What We Talk About When We Talk About Homemaking

Screen Shot 2013-03-22 at 7.14.08 PMI can’t be the only one who is really over the whole homemakers versus feminists thing. I don’t get why Lisa Miller has a problem with Sheryl Sandberg; I don’t get why the LA Times doesn’t understand what feminism even is; I don’t get why we’re constantly positioning women in conflict with other women. All this work needs to be done (out in the broader world and within the walls of our homes); and women are capable of being the ones to do all of it, as it turns out. Whether they do both or choose to focus more exclusively on only one or the other option, isn’t the best case scenario for feminism (and by feminism, I mean, all people, equally) supporting all of these choices and working to make any or all of them attainable choices for whichever works best for each woman, each family, and each individual story?

I think one of the things that gets bandied about in these discussions in a really flippant way are the terms “housewife” and “homemaking.” For the purposes of this discussion, I’d like to clarify that when I refer to “homemakers” or “homemaking,” I mean people (usually women) who do the lion’s share of the household work, including any of the following but not limited to cleaning, cooking, the mundane and chore-like parts of childrearing, decorating and other nesting tasks, and maintaining a couple’s or family’s non-career related social obligations (including events and correspondence/communication with extended family, friends, peer groups, and religious or civic affiliations).

By contrast, traditionally and for the purposes of this discussion, a housewife is a woman who does not hold employment outside the home and spends her working hours working on cleaning, cooking, childrearing, and other domestic pursuits. (Ironic, given the spate of “housewife” television programs in which the alleged housewives do none of the above tasks for themselves.) Of course, these days, one could add an additional caveat to that definition, that these are women who don’t hold employment outside the home because their husband’s income is sufficient enough to support the family on one income alone. Which introduces a whole host of class issues, of course. Anyway, a housewife is generally a homemaker, but not all homemakers are housewives. Capiche?

So, I think that it’s pretty obvious that even though a majority of women cannot afford to do without a second income (due to a number of factors, including student loan debt, expensive metropolitan area costs of living versus lower employment opportunities in more affordable living areas, the average cost of raising even one child compared to the median incomes in our nation, etc.), many women (particularly those with a certain amount of affluence) are participating in a return to the domestic arts as an area of emphasis in their lives. A lot of people are decrying this (as well as their more affluent counterparts’ choices to work as housewives) as a slap in the face of feminism. And that’s what I’d like to talk about here today.

There are a couple of things I find interesting about this discussion. One is the collection of various catalysts that have re-popularized the domestic arts. Another is the backlash against the domestic arts as anti-feminist. A third is the tentative attempts by practitioners of the domestic arts to recode said arts as feminist acts.

Screen Shot 2013-03-22 at 7.18.40 PMRegarding the first: it seems the resurgence of homemaking as something to laud/be proud of rather than to drudge through has its roots in a few things. One: we revere all things vintage, and nowhere else do the domestic arts receive such a glowing patina of honor as in the fictional 50s and 60s found only in advertisements and sitcoms of that era—in other words, the fake era constructed by media of the time that is really what we refer to when we talk about “vintage” anyway.

Two: the popular resurgence of trends like DIY and homemade come from a combination of ecological preservationism as well as the ongoing economic recession, spurring even the homemakery magazines like House Beautiful or Martha Stewart (who used to laud lavish home makeovers and nothing but designer this-and-thats) to regularly incorporate more handmade or upcycled items and functions into the “ideal” home. It’s a form of domestic economy that we’ve trussed up as both righteous and fashionable, which is a new spin on the WWII era marketing of domestic economy as civic duty or nationalistic war effort support.

Three: another possible indirect catalyst for this resurgence is third-wave feminism, which vaunts a principle of intersectionality (for race, economics, sexual and gender identities, and so on) that has also bled over into a general policy of promoting women’s choices, regardless of what they are, rather than prescribing the best choices to further the movement. I’m not passing a value judgment either way on that, but I do think that the backing off of feminists in the discussion about how to be a woman has contributed to the reemergence of the domestic arts as one possible path for women to embrace more openly.

