Saturday, July 23, 2011

Weekend Reading: The Mothers Have Always Worked Edition

I've been thinking about work a lot lately, specifically the fact that I have a pretty cushy job. And this even started before a man working on clearing a fire break behind my office was attacked by a hive of bees. (He's OK, but seeing that sort of thing certainly puts the occupational hazards of my job in perspective.)

It all started when my book club read Willa Cather's My Antonia, followed by Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls. In neither book is the back-breaking, never-ending nature of the labor of the female protagonists the main point, but it is an ever-constant companion to them, even after- or really, especially after- they have kids.

This ties into my thoughts about working mothers: i.e., that it is nothing new. Mothers have always worked at something other than mothering, and for most of history, women's work has been hard labor. As I like to say: have you ever read the instructions for making soap? Or churning butter? It doesn't sound like a lot of fun to me. I'm glad I live in a time in which I can go do something easier and (to me) more intellectually rewarding, get paid, and use that money to buy soap, and butter. And a dishwasher and washing machine. And- I know this bit is slightly more controversial- pay a cleaning service to do some of the cleaning chores.

Given my thoughts on this subject, it was interesting coming across a post about why, when a couple decides to go live "off the grid", it is usually the woman who calls it quits first. I found the post via Historiann's interesting post on the topic. The premise of both posts is that the women quit first not because they are wimpier, but because their role in the enterprise sucks more, because people tend to fall back into old gender roles, and women's work before electricity and modern appliances was never-ending, often invisible, and certainly hard. (Whereas men's work was at least visible, and involves discrete projects that actually end.)  Some of the commenters on Historiann's post point out the parallels to the KPBS reality shows where they'd drop modern people into a homestead or a colonial house, or something, and assign them historically accurate roles. Apparently it was the women who first came to the conclusion that the experiment was no fun whatsoever.

I wish more people would remember this. My work life isn't perfect- but it is a lot better than washing cloth diapers by hand, scrubbing floors on my hands and knees with soap I had to make myself, or even cooking over a wood-fired stove. I have it pretty good, and frankly, even people with a lot less money than I do probably have it better than a homesteader. And yet we keep romanticizing the past, as if there was more time for parenting then and life was somehow better. It doesn't seem either of those things are true to me, but I'm no historian, so maybe I'm wrong. But from what I read, it seems like childhood is better now- day care included!- and life is easier now, particularly for women.

Perhaps we romanticize the past in this way because "women's work"- i.e., housework and the like- is traditionally invisible and not counted as actual work.  Awhile back, Blue milk had a great guest post at PhD in Parenting on how society fails to value work inside the home, and how that impacts the rest of society.

Of course, none of this takes away the fact that it is hard to manage the competing needs of family and work, particularly since, as we discussed yesterday, finding work-life balance is still not a given. But it can be done (obviously, since so many of us are doing it). I came across a short post about how to actually do it. It didn't have anything new, really, and I think she is a bit unfair to women who choose to stay at home with their kids. Many of them find it rewarding, and if they do, then the rest of us have no business judging their lives. But the post makes some good points succinctly, and is worth a read.

And now, I suppose, it is time to start our weekend chores around here. Using our modern appliances, of course!


  1. Anonymous9:01 AM

    I disagree with that work/life post on how to do it with regards to never thanking your husband for doing housework. I thank my husband. I thank my son. They thank me. I it is NICE to have the thoughtful things we do noticed. Even when we make dinner together we thank each other for making such a delicious dinner. (Thank you, no Thank YOU. We make a great team. We really do. Let's stay married. Of course.)

  2. Clare9:32 AM

    I think part of the misconception about rural/homestead life being easier than life today is the fact that children seemed much more integrated into household chores than they are now. Sure, my kids have chores, but not nearly as many as Laura and Mary did in the Little House books, for example. I would not trade places with Ma Ingalls for all the tea in China, but she sure did know how to make her children an integral part in running a successful household.

  3. @nicoleandmaggie- yeah, that bit didn't ring true to me, either. We both try to say thanks around here, and that is the way I think it should be. Maybe she was talking about a case where the woman thanks the man for doing chores, and he never thanks her?

    @Clare- you're right that kids used to have a lot more chores. One of the interesting parts of Half Broke Horses is when the main character gets sent to boarding school, and loves it, because she didn't have to do so much manual labor, and could actually concentrate on learning.

  4. Anonymous4:41 PM

    Maybe she lives in New Jersey.

  5. Yes, thank gawd for modern appliances and outsourced labor. The fact that hiring a cleaning service is supposedly controversial to some in any way, shape, or form is exactly what the hell is wrong with this country.

    I agree with @nicoleandmaggie that the sloppily-written Margaret Heffernan piece completely missed the mark where she called atty Glenda Roberts' habit of never thanking her hubby for doing his share of the housework "the best approach she ever encountered." Ingratitude in a marriage = "the BEST approach"? Seriously? Let's rephrase that to what I think (I hope?) she might have meant: when the male in a hetero live-in relationship does any work to maintain his own home, never refer to it as "helping."

