reading and writing after the children were tucked in bed. Some of it was inspirational, some of it was not -- but isn't that true of all work? And, yes, arts and crafts and baking did enter into the picture; but it wasn't dull; it was fun!

I'm the first to admit that running a household is something I always wanted to do. Quindlen confesses that she ran from that role "with furious little feet when [she] was growing up." That's okay. But, guess what? I ran toward it. Sure, popular television made it all look so easy and attractive -- June Cleaver vacuuming the carpets while wearing pearls and heels; and Donna Reed, the very image of comfort, handing out those brown-bag lunches. But it wasn't that. In fact, I was only too willing to follow the excellent advice of Barbara Ehrenreich: no need to iron the diapers or polish the ceiling; that kind of make - work can go by the wayside. Still, as a student of literature, I wanted what Yeats' describes: " . . . a house / Where all's accustomed, ceremonious."

I wanted to take an hour pulling the dinner together. As mentioned before on this blog, I've been inspired by writers like Laurie Colwin, who shows her readers how to feel "ennobled" by the elemental, yet potentially elegant, task of feeding loved ones. Or Joan Didion, who writes so beautifully about "the repeated rituals of domestic life. Setting the table. Lighting the candles. Building the fire. Cooking. All those souffles, all that creme caramel, all those daubes and albondigas and gumbos. Clean sheets, stacks of clean towels, hurricane lamps for storms, enough water and food to see us through whatever geological event came our way. These fragments I have shored against my ruins, were the words that came to mind then. These fragments mattered to me. I believed in them. That I could find meaning in the intensely personal nature of my life as a wife and mother did not seem inconsistent with finding meaning in the vast indifference of geology and the test shots; the two systems existed for me on parallel tracks that occasionally converged, notably during earthquakes" (The Year of Magical Thinking, 190 - 91). Never do Colwin or Didion undervalue nesting!

My experiences growing up had shown me that home was a happier place with a dedicated grown up human at the helm. If you ask me, it's not good growing up in a house that isn't run by anybody. Dreamy Leonard Cohen writes that "My favourite cooks prepare my meals, / my body cleans and repairs itself, / and all my work goes well." Very good for Leonard and wonderfully poetic, but I have yet to meet the body or the house or the child that cleans and repairs itself. Best to have someone committed to these tasks rather than crossing one's fingers and hoping for the best.

I can't help thinking, just for a moment here, about one of our babysitters from those early years -- not a teenage girl, mind you, but an adult mother who claimed to run an in - home, small - group daycare service. She "fired" my child from her group because, according to her, when he was there she was unable to accomplish her household chores such as cooking and laundry! Ah ha, I realized, this was a daycare service for children who didn't need daycare (something like David Letterman's laundry service that only accepted clean clothes)! The other children in the group were able, apparently, to clean and repair themselves. Not my child; he needed some minding, which, of course, is why I was seeking out a few hours of childcare in the first place!

Likewise the house. It's a better place to live if someone is minding it.

I recall a magazine article I read back in the mid 90s, when my children were small -- about the father who was put to shame when his young son exclaimed about the household, "It's like Mom runs this place!" The message, of course, was that every adult in the family should be equally competent at every task -- no division of labor allowed! Dad must now scurry to become as proficient as Mom is at whatever it is that Mom does best. And vice versa, surely. But this model isn't always possible, or timely, or effective, or even to be desired. If my children had ever exclaimed in wonderment that "It's like Mom runs this place," my husband's answer would have been immediate: "You bet she does!"

How unfortunate, though, that the implication of laziness and lack of ambition has attached itself to the task of running the place.

I encountered this when an old friend was in town for business and we met for dinner, an enjoyable occasion until the separate checks arrived and while charging hers to her company card, she said, "I guess your husband will have to pay for yours." Funny she couldn't see me as paying for myself.

Or the well-meaning (?) family member and house guest who glanced up as I carried in the grocery shopping and declared, "Out spending your husband's money again?" Funny it didn't occur to her to ask, "Out taking care of your family again?"

Or the party guest who stated, "So I guess you just do pretty much whatever you want to all day long." Funny it didn't occur to him that I, like any other responsible adult, spend many hours per day fulfilling obligations.

Or the husband who, hearing his wife tell me that she had retired from part-time work to become a busy grandmother, chimed in to chide: "You can't really call it retirement unless it comes with a pension." Funny how little he was able to honor his own wife's effort as mother and grandmother.

Friends, relatives, colleagues, feminist essayists -- they should offer support for our choices which in turn support their choices. So why the denigration? Why the sneering? Because apparently a woman's worth is measured by her income.

Maya Schenwar brings this point home in her excellent article about homechooling. Because it is unpaid, homeschooling, like homemaking, is not always thought of as real work, regardless of how challenging and rewarding it may be. Schenwar enumerates the "tricky questions for homeschooling mothers" raised by the issue of homeschooling. For example:

"Can women trade their careers for their families without sacrificing a few of their feminist values?"

