Friday, January 21, 2005

Whiney Housewives:

Carla Barnhill writes in Books and Culture about how boring and lonely the life of stay-at-home mothers can be:
Perhaps more than anyone else in history, June [Cleaver] created in us the idea that the good mother spends her day happily meeting the needs of her family. She cooks a hearty breakfast, keeps a tidy house, and welcomes her weary charges home each afternoon with a plate of warm cookies and a tender smile. We never see June complain or wish for a more fulfilling role.
Interesting how it is assumed, without explanation or argument, that this role of meeting the needs of one's family is not "fulfilling." I can't speak for Mrs. Cleaver, of course, but then neither can Barnhill as Cleaver is a fictional character in a sitcom. I can speak about my mother, however, and the way she tells it she very much enjoyed her days as a stay-at-home mom.

Did she ever get mad or lose her cool? Sure. But somehow she always managed to make do. She built friendships with other mothers in the neighborhood. She took my sister and I off to afternoon enrichment programs so that she could get some alone time. She prayed. And, yes, sometimes she complained. But what she didn't do was fall into the habit of sitting down at the end of each day and dwelling on how miserable her life could sometimes be.

Later, when I began kindergarten, my mother started working part-time and eventually full-time, a decision that was motivated less by a desire to be "fulfilled" than a need to help pay the bills. Most of the positions my mother held were as a secretary of some sort or another. Needless to say, these jobs, while sometimes fulfilling, are not quite as "sexy" as Barnhill's magazine-writing gig.

And maybe that's why Barnhill, along with so many of the women among the chattering classes, cannot quite seem to figure out why feminism never caught on among the middle and lower classes. For these women, the choice between being their own boss in the home or the lackey of someone else in an office cubicle only rarely gives rise to the sort of existential crisis described by Barnhill. They choose to stay at home and don't think twice about it. And if they don't make this choice, you can bet that money will a primary, if not the sole, motivating factor. As, I suspect, it has been for most human beings since that day after the Fall when God first said to Adam:

"In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground..." (Gen. 3:19).

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