Why Feminist Housewives Are Not Bullshit

March 25, 2013

IMG_1781My mother was a stay at home mom for most of my childhood, and an enthusiastic one at that. She cooked and baked and sewed and invented games and activities and stories and basically created a home environment that was rich in play and imagination and the smell of chocolate chip cookies. And she loved it, every minute of it; by the time I was in my teens I’d lost count of the number of times she told my sister and me that being our mom was the most rewarding work that she could possibly imagine. But she would also say, in the same breath, that she wanted us to find our own rewarding work, our own source of joy, and that it might not be staying at home with kids. You can be anything that you want to be, darlings, she would tell us. Never forget that you can do anything and go anywhere and have any life that you want.

Which suited me just fine. Even though I witnessed, daily, my mother’s joy in her work as a stay at home mom, household management artist and domestic creative director (she would have loved the age of Pinterest, and dominated it), I had no interest in being a ‘mommy.’ I was going to be a marine biologist, an astronomer, a ballerina (tragic, that one), a stewardess (they were still called that in the seventies) and a writer. Note the ‘and:’ there was no ‘or’ in the equation of my future. Mom said that I could be anything that I wanted, and so I was going to be all the things.

This was all fine and good for most of my adulthood, young and otherwise. After some globe-trotting and adventure-seeking in my early twenties, I landed on a career track in academia and pursued it aggressively. I deferred the matter of children into my thirties, ambivalent about whether I even wanted them. When I did decide that I wanted them (yes, I decided, unilaterally, as my husband will tell you), I declared that we would have them, and then set about integrating pregnancy and childbirth into my carefully planned academic career schedule. I planned down to the week, using every fertility tracking tool at my disposal and giving us a three month window for conception to allow me to wrap my pregnancy while finishing my doctoral dissertation and balancing a teaching schedule that would only really permit a four week break between classes. Once we successfully conceived, I declared, like Marissa Mayer, that I would only take a few weeks maternity leave. I had shit to do; the children would just have to come along for the ride.

We know, of course, what happens to all the best laid plans. Emilia arrived late, and I had a harder time – a much harder time – with new motherhood than expected. I extended my maternity leave, I rearranged my schedule, I looked at the bright vista of my new life and blinked, confused and disoriented. When I returned to my university (only a few weeks later), I confessed my disorientation to my advisor. It’s going to get worse, he said. When you start teaching again, you’re going to become keenly aware of the fact that you are teaching other people’s children. Not your own. And you are going yearn to direct your energies to your own.

He didn’t mean my energy-energy. He didn’t mean that I would resent getting up in the morning for the benefit of people who were not my children. Well, he didn’t mean that mostly. What I would most resent would be the displacement of my intellectual energies, of my creative energies, of my intelligence, of my talent – toward the benefit of someone else. In this case – the case of teaching philosophy to 18 year olds – to someone else’s kids. And he was right. That first year of teaching after the birth of Emilia was brutal. I spent much of it aching to be with her, wrestling with the suspicion that perhaps my energies would be better spent with her, the way that my mother’s (my brilliant, extraordinarily creative mother) were with me. Although in my case, I’d be bringing to bear advanced degrees and top-of-field expertise in the arts and humanities and a specialization in a tangentially relevant sub-field. I could test the principles of Rousseau’s Emile toward actually raising a good citizen (never mind that he said mothers shouldn’t do it)! I could provide my children with a Socratic education! I could make them my work! I would be a feminist housewife and philosophic mother!

I never ended up actually doing this – devoted myself entirely to the care and nurture and education of my children – although I still sometimes fantasize about it, especially when Emilia brings home homework that baffles and insults. (Making text-to-self connections in Matilda? What about the semiotics of Matilda? Why are we not talking about Matilda as a readerly text? WHY AM I NOT HOMESCHOOLING?) I did stop teaching, and left academia, mostly (I leaned back, as it were; more on this below), and stayed at home. But Emilia stayed in daycare and I found another career-facing path, adjacent to the path of motherhood (overlapping it, really) as it happened, but still: career-facing, not child-facing.

