Thursday, October 15, 2009

Sharing the Kids Equally (Thoughts on Feminism, Capitalism, and Simplicity)

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

So, Melissa has flown the coop, escaping to Washington D.C. for the next four days to hang out with friends old and new, and chat in person with many of her online book-blogger peers at the KidLitosphere Conference, an annual gathering of bloggers who specialize in children's, youth, and young adult fiction. (Melissa will read and review anything, but she does have her preferences.) That leaves me at home, responsible for four girls ranging in age from 3 to 13. Which makes me wonder about a few things. But first, the obligatory "Mr. Mom" clip:

I know for a fact that I'm not that pathetic. Not quite, anyway.

The humorous reputation which most husbands and fathers in America carry around when they're--when we're; no reason to leave myself out of this--obliged to take up duties which are usually, and stereotypically, assumed by wives and mothers is pretty insulting, of course, however true it may be. Not primarily to us guys, I think; in all likelihood, when such humor is engaged in we'll find ourselves happily appropriating it as way to set ourselves up for failure, and excuse our reliance upon women to keep the family alive and the house operating normally. No, mostly it's insulting to women, in a kind of putting-them-up-on-an-inverted-pedestal sort of way. Not that women don't use the same humorous stereotypes too; of course they do. But I think when I've heard Melissa and her friends chortle about the fact that, say, I don't know the first thing about laundry, it seems to be a bit of a defense mechanism, a reluctant, self-martyring, head-shaking justification for the world of work which invariably seems their lot in life. Of course, I'm not saying anything new or original; anyone who has taken even the tiniest glimpse at the literature--hell, anyone who has ever been married, or even in a more or less permanent heterosexual relationship--knows for a fact that most women do most household and child-rearing chores, partly by choice, but also partly because apparently even the most egalitarian of husbands and fathers find it hard to fight patterns of socialization which have surrounded us for generations.

A lot of that socialization, obviously, is tied up in a particular model of the bourgeois, post-WWII, middle- and upper-class, suburban household: one bread-winner, the man, who leaves home to work in a factory or office, and then returns home to the woman, who has stayed there all day to tend the children, prepare the food, and maintain order. It's an unequal form of socialization which has been attacked by feminists at least since Betty Friedan, if not earlier. (Some conservatives have criticized this artificial division as well, but such localist or distributist "conservative" messages have never had much luck escaping the untouched from Republican machine.)

The success of the feminist attack on this arrangement has been limited, I think, pretty much exactly to the degree to which it has not, for the most part (at least outside of purely academic circles), been extended into a attack on the capitalist presumptions which underscore it. So long as women and men are going to want to have children and bring them up in an environment of at least some stability, and so long as this essentially natural and historical process has to happen in a socio-economic context which hammers home, again and again, the arbitrary demands of specialized labor and consumer acquisition, then obviously some sort of bifurcation of the home and the workplace is going to occur, and mothers and fathers are going to have to adjust their lives so as to accommodate that. So we have the SAHMs and their incompetent husbands, or we have working moms with daycare stresses and guilt, and husbands who are enlightened enough to actually help out with some of the vacuuming occasionally. Of course, there are numerous exceptions to this, and perhaps we're seeing more all the time; but still, overall those exceptions remain just that: exceptionally rare. (I just got back from picking up Kristen, our youngest, from her half-day pre-school, and I was the only man anywhere in the building. Admittedly, Wichita isn't going to be particularly rife with folks choosing to buck traditional stereotypes, but I seriously doubt that even in New York or San Francisco would you see such numbers skewed a whole lot the other way.)

I think about all this, because I think about equality, and would like to believe that, in small ways, here and there, Melissa and I have managed to make for ourselves a somewhat more egalitarian home than the ones we knew growing up. Part of our success in this, I believe, can be attributed to the fact that we've been conscientious enough, or lucky enough, or both, to develop a way of life which minimizes some of the ways which the marketplace can drive a person away from a home environment where it's possible to implement and maintain a little more balance.

As in so many things, I find Laura McKenna to be a brilliant guide to this tangle of issues, and she's contributed some sharp observations to the debate again and again. In one of the above posts, she comments about the idea of families embracing the kind of equal division of labor which opting out of consumer capitalism potentially makes possible; while she's dubious of going the whole "radical" distance, she thinks the idea has merit, point out that "[t]here is absolutely no reason that feminism should mean a devotion to capitalism." This comment of hers came back to me when I read Rod Dreher's recent post about how much he--a full-time journalist and writer, a man who has confessed several times that, despite his localist aspirations, he'd simply feel lost and useless if he had provide for his family without relying upon the broad world of information and words and ideas--depends on his wife to manage a life which dissents in even small ways from the pressures of consumer capitalism. Rod quotes at length from the always provocative Sharon Astyk, who, in the context of a discussion about dealing with economic breakdown rather trenchantly observes:

[W]hile collapse as a whole, with its radical dislocation of male roles and providers, is probably scarier and more destructive to men than to women; volunteering to live a low energy life probably is more frightening to many women than to men--and for pretty good reasons. Because there's an excellent chance that the reality is likely to be that the practical burdens of hauling groceries home on a donkey, emptying the composting toilet bucket and stoking the sauna are likely to become the wife's chores...I [do not] think it is coincidental that many women married to more traditional men are unthrilled with the vision of a low energy future, and a return to the bad old days, in which "men may work from sun to sun, but women's work is never done."