Which of course feeds into the second point I wanted to look at in the discussion around feminism and homemaking: the backlash. We have feminist bloggers out there asking if there even is such a thing as feminist housewives. We wonder if it isn’t every woman’s duty to join the workforce and keep chipping away at that glass ceiling. Which sounds good in theory, but seems untenable in practice. It’s unrealistic to prescribe behavior for 50% of the population. Laying out the expectation of holding down a full time job with ambition to rise higher for every woman is simply unrealistic. It’s not manageable for everyone. Not because they’re women, but because many people have disabilities, mental health issues, lack the privilege of access to education or financially viable career paths, or hell, even just have a personality type that doesn’t do well trying to play the corporate game for 40 hours a week. These people are all still capable of and worthy to participate in the ongoing discussion that feminism is, and saying otherwise is incredibly marginalizing.

Another factor to take into account is activism burn out. If you’re a woman pursuing a career in a male dominated field (as so many of them are), you’re never just doing your job. You’re also representing other women, making it possible for other women, fighting the good fight on behalf of women everywhere. And you know what? That’s exhausting. We’re lying to ourselves if we say it isn’t. And I think every woman who can keep doing that for 40 years is a real hero, but are we really prepared to lambast the droves of women who spend the better part of their adult lives trying, running into brick wall after brick wall, and eventually admitting, “Enough. I’m done. I need to choose the path of least resistance or my health and happiness are on the line here.”

Screen Shot 2013-03-22 at 7.40.02 PMBecause I don’t think asking women to give up one form of unhappiness and subjugation for another form of unhappiness and obligation is really the trade we’re all hoping for here. Which isn’t to say we don’t all have a role to play, or that we don’t all need to chip in to this fight, or that it’ll be easy, or that everyone can give up if we don’t see the results we want to see. We do have those obligations. But we may need to reexamine how much of that burden each woman has to carry, and for how long. We need to remember that our activism is a collective effort toward individual wellbeing. And if we throw individual wellbeing under the bus on our way there… we’re becoming our own enemy.

I do think the critics of homemaking women have a point that’s worth acknowledging, though. We still live in a culture where even working women, doing the same number of hours of work outside the home as their male partners, are doing the lion’s share of the housework, statistically speaking. And the latest cultural trend of women embracing all of this can read like a giant sign that says, “No, no, we don’t mind!” to that kind of inequality. For instance. I asked my husband to get rid of some spiderwebs in our windows so I could go ahead and clean the windows, and he reached for this crazy toxic bottle of where-the-hell-did-that-come-from that, when sprayed, made our lungs clench in agony. I tried to talk him into using a bottle of (and here’s how neurotic I am) homemade spider repellent that was nontoxic but “not tasty” to the spiders, so they’d run away and he could get the webs cleared in peace. It’s not like he’s not willing to do the work, but he’s not the one hopping on Pinterest to see if someone has shared a great homemade, eco-friendly cleaning treatment and then creating a homemade bottle of the stuff, for just such an occasion. I am.

Why? He cares less about it than I do. He was socialized to care about it less than I was, and also—separately—our personalities and opportunities differ on the subject. (I am more introverted, therefore more likely to spend time at home, notice the messes, and eventually get bothered by them and motivated to take care of them. I also work a shorter work week outside the home than he does, due to a vast difference in our professional lives.) So I think the criticism of homemaking from the feminist corner is responding to that general difference in socialization. I am speaking in broad terms here, but these criticisms do seem to be aimed specifically at heterosexual couples, so I’m largely addressing the situation as it stands in heterosexual terms.

Screen Shot 2013-03-22 at 8.26.08 PMSo the third piece I wanted to address: is it possible to reconcile the domestic resurgence with the valid feminist criticism that we can’t be sending the message that we’re willing to continue doing the same amount of work outside the home plus also a majority of the homemaking? Is it possible to be a feminist homemaker? And if it is, how?

