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Home Economics 101: Feminism and Marxism Go Toe-to-Toe In the Ring

November 18, 2013

I Didn’t Know I’d “Opted Out,” I thought I was just living my life.

It turns out I was part of a large cohort of women who ‘opted out’ of their intense, challenging, and time-consuming work lives, giving up high-powered jobs to stay home and take care of their children. Most of these women were younger than me in 2003, when New York Times’ writer Lisa Belkin initially wrote her story about those of us who made that choice.

Young women facing this choice in 2013 are concerned they’re going to lose too much if they give up their paying jobs. If you read the two articles and the comments beneath the stories, you’ll find that 20-somethings nowadays have learned a harsh lesson from our voracious times, which is that they should not give up their paycheck, no matter what.

That’s not the message I would have liked for them to have received, any more than I received the message my mother hoped I would from the 1977 book about role expectations and injustices against women,  The Women’s Room, by Marilyn French, which I read as an adolescent while my mother railed against men.

Instead, I wish women today could truly believe they would be highly valued no matter what choice they make; I want all women to be valued for our simple humanity, rather than our earning power. Sadly, this hope isn’t realistic in a world where personal values are shaped by market forces.

The Consequences of Not Making Money

According to her updated article of August 11, 2013, in which Belkin returns to the subject, this was a pivotal, life-changing decision we made, producing some negative, and some positive, outcomes. 

For those marriages that didn’t make it, it turns out that staying home and taking care of your children is seen, from the earning spouse’s perspective, as a holiday from The Real World.

If you leave your paying job entirely, it turns out, these spouses—many of whom were raised during the aftermath of the war between the sexes that was feminism, as were their wives—lose respect for you, get jealous of your ‘time off,’ and find some way to undermine your efforts, now that you are considered less of a person because you stay home.

This phenomenon, of highly-paid or, at the very least, ambitious and motivated, women giving up their corporate-style work lives to stay home and take care of their children is, realistically, a challenge to everything we in the 1970s and ’80s were told to revere. By the middle-1980s, women were not only strongly encouraged to work, we were told that without a career (not a mere 9-5  job you could jettison easily, but a True Calling) we would most likely never live up to our formidable social, intellectual and economic potential. It turns out women are powerhouses of ability.

happy housewife

I don’t remember ever seeing anything like this in real life, but I think this is what the outside world imagines goes on in the home when no one’s looking.

Now, if you live in a home with children, and you’re not slovenly, you work. You work damned hard most of the time. Once or twice, I’d ask my spouse to take more than a day off to devote solely to ‘the home,’ which, according to him, almost drove him around the bend, because being at home with children of any age is more than physically challenging; it’s mentally challenging, particularly when your children are not fun to be with.

The Downside to This Situation Looks A Lot Like Being Taken for Granted

Any man who resents you for not working (outside the home) is missing the point of what it means to be a caretaker, and doesn’t understand the worth of volunteering—cause that’s what you are, from an economic standpoint: a volunteer in the home.

The underlying prejudice anyone who devalues caretaking comes with is, “This requires no special license, certificate, or permit; therefore, this is easy, anyone can do it.” Therefore, it’s not worth very much, in an economic sense. Because we link personal ‘worth’ with economic ‘worth,’ those who take care of others, who essentially volunteer their time, are also not ‘worth’ very much. 

Having been many things on the continuum of life, from university educator to Chief Bottle Washer of my own company to Head of Laundry Facilitation and Procurement Expert at home, I beg to differ. Your prejudice betrays a) your lack of experience as a caretaker of others’ (often irrational and whiny) needs, as well as b) your imbrication in a soul-less economic system that devalues humanity in general and is destroying the planet. A little harsh? I urge you to take care of something properly, and see how that works out for you; it requires more selflessness than you’re bargaining on. If it seems easy to you, you’re doing it wrong.

What Was I Thinking? 

Approximately 10 years ago, I stopped working full-time for three specific reasons. The first had to do with my daughter, who, at the age of 14, experienced a classic adolescent crisis, and required full-time attention. This included me watching her like a hawk so that she didn’t fall into the hands of her Evil Friends who threatened to turn her into a drug addict. Since I am not kidding, I leave you to judge me harshly, but from our perspective at the time, with her friends no longer attending school, dropping out, turning to crime, etc., we saw Disaster Looming.

Reason Number Two: An hour commute in each direction while my child was deconstructing meant I was unlikely to get home until 7 p.m. or later. With an adolescent in crisis, a commute looks foolish. If you think your drive is bad while sitting in traffic, consider what it feels like to sit in traffic, imagining the worst when you get home.

