Everything’s Coming Up Rosen

This is the post I was telling you about–I had to take it down because  First Things magagazine offered to publish it on their website, which is super duper exciting for your correspondent.  Here’s the link:  http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2012/04/everythingrsquos-coming-up-rosen#commentContent . I already have one snippy comment, but as my favorite stay at home mom puts it “haters will hate, you know.”

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So, unless you’ve been hiding out in a Nepalese yurt contemplating the infinite, you’ve probably paid some attention to the tempest swirling around Hilary Rosen’s recent remarks about Ann Romney’s work experience. I’m not as interested in Rosen’s actual snipes (which even she seems to acknowledge were beyond lame-brained) as in the problems surrounding contemporary American motherhood that they highlighted.

I don’t know squat from motherhood. I’m the oldest of eight children and the daughter of a stay at home mom who happens to be my best friend and general life-coach, but my personal experience in the area is nil. This makes me hesitant to write about motherhood, but it does seem a subject meriting thought, especially for a young woman entering the period of her life when one often makes Big Choices.  So if anything I say seems presumptuous, unrealistic, or stoopid (that’s how we prounounce it in my house), just chuckle. Say “What a sucker! What a maroon! I can’t wait till reality smacks her upside the head in the form of two nursing twins and a surprise pregnancy!” and pay me no mind. People who know better  tell me that motherhood changes you in ways you can’t imagine; certainly from the outside it often seems more like Navy SEAL boot camp than anything else.

The other constant caveat in discussions like this is that many mothers work, and some mothers stay at home, because they have no other choice financially.  Many women live in daily struggle for their family’s most basic needs, and they shouldn’t be dragged into the Mommy Wars (and shame on Rosen for doing just that).* They should also remind us that conversations like this can only happen among people who are already fairly privileged.

With that said, it seems to me that we do women no favors when we conflate childcare and motherhood. Motherhood isn’t a job–it’s a vocation and an identity. Stay at homes are not “full-time moms” any more than women who work outside the home–as if breadwinning fathers were “part-time dads.” Fulltime childcare, especially as it’s usually combined with housekeeping, however, is a job–is hard, demanding, work. And the sooner we stop fetishizing it as the core of what it means to be a mother and a woman, as some sort of sacred, higher, path for the female sex, the sooner we will see it for what it really is:  difficult, necessary and honorable work whose workers deserve dignified and decent working conditions.

To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whiteley within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets cakes. and books, to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness. –G.K. Chesterton

I appreciate Chesterton’s thought, but rhetoric like this frustrates me, because it seems to imply that  childcare is one long, exhausting, ecstasy of creative energy and emotional fulfillment. A woman needs no other identity or outlet: motherhood, or at least the Victorian ideal of motherhood predicated on rapt and constant communion between mother and child, is all in all.

Our cult of motherhood demands human sacrifice–hence the constant need for, and glorification of, victimhood (interestingly, in my experience especially by women privileged enough to pay me for childcare while they work neither for pay nor passion). I see women at the playground who look like zombies–completely exhausted, frazzled by the demands of their children, clad in dirty and ill-fitting clothing, constantly interrupted in what may be their only adult interactions till the Mr. gets home by the requests and complaints of their offspring. “Men just don’t understand,” they say. “It’s all part of  being a mom.”

In what other field would we accept and even romanticize these working conditions? Contrary to the sacrificial lamb aspect of the motherhood mythos, it is perfectly acceptable to say “We need to make buying clothes for me a priority in our budget, because I am a human being and a worker, and both of those facts demand a certain dignity.” It is perfectly acceptable to say “No, you’re not doing trombone camp this year, because I have interests and talents that do not involve you, and spending my life in the car prevents me from pursuing them.” It is perfectly acceptable to say “No, I will not stay up late making rice-krispie treats in the shape of ninja turtles, because who does that? Thanks for nothing, Pinterest.

Childcare and housingkeeping is usually accomplished by mothers, but it is not motherhood, and it is certainly not a primary identity. It is intense work that men, women, grandparents, et cetera undertake for the sake of children, their families, and society–important work, rewarding work, but no more and no less. The sooner we get over our obsession with domesticity as female fulfillment, the sooner we scrap this ridiculous bifurcation that simultaneously glorifies DIY martyrdom and treats work in the home as a fun little hobby.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, I think Catholic stay-at-home moms escape this trap much better than their secular counterparts. Betty Duffy, Mrs. Darwin, Pentimento, and Simcha Fisher, among others, write very frankly about the demands and rewards of domestic labor, and they’re also interesting, engaged women who provide some of the funniest, most insightful, and most challenging writing I have ever encountered. It may be the financial burden a counter-cultural lifestyle imposes–a little semi-voluntary poverty often requires both spouses to see their respective jobs as a joint endeavour to keep the whole damn ship afloat. Some of it might be comfort with the idea of vocation–that their primary vocation as a wife and mother in these particular circumstances entails this particular work. It may even be a certain level of separation from the more noxious messages popular culture sends women.