And that has been very good for me. I was never – am not and never will be – cut out for dedicated stay at home motherhood. But I do understand, deep in my gut, why some women (and some, altogether too few, men) choose it. I understand why some ambitious women choose it. I understand why some – many – women would choose it, and call it a feminist act to choose it, as a couple of ‘feminist housewives’ did in New York Magazine last week. It is, as I said in a post at Babble last week, a noble choice. It is, as some of my old philosophers would say, choiceworthy.  It was almost choiceworthy to me. That I chose a different choice does not change that.

Not everyone agrees. Tracey Moore, on Jezebel, wrote a piece called ‘”The Feminist Housewife” Is Such Bullshit.’ She argued against the idea that cleaving to domesticity could be considered feminist. She insisted that what most frustrated her about the NY Mag piece were the repeated references to ‘traditional gender roles’, and I agree with her that essentialist language around the work of the family and childrearing can be problematic, especially when it characterizes women as only suited to that work. But does decrying outmoded gender stereotypes require that feminists disallow or disapprove of any gender-associations applied to the experiences or lifeworlds of women? (Sidebar: that title? Ugh. Even with the qualifiers in the article – “feminism and housewifery are not mutually exclusive” – one can’t help but see the third-wave feminist side-eye in it. Housewives choosing their choice? Yeah, right.)

Part of what makes the ‘gendering’ of the work of home and family problematic is that that gendering has long devalued the work of home and family because the gender attached to that work is female. Caregiving and the raising of children isn’t inherently boring or undemanding of skill or creativity (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in fact, insisted that it is difficult and important work,  on a par with – or exceeding – being a lawmaker); it is only perceived as such to the extent that it is considered ‘women’s work.’ Scholars fight for careers that allow them to teach young people – as a university lecturer, I was in a pretty high-prestige position. Sure, teaching university students isn’t quite the same thing as caring for toddlers or teaching tweens (although I had days when I might have disputed that), but the distinctions become fuzzier as those toddlers and tweens get a little older. Is there really such a great distinction between the woman who taught me, in tenth grade, to appreciate Jane Austen, and the men that taught me how to closely read Plato? Was the time that I spent teaching Machiavelli’s writings on ancient Rome to freshmen eighteen year olds worth more than the time that my seventh grade teacher spent teaching the history of ancient Rome to me? Was any of it more valuable, more character-shaping, than my mother’s engaged care of me as a child? Here’s the thing: the ‘care of the young’ associated with university teachers (and, in an earlier time, private tutors like the kind Rousseau praised) isn’t directly associated with women, and so it doesn’t suffer from gendered associations (there’s more to it than this, I know, but bear with me.) Moreover, it’s not associated with the family, or the work of the family, which has been traditionally held (for millennia) to be the work of women, which is devalued, etc, etc, and so on and so on – a vicious cycle of gendered snobbery that undermines all of us individually, and collectively.

We devalue the work of the household, and of the family, inasmuch as it is associated with women. And I have my doubts that the best solution is to scrub that work of all associations with women.

Because until we can look at the traditional work of women with the same admiration and respect that we have long (forever) looked at the work of men, we’re not going to open up, meaningfully, the opportunity for men to respect that work and embrace that work for themselves. We need to be able to say: my mother / grandmother / aunt / feminist idol did this, and rocked the hell out of it. We all need to respect that work, and celebrate that work, so that our boys grow up considering it as a robust option for their future. So that we get the kind of equality in the household and the family that Sheryl Sandberg hopes for in Lean In. So that we can fulfill the expectation of great philosophers like Rousseau that this – taking the rearing of children seriously – will be the key to unlocking all the potential of our communities.