I—probably obviously at this point—think it is possible. And while I generally revile the efforts of any social movement, even the ones I subscribe to wholeheartedly, to dictate my private life and the way I organize it, I also think that our private actions do contribute to our public, shared lot. And I believe that a lot of women wonder about how to strike the best balance possible, not only for feminism’s sake but for their own personal sake as well. The homemaking needs to be done. We have to live in at least moderately clean environments due to our health if nothing else; we have to eat something and many of us can’t afford nightly takeout or eating out regularly; if there are children and/or pets in the picture, they need care, too.

First, and most obviously, the men in these relationships have to do their share. I do not mean they need to “help.” I mean it is as much their job as it is yours to keep your living space functional, your bellies fed, and your dependents cared for, and if they are doing less than you, they are not doing their job. Housewives, at this point, may be wondering why it would be fair for their working-outside-the-home husbands to have to come home and cook, clean, and do child-care after they’ve already done “their job” outside the home. Here is what I have to say to them:

We all know a housewife considers all that stuff to be “her job.” It is. Kind of. But you cannot be at work 24/7; you can’t. That’s not feasible for anyone, at any kind of work. So if your husband and you really think that being a housewife is your job, you need to treat it like a job. There are working hours and not working hours; there are set goals that you meet like any worker would, and they can not be just “get everything done all the time and take care of everything and everyone.” That is vague and crazy. You need breaks. You need personal interests outside of work. You need to be visible to the rest of the world, and you need to have contact with the rest of the world.

I encourage housewives to have some real talk with their spouses about setting reasonable objectives for a maximum of 5 10-hour work days each week, with the understanding that the household tasks, meals, and dependent care that arise outside those working hours are shared responsibilities. Maybe you take turns. Maybe you divvy the remainder up based on personal interest and inclination. But we need to get our heads wrapped around the fact that dads do not “babysit” their own children, and husbands do not “help” their wives clean their own homes or cook their own meals. You are a wife and a homemaker, not an employee.

For those of you working outside the home and managing the majority of in-home tasks, maybe the division of labor is more clear cut. We’re all busy, tired, and punchdrunk at the end of the day and there’s still stuff to do. In my home, that generally means that I prep a bunch of meals for the week during my weekend time so that either one of us can put something in the oven for a hot meal each working night (whichever of us gets home first is responsible for that task). I prep the meals because I love the cooking; I tend to do this while my husband is busy doing laundry, one of my least favorite chores. And so on. We share the division of labor because it’s all too much to do for one person. And we’ll have to redistribute again if we ever have children.

Next, when it comes to the beyond-the-basics homemaking stuff—the nesting, the DIY projects, the little fix-it stuff—that’s up to you. I firmly believe that how you spend your leisure hours is no one’s business but your own. But if you’re at all worried about your feminist impact, think long and hard about two things: your motives, and how you frame your activities to the world around you.

Are you doing this stuff because it genuinely makes you feel good? Great! Are you doing this stuff because the bar has been set so high on what you’re expected to do as a woman, a wife, a mother, or whatever, that you feel the need to match up or compete with your peers? That’s a terrible, terrible reason to do this stuff. Why? Because you can’t let cultural pressure dictate your gender performance, your personal relationships, or your identity. I need to make it clear: there is nothing at all wrong with women who hate homemaking. They’re not missing something. They are fulfilled by other things. In fact—it makes a lot of sense for a lot of people to hate homemaking. It’s basically just work with a status quo ending. You have to be a particular sort of nut to really find it enjoyable. I happen to be that kind of nut, but I’m glad the world is balanced out by other people who have better sense than me!

And: how are you framing your homemaking experiences to the rest of the world? We are in an oversharing age (hello, I’m a blogger) and we all know a ton of truly intimate details about one another’s lives. (I can describe in pretty clear detail the hallway decor of another blogger I’ve never met in person, for instance.) Be aware of how you use language to describe your actions. Are you framing things “for the girls”? Stop it. Homemaking is for anyone who wants to invest a lot of effort into making their living space what they want it to be, full stop. Are you describing everything you do in “how to” terms? Stop it; how-tos set a bar of expectation (I saw many people repinning a “How to Make Your Own Inspiration Board” pin the other day, and all I could think for a while was, “I need a physical inspiration board? Isn’t that what Pinterest is for? Why does it have to have its own fabric cover?”) My point is: don’t use your own personal interest to shame, pressure, or dictate the terms other people live on, even casually or unintentionally. Be intentional