Whatever it is, I hope it’s catching. Not because stay-at-home-moms are failures if they don’t look like a million bucks and conduct the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra in their spare time (that’s just what every mom needs in her life: more guilt), but because what our culture assumes about and expects of mothers and caregivers is nonsensical and unfair. Justice, they do say, begins at home.

Possibly tangentially related, and speaking of guilt…

More Loretta Lynn, just for kicks.

*I’m not trying to make these women a footnote, but ameliorating poverty and making the workplace for women need their own posts.

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5 thoughts on “Everything’s Coming Up Rosen

  1. I am not yet a mother either but your post here really got me thinking. I’ve always had back and forth feelings about stay-at-home motherhood… until now. You said exactly what I was thinking but didn’t know how to say. Thank you. As for the link to the “French children,” AH-MAZING! I am American, but I was raised [mostly] this way and it worked. I actually had a healthy fear of my parents… I think it’s called RESPECT. 🙂

  2. New to your blog, but loving it so far! A couple comments, with the disclaimer that I’m not a mom yet, either.

    1. I think you’re slightly unfair to Chesterton. He freely admits that motherhood can be exhausting and laborious. No where does he say it is always pleasant or fun–simply that it is not necessarily insufficient work for a woman. On the contrary, it is a LOT of work, and more likely to be too much work versus not enough. This actually correlates well with your point that mothers should be able to find places in their family lives where they draw the line: “No, I cannot do that for you right now. I am going to do something for me.”

    2. I think the larger problem is that our Western society is so wrapped up in the materialistic point of view, where people are often valued according to their professional contributions instead of their inherent human dignity. As a result, identity becomes too closely entwined with career. “I’m a lawyer” can be just as pigeon-holing in society as “I’m a mom.” And with the longer and longer hours that many people are working, not only does it become harder to separate one’s identity from one’s profession, but it also makes it seem like life outside of work (i.e., family) is less of a priority–even if a person is working that hard in order to provide for that family.

    • Hi Jessica, I think I agree with you. People often tell me I’m unfair to Chesterton, and I think it may be that his writing style just grates on me sometimes. I agree that childcare/homemaking is more than sufficient work for a women–I just don’t think it’s a sufficient identity, or sphere of life. Which perhaps goes back to your point that people in general define themselves way too much by their work.

      Also, my beef with Chesterton is partially that, if I remember correctly, he did not support the women’s suffragists–so his defense of motherhood, if I’ve got the context right, comes at the expense of allowing women other outlets or intercourse in the public life.

  3. Mom of 3 here. I think the sufficiency of identity that you speak of is really almost entirely about time — in order to form an identity with anything behind it (“artist”, etc) you must have at least a small amount of time to devote to it. With small children there is almost no chance of drawing a line to ensure yourself any time alone, so all my writing used to get done from 4:30am until the children woke up. I wrote instead of taking a daily shower, I guess, and have probably looked like a zombie at the playground for the last 4 years.

    My one caution against treating the exhausting season of parenting very young children as “working conditions” to be bettered is that you can quickly go from “that mom needs to take better care of herself” to making a certain level of care or “me time” — and then “quality of life” and all that can imply — as the basis for having children at all. Perhaps I’m over-thinking.

    I will say that as hard as it has been, as exhausting as it has been, that the explosion of joy and love that comes with a child is amazing, and seems to grow exponentially with each one. All I could think was “why, oh why did I not start earlier!” I do feel a bit bitter that career identity was held up so largely to my generation, at the expense of starting a family at a much younger age. No one I know has had children before 30.

    As a Christian I see those verses in Genesis about women “being saved through childbearing” not as some commandment to bear many children to increase suffering or as a stairway to heaven, but rather as one of the biggest shocks out of myself possible. I never realized just how self-devoted I was until someone came along who needed me completely, at every inconvenient time and for every reason under the sun. I don’t think I belong to any cult of motherhood, but the exposure of self and sin when I see my voice and expressions mirrored right back at me drive me to repentance pretty quickly! I think this deep cut to our ingrained selfishness may only be found in serious sacrifice of some kind. Or maybe that’s just how deep mine is, and how ingrained.

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