Reason Number Three: This reason is also known as The Straw That Broke This Camel’s Back. Remember what happened to the economy after 2001, 9/11, and the Bush Regime changed all our expectations? If you don’t, I do. Women my age do. I was newly on the job market in 2002, after finishing my doctorate in a subject that doomed me to work at the low end of the academic food chain. That already-minimal market closed down, with the same banging, clanging sounds you hear during the opening credits of Get Smart from the ’60s. That market has yet to reopen fully, and we’re now 12 years on.

In sum, there were strong reasons for me to bow out of a marketplace that wasn’t exactly thriving at that particular moment in time.

Who Saw This Coming?

Backing up all the way to the idealism of the 1970s, when feminism hit hard, the story we were told by our teary-eyed mothers was some version of “Your generation is so lucky. You can have it all.”

Well, guess what? It turns out that when our mothers said that, they didn’t know what they were talking about, because they had no practical experience with ‘having it all.’ The closest you came in those days was to work, rather desperately and sadly at some fairly low-wage paying job until you were lucky enough to be rescued by your Knight In Shining Armor. Until that miracle occurred, you were haunted by the fear of lonely solitude, sharing cans of tuna with your cats in your waning years. Most of Jane Austen’s plots revolve around this fear. 

But if you found your Knight, society strongly expected that you would stop working to raise kids, clean out your refrigerator on a weekly basis, and take care of the grandparents as they slipped into senility.

What’s Different Now?

The major thing that really changed between my mother’s generation and mine was America’s attitude about women working outside the home. It became more than acceptable for women to work in an office or elsewhere; in fact, a man’s reaction to a woman working an outside job seems to me to be a marker of what generation he was born in. If he’s all gung-ho for you to work outside the house, that’s either because his mother worked (rare for those men who are older than me); or he sees you as a way to relieve some of the financial pressure. And realistically, two incomes are better, in many ways, than one. 

Here we go, this is closer to reality, except for how pleased she is. That's not normal.

Here we go, this is closer to reality, except for how calm she looks. That’s not normal.

Except when you have kids.

Just in case no generation ever figures this out, and you only have me to tell you, children kind of do require some full-time attention every now and then. Does it make a woman less of a person, less of an individual, to care for, to take care of, others?

Does the brain physically atrophy when you don’t spend all day in meetings, behind the keyboard of this computer, or on a phone, making deals? Yes, I know: Raising children and cleaning up slop all day is significantly less attractive than starring in your own Broadway show, but are you less of a human being for doing so?

There’s A Lot Wrong With Us

I think there are some very serious things wrong with American society, or perhaps Western society in general, when we devalue someone who takes care of other people. What, caretaking is only a real occupation if you’re a doctor or a nurse? Come on. The dream of the 1970s feminist movement promised choices, but in fact, if we devalue the choices people make, what have we actually accomplished as a society?

A truly savvy person understands that we are all in this very leaky boat together, and recognizes that there are important, protective values associated with nurturing, caretaking, and giving something without a price tag attached. I worry about a society which honestly believes a woman is less-than, one-down, if she isn’t getting paid to work, just as my mother’s generation deplored the fact of women’s devaluation if they didn’t produce children. This pendulum swing is so much of a cultural 180˚, it would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.

Lost in the middle of this kind of elitist cultural debate, of course, are all the families who cannot afford for either parent to go without a job.  My childhood was like that; my mother had to work, until, as fate would have it, she was ‘lucky’ enough to find a man who could support us. This is part of why I know how much is at stake, both when women are forced to work and when women are forced to stay home.

Marriages fall apart due to cultural expectations that rely on such vagaries as changes in collective beliefs that then influence the individual. If you’re swept up in the larger collective forces shaping our lives, all you can do is find a way to navigate that terrain. Less judgementalism and more gratitude and understanding in the face of social reality would be helpful, it seems to me.

Time to say thanks to people who cook for you and provide you with the money for dinner. Either way, both skills are necessary. Marx would have loved that idea.

Time to say thanks to the people who cook for you and provide you with the money to make dinner. Either way, both skills are necessary. Marx would have appreciated me for saying so.

I have long thought that feminists fought for women’s rights in the 1960s and ’70s, but did they actually fight for women’s freedom? At the time, I know they honestly believed they were paving the way to freedom from the tyranny of the home, as it was lived by far too many women throughout history. Yet we have only come so far; true freedom eludes us.

