Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Meditation on the 1950s Housewife

With a recent post, Angie over at "Stumble Thru Life Gracefully" got me thinking about my career choice versus the limited choices available to the average middle class woman in the 1950s. That Damn Expat's "Wife Tips" meme also contributed to my thoughts.

There is no doubt that I have benefitted enormously from the "women’s movement." I was able to choose a career that, most days, I enjoy. I make a decent living being a lawyer. I like legal "puzzles" and helping people solve their legal problems. Overall, I’m glad I was not born in the 1930s and was not required to be a middle class homemaker for my entire adult life. And yet....

There are days when I am sick to death of being a lawyer and dealing with obnoxious people and sticky legal issues and judges who "don't get it" and I think, wow, I wish I could stay home all day and have time to clean my house and bake cookies and do art projects with my kids. Even though I don’t love cleaning, I think I would pretty quickly find a routine for getting the major housecleaning and errands done, and would then find time for fun things, too, like reading, baking, bicycling, trying new recipes, perhaps an art class, playing tennis... whatever.

If my husband could afford to have me stay home and do all the cleaning, shopping, and errands, and if I were willing, it would undoubtedly make his life easier, too. I would handle chores like getting his oil changed, taking out the garbage, shopping, paying bills, mowing the lawn, picking up uniforms for his soccer team at school, and so forth that he is always having to squeeze in during weekends and evenings, and we would have more time to just "hang out" with each other and with the kids.

I also often think how nice it would be, as a busy attorney, to have a "wife" to do things for me, like clean the house, run errands, cook, shop for groceries, pay bills, iron clothes, take the kids to music class and doctor appointments, etc.

When I worked at a large law firm, I always felt there was "unfair competition" in the billable hours race. Many (perhaps even most) of the male associates had wives who stayed home and handled all of the day-to-day cleaning, tasks, and errands for them. Thus, it was easier for them to show up at 8 a.m. and stay until 6 p.m., while remaining focused on their work throughout the day. Because my husband and I divide such tasks, I was often having to show up late or leave early to handle some errand or another, or make telephone calls during the day to schedule doctor appointments, or to rush home and clean the house because we were planning to have company that evening. It made it hard to compete in the "billable hours" game, and led to me working lots of late nights and weekends – time I would rather have spent with my husband.

Similarly, if I could afford to have my husband stay home – and if he were willing – to do all those day-to-day errands, kid-related tasks, and major housecleaning, it would definitely make my life easier and would probably help me focus more on my job instead of on the dry-cleaning that needs to be picked up or the kid party that needs to be planned. Plus I’d have more free time at home and, without the ever-growing "to do" list, I would be more relaxed and be better able to enjoy my husband and kids. (I’d be a little sad, though, I have to confess, to miss all those piano lessons and sports practices that I currently attend.)

Thus, I can genuinely understand how the men in the 1950s were, shall we say, less than enthusiastic when women wanted to stop being happy little homemakers and go get a job. I mean, if you were the recipient of all that extra assistance, which allowed you to focus on your career and get regular raises and promotions, you certainly wouldn't want to give it up, either, thereby finding yourself with a dirty house, more errands on your "to do" list, a wife who now complains that her day was stressful and By the way, honey, can you cook dinner tonight? – and on top of all that, to suddenly have to compete in the workplace with a whole new contingent of bright, motivated people who are out to beat you in the "I want a promotion" game.

"What? What happened to my paradise?" those poor men must have been thinking. No wonder they objected.

And yet, the change had to come. It was simply wrong to insist that women stay home and "take care of their man."

But the problem, as I see it, was not in the division of labor per se – one spouse staying home to cook, clean, and generally "run" life, while the other earned a paycheck. The problem, as I see it, was in forcing people into this job, particularly when the decision about who should be forced into the homemaker role was based solely on gender.

In other words, I definitely see "homemaking" as a valid choice of occupation for a woman or a man to make (assuming the other partner makes enough income for this to be feasible, and agrees that it is a good choice for the marriage). In fact, it is a choice that could well be good for many people – and their kids – if affordable and if both people want this arrangement, and if both people accord due respect to the sacrifices and hardships the other is enduring.

There also has to be some recognition of the value of the homemaking role and of the fact that voluntarily undertaking the homemaking role will severely limit a person’s future employment options, so that if people get divorced, there is a provision for the former homemaker to receive a reasonable amount of financial assistance for a reasonable amount of time from the former beneficiary of all that homemaking, so he / she can obtain a degree and get a job and/or find a new "love" who likes the idea of marrying a homemaker.

