Leroy got a better job so we moved
Kevin lost a tooth, he’s started school
I’ve got a brand new eight month old baby girl
I sound like a housewife
Hey Chel, I think I’m a housewife
-“Anchorage,” Michelle Shocked
My parents both worked, and they had an enviable and sane balance of household duties. She cooked (well), he made our school lunches, did laundry and took us to the dentist, she gardened, he mowed and weeded, they decorated together, and a gnomelike little woman from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula deep-cleaned once a week. We kept our own rooms clean, walked the dog, emptied the dishwasher, set the table and generally did as we were instructed. Not only was my mother not June Cleaver; I was keenly aware that a mere decade before my birth women had been trapped at home whether they wanted to be there or not. My mother’s best friend Joyce, who I loved and admired, said often that she “nearly went crazy” during the years that she tried to stay home with her children before returning to teaching. I grew up vaguely scornful of women who did not work, squandering their hard-won freedom in exchange for days of “ring around the collar” and recipes involving canned, creamed soups. I did not believe that I would ever be married or have children, and my future seemed necessarily to be all about the well-cut suit, the Lean Cuisine and the pleasing of no one but my dynamic and fully actualized self.
The older I got, however, the more I noticed a virulent strain of domesticity creeping into my daily life. My dorm rooms were always “decorated,” and I loved the time I spent arranging furniture, hanging curtains, and creating appealing landscapes of books, colored pencils and found objects. I entertained, “borrowing” glasses and plates from the dining hall, riding a borrowed bike outside City limits to buy wine, and fashioning ersatz canapes from whatever I could find at the Ben Franklin on Main Street. When I had a law office, I decorated it with white furniture, a cozy floral waiting room couch, walls of (non law) books, hanging plants, and bright oil paintings. Classical music played constantly, I burned scented candles, and I made really good coffee that was served in mugs made by a potter friend.
When I got married, after courting my husband mostly in my bright, warm little office-home, I had already had my son. (Definitely not June Cleaver). My plan was to take the baby to work with me, and continue blazing trails of truth and justice. What actually happened was that I was far more interested in the baby than in anything else I was supposed to be doing; after three months Rob and I decided that we could afford for me to close the practice, parcel out my cases, and work very part-time from home. I was a housewife, and I absolutely loved it. I decorated, I crafted, I cooked, I baked, I was delighted by the baby, I reveled in piled of clean, warm laundry and I made “mommy friends” who were also home all day. There was never a single moment when I resented the arrangement, longed to be working again, or felt even remotely “crazy.” It was the best job in the world for me, and I felt incredibly fortunate that I had the option to stay home. Sam was in day care a few hours a week while I worked, and I saw that as an opportunity for him to love another set of people, and to be open to the world.
I know that most families need two working parents, and that there are legions of women who would love to stay home with their children, at least in the early years, and can’t afford to stop working. I also realize that the whole question of who stays home, if anyone, and whether it benefits children is a huge, touchy sore on the body of domestic policy from the personal to the national. We made a decision, for our family, that it was good for me to be at home and involved in Sam’s school life for as long as we could afford it, and that we were willing to make some trade-offs to make it possible to work only part-time, and from home. We didn’t take vacations, we drove cars until they fell apart, we didn’t eat out much, and we rarely had the most expensive or latest gadgets. We saved money because I had no work-related expenses, we paid for minimal daycare, I cooked creatively on a tight budget, and I really enjoyed garage sale hunting and turning discards into useful, household objects.
As time passed, we decided that it would be good if I earned more money; Sam was getting older and more independent, my stepdaughter was out of the house, and the economy was eroding the salary that had made it possible for Rob to support us all comfortably. I work part-time, but occasionally I have a full-time gig; two years ago I was press staff for a federal Congressional campaign and worked more than eight hours a day for several months. Just last week I completed a writing job that consumed most of my waking hours for two months. I felt good about the financial contributions I was able to make, and I thought it was important for Sam to see the example of a strong, working woman, but I was always aware that things at home were falling apart; the kitchen floor got dustier and dustier, laundry was sometimes scrounged from the “dirty” basket and pressed into service, and more than one takeout meal appeared on the table at 6:00. No one died; it’s how lots of families live all the time, of necessity. That didn’t make me like it any better.
At the moment, I am between jobs. The writing project is over, and I don’t start my next “real” job (as Hospitality Coordinator for a local church) until June 1st. I am engaged in a glorious frenzy of polishing wood floors, re-covering throw pillows, making homemade granola, bread and soup, washing dogs and ironing summer linens. I do not wear heels, pearls or a cinch-waisted dress, I do not fix Rob a cocktail and freshen my lipstick when he comes home, and I do not watch soap operas. My brain is fully intact, but my heart is at ease. The sacrifices made by the feminists before me are always on my psychic radar, but surely they were blazing a trail for me to be allowed, not only to be the president of a corporation, but to be the president of the PTA if that’s what I want. I cherish the choices available to me because of their work, and because I was lucky enough to be born white and upper middle class, to parents willing and able to buy me a fine education. I am beyond blessed to be able to balance meaningful work and periods where I am, happily, “just a housewife.”
I wish we lived in a world in which parents, not just mothers, could choose to stay home with their children, at least during their earliest years if they wanted to. It saddens me tremendously that many of the families in which children would most benefit from the daily presence of a parent are those least likely to be able to afford the loss of an income. I wish that the community I live in saw as much worth in making a home for their children as they see in the amassing of “stuff.” For every woman I know who is working because she is passionate about her career, I know another who is working with a heavy heart, supporting SUV payments and an a show home with cathedral ceilings. Call me a throwback, but I believe with all my heart that the willing making of a home is a job as valuable as any other, and that it should never be viewed with cynicism or contempt. It is, at it’s best, a labor of love.