Even as a teenager, it was my perception that real freedom meant you’d have real choices; that men and women should be able to do what we want with our lives, whatever that is. My idealistic dream was never going to be attainable, though.

You know why?

Because economics determines choices, not ‘free will’ or any social movement, no matter how well-meaning. The utopian women who pioneered feminism and women’s rights in the 1960s and ’70s are now aging, dying out, but their daughters and grand-daughters now cope with economic realities at a peculiar, mind-bending time in society, when social expectations have changed dramatically, in a way my mother and my grandmother, both of whom worked, could not have foreseen.

Some women who ‘opted out’ now have the audacity to want to “opt back in,” as The New York Times’ article states. How realistic this is remains to be seen. We are not only older; our perspectives have changed after a decade or more of caretaking. Our values are different, as one would expect. We’re not as rapacious as we used to be. The combination of time and—please God—wisdom, has altered our need or desire for ‘moremoremore’ we were taught we were supposed to want back in the Gordon Gecko Greed-is-Good ’80s. 

The economic realities of Marxism will always trump Feminism’s idealism in the real world, but tell that to the millions of men and women fighting each other right now over whose ‘turn’ it is to change the baby’s diaper. Consider instead the market forces that compel you into having this argument in the first place. Consider letting go of the ideals, idealization, and romanticism of your ‘rights,’ and take into account that the person who stays home, or receives the paycheck, is less important than the ability to work as a team, fighting the good fight against larger market forces that will always prevail over human rights, if we let them.

The only escape from market forces and their necessary outcome, consumerism, is to really opt out. Get off the grid. Live simply. Make do with less, and be happy about it. Grow your own peas. And put the person who is willing to take care of folding socks and wipe the baby’s dribbling chin on a pedestal, because it’s highly unlikely you could afford to hire someone to do it for you; but if you can afford it, why not go on a real holiday and quit bitching about who has it easier or harder in your marriage?

There: In this one short article, we have solved most divorces. All it takes is a change in attitude, and some gratitude. Everyone pulls together, no one is blamed, and the person who gives up their job is valued for their non-material, but nonetheless necessary contributions to the family and to society.

Could you live with those values? Or do you need to attach a price tag to everything done for you? If so, consider paying the person who stays at home what s/he’s worth in the economic marketplace. If corporations value volunteerism, shouldn’t you?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Phee Phee Larue permalink
    November 24, 2013 9:18 AM

    “Umbrage”–It is wonderful to read some of your personal recollections from the feminist efforts of the ’60’s and ’70’s. Like your mother, I was single with a small child and no means of support beyond myself. My hope was not that my daughter would “have it all” but that she would always be prepared to “do it all”. As Arlie Russell Hochschild wrote in the Second Shift (first published in ’89 and recently revised/updated in 2012), whether they work within and/or outside the home, women do most of the housework/childcare. Having skills that can actually garner enough funds to enable you to live above poverty, gives you a stronger position in the relationship and, if necessary, allows you to leave a physical or emotionally abusive one. In the latter sense, feminism really was “freedom” for both mother and children. I will be sending this article to my daughter and hope to have an interesting dialogue with her about her memories. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

    • November 24, 2013 2:47 PM

      Thank you for taking the time to put these thoughts into perspective. It’s clear that some of the fundamental ideals of feminism “came true.” Women were “liberated” from the shackles of certain forms of societal expectations: we no longer “have to” take care of the home and hearth.

      That does seem to me to be the only real ‘freedom’ that came out of that period, however, and even then, it’s a tenuous one.

      We live in a time when women are usually—not always, but mostly—forced by economic circumstances to work long days outside the home. Perhaps inside the home there is somewhat greater parity, but not from what I’ve read.

      It’s very hard to know for sure what marriages look like from inside, since one is rarely inside of any but one’s own. Women seem to report more often than not that we still do most of the work in the house, so that expectation hasn’t really changed in the past 50 years.

      Probably the biggest change, that will last the longest, is the opportunity for women to work in more fields outside the home than we once could. I suspect that, and men’s attitudes toward women, and what women are capable of, changed the most.

      Aside from that… there are still major injustices, massive prejudices, massive abuses. We see evidence of misogyny every single day; these instances are always worst in bad economic times in places where educational opportunities are poor or non-existent, as even the earliest feminists knew. The goal, it seems to me, is for men to respect women. That respect seems to be hard-won.

      I would very much appreciate you passing this article on. Thanks very much for reading!

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