How to Hook Me With a Title, Or… “The Feminist Housewife”

Hook me with a great title – why not? No, not the title of Contessa… though I wouldn’t mind trying it on for size, if shoes were part of the bargain.

Preferably sparkly, with a four inch heel.

A CEO title? That would be lovely. You could hook me that one, particularly if it were Chief Elaboration Officer or Chief Enthusiasm Organizer, accompanied by a tidy salary and… naturellement… fabulous footwear.

Property title to a nifty little apartment in Paris? Pourquoi pas?

Tantalizing title also known as heated headline – generating gender gyrations?

Bingo!

There’s nothing like an effective (albeit annoying) headline. It’s an art form. It’s a rainmaker. It’s this: “Why Women Stay Home.”

Really?

Don’t we get it? Someone has to raise our children – either a family member or someone we pay. Why is this concept such a challenge at the moment?

Family Formulas: (Old) New Math?

The Daily Beast’s Megan McCardle explores a New York Magazine piece written by Lisa Miller, stirring up the Stay-At-Home-Mom debate. Cutting to the chase, here’s the premise (or one of them): It’s easier for Mom to stay home because that eliminates the need for “negotiation,” resulting in a happier household. Let’s all embrace the 21st Century Retro Feminist Housewife!

Yes, someone has to raise the children, but…

I’m taking a slow, deep breath. I’m checking my calendars, my Bat Phone, my switch for the Transporter Beam. Toto, though I may be a Munchkin, we are not in Kansas anymore. Last I looked, it takes two incomes (or more) to keep a family going in this country. And women have brains. Sometimes we like to get paid for using them.

Wait! I’m overreacting?

Might I add (as Chief Enthusiasm Organizer) – since when do we assume that couples shouldn’t or don’t negotiate? Have we forgotten what happens when Dad Decides to Leave Mom – and she has no “marketable” skills – having spent 20 or 25 years in the exclusivity of the parenting and homemaking trenches?

Whoops! That alimony thing. Sorry… We seem to have all but done away with that.

Yet don’t we understand Ms. Miller’s sense of conflict as she pursues her career, expressed in her article as she writes of the hurried bologna sandwiches, and all that she misses as a mother? Doesn’t this clearly illustrate our 21st century parental guilt?

Modeling the Future

Yes! Of course there’s negotiation over schedules and duties in marriage. Shouldn’t there be, with or without both partners in the workforce? Do we really want to return to the days of modeling a narrow set of options for our girls, and however differently, a restrictive set of parameters for our boys?

Remember my musing on Women, Women, Women – and this reference from the 1965 film, The Sandpiper?

A man gets to be a husband, a father, and something else. A doctor, a lawyer; he can still pursue some profession. When a woman gets married, she becomes a wife, a mother, and nothing else.

Meanwhile, can we talk?

Megan McCardle cites Lisa Miller’s article at New York Magazine:

… Predictors of marital unhappiness, found Bradford Wilcox at the University of Virginia, included wives who earned a large share of household income and wives who perceived the division of labor at home as unfair. Predictors of marital happiness were couples who shared a commitment to the institutional idea of marriage and couples who went to religious services together… increased departures from a male-breadwinning-female-homemaking model may also account for declines in marital quality…  The things that specific men and women may selfishly want for themselves (sex, money, status, notoriety) must for the good of the family be put aside.

Ms. McCardle goes on to cite this from “The Feminist Housewife” article by Ms. Miller:

… Like 65 percent of American couples, my husband and I both work to pay our bills, but my commitment to my career extends way beyond financial necessity. My self-sufficiency sets a good example for my daughter (or so we tell ourselves), which is one reason why even if we were to win the lotto, staying at home would not likely be a course I’d choose.

Please note – you should read the original articles for the fullest picture – but you get the gist. The conflicts. The persistent assumptions. The dramas between those who would say it’s “easier” if women suck it up and stay at home, while men “provide” – which, as I see it, puts us neatly back about 50 years – versus those of us who, like Ms. Miller (insisting on self-sufficiency), have concerns with that familial model.

Next… On the Hit Parade

Personally, I’m pleased we’re discussing the workplace. I’m pleased we’re discussing gender roles. I’m delighted we’re assessing our options. I’m glad we’re revisiting the work involved in raising kids. I’m thrilled to read male voices  – wanting a greater role and flexibility, in order to participate more fully as parents. 

But these steps backward for each (apparent) step forward in the conversation? The necessity to fight this battle (or these battles) – over and over again?

This is a complex debate, and at its core – I see economics.

Economics – over insufficient paying work for Americans, coupled with a desire in some segments of society to hack away at yet another basic freedom to do with women, which is the ability to make a buck.

