Thursday, April 14, 2011

Free to be a homemaker...

One point where I feel like the feminist messages of the seventies were fairly effective was in convincing people that men are also responsible for housework and child-rearing -- that it's not automatically the woman's job. There's still a long way to go, but I have the impression that, for men and women of my generation and later, expectations on this front changed noticeably compared to the previous generations.

This is true for child-rearing in particular. Not so long ago, pushing a baby-buggy was equivalent to wearing a dress. I have a vague memory of this being a popular comedy situation, to show the poor man having to take care of his child for an afternoon. The director would even have the poor sap wear a frilly apron over his dapper suit, to emphasize the absurdity of the situation. He's a man and he's trying to take care of a baby -- hahaha!! Now you see men walking down the street carrying babies in pouches or pushing them in strollers, and it doesn't cross anyone's mind to see that as strange.

The "Free to Be..." album I discussed the other day had a track about how it's OK for a boy to want a doll because he might want to learn to nurture babies too. (Aside: this track, like the one about boys crying, seemed to portray bullying as inevitable, but basically said the boy shouldn't be bullied for wanting a doll.) Then there was another track that struck me as almost controversial: "Housework".

"Housework" is a poem that says, essentially, that those smiling ladies you see doing housework in TV commercials for detergents -- they're only smiling because they're actresses. Really, nobody likes doing housework, and that's why the mom and dad should share the housework load.

My modern-sensitivity-and-awareness brain immediately makes the connection between that statement and the central tension of feminism: For every role/trait that is seen as feminine and bad, some women will argue "Stop seeing this bad thing as feminine!" and others will argue "Stop seeing this feminine thing as bad!" And often both positions have merit.

It makes me wonder OK, is the above dissing SAHMs? And hence feeding the supposed enmity between career women and SAHMs that is so overhyped?

Then I wonder: Am I just being hypersensitive about this, from reading too much feminist Mormon housewives? I mean, is it really insensitive and un-PC to say that even homemakers don't like housework? Plus, I know that many SAHMs would totally agree with the moral of the poem: that the housework is not just one person's responsibility...



Leah said...

Well, I think like most of what the feminist movement tries to accomplish, it's about choice. Currently reading an interesting book on archetypes which asserts that some women (and men) do find housework to be a meaningful activity, just as there are some women for whom the Mormon gender roles fit and they find true fulfillment in that role.

I personally find housework to be drudgery, but have a (male) friend who said to me, "Housework is like Tibetan sand painting." I've been trying to keep that in mind and be little more "Zen" about the housekeeping: Just accept that it won't last and find joy in the process. Some days this works better than others.

Currently being the sole head of household, it's not about "his job vs. her job." It just has to be done. If and when I come to a time in my life when household headship is again shared, you can be certain that housework will be too!

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Leah!!!

Exactly -- it's about choice, which is why this particular line jumped out at me. I find many housework tasks Zen, too, but I doubt I'd feel that way if I didn't have other, more interesting tasks to procrastinate. But that's just me. OTOH, some homemakers might agree that housework is no fun, but might appreciate being a SAHM for other reasons.

Re: "his job vs. her job." -- there's another option: change your ideas on what really needs to get done. That was my solution when I had a too-large house filled with too-small kids (see here for evidence).

Anonymous said...

I agree with Leah. The problem stems from the false belief that women were placed on this planet to make men's lives more enjoyable and to service their various needs.

I've heard horror stories from women who end up working full time because they have to carry at least a portion (if not all) of the financial load. Then they are expected to keep up on laundry, kid-stuff, cleaning, and cooking. What a drag that would be.

I believe any such relationship should operate very much like a business partnership. Each brings different strengths and talents, etc. Both are required to pull their own weight. End of story. Otherwise it's time to go solo or to find a new partner.

Goldarn said...

From a traditionalist standpoint (read: pre-feminist) men didn't always like their jobs. A lot of them hated them. So, why should women like housework?

I'm a man. I find some housework unobjectionable, and I don't like doing other housework. My wife seems to agree (it's too bad we overlap so much in the dislike part!). I also don't always like my daily paid job, although I certainly find parts unobjectionable and even fulfilling. I didn't like housework when I lived by myself, so why should a woman? We all have to do our part to keep entropy at bay and stop our house from composting. :-)

As an aside on the subject of traditional vs modern: My HS chem teacher used to bemoan how few teenage girls he had in his classes. He'd say that from a sexist standpoint chemistry was just like cooking, so why shouldn't girls want to take chemistry? Sexist attitudes don't always make sense. That's what I noticed at an early age, because I was raised with the idea that women and men could both do anything.

Carla Schmidt Holloway said...

I don't think you're being oversensitive, I just don't think it's demeaning to SAHM's. I think it's a little bit demeaning to people of both sexes, whether they work or stay at home, who happen to like housework.

When I can get the motivation to really clean the apartment, I love doing it. I love getting to work and leaving my home looking and smelling and feeling clean. And I'm neither stay-at-home nor a mom. I just happen to have a vagina.

Stake Pres. said...

As a modern man I have risen to the point where I will now put my dishes in the sink rather than simply leaving them on the table for my wife to clean up. Sister Paternoster very much appreciates this.

C. L. Hanson said...

Excellent points, all!!

So it looks like the problem is the focus on this one task is bad, period, when it would be better to fight gendered assumptions about who has to do what. Kids should be encouraged to try out all different possibilities, and partners should negotiate their division of labor according to their interests and abilities.

As far as this album is concerned, it was a part of the message of the time that that women and men could both do anything [which both Goldarn and I remember from childhood -- when were you born, if you don't mind me asking?]. It's my impression that our more nuanced view of this issue comes from the thirty or forty years of experience with what happens when a generation of kids are raised to expect that your future shouldn't be determined by your gender.

Goldarn said...

FWIW I as born and raised in Seattle before going to BYU.

I figure feminism is a lot like computers—I know, I know, but bear with me—adults old enough to not touch a computer until their middle age are generally hesitant around them, if not out-and-out afraid. People who grew up with them have no fear of accidentally breaking them, because computers are a common part of their environment.

As people (boys and girls) who see women working alongside men as the equals grow up, they didn't have the same attitudes. Society shifted, but some occupations (like homemaker) still have a bit of stigma associated with them.

Aerin said...

I agree that everyone has to do some housework just to live in a civilized society. Whether or not it's laundry or scrubbing toliets. The "nobody likes it" argument is interesting.

Over the years I've found that people disagree about "how clean is clean" or what should be clean. For example, my idea of how clean my car should be is very different from some friends of mine. Who's right?

For people living on their own, there's one standard.

I do like the idea that cleanliness of one's home is not a "women's responsibility" but everyone's responsibility. Also, that if you don't like how clean something is, you could clean it yourself. Sadly, I'm not sure all people agree with these philosophies, even now.