The difference between my little utopic ideal and the stifling atmosphere of the 1950s is all about the attitude and the options -- a career of homemaking should be an equal-opportunity option -- i.e., a choice that men, as well as women, can freely make without being ridiculed. It should also be a true choice -- i.e., a choice that is made only if both partners to the marriage agree. There should be no unilateral decisions to abandon the work force and the income it provides, and no attempts to force the other person into the homemaker role by any person or institution in our society.

And it should be a choice that both parties recognize has monetary value and yet limits the homemaker’s future options, so that if they end up divorcing, there is no one crying and whining about being required to pay alimony for a reasonable amount of time.

What do you think?

Should all people, women and men, get a job and split those household duties? Is it hopelessly anachronistic and only the province of the devoutly religious to have a stay-at-home parent? Or should it be a widely accepted and even promoted occupational choice for both men and women?

If you are a homemaker (male or female), do you enjoy your role? Do you prefer it, or would you rather be working?

If you have a job / career outside the home (male or female), do you enjoy it? Do you prefer it, or would you be a homemaker if you could?

Whatever you do, do you feel "judged" by those who have made a different choice?


Dave said...

Interesting post, and certainly a topic that many of us consider and struggle with.
If given the right circumstance, I would of been the stay at home in this family many years ago when Dan was a baby. It just worked out better for Janet to stay at home. It did take some soul searching and some major downsizing in life in all areas for her to leave her job that brought in a signifigant six figure salary. Shock and awe to the house was quick and furious, and we found ourselves selling the big house and moving to wonderful but small town house. Half the mortgage payment, had the taxes, half the utility bills. All and all it worked. But the subject of your post was always there in the room: "What did I give up? How good could I have been? What would I have accomplished" said Janet to herself I am sure.
Tough decisions, but in hindsight, when we look at our boy now at 14, the right one

That damn expat said...

Great post, as always.

The point is, as you mentioned it, in choice. We have a choice women back then didn't. And choice is the whole point of the movement.
I don't judge but I do feel judged sometimes. I just flip them off.

Laura said...

I think the choice really depends on what works best for the family as you had mentioned. I would love to be a stay at home mom when I have children, but it will really depend on our financial stability at that point. As for the gender issue, I think either could be the stay at home parent.

SkylersDad said...

My wife worked in banking before we had Skyler, and there really was no discussion over her staying home with him when he was born with special needs. He needed so much help, and made a lot more money and had a lot better benefits.

Michael5000 said...

Four generations ago, our great-grandparents secured the forty-hour week, and many in the middle and upper classes managed to live comfortably on a single income. With the level of technological progress and improvement in productivity that has occurred since then, it is simply ridiculous that we are working more instead of less.

It seems to me that the time for the thirty-hour week is way overdue. And it should be rigorously enforced, in particular, in professions like law and medicine and in management; people who work over 30 hours per week (or over 40 in the current system) are taking an unreasonable share of the high-value work for themselves.

But then, I'm a crank.

Fancy Schmancy said...

It should certainly be a private choice on what works best for your family.

Legal Diva said...

I've stayed home with kids for the last 8 years or so. Good days and bad. I've loved it and hated it. Wanted to work and didn't. Working moms would see me as lucky to be home, and other moms at home would commiserate on wanting to be working somewhere else. For me, a lot of my issue is the recognition you mentioned. I also am feeling the sting from having stayed home and now needing a job. Even though I am in law school, ranked in top 10%, and qualified for a paralegal position... I can't get a damn job. Partly the economy sucks, but I also haven't worked. Would they like a recommendation from my 6 year old as a 'recent supervisor'? I mean really. So, I am trudging along looking for something to pay my newly acquired bills.

I think like most other family decisions, it should be a personal one, with no one to judge or criticize. But life is not that way. My soon to be ex and I have made decisions in our MDA that people think are crazy and I'm sure I've yet to hear the end of what people think I should do or be doing or not do or be doing. But the bottom line is... we decided what was best for us and our children. We put them first in the process, as they have been since they were born. We, as parents, know their needs better than anyone. Whether its who stays home with kids or where/when kids spend time after a divorce, its all a very personal decision for each family.