Home economics, sustainability and the "mommy wars"
As I write this, I have a pair of blue jeans on my lap, and as I wait for pages to load on my slow dial up connection, I am cutting them to pieces. The jeans are past wearing - the holes are beyond my capacity to patch, and in spots that reveal things my husband would be better to leave covered. So I am turning them into a pile of material which has a diversity of uses.
The large pieces of cloth are cut into squares to make denim and flannel patchwork quilts for my kids. The hem and seam pieces are cut out in long strips, and will be sewn together and braided to make a denim rug eventually. The buttons are snipped off and the zipper cut out for use in future clothing. The larger odd-shaped pieces, unsuitable for quilting are set aside for patching other jeans and extending their lives. Small scraps are added to a box of cloth scraps for the kids to practice sewing upon. Fine shreds could be used to stuff homemade toys, but I'm not that organized, and they end up on the compost pile. The work is a little tedious, but well suited to a time when I'm sitting about anyway and my hands aren't always in use.
I do this in part because I am trying to reduce our waste stream, and in part because I worry that someday we will want more blankets because we have less heat or more people needing them, in part because I like to make things, but mostly because I do not want to spend money. I make the jean quilts so that I don't have to buy blankets for the kids. I save the patch scraps to delay the day when I'll have to buy new jeans for any of us. I braid the rugs because I need something to stand on at the kitchen sink, and I don't want to purchase anything. I save the buttons because otherwise, the next time one pops off my jeans, I'll have to buy them. They are cheap. Even jeans are cheap, of course. But the total savings, however small, is one piece of the puzzle that enables us to live on comparatively little money. Add to that our tendency to own older cars, and drive as little as possible, keep the heat down and eat little meat and garden - all of which we do from a combination of frugal and environmental motives, and we're able to live quite cheaply.
Nominally, at least, I'm an at-home mother. That is, I don't go to work, I don't wear pantyhose, and one of us, often me but nearly as frequently my husband, is at home with the kids virtually all the time. What paid work I do, I do from home. We are fortunate in that our frugality, the way we bought our house (jointly with family members) and some good luck have also enabled my husband to do much of his work from home, so he is obliged to commute to work only 3 days a week. Because he is paid by the class, we try hard to need as little money as possible. The less we need, the less he has to work, and the more time we have together. And in order to do this, we are mostly at home. My choice not to try and work outside the home, and to be a full time parent comes with a particularly strong set of cultural assumptions and expectations, and often "At Home Mother" is shorthand for a set of political and cultural habits that don't, in fact, fit me all that well.
Now those of you who are not parents probably don't really know about the "Mommy Wars." That's the official name for a really, really stupid conflict, mostly played out between women who otherwise would be natural allies, over whether it is better to stay at home with your children or go to a job and work. This is an endless, cruel and inane conflict. Some working mothers level the charge at at-home mothers that they are dumb, or wasting themselves and their educations, implying that their own time is more valuable than that of women who do not go to a job, and in hundreds of ways otherwise demean women who are at home and the work they do. Many stay-at-home mothers assert that women who go to jobs are selfish, that they don't care about their children, that most women don't "need" to work and only do so for luxuries, and that they don't raise their own children. People who rightly argue that children need their parents are set up against people who rightly argue that children need health insurance, and no one ever concedes anything. Everyone swings around statistics about daycare, the number of children who become axe murderers under each system and how much any given bit of information matters. As could be expected, no resolution is ever achieved, people who could work together find that they can't, and everyone gets their feelings hurt. I've managed to be on both ends of this - I've been told condescendingly by a neighboring attorney, "Oh, I couldn't help out - I work you know." And I've also been told that leaving my kids to go teach meant that I didn't love them. Now not every family get stuck in this ugly dualism, but more do than don't.
And, of course, the whole discussion not only makes everyone miserable, it misses the point - or several points. One of them is that neither party really has what they need. All the mothers I know who work agonize over leaving their children, often with people who do not love their children as much as they do. Most of them are also deeply ambivalent about how much they like working - that is, many of them (including me) when you push them feel a deep-seated sense that they *should* want to be home with their kids, even though they like their jobs, and particularly like the community and connections they find there.
Many of the women I know who work full time are exhausted and frustrated with the things they can't do, and they gain time by hiring out as many things as possible - they eat take out, have someone else clean their house and tend their yards. But they never feel that the things they pay others to do are done as well as they would do them. They often don't spend much time with their spouses alone, and much of the time they do spend with their children is spent driving places. Everyone reports a great deal of stress, a desire for more time together and anger and frustration that this is not enabled by their jobs and their lives. For poor working women, there is often no choice, no job satisfaction and no ambivalence - many of them believe that feminism sold them a bill of goods, claiming to give them something positive and mostly doubled their workload. And they are not wholly wrong.