Because it does concern me when we come down hard on women for showing an interest in domesticity; why should there be shame in what has traditionally been “women’s work”? We see that in the working world all the time; teachers are undervalued because it’s become a “woman’s job.” Bakers have less culinary clout than chefs, even though their jobs often require far more precision, because baking is “women’s” and chefs are more traditionally male. And so on; it’s well documented elsewhere, so Google it if you’re not sure that women’s work has traditionally been undervalued and men’s work has traditionally been overvalued.

My beef is that we’ve gendered that work at all, and then made it a taboo for women to do anything related to those crumbling gender roles lest we unintentionally bolster the patriarchy. If it’s work we enjoy doing, we should do it, and do it mindfully. If it’s work we don’t enjoy, we should evenly share the bare minimum to get by. There is space here for men to join us, and I hope they will, in time. It’s in that domestic space that a lot of our own attitudes about expectations and roles and the world were formed; there is a lot of power in homemaking, just as there is power and so much room for expansion in career fields, relationships, and the world at large. Each of us has her own set of personality features, characteristics, inclinations, skills, talents, and interests; my personal feminism is bent on making it possible for all people, inclusive of sex, gender, orientation, race, economic circumstances, and abilities, to have the freedom to pursue their personal path with joy and the support of a joyful community. We have a lot of work ahead of us. Let’s live as best we can now while we make the future even better.

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9 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Homemaking

  1. This was pretty awesome. You mentioned that women do the lion’s share of housework – and we do! I’d like to add, humorously, that I think, in general men are more likely to be comfortable living in a mess. I say this as a woman who was married to a complete slob, and who moved into a house-share situation with men in their thirties who probably haven’t cleaned under the sofa since they put it there. Hah.

    1. I’d definitely agree with that. I’ve known plenty of exceptions to the rule; in fact, I was raised in a house where that was pretty much the opposite. But in general that’s what I’ve observed as well.

    1. Thanks! I’m glad that people are beginning to reckon the value of tasks that have traditionally been the purview of women, and unpaid.

  2. Dear Meghan, good post. It is amazing how much conflict there is about what being a woman should look like in our culture. I was just reminded of this yesterday with a quote from a magazine article about a very successful woman: “Why should being a feminist mean I shouldn’t be interested in style?” I have also been reading about it a lot from the perspective of the “Mommy wars” as a relatively new mother.

    Anyway, one of the issues I have with how this discussion is framed is that women are perceived to be hurting other women if they’re not “battling” to “break the glass ceiling” or achieve equality with men. One of the most powerful ways to rewrite cultural norms is to live well in a way that challenges cultural norms. I really do believe that, and also my life resources are so limited as a human that I am really not interested in spending a lot of my time or energy fighting this battle. I used to feel guilty that I wasn’t breaking into high levels of male dominated professions, but I’m not interested in that kind of thing and I don’t think it’s the only image of a successful life. The question of what a good life is has so many factors and for me worrying about how whatever I do affects the fate of womankind has made me guilty and confused. I am thinking about what it looks like to be part of a flourishing community and the good life to me involves family, friends, the kingdom of God, slow food, beauty, joy, crafts, books, and many other things. Activism to improve the lives of others is obviously important but I don’t see it as my main role in the world.