Since most homeschoolers are women and most of their income providers are men, does the woman's economic dependence on her husband set a bad example for her children?

Is it truly possible to live at a remove from sexism and consumerism?

When stay-at-home moms and homeschoolers choose to leave the workforce, to what degree if any are their decisions actually influenced by insidious patriarchal forces?

How deal with feeling undercompensated at times?

How negotiate the fine line between protesting capitalism and becoming unpaid labor?


Although I did not take on the challenge of homeschooling my own children, Schenwar's conclusion still rings true for me as a summation of the years I have spent so far at home with my children:

"As the feminist homeschooling movement gains momentum, mothers will increasingly be faced with tough, identity-defining questions: Does being a feminist mean you have to have a paid job? What does it mean to raise a feminist kid? Is there a feminist definition of success, and should there be? It’s important to keep in mind that a homeschooling mom is many things besides a homeschooling mom — even if she can’t stop talking about her kid’s latest papier-mâché dinosaur. Forging these more complex identities entails recognizing all the hats they wear besides “homeschooler.” Packebush is a zinester, Schira is a webmaster and writer, and so on. They’re Marxists, or anarchists, or punks, or please-don’t-define-me-the-reason-I-homeschool-is-to-get-away-from-this-label-slapping-bullshit human beings" (see "Learning Curve," www.bitchmagazine.org).


I am intrigued by the title Meg Wolitzer has given to her novel about stay - at - home - motherhood: The Ten - Year Nap. One thing I can say about my first decade (soon to be two) as a stay - at - home mom and politically incorrect housewife -- it sure hasn't been a nap!

Far from it! Regarding all the brain cells and manual labor required to keep the family up and running, I relished the following line from a Christmas letter we received from some of our British acquaintances who have two sons, both of whom are just a bit older than our two and no longer living at home full - time, proof that the organizational needs of the family don't go away just because the kids get bigger; perhaps, in fact, the opposite: the needs increase with size! The writer of the letter is the husband Julian (an Anglican priest in Sheffield, England), who pays this loving tribute to his wife Veronica, in his succinct list of how each family member has spent the previous year:

"Veronica busy keeping everyone else going
-- well someone's got to do it."

Or as my wise friend Eve wrote to me about rising above that nagging, sometimes overwhelming "errand - girl" sensation: "If I didn't do these things, we would have a very different family--and that's the truth."

Very plain prose, yet I think both Eve and Julian (and Anna F. / previous post, just below) express what we crave -- not reams of praise, but merely the affirmation that working in the home is way more than brownie baking and wreath making; that what we spend so many hours doing is absolutely necessary, not a frill, not a frivolity. If we do it out of love -- good; if we happen to love doing it -- good. But all that aside, it's primary, not secondary to everyone's well - being. That's all.

Scroll down (or click) for Part One . . .

Scroll up (or click) for Part Three

6 comments:

  1. Veronica writes:
    "I read what you wrote about homemaking and I agree entirely, a home needs a heart and children need nurturing. Personally i feel a lot of families are quite impoverished nowadays as childcare becomes reduced to a problem to be solved. Why have kids if one is not prepared to be there for them? It is very difficult though for modern families and all the insecurity there is in life and women feeling they have to be financially independent in case the marriage fails. It is very sad. Personally I don't feel at all deprived. I am also able to to care for my mother-in-law who is totally dependent and very frail."

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  2. Eve writes:
    "As for your essay on staying at home: Oh Kit, brava! I got a stone-cold chill at the last: "it's primary, not secondary, to everyone's well-being." Don't forget all the inflexible school-related deadlines and test dates so easy to overlook, the extra-curricular opportunities discovered and followed through on, the events and assemblies attended and applauded, the relatives' and their kids' birthday cards and graduation gifts sent, the Christmases in all their glory, the doctor/dentist/eyecare maintenance, the historical costumes, the genuine conversational engagement that happens at all the odd, inconsequential times. I could go on and on.

    I admire the efforts of ultra-busy parents to do all they can. But we all make our choices and enjoy the outcomes. I remember Edwin J. DeLattre's essay "Real Career Education Comes from the Liberal Arts," in which he defines a career as the work you choose to invest your life in, work you wish to advance for the sake of the work itself. Sometimes it carries a paycheck; sometimes, as with philanthropy or raising a family, it doesn't.

    Anyway, thanks for stepping up on that one!"

    Your biggest fan . . .

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  3. Etta writes:
    When I read your blog I was particularly shocked that you have had so many people say such stupid and idiotic things to you about how you spend your time. It makes angry and I wish I could have been there to tell them off.

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  4. I also appreciated the observation from a woman whose husband had recently retired and was now available, while she was at work, to complete many of the errands that previously they had both tried to fit in around and after work. She said that it made all the difference in the world to her peace of mind, now that one of them was free to keep things organized.

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  5. And what Veronica's husband Julian wrote: "Veronica busy keeping everyone else going -- well someone's got to do it."

    ~ Christmas Letter 2008

    [see also 12 / 28 / 2009 email / juno]

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