And given the prevalence of divorce and cost of raising kids, a woman who can’t earn her keep – in my opinion – ought to be concerned.

And none of this is to denigrate the role of the parent or parents who stay at home. On the contrary. Sadly, we’ve stripped Stay-At-Home-Moms (or Dads) of the respect they deserve for what is damn difficult duty. Moreover, this isn’t the same “home life” that was enjoyed in the 50s or 60s or even the 70s, at least by some segments of society. Rather, our challenges are many; our values are distorted.

My hat is off to those who make hard decisions and sacrifices to stay at home, yet if they’re financially dependent on a spouse, in my book, they’re taking a gamble.

Why Women Stay Home (SAHMs)

Do we really think women stay home so they don’t have to argue with their husbands? Should they stay home because it seems – on the surface – “easier” than arguing? What couple doesn’t argue or negotiate over something? Or everything? Eventually? Or are we saying that Stay-At-Home-Moms simply have an “easier” life?

As for staying home, even for six months or a year or three years – given birth lately?

Might you recall what that’s like, not to mention the first year of a child’s life? And if you have more than one? Care to refer to the Blur Years?

It’s exhausting. It’s fascinating. It’s frightening. It’s joyful. Your child is your heartbeat. You want to nurture, love, touch, snuggle – you want to care for him or her.

And then there’s the newness of it, the fear, the healing, the struggles with breastfeeding, hormonal disruption, and oh by the way… ever crawled your way back from abdominal surgery after a C-section? A complicated birth?

Oh right. Then there’s that money thing. Not only the cost of raising a child (hair-raising!), but have you priced your childcare options? Scribbled your cost-benefit analysis in crayon on the back of a paper towel?

You know. The cost of paying someone to care for your child for 8 or 10 hours / day. By the time you come up with the bucks for that, do you have any spare change leftover in your paycheck?

My ideal choice may be to split my time between kids and work for pay – but that isn’t always possible. I’ve written before that I tried to do exactly that, and ended up with half time pay for a full time position (and hours), so I quickly transitioned that to full-time status and full-time pay… for yet more hours.

Honestly, I would’ve gone nuts if I had stayed home full-time when my kids were babies, though by the time they were two, I would’ve loved to work fewer hours with pay, allowing me to spend more time with them at home. That wasn’t an option. By the time they were six and seven, I had transitioned to full-time Mom and full-time corporate manager – working a wearying schedule, but from a home office which enabled me to do both. And I was thrilled.

Would I have been more thrilled if their traveling Dad had made some accommodations? Naturally. But he chose not to.

Ain’t No Easy No More

Social change is never simple, especially when we’re dealing with significant shifts in mindset on issues that shake us to the core because they are about our core – gender identity, partnering, parenting, family.

But why is it so impossible to see that we cannot divorce these issues from our spotty educational system, our problematic linkage of basic health care to employment relationships, and insufficient quality childcare options?

Why is it so hard to understand that those first few years in a child’s life are critical, but that doesn’t necessarily mean returning to the days of the Retro Wife?

Sure, some women (and men) are fulfilled by a range of domestic duties, others are not, some want a mix, and all of this is subject to evolution as we grow and our kids grow and our situations change. Some situations demand that a parent (or caregiver) be present; ideally, shouldn’t our choices take into account what we perceive as best for our kids?

And have we forgotten that one parent staying home and not bringing in an income isn’t the option it once was? This notion of a “Feminist Housewife” which is examined in the New York Magazine article – is it the dream of a worn-out juggle-it-all mom who’s simply tired?

For most of us, there ain’t no easy when it comes to families. If we stay at home, we’re conflicted. If we’re out in the workforce, we’re conflicted. Life is about compromise, negotiation – and choices. The “old days” of strict gender roles are done done done.

And the Retro Feminist Housewife? She sounds conflicted too, but still… not so fast.

We have to figure this out as a society, as communities, as couples, as individuals, and pave the way for our children – as future parents themselves – to have sufficient options so they can do something other than rush zombie-like through life as fast as their sneaks (or heels) will carry them?

Please do read Ms. Miller’s article. I’ve barely scratched the surface of a fascinating (frightening?) discussion with so much more to address. And let’s keep talking… there is no “one size fits all” but nor do we really want to take a trip back in that time machine. Some of us refuse to drink the Kool-Aid that says one parent staying home “reduces conflict.” That’s only true if the parent truly wishes to do so, and I still suggest an emergency fund tucked in away in, well… a shoe box.

Meanwhile, I’ll praise The Daily Beast for their “hooked me” headline – likewise, kudos to New York Mag – and dream of that flat in the Fourth with a great view, and a hot pair of Brian Atwoods. Retro? Maybe. And like so much else, all about the economics…