Unless you’ve been hiding out in a Nepalese hut 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 stupid, just chuckle.
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 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 children. “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 endeavor to keep the whole 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 say, begins at home.
Clare Coffey is an undergraduate at Dartmouth College.
Jennifer Rubin, Attacking Ann Romney — yeah, that’s the ticket!
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