Friday, July 21, 2006

The Mommy Wars: In Triplicate

Part One: Why Linda Hirshman’s observations about combining marriage, motherhood and career are NOT helpful in the pursuit of furthering feminist ideals: A decidedly NON-radical feminist response.

Part Two: What’s wrong with “what’s best for kids is for MOM to be happy?” Starring: Her Bad Mother (my hero) and Eminem (oooh la la).

Part Three: One possible, partial (and politically incorrect) solution to helping women accomplish both answering the call to marriage and motherhood AND achieving a greater presence in elite social, political and economic policy-making positions.

(As a side note, The New Yorker has two standard rejection letters:

1) You suck.

2) This doesn’t totally suck, but we’re not publishing it anyway.

Part Three of this essay received the second type of rejection last fall --- and yes, when you’re desperately trying to get published any hint that the New Yorker doesn’t think you totally suck is really really encouraging… pathetic I know, but hey, that’s me!)

Part One: Linda Hirshman
(One quick disclaimer: It’s easy when I defend working moms since everyone knows I stay at home and so obviously am not covertly jabbing at stay-at-home moms. When I’m defending stay-at-home Moms it’s not as easy. Please know that it is not my intent to criticize ANY working mother. I was raised by a working mother and I turned out fine - or at least I like to think so. My intent is to criticize the ideas of Linda Hirshman as she’s articulated them. Period.) So without further adieu, Staci responds to Linda Hirshman (I’m sure she’s shaking in her sensible shoes):

What is wrong with Linda Hirshman’s assertions about women, work and motherhood? Hirshman thinks that no one should have more than one child, that caring for children shouldn’t be primarily the obligation of their mothers, and that women should “marry down” so that their husbands will be the ones who choose to stay home (or work less and pick up the slack at home). She asserts that the “glass ceiling” is actually at home and this is because those rotten men of ours never seem to notice that the dust on the TV is two inches thick even if they’ve been staring at it for the last several hours. “More and more women are leaving the workforce to stay home and raise kids. Has feminism failed?” This is the annoying question she asks. Well Good Lord, where do I begin?

First, let me be the one right here, right now to enlighten all of the feminists who are engaged in hand-wringing wondering why younger women are less and less inclined to call themselves feminists. Feminists like Linda Hirshman are the reason!

Now I agree with part of what she seemed to be asserting, and that is that staying home full time is not so much a “choice” that many women make as much as it is simply inevitable for a variety of reasons. And I agree that this is unfortunate, unfair, and is something that should be examined in order to try to remedy it. The other point she makes with which I agree is that women are not represented adequately in elite and policy-making positions. Interestingly, however, she feels that the work place is entirely friendly to mothers now and that the real problem is our rotten husbands who fail to notice the toilet needs to be scrubbed. Further, she asserts that those of us lowly women in the trenches put our own careers on hold because we’re trying to emulate the New York City socialites she interviewed.

The main problem with her argument is that she asks women to deny the most fundamental (and to many, the most meaningful) aspect of who they are. And until feminists stop doing this, few self-respecting women are going to want to associate with them. Note to Hirshman: Mothers (who are women whether this is “fair” or not) take care of their children. Mothers want to take care of their children (with few and highly disturbing exceptions). They have done so since the dawn of human existence, and if they hadn’t we wouldn’t be here to have this argument. So, please, get over it! It’s not going to change. And if it did, we could hardly consider that an evolution of human consciousness.

Another problem is that she seems to be positively shocked and scandalized that people who are wealthy enough to not have to be a slave to a corporation or law firm for 60+ hours a week, often choose to “opt out.” Am I the only person who’s not surprised by this big “revelation?” That women are more inclined than men are to exercise this choice goes back to what I pointed out in the previous paragraph. Men don’t really have a biological, psychological and hormonal drive to be by the side of their newborns. Women (generally) do. Sorry.

Parenthood is a path of sacrifice for both mothers and fathers. Ask any male coal miner or migrant farm worker if he’d prefer to have enough money to not have to work every day. I’m sure he’d say yes. Paid work might be a completely fulfilling status symbol in Hirshman’s world, but for most of us it’s a means to an end (namely, to feed the family). A working dad sacrifices free time by working long hours to support his family and then coming home to spend time taking care of the kids, the dinner clean up and whatever else needs to be done. A stay-at-home mom sacrifices a paycheck with her name on it. Unless she’s been coerced into this arrangement, there’s no reason for anyone to criticize it. It’s hard work to raise a family and often requires we give up other things we’d like to do, have and be. What, exactly, each person chooses to sacrifice (and for how long) is a highly personal decision based on dozens of individual factors to which Hirshman is not privy. (Incidentally, some women have to sacrifice time they’d rather spend with their families, working to put food on the table.)