And that means supporting any woman who decides to be a stay at home mom, regardless of her reasons. It means valuing that work as critical to the well-being of society, and recognizing that it’s challenging work, regardless of whether it is freely chosen. It means pumping our fists when one of our peers says, I’m an at-home parent, and a feminist. It means pumping our fists when a dad says it, and pumping our fists even harder when he says that women have been his caregiving role-models. It means supporting and celebrating this kind of work as work, and as more than ‘just’ work.  It means declaring to the world that this shit is important, and that it has always been important, and that women have been doing this very very important work for millennia and doing it well and that, goddam it, it matters that women have done this work for so very long. It means recognizing that the work of home and family is something that both women and men can lean into – if the leaning in is done intentionally and reflectively – and that promoting the idea that we can (and that some of us should) lean in to that work is critical to our collective future.

It means validating that choice for everyone, no matter how they characterize it. Can we just do that?

(Further to this conversation. You can tell that my head is pretty stuck in this space.)

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    { 33 comments… read them below or add one }

    Christy March 25, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    Love your blog!!! We’re very similar!
    Christy
    Author of Mother of the Year (http://notgonnawin.blogspot.com/)

    Reply

    Kate March 25, 2013 at 5:10 pm

    Thank you thank you thank you. From a mother yearning to be an artist, sacrificing the time that being an artist requires, to engage fully in the teaching of my daughter and making our home a sane place (mostly), for exactly all of the reasons you stated. The job that very few truly want, but without which, our world becomes a very chaotic, sad place. Here’s to internal validation, and to those occasional moments when it comes from somewhere else.

    Reply

    Susan Moncrieff March 25, 2013 at 8:41 pm

    What a wonderful article! It is so hard to be at peace with our own decisions on whether or not to pursue careers or be a stay at home mom. There are so many life balance issues. And, unfortunately, not all woman are afforded the opportunity to make the decisions since finances can dictate what needs to be done.

    I’ve made it a personal goal to support and never criticize anyone for their decisions on working outside of the home or raising their children full time. I’ve done both. The last thing a mother needs is her friends to second guess her decision.

    Reply

    Darah March 25, 2013 at 9:05 pm

    I’m a home maker and a feminist and I love the work I’ve chosen to do with my children. And I’m proud of myself for making this choice. And also I’m totally not bullshit. At least not last time I checked.

    Thank you for writing this, it is nice to hear these thoughts from someone else! You seamlessly blend parenting and philosophy and your work always speaks such truth for me. Keep on!

    Reply

    Mama Bean March 25, 2013 at 9:58 pm

    Praise be the feminist mommy-bloggers :)
    That is to say, thanks for this.
    I have been so livid about this whole ‘conversation’ (stemming from the NYMag article). I just didn’t know how to articulate what I was angering about.
    Ultimately, I think we do need to start reframing the mommywars in feminist terms. But, as we can see, we gotta agree on the terms first. le sigh.

    Reply

    Brook Saunders March 25, 2013 at 11:13 pm

    My sister emailed me this commentary this morning. I got to it after I lodged an application for a ‘leave of absence’ from my university. I’m leaving for exactly these reasons. Thank you for writing this. I needed to hear it.

    Reply

    Jennifer March 26, 2013 at 6:15 am

    Brava. Thank you. I am delighted to have found signs of intelligent life in the blogosphere.

    Reply

    Trudi Roth March 26, 2013 at 9:19 am

    You are so right that feminist housewives are no bullshit — and that the key to taking them – us – ourselves seriously is to validate and embrace the choices we make. Especially when the choices we make change over time, aren’t always easy or sometimes even something that we recognize as a choice. Like you I’ve had periods of doing the work to raise my family at home, periods of time working at an outside job, and a much longer period doing both. The conversation about the gray areas, dedicated to debunking the idea of “Mommy Wars” (or as you put it, “The Peace Talks”) is what moves us forward in being real about who we are and what we do. To me, being a feminist means being able to do both what men can AND what we choose as important work. And it’s not always perfect or clean or remotely easy to slap a label on. That said, the NY Magazine article infuriated me because I felt like it was just more of the same, the pitting woman against woman, ourselves against ourselves. Reading this piece and your others on Babble was the antidote to that kind of poisonous rhetoric that only weakens the bonds of sisterhood. I’m feeling much better now – thanks so much!

