Sunday, January 06, 2008

Definitions and interesting thoughts...

Have you ever thought about just how the world -- U.S. culture in particular -- defines the role of women and their relationship to the home? It seems to me that this has become a struggle in recent years.

In a 2003 article in the Atlantic Monthly, entitled "Housewife Confidential", Caitlan Flanagan made this intriguing observation:
I pore over descriptions of ironing and kitchen routines; I have never made a solution composed of one part bleach and nine parts warm water, but the idea of such a solution and its many practical uses—wiping down an emptied refrigerator once a month, sanitizing a kitchen sink—commands my riveted attention. The notion of a domestic life that purrs along, with routines and order and carefully delineated standards, is endlessly appealing to me. It is also quite foreign, because I am not a housewife. I am an "at-home mother," and the difference between the two is vast.

Consider the etymology. When a woman described herself as a "housewife," she was defining herself primarily through her relationship to her house and her husband. That children came along with the deal was simply assumed, the way that airing rooms and occasionally cooking for invalids came along with the deal. When a housewife subjected herself and her work to a bit of brutally honest examination, she may have begun by assessing how well she was doing with the children, but she may just as well have begun by contemplating the nature and quality of her housework. If it had been suggested to her that she spend the long, delicate hours between three and six o'clock squiring her children to the array of enhancing activities pursued by the modern child, she would have laughed. Who would stay home to get dinner on? More to the point, why had she chosen a house so close to a playground if the children weren't going to get out of her hair and play in it? The kind of childhood that many of us remember so fondly—with hours of free time, and gangs of neighborhood kids meeting up after school—was possible partly because each block contained houses in which women were busy but close by, all too willing to push open a window and yell at the neighbor boy to get his bike out of the street.

But an at-home mother feels little obligation to the house itself; in fact, she is keenly aware that the house can be a vehicle of oppression. She is "at home" only because that is where her children happen to be. She does not define herself through her housekeeping; if she is in any way solvent (and many at-home mothers are), she has, at the very least, a once-a-month cleaning woman to do the most onerous tasks...

The at-home mother defines herself by her relationship to her children. She is making sacrifices on their behalf, giving up a career to give them something only she can. Her No. 1 complaint concerns the issue of respect: She demands it! Can't get enough of it! She isn't like a fifties housewife: ironing curtains, shampooing the carpets, stuck. She knows all about those women. She has seen Pleasantville and watched Leave It to Beaver; she's made more June Cleaver jokes than she can count. (In fact, June Cleaver—a character on a television show that went off the air in 1963—looms over her to a surprising extent, a sickening, terrifying specter: Is that how people think I spend my time?)
Hmm. Is there a gap in how the at-home woman of the fifites, sixties, and seventies defined her role and how at-home women describe their role today? I hadn't thought of it exactly in those terms. After all, as a baby boomer who was reared by a sixties and seventies housewife in an area filled with sixties and seventies housewives, I can attest that my peers and I received a generous amount of parental attention.

However, I do think that our mothers saw homemaking as being more than mothering. They put heart and intelligence into all aspects of marriage and home. The majority were at home before children arrived. The majority also did not view their work as being over simply because children matured and left home. As I've mentioned before, when I first got married, empty nest homemakers contributed much to church and neighborhood.

On the other hand, I think that a good many women of my mother's generation initiated the charge out of the home as soon as the last baby chick had left the nest. I think it was also in that generation that the former view of home management as a noble profession began to change. A few notable women of that era publicly argued that homemaking is limiting to women, and it took a surprisingly short time for that idea to take hold of "modern" thinking.

Now, many twenty-and-thirty something women are reversing the trend. Many question the idea that the only way a woman can define herself meaningfully is through a paycheck. So, quite a few are choosing to be in the home. Some want to be at home only as long as their children are younger than school age; others plan to be at home as a lifetime career.

I think that in a culture in which women almost have to apologize for making homemaking their career, having children at home is the most "acceptable defense". So, perhaps, today's women at home do define themselves more as being an "at-home" mom, rather than as keeper of the household. On the positive side, it's great that so many younger women are meeting their children's needs for a full-time mother.

However, I suppose that subtle terminology of "at home mom" could affect a woman's way of thinking. What if a woman sees her main purpose for being a keeper at home in terms of her baby? Will that lead her to neglect her marriage in favor of parenting? Possibly. If so, that's neither healthy for her husband, for her, or for her children. Children really do flourish best when Mom and Dad maintain their marriage as a high priority. Defining one's role in the home simply in terms of raising children also sets a woman up for depression once her nest empties. Plus, she may cling to her children too much, refusing to let them grow up and leave and cleave as they should.

By contrast, the Proverbs 31 woman conducted all of her activities either within the home or with the home as her base of operations, and she had a full life. You could even argue that she came to full fruition in her middle years. After all, her husband was old enough to be an elder in the land, and her children were old enough to rise up and call her blessed.

Today, many operate home businesses in order to have more flexible time for the family. In some cases, this supplements the income so that the wife can be in the home. In other cases, it allows a business-minded woman an outlet for her talents. Perhaps, as with having small children in the home, it also provides an at-home woman with a defense against critics who question, "Just exactly what do you do all day?"

The Proverbs 31 woman lived, as most women throughout history have lived, in an agrarian society. In a farm-based economy, women are needed in the home, but they also have venues for conducting some commercial business -- such as selling produce or handwork or working alongside their husband in a small-town business.

