I left my engineering job January 10th, 2003. This means I am in my sixth year of being a full time woman at home. Two friends of mine last week – on separate occasions – expressed surprise I have used the term “housewife” to describe myself. In each case I responded, “Well, what else would you call me then?”
These friends are the latest in my life – people who’ve made similar observances on my character and how it does not really “fit” into “housewife” (P.S. I like “air dick quotes”). My opinion is there is a perception by some that I am clearly more ambitious, creative, nervy, impulsive, opinionated, smart, and autonomous than the “typical housewife” – this figure who is less an acutal person and more an embodiment of domestic bliss, a lack of ambition, a bovine-like addiction to only the most tits-up boring tasks around the home (a video a friend shares with me today offers continued evidence of what we perceive in or want to create for today’s woman: a life fulfilled by the most pornographic immersion and pleasure of the most basic forms of domesticity), a woman vaguely religious perhaps, not very intelligent, maybe earthy and to a degree stoic; someone easily obsessed with material possessions for easy living, someone who bakes cookies – yes, like I do – but perhaps doesn’t smoke a clove cigarette out the window while doing so (yes, like I do).
If you don’t already see the joke let me spell it out. I am a normal woman, with many of the personal and spiritual traits I had before I pushed a baby out of my vagina – and I stay home and care, mostly, for my family. This makes me a housewife. If I am to a small or large degree smart, creative, autonomous, foul-mouthed, etc etc. I am not an “exception” to the housewife class, I am a new person you can add to your known “housewife” acquaintances and stop being so lazy about what you think that word means. I do not in any way mean the two friends whose comments sparked this writing – again, this is a common theme I run across in my life – I am saying our entire culture, way of life, could benefit from broadening the perception of roles and morals permissible and normative for women. Women themselves need to speak up and make sure this happens.
What upsets me is how many women sell themselves short and allow others – heck, a lot of people they don’t even know – to define both their value and their shortcomings. I know women who work largely because they can’t accept the ego-sting of being “just” a housewife. I know women who work because their husbands or partners would be kind of shitty to them if they didn’t earn money – and they – these women – on some level accept this as a valid criticism. I know women who work because they “have to” but who tell me in hushed tones how much they admire my husband and my decisions to live without the things they have but (purportedly) don’t want: television and cable, cell phones, a crippling mortgage, new cars, big cars, furniture, toys, Hanna Andersson clothing for the babies, material status, stuff stuff stuff.
I know women who work because they like to work and who are sick of having to work “and then some”- to prove they are so organized and awesome as a mother it’s OK that they work, too! I know women who like to work but also want to keep up domestically with women who don’t. Women who literally can’t just say, “Yeah, I work, and it takes my energy and time, and so the house is kind of a shit heap, and I’m cool with that.”**
I know women who stay home who feel like they are better mothers than ones that work.
Straight up, it’s true: I’ve seen it. To which I say, in my stern Wanda Sykes voice – Knock it off!
I know women who stay home and, the minute they want to complain about this or that, just to take the edge off the busy and harried day, are treated to condescension born from our culture’s obsession with denigrating work of the home and of the body: of course you hate your life honey, because your life sucks and you do shit work all day. I mean after all, dishes and laundry are just beneath our worth and intellect and education to perform day in and day out. Housewifery itself sucks, poor you. I don’t know HOW you do it, I couldn’t keep my SANITY. (These kinds of cultural prejudices lead me to wonder, who, then, is responsible for cleaning our bodies and homes? … do you people know the Brawney man and Mr. Clean are works of marketing fiction, not actual men who come in and clean our house for us in a tight white t-shirt?).
I am not here to pull on the tangled string of the resentfully-employed woman’s motives and deep desires – and it must be pointed out categorically that any consideration of the family well-being should be taken by all responsible adults in the household, not just the ladies, and not just to the sacrifice of their wants and needs. I trust (as in, I perform the action of trusting) my sisters and friends to sort out what’s right for them and their families. And if in any way my nonsensical and personal rants help these women to think more for themselves and less of what the world may think of us – and speak up about their reality! – then my occasional carpal tunnel flareups after my diarrhetic writings will not be in vain.
For the last few months I’ve worked as a waitress three point five hours a week. Believe it or not, this small work-for-pay commitment does in fact interfere with the rhythm of my family life, enough that although I’ve enjoyed waitressing, I’ve consistently turned down the (surprisingly large) number of additional head-hunting efforts made for my performance as employee. Because I know I can’t truly have everything I want, and what I want most for now is to be a housewife.
Nels’ last day of preschool is next Friday, and I will be back to being a full, as in 100%, not 98%, stay-at-home mother. I will miss my handful of hours, my tiny bit of paid employment, most of which has gone to shoes and food for my family. I will miss having a very short amount of time to be not at all answerable to my children (although it must be said; my children are always out there somewhere, a phone call away – and some closer than that – Sophie accompanies me to this work shift). But I am happy to have my Fridays back because, actually, I feel I have more freedom in being at home with my children than I have any other time in my life.
Bottom line is, as my friends’ comments point out – being a mother does not disrupt my autonomy in some manner of sad-sack, inevitable tragedy, unless I decide it does. And we’d all do well to remember that.
* Actual quote from some old fart I worked with, after I left my engineering job.
** And of course, I know many smart women who don’t fall into – or merely only occasionally trip on – these ego-traps.