    I like that you say that even those who aren’t professionals should be a part of this discussion, but I still feel like you are saying that it is bad for women to take overly servile roles–I want serving and devotion to be part of my view of “the good life.” I was surprised by how much my baby became the center of my world when he was born, and no matter what else I am doing, I feel strongly that I want to have the time and energy to give him my best. I have recently gone back to work part time, and I don’t want to work more than this for that reason. In my marriage, I value devotion, and right now Leonard is using almost all of his energy to try and finish his phd and be present to our son and marriage. So I am doing well over half of the domestic tasks but I see this as positive, as giving my support. That reminds me, God save me from envisioning my role as a homemaker as wage work! I really must differ with you on that point. Putting hours and wages on a task, for me, cheapens it and lessens my interest for it–like the way attaching praise or grades to assignments has been shown to lessen children’s interest in something (they do it for the grade or the praise even if they started out being interested in the task itself- see Alfie Kohn on this topic). Anytime I have done anything I like for money–painting, cooking, anything, I have enjoyed it less. It became more of a chore. Which has made me reconsider my idea of possibly becoming an entrepreneur. My ideal right now is that primeval human vocation, gardening. Wendell Berry and Shannon Hayes have spent time talking about how before the industrial revolution most people’s livelihoods were based around the home–raising food being included in that–and fleshing out the ideal of a productive home in their different ways. Wondered if you’ve read any of that–Shannon Hayes book is Radical Homemaking, and if you have any thoughts on how this lifestyle relates to the discussion?

    I feel like I often feel schizophrenic as a woman in the church. On the one side I am among people who see women as God-ordained to view the men in their lives as “the head” or at the very least who emphasize the nurturing aspects of women’s roles more than the culture at large and value serving rather than seeking power or equality. On the other hand I feel like I have to downplay the nurturing and nesting parts of myself when I am among academics or I will seem like a backward fool, letting men continue to rule the world, or just generally too interested in unimportant, mundane things like feeding my child.

    I enjoyed your post’s title, by the way. Best to you- x

    1. So much to address here, Maria! Thanks for your response.

      You said: “Activism to improve the lives of others is obviously important but I don’t see it as my main role in the world.” —I’d counter that parenting can be a form of activism, too; you’re raising a child, intentionally, and I’m guessing you hope to raise a child who becomes a good citizen and one who stands for good in the world. It may not be attending a march or asking people to sign a petition or whatever, but raising your child[ren] toward intentional benevolence and goodness IS a form of activism, and just as valid as other forms of activism.

      You said, “I still feel like you are saying that it is bad for women to take overly servile roles–I want serving and devotion to be part of my view of ‘the good life.’” And, “Leonard is using almost all of his energy to try and finish his phd and be present to our son and marriage. So I am doing well over half of the domestic tasks but I see this as positive, as giving my support.” I don’t think it’s bad at all for any of us to serve one another, and obviously homemaking is a whole lot of service. I think it’s bad when one partner in a relationship takes on the full weight of responsibility for the home both share, without any input or engagement from the other partner. That can look like a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but you say yourself that your partner is working on his education and trying to be present to your family relationships—that does not sound like there is no give and take there. It sounds like you have struck a balance that works for your home and you happen to be the one taking on more of the domestic tasks. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that at all. My hope for everyone is balance, and a sign that both partners are engaged in their home life, whatever that might look like.

      However. I meet and have spoken with a LOT of women who don’t seem to distinguish between “giving their support” versus “running themselves ragged.” You mentioned earlier in your comment that one of your priorities is having the time and energy to give your child the best life you can; my argument is aimed at women who never rest, whose partners share none of the burden of parenting or homecare, and who never get a chance to turn OFF for a while. Women in this situation do not have the time or energy to give their children the best life they’d otherwise be capable of giving them, because they have not taken care of replenishing their energy—they can’t! I don’t think I’m arguing a contentious point here: it is physically impossible never to cease working. That is why I believe that it’s important for partners to share responsibility in the home. I don’t think I made any case against being in full support of people choosing a domestic path for their lives. I do however believe that there is a limit to how much servanthood any of us can practice without the balance of rest, and that was what I was hoping to convey in this post.

      You said, “Putting hours and wages on a task, for me, cheapens it and lessens my interest for it.” My intention in addressing homemaking via the lens of measurable wage-earning career work was not to cheapen it or to lessen anyone’s interest in it; it was to serve as a reminder that domestic work is valuable, and that it is possible to measure its value, just as it’s possible to measure the value of any other work people do in contribution to a functioning society and functioning family—even if those measurements are quantitative and not qualitative, even if they do not represent the whole picture of contribution.