The unfairly negative stereotype of the American housewife, however, is based on upper middle-class suburban lives from about 1945 to about the 1980's. Or, at least it's based on our culture's perception of that lifestyle. It's ironic that becoming an increasingly high-tech society, which enables more business to be conducted via the personal computer and the Internet, has put us back in a position where a woman can be in the home and engage in some enterprise, as well.

For the woman who can manage it, an at-home business can be a boon; for the woman who feels pressured into it to justify her role at home, a home business can backfire.

It's been my observation that working outside of the home full-time is no guarantee that a woman will escape the trials ascribed to the homemaker or at-home mother. Likewise, though it is my personal opinion that a married woman does best to regard home management as her primary career, I can see that merely being in the home doesn't guarantee a woman fulfillment. In order for her to be happy, her heart must also be there.

No matter what her situation, any woman can become discontent with her lot. Any woman can struggle when her children grow up and leave home. Any woman can feel like her talents are being underutilized or under-appreciated. Any woman who hits the middle years can question the choices she made earlier in life.

So, if we do take on the worthy vocation of being full time keepers of our home, it's good to define why we are doing so and what we, along with our husbands, see as our purpose for being in the home. If we have a clear purpose in mind, we are more likely to see our work at home as fulfilling. And, we will continue to grow through the years, rather than to stagnate as critics claim homemakers do.

If you want to do some extra reading about how our culture sees the woman at home, see Homemaker on Wickipedia. (I enjoy Wickipedia, but I keep in mind that it's written by volunteer contributers and that is, perhaps, not as carefully researched as a true encyclopedia is.)

What about you? What term do you use to define your role at home? Do you see yourself as an at-home mommy or as a manager of your household? Do you think it makes a difference?

If you do some type of paid work in addition to your role at home, do you see yourself primarily as a working woman who also has a domestic life or primarily as a home manager who also happens to have a paid job or business? Do you think that makes a difference, as well?

I'd love to hear your thoughts.



Meredith said...

Interesting distinction, Elizabeth.

I do see the danger in defining your career as an at-home mom, especially because you're never "off the clock."

Yet, stay-at-home wife doesn't sound great to me, either. I prefer to be called a homemaker over any of the above.

Elizabeth said...

I think homemaker is the best choice, myself.

Buffy said...

I think housewife now has too many bad associations. Homemaker is better. The trouble is that whatever you say you will be judged and some other people will think you are judging them. (For example if you say 'I am a full-time mother' to a working mother you can imagine what she might say back!!)

NeedANap2 said...

Great writing! I say homemaker when a "career" is asked, I'll say "stay-at-home" sometimes adding mom or mother when someone asks (for example at the store when they see my child(ren)). But to myself I probably say at-home-mom because my homemaking skills are greatly lacking!! My mom worked and I wasn't trained for this career. Our home was kinda a mess but adding 4 children in 6 years doesn't help! :) Nothing ever stays in the same place! I'm working on it and my husband thinks I'm doing a GREAT job (so I guess that's what matters the most).

Elizabeth said...

Hi Buffy and needanap2:

On all the forms that ask what your occupation is, I usually describe myself this way: Homemaker/Freelance Writer. I do work from home as a public relations writer. But, I like to write homemaker first to show that I think it's important.

Buffy, you're right that this subject is so emotionally charged for women right now that, unfortunately, we all do get criticized at times no matter which choices we make or which words we use to describe our role.

Needanap2, I didn't start out with the best training in homemaking, either, and I still wouldn't say I'm the best housekeeper on the block. My lack of preparation was my own responsibility, as my mother was a wonderful homemaker. But, when I was a girl, I applied myself to learning those parts of homemaking that I enjoyed -- such as cooking -- and didn't develop the diligence I needed in the areas where I wasn't naturally talented. My trouble was that I underestimated what a challenging and important role managing a home really is. I thought that knowing how to keep a home and love a husband and children would just come to me once my future husband slipped a ring on my finger.

And, then, the man of my dreams did slip a ring on my finger, and I realized that there was a lot more to this role of wife, home manager, and -- later -- mother than I had realized!

We've had a wonderful life, nonetheless, and I have learned a lot and am still learning. My husband has grown as a husband and father, as well. We all have room to mature and to learn.

If your husband and family are happy and you are growing in your role, I'd say you can proudly call yourself a homemaker if you want to.

CresceNet said...

Gostei muito desse post e seu blog é muito interessante, vou passar por aqui sempre =) Depois dá uma passada lá no meu site, que é sobre o CresceNet, espero que goste. O endereço dele é . Um abraço.

Anonymous said...

WONDERFUL post! I'll be back for more when I'm not so sleepy...
Great discussion here.

Anonymous said...

Hi Elizabeth, good to visit your blog again. Hope you had a wonderful Christmas and New Year.

I see myself as a mother and wife first, a manager of the home second. I supplement my husband's income by a very little cleaning for friends, but this amounts to 2-3 hours a week, but I don't see this as my career. I also do church work (helping on the phones and working in our cafe) for a few hours a week too - I want to do this to support my wonderful church but I do believe that right now my primary role is raising my children, I'm not sure what God wills me to do when they leave home...only time will tell! :)

Hugs and blessings.