For stay-at-home mothers, there is a sense of isolation, the loss of of the community they often had at work. Because this is the less common choice, it is often difficult to find company. The economic pressure for a two-household economy is very high, and the choice to stay home for many poorer women means a loss of security - no insurance or poor insurance, no economic safety net if something happens to the working spouse. Many have little time with their husbands, because the husbands have to work long hours to compensate economically for having only one income. And the job is often boring for women - they secretly admit that they sometimes wonder if the accusations that there is something wrong with them because they are willing to do this dull work are true. This is not conducive to self-esteem. In short, both sets of mothers are, often, having a lousy time. I asked 40 women I knew what the best choice was, and virtually all of them said there were no good options, or that good options would only be forthcoming with government mandates of things like paid maternity leave and good daycare.
But I would argue that the question of whether women should work outside the home is the wrong question entirely. The right question is how much power we should give to the public economy, and its presumptions. At least as important as the question of what women with children should do, for example, is the far less commonly asked question, "should fathers work outside the home?" And almost no one asks, as Wendell Berry does, whether it is good for marriages that husbands and wives work apart, outside the home. The question becomes, then, "how much should we value the work we do outside the home, and how much should we value the work we do in it?" That question, I suspect, might begin to get us somewhere that Mommy Wars cannot. Perhaps it might even take us to a good answer.
Berry answers this question in no uncertain terms in his essay, "Feminism, the Body and the Machine." He says, in answer to critics who accused him of sexism for having a wife who worked in the home and typed his essays,
I know that I am in dangerous territory, and so I had better be plain: what I have to say about marriage and household I mean to apply to men as much as to women. I do not believe that there is anything bettter to do than to make one's marriage and household, whether one is a man or a woman. I do not believe that 'employment outside the home' is as valuable or important or satisfying as employment at home, for either men or women. It is clear from my experience as a teacher, for example, that children need an ordinary association with both parents. They need to see their parents at work, they need, at first, to play at the work they see their parents doing, and then they need to work with their parents.
...My interest is not to quarrel with individuals, men or women, who work away from home, but rather to ask why we should consider this general working away from home to be a desirable state of things, either for people or for marriage, for our society or for our country.
...But for the sake of argument, let us supposed that whatever work my wife does, as a member of our marriage and household, she does both as a full economic partner and as her own boss, and let us supposed that the economy we have is adequate to our needs. Why, granting that supposition, should anyone assume that my wife would increase her freedom or dignity or satisfaction by becoming the employee of a boss, who would be in turn also a corporate underling and in no sense a partner?
Will you forgive me for saying that I think Berry's is a damned good question? He goes on to observe that what is bad for his wife is also bad for her husband - that men do not receive a greater share of independence, dignity or happiness by working out of the home, away from their spouses and families. We are accustomed to debate whether the breakdown of the family stems from the habit of women going out to work. But if the family broke down thoroughly, it was around the time the baby boomer children were being born - the levels of alienation and misery, depression, anxiety and family disruption among boomers are radically higher than among the previous generation - and many of those families had stay-at-home mothers. So perhaps we need to look at the fathers and their role.
And all of this focus on the women in question, and the impact of whether women work misses the basic point that for most of human history, children spent much more time with both parents than they do now, and that many of the negatives we attribute to the separation of children from their mothers might equally or more be said of the separation of children from their fathers.
Until 200 years ago, a vast majority of all children spent most of their lives with both parents every single day. In hunter-gatherer societies, the tribe often travelled together, and since hunting was generally a less common activity than gathering, male hunters often had considerable time to spend with their children. In most such societies in existence today, they do a considerable amount of parenting. Once agriculture came to predominate, again, children spent their days with their parents. Young, nursing children were often with their mother, but by the age of weaning (four or five in most traditional societies, unless a younger sibling pushed it ahead), children might work or play alongside their fathers for part of every day. Boys would join their fathers in traditionally male work, but even daughters would often help in the barn or around the farm. Everyone would reconvene for regular meals, and the family would spend all sabbaths and festivals together. Many agricultural societies had much more free time than we do now - 11th century serfs worked only 178 days per year. Helena Norberg-Hodge has documented that the people of Ladakh, one of the harshest climates in the world, were able to feed themselves by working intensely only four months of the year, spending much of the winter in celebration and parties, and described the integration of children into the lives of both parents and grandparents as well.