It's not unusual to get arguments from a variety of mainstream liberals--not populists or social democrats or others that can sometimes be called up short by arguments about what kind of socio-economic and cultural conditions really make democratic communities possible, but ordinary, smart progressives--that recognize Astyk's point, and as a result want to call the whole thing off. Matthew Yglesias, when talking about the way certain celebrity chefs have turned to a celebration of locally produced, home-cooked meals, observes very simply: "If...gender norms were shifting toward the idea that women should get married young and drop out of the workforce in order to do unpaid domestic work, then obviously people would start cooking more. But that’s not what’s happening." Indeded, it's not. And rightly so; the revolution which enabled women to exercise rights and develop themselves as full participants in public life has been, whatever its incidental downsides, an overwhelming moral and civic boon to Western civilization (when you've even got folks on a localist website like Front Porch Republic observing that downsizing one's involvement in consumer capitalism is harder on wives than husbands, or writing that "I'm not sure if, given the choice with the sweep of history in front of me, I would choose a century or place other than the 20th Century west, and I’m even more inclined to think I wouldn't choose anything else for my daughters"--a sentiment I completely agree with--then you know there's no going back). So clearly, there is going to be a limit to how far the great majority of us who desire the many natural and historical goods provided by your basic family unit are going to be able or willing to fight against the specialization and consumption which I mentioned above. The question, I suppose, a question without any one lasting or universal answer, will figuring out where those limits are, and whether they can be pushed in any way, in the name of a life both humble and equal.

Rod argues that the only hope for families to achieve both goals is to have a relationship that focuses on something besides each other. He has a point there. I wonder if it may be that only a higher trust can make it possible for each partner to truly trust that the other will do whatever is necessary, or learn whatever skill is necessary, to support the other as they turn, if only partly, away from systems of consumer dependence that may be truly liberating in particular (as they historically have been for most women) but which overall make any long-term equality that much more difficult to achieve. But I also wonder--in the spirit of the aforementioned compromises, or at least in the spirit of sharing the tensions involved in such--if that trust might not be productively aided by a little wise public policy. Which takes me back to one of my favorite pieces of writing: my friend Damon Linker's essay about when he first became a father, and the conclusions it brought to him in regards to family life:

Ever since the 1950s, a woman choosing the life of the stay-at-home mom has faced the prospect of isolation far more profound than would have been typical in earlier times. After her husband walks out the door in the morning, she is usually left alone with only her child for company. Such a life is hardly traditional; nor is it, for many women, appealing...Instead of asking women to suppress their desire for the goods that come from pursuing an occupation outside the home, men could begin to put somewhat less emphasis on their own careers and recognize the very real goods that flow from sharing more of the joys and the burdens of parenting--even if it means that they must live with the same tensions faced by modern women...[S]uch tensions could be somewhat diminished for both parents if the government would expand the provisions for maternity leave that are part of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. We could also follow the lead of many European countries in providing for paternity leave. Surely a nation as wealthy as ours could afford the costs of policies that would so clearly benefit the modern family.

That wouldn't solve the whole dilemma of sharing the kids equally (a dilemma particularly vexing for those of us who want to pursue a simpler, more local way of life), of course--no one thing ever could. But at the very least, Laura agrees with me that a little European-style "conservatism" might make for family relationships that are a little more equal, a little more feminist, and slightly less filled with complex and confusing competing. Worth striving for, wouldn't you agree?

All right, Kristen's done with Backyardigans; time to clean up a bit before everyone else comes home. Back to doing my bit, I suppose.


Rob said...

"...most women do most household and child-rearing chores..."

Couldn't disagree more. Many men run completely counter to these tired old cliches. Statements like this only perpetuates those stereotypes.

I'll boldly assert that not only do I handle the lion's share of the domestic duties in our household, but I'm better at those tasks. I don't wash dishes or do laundry because I enjoy those jobs - I simply want them done in a timely, efficient fashion.

My wife handles the bill-paying and paperwork shuffling tasks and I tackle the majority of the household chores and at least 50% of the child-rearing duties as well.

Falling back on these kinds of cliches makes it easier for the few Neanderthals (for whom the stereotype fits) to continue making a bad name for the rest of us guys who're trying desperately to be progressive.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Rob, this has been hashed over at length on the thread at Front Porch Republic, but just to respond to you here as well, let's be clear: there are plenty of exceptions to my claim, and you're to be praised for being one of those exceptions. But the data makes it indisputable that such exceptions as yourself remain rare. Yes, I recognize that in pointing out the reality I am perpetuating a stereotype, but as any sensible, honest person must admit, many stereotypes are built upon a truth--and the truth, in America today, is still that wives and mothers are regularly obliged to do the great majority of the housework in their homes, in addition to any and all their other vocations. Sad, but a fact.

MH said...

I do enjoy the Backyardigans as far as kids TV. It easily has the best music of any competing show.

Les said...

Pray God you can cope
I stand outside this woman's work
This woman's world
Oh, it's hard on the man,
Now his part is over.
Now starts the craft of the father.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Kate Bush! Les, thanks for that.