Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Homebody Anybody

"McCartney's Mini-Mart"
Our amazing pantry, designed by Gerry in Philadelphia

"These days I live in Brooklyn, NY and 'work in the home' with my seven - month old daughter. I always remember how you told me that your wife 'works in the home.' I thought that was a wise way of looking at it, and I especially appreciate it now, because although I don't have a job, I certainly work."

Anna F. (former colleague of my husband Gerry)

"I'm happy . . .
yet I'm aware of the ironic ramifications of my happiness."

Anne Taintor (ellipsis, Taintor's)

Way back in her first book of essays, Anna Quindlen said that occasionally she "met a woman with children in school all day and no job, and . . . thought, quite uncharitably and almost reflexively, what in the world does she find to do with herself all day?" ("Nesting," in Living Out Loud, 41 - 43). These sharp words have echoed in my mind ever since I first read them, many years ago. Now that my children are not only in school but nearly out of school, they haunt me with a new vigor.

Yes, Quindlen retracts her "uncharitable" knee-jerk reaction: "I don't think that anymore" she says. Even so, I've never quite been able to decipher her tone here. She observes that "we undervalue nesting," while simultaneously claiming that nesting is not work. What is it, then? Play? What Quindlen imagines is delusional, certainly not the life of any woman I know with children in school all day and no job. "Now I imagine" she writes, "lunch with a friend, considering slipcovers, doing a little gardening, spending an hour working on dinner before everyone arrives home. That life -- of ladies' lunches, of appointments with the upholsterer, and shopping trips stretched to fill the empty hours . . . barely exists now . . .[is] barely tolerated by men or women."

Lunch with a friend? Maybe once every couple of weeks.

Considering slipcovers? Considering what exactly? Whether that peanut butter stain will come out in the washing machine?

Doing a little gardening? Okay, maybe picking up sticks and raking out last year's leaves.

Working on dinner for an hour before everyone gets home? Well, what exactly is wrong with that? I wouldn't call that self - indulgent; I would call that good for the whole family. Is it indeed more honorable to be way too busy with paid work than to spend a full hour -- or more! -- organizing dinner for one's family?

Ladies' lunches? Every other week or so, I admit.

Appointments with the upholsterer? How about running into a tiny little family owned shop, grabbing a couple of sample books, and bringing them home for the kids to see, and then playing voice mail tag with the upholsterer for the next couple of days in order to work out the rest of the details by phone. Oh yes, and there was that one time when the upholsterer did come to our house to fit seat covers for the dining room chairs and scolded my toddler for touching the fabric, looked scornfully at the cats, and rolled his eyes in annoyance. That was a leisurely afternoon, so idyllic, so idle.

Shopping trips stretched to fill the empty hours? Are you kidding? How about in and out of Walmart as quickly as possible? Or ordering a few items from Lands End and hoping they fit? Or dragging in a hundred pounds of groceries for the billionth time? That's what shopping means to me.

Empty hours? Ha!

Quindlen points out that most stay - at - home moms of the fifties were not living the life of June Cleaver. But she glosses over the stay - at - home moms of today, choosing instead to describe a fantasy life of discretionary hours and conclude that perhaps "the very rich" stay - at - home moms spend their days thus. Well, I wouldn't know about that. But wait a minute, not all of the women at home with children in school and no job are rich, let alone very rich. I do know about that. Quindlen knows about women such as herself, with babysitters and jobs; but she draws no distinction between her very rich fictitious bon-bon eaters and millions of real women who care for their homes and children in an unpaid capacity, lumping them all together into a group whose chosen role is "barely tolerated by men or women." Not tolerated by Quindlen at any rate!

All this is not to say that I did not read and reread and quote endlessly from this book. I did, and have given many copies to many friends, yet I remain stunned, shocked -- dare I say shamed -- by her admitted intolerance for the non-revenue-generating (I refuse to say "non - working") choice. The assumption that profession is first and home is second fiddle has become such a cliche that you might think it would lose its currency. After all, Quindlen wrote these words twenty years ago. Yet all you have to do is google "Linda Hirshman" for the brittle affirmation that a life of money - making work is the one true path. Forget the liberal arts; forget volunteering at the food pantry; forget that it can take all day to run a homestead, especially one with children in it (even if those kids are at school for several hours of the day).

Scroll up (or click) for Part Two: "Homebody Somebody"

Scroll up (or click) for Part Three: "First Fiddle"