      For those of us who like or get joy out of domestic work, it can feel kind of icky to think of it in terms of a “job,” like we’re assigning the raising of our children and the well-ordered functioning of our home some element of drudgery; I feel you here. I like domestic work myself, but I don’t think calling it work or treating it like work demeans it. I am also approaching “work” not as a synonym for “chore” or “burden,” though; I am thinking of work in its context of “doing good works,” or the kind of work great American transcendentalists like Alcott and Thoreau seemed to circle around often; physical OR mental labor that brings us joy and good results and that is done is a spirit of cheerful giving.

      But for women who really dislike domestic work yet who have still chosen it as the best contribution they can make to their family (we all make sacrifices, and I know a lot of amazing moms who are in exactly this boat), it can be very validating to hear their contributions to the home described in “work” terms. My choice of words was intended to validate, not cheapen. If you don’t need that validation, great! But I know a lot of women who spend a lot of energy trying to reconcile a tough decision they’ve had to make with their own happiness and fulfillment, and I know that many of them find this kind of 1:1 trade-off thinking beneficial and validating. My intention was to honor them.

      I have read a good chunk of Wendell Berry’s agricultural essays but haven’t read Shannon Hayes, so I can’t comment on her thoughts or a lifestyle she embraces. I would say that since there are tons of people who do not enjoy domestic or home-centered work but who view it as a necessity, and since there are tons of people who feel that their best contributions are not, in fact, in the home at all, and since I am of a mind that these are all valid approaches to different lives led, my guess is that Hayes’s approach is great as long as she is not a prescriptivist or thinks she has found the key to good living for all people. As with this blog post, no one lifestyle can be all things to all people. :) I for one have a black thumb and can’t even keep a basil plant alive in my kitchen, so a return to that “primeval human vocation” would leave me hungry and frustrated and exhausted. And I can’t help but think of my many friends who desperately need a second income just to keep their kids sheltered and clothed, and I recoil a bit from telling them they’re expected to start homesteading in addition to all the other shit they have to deal with. A lot of us just don’t have access to the various necessary resources or time to take some of that on. I think it’s awesome and inspiring when people CAN do that stuff, but I also firmly believe that it’s not for everyone.

      I think there’s a huge difference between seeking power versus seeking equality, but I really don’t embrace prescriptivist gender roles whether people think they’re Biblical or not. One of my favorite Christian bloggers (and a dear friend of mine) Liz Boltz Ranfeld (http://lizboltzranfeld.wordpress.com/) often discusses her family’s commitment to egalitarianism versus complementarianism, and I’ve often appreciated her thoughts on the matter. In my home, it’s a moot point, as we don’t participate in communities that try to prescribe how we will perform (or not perform, as we see fit) the gender roles we’re familiar with.

      I have definitely experienced both of the tensions you describe, though: on one hand, people with whom you want to be in community telling you exactly how far lower than your partner you are in the pecking order (thanks!) rob you of a lot of the joy you feel from domestic work by telling you it’s your womanly obligation to spend your day serving your family (so are we cheerful givers, or is this just our slavish lot in life? Heaven LITERALLY forbid a woman not enjoy domesticity). On the other hand, the academics/professionals, insisting that no, they are actually the ones who know best, you’re destroying ALL WOMEN EVERYWHERE by not working out of the home or by showing an interest in the child you’re responsible for—well, what they prescribe often doesn’t align with the practical situation in which you find yourself OR with your heart.

      Which I think is where I usually come down on all of these issues. The heart knows best. I reject the idea that any of us know the best choices for each other; I embrace the idea that all of our efforts are valuable and valid.

      Thanks for bearing with my rambling response. The Mommy Wars can suck it! Long live honoring individual choice. Thanks for your thoughts, Maria. I am adding Radical Homemakers to my reading list.

      1. Good reply- I need that push back to let other people be different from me. I want to live in the best way possible and it is always hard for me to not automatically pass value judgments on lifestyles that aren’t “best” for me. Now I am going to use my downtime at work to plan a lunch party menu for tomorrow :)

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