As the percentages of people living on farms and in small towns decreased, more separation arose, but it is worth noting that as recently as 1920 or 1930, more than half of the US population farmed, ran small local businesses or worked within a mile of their homes. All of which meant that children were involved in their parents' daily lives in ways that are hard to imagine right now. A family that ran a shop would have children playing the back. By seven or eight, children would take turns assisting customers and stocking shelves. The family would often convene for meals (even children were allowed to walk home for lunch from school, hard as that is to imagine now), and children would join their parents in their work.
The level at which the family was integrated into one another's lives is hard for most Americans to imagine now, and it is not an accident that this was a more sustainable, more environmentally sound way of life, as well as one that led to greater psychological happiness. Living at a scale that enables integration is almost always a better choice environmentally - but after decades of living apart, unsustainably, we have created a population of people who valorize apartness, and who fear closeness. Women say, "I wouldn't know what to do with myself if I was trapped with my kids all day." Men take their identity from their jobs, rather than their relationships. Children say, "I would never want to live that close to my family" and aging parents say, "I don't want to depend on my children." People don't want their neighbors to drop by, or "know their business."
We have created not only physical dependencies on cheap energy, but psychological ones, so that no matter how much harm our dependencies do, we now fear to live any other way.
In some senses, we have adopted a new theory of "separate spheres" - it is different from the Victorian notion by the same name, but structurally very similar. The Victorians imagined this in terms of gender roles - one had the "angel in the house" and the man out at work (a division that described significantly less than half the population during the actual Victorian Era), and each was supposed to have their own role.
Now the division is not made by gender, but by age and work. Each parent goes off to their own separate jobs, away from their homes, and spends long hours there, or at best, one parent stays home and the other is parted from them for much of the week. The children routinely spend long hours at school and activities designed to educate them, usually provided by professionalized adults. The spheres are so separate that they rarely overlap - friends of ours both with two important careers acknowledge that at times the only communication they have with one another is to list off the necessary information about the children, before one heads to bed, the other to childcare. The child, the parents, all are deemed to have important work to do, and it is almost never done together. Even their leisure time is rarely conjoined - on the weekends, everyone will have their separate obligations and activities - one child has a birthday party to which his siblings are not invited, another has sports practice, mother runs errands, father shuttles the children about.
This is not, I think, a good way to run a railroad - or more accurately, a family. We tend to focus on the costs to children, but Berry's emphasis that this is not good for marriages is important as well, given the nation's appalling divorce rate. The divorce rate has an enormous cost for children as well, of course, and the two things cannot be separated. No one has yet succeeded in finding a cure for the fact that we are bad at staying together. Is some of it perhaps the pernicious influence of the industrial economy that separates us, and keeps us from creating the bonds that shared work and shared domestic interest create? Is it possible that marriages are better when husband and wife share whole and integrated life together? I can only speak from my own experience, but my marriage is happier when my husband and I are together than when we are apart. We both enjoy our work, but our preference is always for more time together with each other and our children.
I cannot say what impact millions of years of human beings living together and working with their children had upon our biology or our psychology or our instincts, but it seems not wholly coincidental that an enormous body of unhappiness arose in our society precisely as parents began to separate from their children routinely, and childhood became a period enacted in isolation from family and without meaningful ways of contributing to he household, family and domestic economies. Children seek meaning. I can remember from my own adolescence a passionate desire to do things that would matter to adults, to enter the world of adult work in some useful way, more important than simply entering the cash economy. I wanted what I did as a teenager to matter, and very little of what was available to me seemed to. I noticed in my peers similar desires, and a willingness to engage in destructive meaning-making, if that was the only way into the adult world. Segregating children into their own separate spheres of school, music lessons, sport and homework is, at the very least, an experiment on a couple of generations of children that violates everything that human history has taught us about what makes a strong and healthy family. And it represents a tremendous change in how much we value a strong and healthy family - that was once considered a central requirement for a happy life. Now, we are willing to sacrifice that in order to have other things.
The sphere we value least, of course, is the domestic one. We see it as a repository of our wealth - a house and a home is a place to decorate, but it is not a place to do good work in. It is not a place that makes us better able to live in the world, but the thing that keeps us running on the rat treadmill to pay the mortgage and keep the repairs up. And because "labor saving" devices have stripped much of what was valuable and interesting from domestic work, home labor is boring. We are no longer engaged in the absolutely urgent process of feeding and clothing ourselves, nurturing and loving and protecting others. That happens at work, where we make the money to buy food and provide security. Many of the labor saving devices have been proven not to save us much time or any at all if you count in the time to earn the money to run and maintain and service them. But what they did do is take the fun and excitement, the meaning and urgency out of the work done in domestic life, and make it seem valueless, something always to be relieved by technology.