    Reply

    Josette Plank March 26, 2013 at 11:10 am

    This is spot-on, Catherine. Nothing to add.

    (See? You KNOW it’s good if it’s shut *me* up. ;-) )

    Reply

    Christina March 26, 2013 at 11:21 am

    Bravo. I needed to read this today.

    Reply

    Lauren Hesterman March 29, 2013 at 4:34 am

    Amen sister. Babies happened to me before a career was in place and I’ve mentally battled the convention of being a stay-at-home-mama (staying home being my duty, as a woman – BECAUSE I’m a woman) for years, because I’m absolutely, as you call it, a “feminist [housewife]“. My own invalidation (great career aspirations waylaid by kids) has been fueled by societal invalidation and YES, it’s time we recognized this work as meaningful and noble and stopped being so effing judgy. Many thanks!

    Reply

    Selfish Mom March 31, 2013 at 11:47 am

    I love this post. I could write an entire post-length comment on why, but I’ll just leave it at loving the post.

    Reply

    Kristen April 1, 2013 at 10:53 am

    To frame this work as “choiceworthy” is music to this philosopher’s ears. It is valuable work. Work worth choosing. And WORK. Period.

    I’d also love to see the specter of perfectionism fade from all discussions of women, and work, and “women’s work.” No more talk of “having it all” or “doing it all” or “failing if you’re not having it all and doing it all, and having and doing it perfectly.” The trajectories of my work and family life has been a mix of choice and force of circumstance, of more-loved and less-loved careers, and I think I would have gone mad by now if I had tried to force them to be “perfect.” Or “all.”

    Reply

    Kristen April 1, 2013 at 10:55 am

    *have been a mix of choice and force of circumstance.

    See: yearning for a lack of perfectionism. ;)

    Reply

    Ashley April 1, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    I’m wondering if you can more precisely describe your issue with the referenced Jezebel article? I actually think you and the author of that piece have more in common than you’re describing here. My read of the Jezebel article was that Tracie Egan Morriessey (not Tracey Moore as you cited in your post) was taking issue with how New York magazine skewed the article- in a way that trumped up subscribing to traditional gender roles as the antithesis to the Lean In conversation. She actually did a follow up piece in which the two women interviewed for the New York mag article took issue with its publication, citing that they were never made aware of how the piece was being constructed, and the feeling that their quotes were taken out of context. Your post and Tracie’s seek a similar end, I think, which is that our society needs to allow space for women and men to have equality of choice when it comes to child rearing and career. One choice is not “better” than the other, what’s “better” is for the playing field to be equalized so women have more opportunities to pursue their desires with support at home and in our institutional structures- and so men have that same choice and feel just as supported if they desire to be the primary caregiver.

    I fully agree with your sentiments here that child rearing is important, difficult, and under-appreciated work that not everyone is cut out for, and which should be regarded much more highly than it is and ever has been. I think a closer look at Tracie’s work might lead to see that your views are more in alignment than they are at odds. So, I agree with Tracie that the New York mag article “Feminist Housewife” is pretty bullshit because they were trying to manufacture controversy by playing off the important and necessary conversation Sheryl Sandberg and Lean In have ignited. The idea of a feminist housewife, however, is something I am 100% behind and hope that the media and its consumers can get past distracting, manufactured drama and focus on real dialogue and progress. Thanks for your post, hope to hear more on your take on this.

    Reply

    Thomas April 6, 2013 at 4:59 am

    My mother died of brain tumor when I was sixteen, she was a housewife after the war in which she lost her job. At the same time she was of one nationality and my father of the other (both of which were at war). I am a student of history and have had much experience writing and finding your blog gave me an idea about guest-posting a fresh perspective on all-things-motherly from my situation and perspective not only as a man but also as a son. Please let me know.

    Reply

    Jessica @FoundtheMarbles April 7, 2013 at 7:48 am

    So incredibly well said, Catherine. Amen!