If you don’t want to make personal sacrifices for the sake of motherhood, you’re in luck! It’s 2006 and no American woman has to have kids if she doesn’t want to. Thank God for the women who sacrifice raising a family for the sake of pioneering in their chosen fields. They open up opportunities for the rest of us when we’re ready to return to the workforce and for our daughters, and I applaud them. But don’t criticize mothers for exercising their autonomy and freedom to spend time with their young children if they can afford to do so.

Somebody has to do the unpaid, crappy work at home. In some feminists’ view (like Gloria Steinem, for example) this work is widely understood to be both necessary and economically valuable, regardless of who’s doing it (and particularly because women often do it for the trade off of being in close proximity to their children). Even though housework is not fun or particularly “rewarding,” it’s incorrect to say that it’s not “meaningful.” Hirshman suggests we should all live in a dump (by refusing to do housework) for the sake of equality, and if that makes her feel good about herself, then good for her, but most of us prefer to have a nice, pleasant and relaxing place to call home. Making a home is the most meaningful work we do. Strip away our social, political and economic constructs and there we are alone with our family, left to survive, which means preparing food and creating a shelter for ourselves. The notion that we all “flourish” more by participating in making a bank merger deal than we do in spending peaceful time in a nice environment with people we love is, at best, capitalistic nonsense.

Also her recommendation to women to “marry down” and to have only one child is laughable. So much for that old-fashioned feminist notion of equality among the sexes. Who’s going to complain about a husband with a good income?


I “married down.” I have more education than my husband (he even paid for some of it after we were married) and I earned significantly more money than he did when we first married. But I stayed home with the kids anyway, because I wanted to (and, admittedly, he didn’t). And we struggled. Today (I’m proud of him to say) even if I went back to work at the same level I left, I no longer have the immediate capacity to out-earn him. Women, like me, who married for love are grateful when they end up with a good provider on top of all the other good stuff. As disgruntled as I’ve been sometimes at home (imagining my husband, poopy-diaper free, out talking to other adults with Starbucks in hand) I would have been a hundred times more disgruntled if I’d had to leave my babies full time because he couldn’t or wouldn’t support us. Would any woman really marry someone just for his lack of education, ambition and earning-power? I highly doubt it.

And the reason a lot of women (even smart ones) have more than one child is because they want to. And no Ms. Hirshman, to answer your question, that does not mean feminism has “failed.” That women today have equal educational opportunities, have opportunities in the workplace (whether they exercise them or not), can own property, can vote, and can file charges against an abusive husband are all evidence that feminism very much succeeded (not that we don’t have a ways to go, of course).

For those a little slow on the uptake, it’s not 1952 (or even 1972) anymore. Here’s an anecdote that illustrates perfectly the disconnect between feminists of my mother’s generation (Hirshman is, not surprisingly, a baby boomer.) and many women of my own generation. My husband works hard all day and then comes home and helps take care of the kids and/or clean up after dinner. Every weekend I take a block of time for myself while he handles things at home. My girlfriend’s husband works long hours, and when he’s home he routinely takes care of the baby so she can sleep in or otherwise have a break. My mother (a feminist right down to being alarmed that my husband and I have pooled our money from the beginning and that I chose not to work for a yet-to-be-determined period of time after the birth of my first baby) marvels every time I tell her I’m going out with the girls. She tells me how “nice” it is that my husband “lets” me do that because “most” men won’t take over with the kids and house like he does. I always look at her like she’s sprouting a stray appendage from the top of her head, because it would never occur to me to expect anything less from him, and I can’t think of one woman I know in my age group who expects less of her husband either. All of the women I know, whether they stay at home or not, expect help with the kids and house from their husbands. (And yes, I know we can thank those old, bitter feminists like Hirshman – and my mother, sorry Mom! - for that!)

In fact, sometimes I’m shocked by the amount some women who stay home expect their husbands to do after work. I would feel like an absolute creep if after being home all day, I made my husband come home from work and cook dinner, but I hear from a lot of at-home moms who do that. Imagine if I said that my husband stays home all day while I work and then I come home, cook dinner and get the kids ready for bed so he can have a break. What kind of jerk would people assume he is? Vacuuming and laundry pretty much suck, it’s true. And there’s no skill-building value to it either. But doing it is the price some of us choose to pay for the privilege of either being home with our kids, having time to pursue unpaid work we enjoy (like blogging, hello!), having a less stressful and busy life or some combination thereof. If we’ve let down the feminist revolution by valuing those things over money… oh well.