Helena Norberg-Hodge documents the ways that this happened in Ladakh, where she witnessed the coming of the industrial economy and the "home/work" division in a society that had previously looked like the society from which we came too, at least in the sense that fathers and mothers both worked at home,
Women...do not earn money for their work, so they are no longer seen as 'productive.' Their work is not recognized as part of the gross national product. In government statistics, the 10 percent or so of Ladakhis who work in the modern sector are listed according to their occupations; the other 90 percent - housewives and traditional farmers - are lumped together as 'non-workers.' This influences people's attitudes toward themselves and others, and the lack of recognition clearly has a deep psychological impact. Traditional farmers, as well as women are coming to be viewed as inferior, and they themselves are obviously developing feelings of insecurity and inadequacy.
...Despite their new dominant role, men also clearly suffer as a result of the breakdown of family and community ties. They are deprived of contact with children. When they are young, the new macho images prevents them from showing affection, while in later life as fathers, their work keeps them away from home.
...In the traditional culture children benefitted not only from continuous contact with both mother and father, but also from a way of life in which different age groups constantly interacted. It was quite natural for older children to feel a sense of responsiblity for the younger ones. A younger child in turn looked up with respect and admiration, seeking to imitate the older ones. Growing up was a natural, non-competetive learning process.
...Now children are split into different age groups at school. This sort of levelling has a very destructive effect. By artificially creating social units in which eveyrone is the same age, the ability to help and learn from each other is greately reduced. Instead, conditions for competition are automatically created...
...Now there is a tendency to spend time exclusively with one's peers. As a result, a mutual inolerance between young and old emerges. Young children nowadays have less and less contact with their grandparents who often remain behind in the village.
(Norberg-Hodge, "The Pressure to Modernize" 126-7)
Norberg-Hodge does a marvellous job of documenting how profoundly perceptions of what is valuable affect us. We view domestic work as unimportant, and thus women who do it are demeaned. And since in most households, whether they work or not women do the work - either themselves, or by paying poorer women, the work itself is seen as demeaning. No wonder women who make different choices are so hostile to one another - one group attempts, against impossible odds to redeem something that the entire culture and economy attempts to dismiss, including dealing with her own created insecurities about it. Another woman has to choose both lousy options - working out and doing most of the housework, and cannot help but see the distinction between the things she gets paid for and rewarded for with cultural approval and those she does not. Everyone loses. I have spoken little about the losses of men, but there is no doubt that they lose out - on time with their children, time with their wives, in psychological pressure as providers. And, of course, children lose too.
That emptiness of meaning and segregation has meant that the industrial economy has leaped to fill the void we manifestly experience. They have filled it with processed foods, video games, television, educational toys that sing to your child and teach her the alphabet, so that parents do not have to. We have filled it with sports and other things that don't matter very much that keep our children active by replacing meaningful labor with meaningless exercise, and what should be pleasurable athletic activity with intense competition. In effect, we have turned childhood over to corporations, and meaning-making over to advertising. And the kind of children that creates are ones that are disconnected - instead of their imaginary lives being connected to imitating their parents and integrating into their family life, their imaginations are shaped by shopping and the economy from a very young age.
As David Orr has observed in his essay, "Loving Children: a Design Problem" we endlessly repeat the claim that we love our children, but we do not live our lives that way, or enable our children to feel loved in the ways that time has shown are successful. Orr notes,
In an ecologically and esthetically impoverished landscape, it is harder for children and adolescents to find a larger meaning and purpose for their lives. Consequently, many children grow up feeling useless. In landscapes organized for convenience, commerce, and crime, and subsidized by cheap oil, we have little good work for them to do. Since we really do not need them to do real work, they learn few practical skills and little about responsibility. Their contacts with adults are frequently unsatisfactory. When they do work, it is all too often within a larger pattern of design failure. Flipping artery clogging burgers made from chemically saturated feedlot cows, for example, is not good work and neither is most of the other hourly work available to them. Over and over we profess our love for our children, but the evidence says otherwise. Rarely do we work with them. Rarely do we mentor them. We teach them few practical skills. At an early age they are deposited in front of mind-numbing television and later in front of computers. And we are astonished to learn that in large numbers they neither respect adults nor are they equipped with the basic skills and aptitudes necessary to live responsible and productive lives. Increasingly, they imitate the values they perceive in us with characteristic juvenile exaggeration
(Orr, "Loving Children: a Design Problem")
How do we create a society in which we actually act like we love our children? How do we get women and men out of the ugly set of choices they have - working too much in isolation from children and one another, or one parent, isolated at home with children in an environment that has been degraded and stripped of its importance and meaning?