    When Heffernan concluded with the pitiful paragraph: "Nothing depresses me more than meeting highly intelligent, creative, energetic women who now put all their gifts into the carpool rota and planning the perfect lunchbox. I love my kids as much as anyone." .... it gave me the exact same impression of the writer's utter insecurity as the one I had to Dr. Karen S. Sibert's NYT piece attacking all female MDs who work less than full time.

    Um, defensive much? I note that in their concluding paragraphs both mentioned "carpools" and food items in these bizarre non-sequiturs. Sibert is obsessed with cupcakes, and Heffernan with the perfect lunchboxes that all these part-timers and SAHM's must be hanging around the kitchen all day making! What's up with that?

    What I want to say to them (after get some therapy please, you're good enough, you're ok!) is that there is a way to write about the best practices of being a proud working mother without needing to conclude with an attack on at-home mothers referencing carpools and/or baked goods. I honestly find it so strange that such educated, accomplished women like Heffernan and Sibert still manage to lack the self-awareness to see how such attacks make them seem insecure about their own choices, which thus undermines any argument they're attempting to make that their exact career path is the One True Way to happiness.

  6. I have a chapter in my next book called "The Chicken Mystique" that takes on this whole homesteading, DIY, back-to-the-earth movement. Obviously there is a certain similar element to the fact that cooking and knitting are hip because we usually don't HAVE to do these things. But still, the politics of it all are a bit disconcerting. We should be grateful we don't have to really be pioneer women -- now women can make 7-figures a year writing a blog about being a pioneer woman!

  7. Would hiring a lawn care service also be controversial? Or is that somehow different?

    My 6-yo and I have been reading the Little House books, and the dreary monotony! Also, the parents put much more of the responsibility on the children for their own safety. It seems that if a child died in those days, you almost blamed the child for going out in a blizzard, wandering into a creek, playing with the plow, rather than blaming the parent for not keeping a closer eye on the child. I wonder if it almost had to be that way because the adults did not have the time to tend the children that closely.

  8. scantee11:37 AM

    It would be nice if we acknowledged the shift in the primary responsibility of mothers who work solely at home from housekeeping to child raising. It really is a very recent change and yet it's convenient for a lot of people to pretend that child rearing has always been the main focus of at-home mothers. As you can Carrie mention, for most of history it just wasn't possible for mothers to watch over their children closely because of the huge burden placed on them just to keep the household running. So, yeah, I use daycare, but at least someone watches my kids! A small step forward from most of history.

    I'm not putting a value judgment on this shift, there are probably good and bad things that have come of it, it's just different. I wonder how much recognizing that difference might help to alleviate some of the mom guilt that's out there. In a world where your job is to raise your own kids to be superstars then no amount of investment is considered too much. It's totally unrealistic and I think it's good for that ideal to get some (or a lot) of pushback.

  9. @SarcastiCarrie, as far as I can determine, yes, hiring a lawn service is somehow different. Also, taking my car to the car wash is OK, I think. But I'm not clear on the rules.

    @hush, good points. Perhaps I should have read that last piece more carefully!

    @Laura- yes, things are fun and hip until you have to do them. I have enjoyed having a garden this year. But I don't think I would enjoy it so much if my family depended on it for food.

    @scantee- I love your comment, particularly the last bit about how if your job is to raise your kids, then no investment seems too much. I have a post about how parenting expectations seem to have ratcheted up bouncing around in my head, but I haven't had the time (or clarity of thought) to write it.

  10. Clare5:59 AM

    @SarcastiCarrie & Cloud,
    Obviously using a car wash and lawn service is different, because it frees up men to "spend more time with their families" by outsourcing traditionally male chores. (/sarcasm)

  11. @Clare - That was the perfect answer.

    Housework is apparently some kind of saintly work and outsourcing it makes you a bad person. (I am a bad person, but not because I outsource...just because I don't do it. The family room only gets vacuumed before company comes and I am OK with that...and if my husband isn't, well, he would vacuum it himself and sometimes does.)

  12. Wait hiring a housekeeper is controversial? Why?

  13. Have you read the book, Home: a short history of an idea?

    I loved the part when he summed up the prior literature like this:
    Men write about home design with an eye to repose. Women write about home design in terms of workplace ergonomics.

    That's priceless!

  14. @PQA- some people think that hiring a housecleaner is exploitative. If you want to wade through the comments on that you could look at the Historiann post referenced in my Don't Lean Back Ahead of Time post.

    @badmomgoodmom, that is a funny and sad quote.

  15. Great post! I think about things like this all the time. Moms in the 50s often drank during the day or took now controversial prescription drugs, and women throught time have had wet nurses. Talk about someone else "caring" for your kids! wow. I always think about "housework" how it was for previous generations - making dinner all day, scrubbing floors on your hands and knees, washing laundry by hand - and that was what I can remember my grandmother still doing at home in the 70s and 80s! I too "outsource" home cleaning and don't feel guilty now that I have 2 kids and am a "working mom". I'd feel more guilty ignoring my 3 year old and infant all day Saturday just to clean. kudos for a great read.


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