    Reply

    RevKerr April 10, 2013 at 2:47 pm

    Agreed and yet I feel that these conversations regarding raising kids and upholding women’s rights tend to be one-sided -Like all of us feminists arguing and agreeing with one another and then telling each other how we NEED TO DO IT differently/right. Where are the men in this conversation? Where is the the partner who did NOT bear the child and where is his/her (though mostly his) assumed responsibility for raising the child? I am sure that in 2013 women assume that they will be the one to stay home mostly because they are being paid less in their jobs (another issue) and so it makes sense that the question of leaving a career founded in higher education (or not) to stay home and raise kids is theirs. How many men are challenged by that question upon the conception of their child? And, being a full time minister (so can relate to the teacher thing), I have full time guilt that I’m not spending more time with my children -something my full time working husband does not.

    In short, I feel like we can “we should” and “we should not” back and forth until the cows come home but until men begin to change THEIR understanding of family roles and responsibilities (generally speaking, of course) things will not change. We’ll just continue to redefine and redefine.

    Reply

    Margot April 11, 2013 at 10:10 pm

    Thank you so much for this: as a new SAHM (and one who still has difficulties coming to terms with that identity), it is wonderful to read an eloquent and meaningful discussion of this issue. I’m so happy I found your site!

    Reply

    Mom and Teacher April 13, 2013 at 11:45 am

    What a great article! It inspires me to be a stay-at-home mom and be proud of it. Why invest my time and energy to someone else but my own kids?

    Reply

    Stephanie Pittman April 16, 2013 at 4:57 pm

    This was really an excellent website. I have chosen to have a career outside of the home myself, but I agree that the core of feminism needs to be that women can choose to do whatever they want. Housewife is just as valid as anything else if it’s what the women CHOOSES! Great article Catherine!

    Reply

    Kids First April 25, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    I think it may only be those needing external validation that get too concerned about how others value the importance of parenting and helping your kids develop joyfully. Every person and every family have to chart their own way in the world. However, as the saying goes, “stereotypes happen for a reason” and gender stereotypes evolved in the first place because certain types of attitudes and behaviors are more common in one gender than another. i don’t want to throw any gasoline on the old “nature vs nurture” argument, but it seems to me that woman tend to create internal structure for their family while men tend to create more externally.

    Reply

    findingmagnolia May 5, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    I love this. Thank you. As someone who chose to be a nanny for many years and faced disrespect for that choice, as if it were less important to care for and teach children than to do something else, and now as a mother who has chosen to be at home and was constantly being asked when I’d return to work until my second child, who has special medical needs, came along, this is a balm to my irritated soul. This is important work. It is not women’s work or men’s work; it’s work. And it matters.

    Reply

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    Ohlalamaman May 12, 2013 at 3:30 pm

    Really well articulated and interesting, I am struggling as so many are, with these choices as women and mothers, and raisers of the next generation. You’ve given me a lot of food for thought, thank you.

    Reply

    Cristie June 20, 2013 at 11:59 pm

    I haven’t been here in a while. I forgot what a brilliant writer you are and how just reading you makes me smarter and maybe even a better person. I know you are so, so busy with the amazing life you have created for yourself. Thank you for taking time now and again to come back here and share yourself with the rest of us.

    Reply

    Esther Levy October 8, 2013 at 9:33 am

    Although I am still in my early twenties – I am married, and I can definitely relate to the adolescent notion of wanting to do it all!

    thephilosophyofwindex.blogspot.com

    Reply

    Melissa November 12, 2013 at 2:31 pm

    Kudos to all the mommas that rock doing it all, not enough credit given.

    Reply

    Marie Taylor December 20, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    Being a housewife is not easy at all and it is work just like any other work. The consolations of a full time mother is seeing how their kids grow little by little and be able to enjoy quality time with them. Love this post. :)

    Reply

    Nuria Puig March 10, 2014 at 10:22 am

    Excellent!
    You put into words the thoughts of many.
    I have also done both (staying at home and working outside) and was never 100% satisfied. Always with the feeling that something is missing… Great post! Thank you.
    :-)

    Reply

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