Tuesday, April 20, 2010

job titles

Okay, back to the waiting discussion of what it is I do. Beware: this post includes social history and criticism and, long as it is, is still incomplete.

As you well know, I'm a stay-at-home-mom  (sahm in web speak). I am also a solid card carrying member of My Generation and therefore wrestle with this choice of profession while at the same time believing deeply that it is of such importance that I will put aside all kinds of personal comfort and goals while my kids are babies. (What I'll do after that is a discussion for a different post and not up for examination at the moment.)

But what if I'd been born two generations ago? As a matter of fact, I wouldn't have been a sahm at all, because sahms didn't exist; housewives did. This is not just a matter of semantics, my friend. The difference is in focus. Sahms are committed to the children; housewives were committed to the house and the husband

The housewife took care of the house: she made sure it was straight and everyone's clothes were folded and put away. She cooked meals and cleaned up dishes, wiped counters, shopped for groceries, organized shelves. She changed sheets and vacuumed floors and washed the curtains in the spring. This was the housewife's work. She did this work so that others living in the house could do their work, so that her husband need only climb out of bed, shower, dress himself, eat (the food she's prepared), and go to the office. He needed the house to be taken care of by someone else (who else? the housewife.) so that he could focus his attention on making money to cover the mortgage and the groceries and the clothes, lest another depression wipe out the entire country. Making money and worrying about finances was his work. And the children had the work of being children: exploring and experimenting and running and falling and doing homework. The housewife did a whole lot of little things that added up (ideally) to one big thing: a serene home environment. 

I've been thinking that there's something noble in providing a space for others in which to move. It's an act of love to make one's work about creating an energy that will sustain, for the benefit of those you love. This is why I'm able to think of being the maid (see previous post) as a positive thing rather than slave labor. It's why I'm able to be present and thoughtful when folding laundry or doing dishes. (It's also connected to my attempts to implement Zen in my daily life, but again not what this post is about.)

How did the children fare in this housewife/breadwinner environment? We could banter about that for a good while, but there seems to me to be something healthy about viewing the children as a part of your work, one department of a larger company--and this is a significant difference between the sahm and the housewife.

The housewife: the primary relationship was the marriage (wasn't it? I mean, we're talking about the average and the ideal both, not the crazy exceptions...) and the children were seen as a product of the marriage. But all of this only lasted until Betty Friedan looked around and noticed that this set up turned many women into stepford automatons and perhaps it would be okay for women to find other things to do with their time.

Women rather liked this new idea and hollered that they weren't maids, after all, and why on earth couldn't the men wash their own damn dishes? They glanced up from Guiding Light and declared that they, as women, need not serve men, that they could be the providers if they wanted, and housewives everywhere put sneakers over their pantyhose and flocked to the office. (The eventual inheritance of this includes the present stay-at-home-dads and breadwinner moms, which is a wonderful option.)

These days the housewife has gone by the wayside. My generation of women has accumulated upper level degrees just like the boys, and their husbands, if not staying home with the kids (2.7% of all stay at home parents are dads), not only take turns doing the dishes and changing diapers but also see the fairness in this arrangement. And generally women only stay home when they start having kids, hence the term stay-at-home-mom.

We know that babies can die from lack of physical contact. We know that children's brains do not develop without stimulation. When these statistics first appeared, the general population concluded that if some attention and stimulation was good, then a lot was even better. However, studies show that the average american home environment offers enough stimulation to maximize the child's potential intelligence. Some of us are starting to suspect that an overstimulating environment, rather than furthering the child's potential, simply overwhelms it.

Gen X (and Y) is becoming frustrated with the amount of constant attention we're guilted into showering on our children, frustrated with the media driven culture of fear when it comes to being a parent. In response to the over management of kids by the Boomers, some parents now are adopting ideas from the free range parenting movement, (led by the book Free Range Kids), that encourage us to stop being panicked and obsessive, and tell us it's okay to let our kids play by themselves in their fenced suburban backyard for ten minutes without immediate parental supervision. (or to let your nine year old ride the subway unsupervised, as the author did, which started a verbal war about the nature of parenthood.)

Stay at home mom. The truth of the matter is that most of my working day is indeed taken up by the kids, by my attention to them, and not by my keeping of the house. But I certainly don't have to spend all my daylight hours keeping them entertained and stimulated--playdates and museums and music classes and gymnastics classes and on and on. That's the pressure, you know. I sure felt that when Frances was a baby--if I left her to stare at the light out the window I felt great guilt, certain that I should be interacting with her, reading to her, at least shaking a rattle in her face. Now that I have two I feel much less of this because they entertain each other. But even if they didn't... It's as if no one sees the benefit of quietness, of alone time. It seems to me that neglecting to teach our children about the benefits of quiet does them a great disservice.

ALSO! Something interesting: all moms know that the kids want your attention desperately the moment you look at the computer or pick up the phone, but when I do housework--especially ironing--the kids get quiet, they play near me, play nicely, don't clammer for my attention. I can still talk with them if they ask me questions, so maybe that's why they don't feel they have to fight for my attention. Still, it doesn't seem to bother them that my hands are busy. My theory is that what they see is me 'doing my work', and that is actually a thing that makes sense to them. Their play is their work, and we can do our work side by side.

I see my work as more than just being their mom. Perhaps I can come up with a new term for my job, one that includes keeping the house, providing a space, for them and for their dad and for me: the creation of a family. 


andrea said...

You are their teacher, their counselor, the ref, the inventor, the lover and shaker, the voice of reason (although that is hard for me sometimes), and the face of comfort.
I loved this post. It is something I think about and sort of struggle with, a lot.
The notion of teaching children quiet and that being alone and creative is powerful, is one I also had to learn over time because of irrational guilt and misunderstandings in my heart.
I wish now I had let Rohan learn more alone. Had not come to the rescue and interfere when interfering was not asked for.

This post is exciting. I can't wait to find out what new generation title you create for yourself. I might just have to adopt it.

SLK said...

Just getting a chance to read this one now! great work, Cali! I love the observation of "work". I have always wondered at that... B is SO focused when I am doing housework!