Sunday, January 29, 2006

dreams of the renegade housewife

Through nefarious and clandestine pathways, I managed to procure an advance reading copy of a book coming out this April (whose title I will not print here, lest that incriminate anyone; however, I will say that I believe the last word of the subtitle should be plural, so if anyone out there has any control over that, let me know).

The book is at least putatively about the anti-feminist backlash and the generation of women raised with a die-hard belief in gender equality and without the knowledge of keeping house. It delves into the following situations:

*The problem of a woman who wants to keep house and stay home to raise her children when they are young, and the end to which our society stigmatizes these choices in the middle- and upper-middle class.

*The "mommy wars" between women who choose to/have to work and those who choose to stay home (again, this pertains only to the socioeconomic classes wherein even "having" to work is somewhat a matter of choice rather than pure survival).

*The fascination with organization and simplicity and "nostalgic" home-making (i.e., the Martha Stewart syndrome) combined with the repudiation of actual house-keeping and child-rearing, which is often put in the hands of a woman of lower socioeconomic status who must work for a living and finds her wages in these traditional "woman's work" jobs.

*The guilt and out-of-place feelings that arise from whatever we end up actually doing, given the above choices.

I'm feeling somewhat ambivalent about the conclusions, such as they are, that the author reaches. (Frankly, on first reading, I found the chapters to be rather repetitive, as though they were essays culled from different magazines -- which they were, but can't she edit them for flow? -- and I don't feel that she has reached a coherent synthesis yet.)

I agree with the idea that the feminist revolution demonized the institution of being a housewife, and that it is hard to break away from that sentiment, if one was raised after that era. The mere fact that today's women who leave the work force are called, and call themselves, "at-home mothers" is, as the author notes, itself an avoidance of the hated term.

However, it sometimes seems that the author is trying to say that women feel a natural inclination to keep house and make a home for their families, and that this is OK, and at other times that she is trying to say that we should separate domestic duties, even if it is more frustrating to today's working woman when her husband does everything she asks him to do but does it wrong, and at other times that she has given up on trying to say anything and is just writing amusing observations about the trouble created by choice.

If she'd stick with the final perspective, I think I'd like the book a whole lot more.

I've been thinking a lot about this as I've pored over the book, and I guess my biggest quarrel is with the author's failure to address the possibility that some women may truly feel drawn to home-making, just as some men might. Nesting is an animal impulse, not a social one, so if some members of our animal species still feel impelled to make a safe home, who is to say that there mightn't be an element of Darwinian evolution involved? And if women's chromosomes seem to evince this predilection more often than do men's, couldn't that also be an evolutionary trait?

Granted, it is probably an easy out to argue that it's genetic. The same specious argument has been made, to extraordinarily deleterious effect, about ethnicity and race in order to cleanse and segregate populations the world over. Playing the gene card is not a trap I want to fall into, or an accusation I wish to invite from others.

But somewhere in my brain, at least a small kernel of it makes sense. Any woman who has ever had a sudden, intense, physically-felt yearning for a child of her own should be able to recognize that some women (and yes, even some men) might have a similar drive to create a comfortable, nurturing household.

The author talks about the women who read Martha Stewart's books and magazines with rapt attention but dread marching into the kitchen to make a meal at the end of the day. She never addresses those of us who get joy from cooking and baking, who feel pride in the accomplishment of making a decorative lampshade (because it's fun!), who clean the kitchen counters not because they have to or because their husbands won't, but because it's nice to have clean countertops instead of sticky ones and -- come on, people, if you notice the spill, you clean it up, don't you?

Husbands are not demons and housewives are not to be pitied. This much the author states firmly... about 80% of the time. But nowhere in the other 20% does she ever acknowledge the middle road, the fact that one can have a career and enjoy cooking dinner. Life does not have to be just one or the other, even for the upper-middle-class "professional" women like the author, who can work from home and still feel the need (and have the ability) to hire a nanny. I can work, at home or not, and still enjoy cleaning out the cabinet under my bathroom sink (I find it to be a meditative exercise, and at the end, energizing). She doesn't account for that possibility.

This, then, is the clanging, back-breaking fault of the book. The all-or-none option has taken over today's world, but that's just not going to cut it. The plethora of choice does not have to result in all choices seeming unacceptable; rather, why not let it offer us myriad ways of combining and creating our own options? Not every happy family needs to prove Tolstoy right. If we were each happy in our own way, the world might spin a little more smoothly, and would that really be so damn bad?

Addendum: This is, apparently, a hot topic. I just read an article in the Sunday Styles section of The New York Times that was excerpted from another book of essays to be published in March, called Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families.

So I'm clearly not going to bring the debate to a shuddering halt with any stunning, lightning-bolt insights. I do have to say it's a somewhat disconcerting feeling to know that the things you think about every day and wrestle with internally are really part of the zeitgeist. I sort of wanted to explore this in my own head, but it's all over the freakin' place.

But at least when the kitchen calls, I know it's my own mishegoss that sends me there, not some cultural impositon. I can harbor my rebel-with-a-dishcloth dreams for a little while longer.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

So I'm nefarious, am I? I think I like that.