If you had told me 6 years ago that today I would be writing about the dignity of homemaking, I probably would have spit beer out my nose. Homemaking was the furthest thing from my mind, filled as it was with the dissertation I was writing on war literature and trauma. Homemaking and dignity, in my mind, didn’t go together, except in sentimental women’s magazines, or blogs that advocate a return to biblical womanhood, by which the author means that the woman’s place is in the home. Since I subscribe to neither the magazines, the blogs, or the ideology, the essay would be absurd.
But here I am, a feminist and a mother, and the bulk of my time can be accurately characterized as homemaking—a term I would have never ever used as an ambition or as a self-identifier because it makes me feel silly and unambitious, and I want to be seen as serious and ambitious, clearly.
But, I made a choice two years ago to pursue my strongest ambition at the time—to be with my two daughters full-time for a season rather than continuing to pursue an academic career. And that choice has led me on a journey to where I now find myself using the work homemaker with irony toward those who think, as I did, that it is disparaging, sentimental, unambitious, a waste of intellect and education. I’ve come to see the low cultural opinion of homemakers as just one more link in the chain that binds women in oppressive roles—that is, to paraphrase Marilyn Frye’s description of oppression—roles that press us into shapes that don’t fit.
Of course the choice to pursue homemaking isn’t wholly disparaged across the culture. There are wide swaths of the population, old and young, who hold to the ideal that a woman is designed to be in the home with her children, and any other work is either not achieving her true potential or is even a perversion of her nature. Others, less extreme, value the work of the home because they see the obvious ways it benefits them and the life of society. People who have done this work, who have taken this path, or who have paid close attention to the ones who do that work in their own lives, may well respect the work of homemaking.
But there is a ringing in my ears that tells me I could be doing better for myself. That, while it’s fine and good to be with my kids, I could be doing more. And that ‘could be’ implies that I should, and if I don’t, I’m not going to achieve my potential. My mind is going to shrivel up until I have no ambition beyond the arrangement of centerpieces. Who are these voices? Sometimes I wonder if they are the voices of my true and repressed desires, coming to haunt me in the late afternoon. Perhaps they are old professors judging me as a failure. Perhaps they are the voice of my dwarfed and ruined future, where I will spend my days waiting for my children to call, wishing I had done something with my life.
I came across an article the other day, though, while researching an essay I’m writing on housekeeping and transience, that had the exact tone that I’m always battling. I was happy to know it wasn’t made up in my head; it was a real article in The Atlantic by Elizabeth Wurtzel. The title and tag line of the article sum it up nicely: “‘1% Wives Are Helping Kill Feminism and Make the War on Women Possible.’ Being a mother isn’t a real job — and the men who run the world know it.” This article is full of gems to make you feel infantilized and foolish if your work is unpaid: “Let’s please be serious grown-ups: real feminists don’t depend on men. Real feminists earn a living, have money and means of their own.” And, “If you can’t pay your own rent, you are not an adult. You are a dependent.”
Wurtzel has many valid points: it puts women in a vulnerable position to depend financially on a male partner, as any partner. That financial vulnerability leads to personal vulnerability more broadly, making it more difficult to leave a relationship and affecting power dynamics in the home. The personal consequences of suspending a career, however temporarily, extend beyond the period of time she takes out of the “workforce.” The years I am not working in the “workforce” are not working toward my retirement, either in dollars or years, nor are they working toward career advancement. The list goes on.
But, beyond the issue of women’s financial vulnerability and all the forms it takes, the claim Wurtzel makes that not “paying rent” makes you “not an adult,” relies on something beyond the very real, practical fears connected to financial stability, retirement, relationship security, and career advancement. It connects wages earned to personal value and identity, dismissing all unpaid work as value-less and childlike. Atlantic staff writer, Conor Friedersdorf, responded to this element of Wurtzel’s article brilliantly: “The degree to which many Americans, including some feminists, conflate value contributed to society with wages earned is astonishing, and although this pathology extends far beyond the debate over child-rearing, one effect is for people to overvalue various kinds of professional work and to undervalue child-rearing.”
By finding value only in work connected to wages, this kind of thinking reduces people to their power in a consumer society. Feminism, of course, is not monolithic. There are so many ways of thinking that self-identify as feminist, and many of them are in conflict. Here, Wurtzel’s brand of feminism conflicts with the feminism I identify with, a feminism that works to dismantle patterns of identifying and categorizing people based on a power hierarchy, where those who don’t fit in the dominant ideology—of sexism, heterosexism, racism, capitalism—are on the bottom rung where they get kicked around. I don’t think that the feminist quest for equality summits at the top of the patriarchal pyramid—where women have achieved success when they can do the same things men have been doing for recorded history. I think we reach the summit when we shift what counts as success, possibly upending that pyramid altogether. And what would that pyramid look like? Would the values of being present to those closest to us, being able to slow down and give each other the care we need, enjoy work for the sake of the process of work and for the sense of integration with the earth and the cycles of life that it affords, rather than just working to be able to consume more, and in doing so, consume the earth that supports us?
Our culture not only needs more women in top positions of power, we also need to redefine our conception of power to include the power to create, to grow, to sustain families by consuming less, to conserve resources through domestic labor. As second wave feminists proclaimed that the personal is political, we need to now proclaim that the personal is ecological. Revaluing domestic labor is one way to proclaim that mantra. Placing value on scaling back on luxurious lifestyles in favor of producing more from the home, repairing and conserving what is broken and worn out, favoring labor over appliances, can put us in contact with the resources that nourish us and our interdependence on each other.
I’ll end with the zinger that Wurtzel throws in “A job that anyone can have is not a job, it’s a part of life, no matter how important people insist it is (all the insisting is itself overcompensation).” That’s just how low some women have gotten—having the gall to spend their time living life when they could be earning money.
But that’s just it. It’s part of life, this work of caring for children and the home we live in together. And it’s a part of life that many experience as transformative, in they way that a pilgrimage, a life-threatening illness, or a near-death experience on a mountaintop can be transformative. It’s the kind of life that peels back all the layers that a you can spend a lifetime putting on in order to feel satisfied, accomplished, happy, worthwhile, stripping them off suddenly and throwing you naked into a cold body of water in the moonlight. It’s the the kind of experience that reminds you of the profound connection between your body and the earth and rekindles your desire for experiencing that connection. It may make you not care as much about the layers that you remember wearing that are in a pile up on the deck somewhere. It’s life that reminds you, aren’t we here to live? And if life gives you a chance to do work that enables you to spend time thriving in authentic connection with those you care for and with the earth that nurtures you, if that’s something that surprises you and knocks you off guard in your bare desire for that connection, why not follow where that takes you? When else will you have that chance? What part of your career is going to give that to you? Or are you waiting for retirement?
Stay tuned for Part 2, forays into the cult of domesticity with Glenna Matthews and Emily Matchar.
Text Copyright © Elisabeth Hedrick-Moser
Image Public Domain