Now does the fact that we expect equal contribution to the household when they’re home from work mean our husbands notice that the floor needs to be mopped? No, they don’t. And is that annoying? Yes, it is. But is that the reason (as Hirshman asserts) most of us want to stay home with our young children? Uh… No. And it’s not because Tipper Gore, Laura Bush and other “elite” women did it either. The reason is we want to be around to kiss boo boos and read Little Bear regardless of the personal difficulties we face and calculated risks we take in doing so. It’s time to retire the bitching about the injustice of being a 1950s housewife and to focus on issues women actually face today. I consider myself a feminist (I even admit it in public places), but I’m not sure what planet Hirshman is living on. Wherever it is, I think I’d rather just stay home, thanks.

The bottom line is babies like to be close to their mamas. In most cases mamas want to be close to their babies as much as possible too. If you’re conflicted over combining (or not) work and child care, know that having a mother who goes to work every day to put food on the table (or for any other reason) is not even close to the worst tragedy that could ever befall a child. So if you must (or simply choose to) work, your kids will likely turn out fine, if the overall quality of your family life is good. On the other hand, if you can and want to stay home with your kids, you shouldn’t feel like a loser, an idiot, or a June Cleaver throwback. You should feel like a mother. And you should feel lucky too (Believe me, I know it’s hard when you’ve just changed your sixth poopy diaper and are beginning to clean the kitchen for the third time today…), because surveys indicate a large number of mothers who are at work today wish they were home.

Read Part 2 here!


Belinda said...

Brilliant. Truly brilliant, incisive, and microscopically precise. Well done!

Jill said...

Oh Staci, you sure ask a lot of me to juggle my two little ones while simultaneously dissecting your long and excellent post. I haven't read Hirshman, but from what I know, I agree with you.

I chose to keep working, but have some major conflicts. I love my job, but love being home with my kids more. I decided to stick with the job because I think it would be difficult to leave and reenter again at the same level when the little kids are school age. I also think that a working mom is a good thing to model for older kids, although a stay-at-home mom is undoubtedly better for little kids. I chose to resolve my conflict (somewhat) by paying more than I have for a full-time nanny to give the little ones as close to a stay-at-home experience as possible.

There's no perfect solution and no one solution that works for all of us. Fortunatly, the post-boomer approach seems to be for feminists to support their at-home and out-of-home working sisters equally. Hirshman just doesn't resonate with our generation.

Rachel said...

Very well written!!! I agree whole heartedly with what you have said here. As much as I sometimes dream of being back in the classroom, I know there is time for that later and my kids need me home now. We have made tremendous financial sacrifice to allow this, but I am thrilled to be there with them as they discover new things. Of course, that's what works for my family, and if other women want to/need to go back to work, that's their decision!

kara said...

thank you thank you thank you!!!!
i found your blog while doing a search on this so-called mommy war. as if we don't have enough to worry about in this day and age? i really thought that i'd find kindred spirits in this journey called motherhood. i've found a few, but... i tell, ya - i never imagined that there would be so many that just aren't. on so many levels, even beyond the 'work' issue.

i decided to stay home after bebe was born. i've seriously had people question my being a feminist for this(?!). wasn't the feminist movement about choices? the hirshmans of the world simply scare me.

my response to her would be this - i can stay at home and nurture/guide/hang out with this little wonder of a boy - or i can head into the workaday world where i'd be working for someone else and feeling empty because i'd simply be there to make a buck and greasing the wheels of a system that i find to be horribly destructive on so many levels. hmmmm... for me, the decision was easy. don't get me wrong, we're struggling, but still.

i just wanted to say that i really enjoyed reading this! you should get it 'out there' somehow!

Mocha said...

I can do nothing but applaud this post. Especially because by the time I got to the end I was reminded that I wanted to stay home for years with my last child.

Without babbling on and ruining a perfectly good post, I'll say this (again): Feminism is about making our own choices.

Bullying is about criticizing those choices. LH is a bully.

Food Mum said...

I agree whole-heartedly with you Staci. I just feel lucky to have been able to stay at home with my kids, and take for granted that my hard-working husband comes home and does part of the children's bedtime routine. I think we're lucky to be this generation, enjoying the luxury of choice - someone just needs to tell LH to stop fighting that particular battle, we're already at peace.

Pendullum said...

And thank you...
It was a great essay...
and I am just nodding in agreement as there is nothing else I can add except, 'bravo!'

Mom101 said...

If I were a NYer editor, I'd kick Sedaris to the curb, that hack, and put this in his column's place.

Seriously - good stuff. Much food for thought.

Redneck Nerdboy! said...

Excellent post Stac!


Anjali said...

I agree wholeheartedly with everything you've said. In my view, the crux of feminism involves having empathy for others, realizing that there are social, political, and economic forces to contribute to people's life situations, and then demanding change. LH, in my opinion, is not a feminist. She demands that mothers make choices, without really trying to understand whether real choices are even available.