My suggestion, then, is not that mothers should stay home, but that everyone should. Recognizing, however, that in many cases complete escape from the industrial economy is not possible, how should we, as Orr puts it, "reconnect living with livelihood?" The first solution would be to need as little as possible. Everyone who is asked believes they need the income they have, or a little more, but would that actually be true if we treated our homes and households as places that produce what we need, rather than suck up our income? If the costs of a car payment, new clothing, much of one's food and other items could be eliminated from the budget, along with daycare, would one person in the family be able to cut back on their work, or quit altogether? Could both cut back? Could one person take a job making less that would require fewer hours, less commuting?
Are you doing work that improves the world, or work that harms it? Because we need to make a living, many of us exclude our jobs from our environmental and social consciousness, assuming that our work creating paper on some irrelevancy is not a negotiable issue. But that is a lie - we have to do good work, and model good work for our children, so that they will want to join us in it. Could you create a small home business? Start a farm or market garden? Work from home? Work less? Involve your older children in your work? Take a baby or toddler with you one day a week? Homeschool? Many of these things may not be feasible for most people, but have you seriously considered them?
Could you move, live somewhere cheaper, or closer to family? Could you live with family, and enable your parents, for example to retire and help care for their grandchildren, or a sibling to stay home with her child and yours? Could you choose a new way of life, where some work that could be done with your children around was part of your income? Could you both work part-time? Could you find work that husband and wife could do together? Could you combine several of these options with increased frugality and self-sufficiency, and get by on only one part time income? There is a great deal of information out there on frugality - I strongly recommend others begin with Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez's Your Money or Your Life and Amy Dacyzyn's Tightwad Gazette books. It is quite possible for people to cut back enormously on their needs, simply by focusing on two things - making their home economically productive (either by producing income or needing less), and also by staying home - on cutting back on the things that cost us so much out in the world and tempt us to consume more.
Many of us work for health insurance - but for an increasingly large number, such is not available at any price. It is true that being less of a participant in the industrial economy makes us less secure in that regard, if more secure in others. Ideally, we will find ways at the national or state level of ensuring that everyone can have equal access to medical care. If not, perhaps we could do as the Amish do, and form mutual aid societies that cover medical bills for a group. Most states have insurance for children, and some have it available for those who have home businesses, and this might be a starting place.
As for saving for retirement, I do not wish to presume too much about what my children will think of and want for me, but in much of the world, and through much of human history, one's family was one's security, not money. We all should know the danger of a lost pension fund, a stock market crash, a currency crisis - money is often less secure than we would imagine. But it is absolutely necessary if we continue to live our lives, as Orr notes, as though we do not truly love our children. If we continue to live in the world in ways that degrade it and deprive children of family connection, we will have children who do not want to help us in our last years. Despite our cultural nostalgia for the 1950s, we should note that the children of the 1950s, who remember it so fondly, were the first generation to overwhelmingly stick their parents in assisted living and nursing homes. The mothers that were at home baking cookies weren't much valued in their old age.
None of us likes the idea of dependency, but we will be dependent, no matter what - some day, unable to work we will either be dependent on a collection of machines, the industrial economy and professional people doing a lousy job for minimum wage, or we will be dependent on the children we loved and raised and the grandchildren we adore. Which is better? I know which one I would choose.
My five year old is making a blanket for his stuffed animals out of scraps of the denim. My three year old is playing peek-a-boo with the baby, hiding beneath a half-cut up denim jean leg, and my six year old spins a long strip for braiding around and around. Simon, my five year old, takes a turn at the scissors. The baby chews my knee. My husband does dishes at the sink while I cut up these jeans. I am reminded of those mastercard commercials - "Some things are priceless. For everything else there's mastercard." The implication is that buying things enables you to have those priceless experiences. But this contradicts my experience. The most precious moments of my life are the ones in which there is nothing at all to buy. The most priceless moments are not rare constructs of purchase, or occasional special events, expensive to create, but moments whose value is only increased by their ubiquity, by the fact that we are together *as we usually are* in our accustomed ways, enjoying accustomed pleasures. The moments are precious in that sense because they are apart from the economy, not despite it - or rather, because they are fully integrated into the most essential of all economies, the home economy.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
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