Monday, June 27, 2011

Artisanally!

A Favorite from the New Yorker

I recently had the following query from someone who read (but perhaps did not fully grasp) my
Trilogy of Homebody Thoughts:
Homebody Anybody
Homebody Somebody
First Fiddle

Question: "Are you suggesting that, because I work full time outside the home (as does my children's father), that we don't "take care of our own children?"

Answer: Well, none of us can be two places at one time. If you are at home full time taking care of children, then you are obviously not at a workplace full time. If you are working outside the home full time, then someone else must be taking care of the children -- unless they take care of themselves or are left unattended. The fact is, if you are away from your children, then, no, you are not taking care of them. Someone else is. Perhaps you have provided for their care, but you are not working as their full - time caregiver for the simple reason that you are working somewhere else, doing something else.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

First Fiddle

Barefoot Prodigy by Martha Moore
Contemporary American Artist

When I was in junior high, a 5 x 7 reprint of this painting appeared on the back of a cereal box -- The Fine Arts, brought to you by Post Grape Nuts! I cut it out and propped it on our piano where it stayed for as long as I can remember, certainly until well after my high school years. Somewhere along the way, Gerry and I picked up a poster - sized copy, which is still looking good after twenty - odd years, framed and matted in our family room. That little girl has been an inspiration to me and many others for several decades now. She can do anything!

Now, for the third installment in my
Trilogy of Homebody Thoughts,
following Homebody Anybody
and Homebody Somebody

Not long after the last presidential election, my wise friend Etta sent me a "really great article," "The Momification of Michelle Obama", written by her "new favorite feminist Rebecca Traister." Etta explained that "it's an article about how the feminist movement has to keep on top of and point out when the culture keeps going back to what it always does, i.e. putting women into categories of 'Motherhood' OR 'Career-Women.' Why are women judging each other for what kind of a feminist they are or what kinds of choices they make? It is never that easy, and at least 70% of all women know that (30% are the self-righteous crazy women like Sarah Palin). My question is why do women have to make these choices, and when will it end? Given that life is unfair and the choice is unfair and I didn't really have a choice to do what I really set out to do, I have chosen to be happy within that parameter. Otherwise the only one that suffers is me. I think that it is still the culture we live in that restricts us . . . Michelle and Hillary have the brains and talent to be President but instead their husbands are."

Now that you have read Etta's preamble, click here if you have a couple of minutes to read Traister's article. Sure, it was written a couple of years ago, but it's just as relevant now as it was then. So relevant, in fact, that at the risk of sounding melodramatic, I'd say that it is a pretty accurate description of my own life, except that I didn't become successful in my profession before having my children, so I had less to walk away from.

I do find it odd of Traister to suggest that walking away from a meaningful career that provides extra but not not necessary income for the family is more difficult than it would be to give up working to make ends meet. I always thought it was the opposite -- if you are struggling to make ends meet, then you have more difficulty choosing to walk away than if the money is optional to the budget -- in which case, you have the good fortune of choosing how to spend your time, how to focus your energy. It's a luxury to make that choice. And if you can make it at all, why not make it in favor of your kids? Yes, it's wrong for Americans to obsess about Michelle Obama's clothes and household choices, but why shouldn't or wouldn't she pick parenting as her first choice these days? Her children need her, now more than ever.

I appreciate Traister's final observation:

"In certain critical ways, Michelle Obama will come to stand in more prominently than anyone could have imagined for the shortcomings of feminism as described by Linda Hirshman in her 2006 book Get to Work in which she argues that the weighting of domestic responsibilities toward the woman in a family handicaps her chances for professional and economic success. Obama has already said that one of the issues she plans to put front and center while in the White House is the impossible bind faced by working mothers. She knows the trade-offs and sacrifices all too well.

"And now, she is in the unenviable yet deeply happy position of being a history-maker whose own balancing act allowed her husband the space to make his political career zip forward, his books sing, his daughters healthy and beautiful, and his campaign succeed. In having done all this, Michelle Obama wrought for herself a life (temporarily, at least) of playing second fiddle. Then again, did she have a choice?"


I like this conclusion because I like to think that my own balancing act allowed my husband to "zip forward" and our children to "sing." On the other hand, why does Traister have to embrace the assumption that profession is first and home is second fiddle?

It's a struggle sometimes to enjoy being at home with people asking you all the time "when are you going back to work?" Sometimes I fear that I've spent the last twenty years trying to come up with a good explanation for my choices that won't make me sound lazy and unambitious.

Recent reading for further perspectives on this topic:

1. Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life
Edited by Elrena Evans and Caroline Grant

2.Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace
by Ayelet Waldman

In conclusion, two heart-warming anecdotes:

My friend Karen recently said, "I'm happy 'at home' and enjoy being here for my family, but I know what you mean about the questions about ever going back to 'work.' I recently was at a doctor's office and he asked me what I did for a living. And I sighed and said, 'Oh, I'm a stay at home mom' for lack of a better term. And I liked his response, 'That IS work!' "

My younger sister, who works at a pre-school, likes to tell the story about the little student who asked her one day, "Miss Diane, do you work someplace?"

Priceless!

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