Guest Post: ‘To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Your Inner Housewife’

 

by Hydrangea

(Hydrangea loves getting dirty gardening and trail running. She works as a personal trainer in the D.C. area, and as full time mother of two blued eyed kids.)

The love of a mother is perhaps the most instinctual, binding form of love. From the moment your child is born your life is disrupted, and altered until it barely resembles its previous state. For any sacrifice made as a mother, the rewards are returned exponentially. There is nothing like seeing your child grow and surpass your expectations. There are few moments more precious than holding your little one as they fall asleep or receiving a hug from a little child that thinks you can do no wrong.

On the other hand motherhood is consuming. Women get lost in their responsibilities and neglect themselves. While adoring our children usually comes naturally, the domestic skills associated with being a mother are not innate. For me, trying to make peace with my thankless daily routine of dishes, sweeping, removing stains, and cleaning toilets is a persistent battle.  Yes, there is a satisfaction in a nicely groomed, well decorated home, but most days monotonous housework feels like bondage.

We all know, and probably envy to some extent, moms that represent both ends of the career/ domestic spectrum.   I resemble the traditional mom, but I can’t say I fit that mold perfectly. Housework makes me feel tied down and under utilized but I simultaneously love HGTV.  I am both a paper plates advocate and aspiring foodie.  I am a stay at home mom that loves putting on pants and going to work.

I work just a few hours a day and I am blessed to be able to bring my young kids with me to on-site childcare. Using my education and developing my talents in the workplace is not something I am willing to give up.  In fact, I would go as far as to generalize that most moms are probably more balanced, and emotionally sound, when they are simultaneously engaged in a reasonable amount of involvement outside the home (and church.)

Lately I’ve been devouring the book To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Your Inner Housewife by Caitlin Flanagan.  The book is witty social commentary on the modern wife and mother highlighting topics like the benefits and backlash of the feminist movement, over scheduled children, sex deprived marriages, infertility, childcare,  and concludes “hasn’t it all gotten a bit ridiculous?”.

Her writing, while conservatively biased, is directed at neither the career diva nor the domestic wonder. It’s written by a non-feminist mother with, ironically, a high profile writing career, a maid, and nanny. It  examines the arguments for both “traditional” motherhood as well as the trap of domestic housework, with its capability to snare ambition and worldly talent.

An excerpt provides some interesting insights:


“There is the deepest conflict about motherhood. Affluent working mothers stubbornly insist that no one question their commitment to their children, while at home mothers demand the world confer upon them the social cachet that comes with working outside the home, But these are mutually exclusive demands.

Few will admit- because it is painful, because it reveals the unpleasant truth that life presents a series of choices, each which precludes a host of other attractive possibilities- is that whichever decision a woman makes, she will lose something of incalculable value. The kind of relationship between a child and a mother who is home all day caring for him is substantively different from that formed between a child and a woman who is gone many hours a week. The former relationship is more intimate, more private, filled with more moments of maternal frustration-and even despair- and with more moments of transcendence that comes only from mothering a small child.

Yet when a woman works outside the home, she uses the best of her mind and education, exerting her influence on the world beyond her doorstep. We respect women who stay at home with their children but it is the ones who work- the ones who spend their days taking part in the commerce and traffic of the adult world- who seem to have retained the most of their former selves.”

Regardless of your opinion on the matter, I believe it is important that as women we live deliberately and are willing to defend our career/parenting choices. We should be aligning our lives with the path that God would have us lead.  We should shut out voices in our heads that tell us we need to fit a ridiculously constricting mold. We should stay true to ourselves, loyal to our family, and choose a fulfilling course, one without regrets.

Harmonizing work and family is a chore. What helps you stay balanced? What do you do to get back on track when you find the scale has been tipped?  What factors played into your current work/family arrangement?


Caroline

Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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14 Responses

  1. Jessawhy says:

    What a fabulous post! I’m off to get my oldest from cub scouts and return 4 neighbor children (including a pair of evil twins) to their home down the street.

    Seriously, the best part was this-
    “whichever decision a woman makes, she will lose something of incalculable value”
    It’s like I’ve been denying this my entire adult life. But, embracing it seems like a much smarter option.

  2. z says:

    There was a great article in Elle Magazine in 2006 that really expressed why Caitlin Flanagan drives me batty. Her writing is so good, yet the fake housewife schtick is so maddening, and sometimes just plain mean. Google it up, it’s really good!

    • Hydrangea says:

      Thanks for pointing towards her other stuff. Yeah I agree, she takes a ridiculous stand in some of her other essays.

  3. z says:

    Also, Flanagan’s review of a biography of Martha Stewart in the Atlantic Monthly archives is hilarious.

  4. Angie says:

    My husband and I both work in education – he’s a music teacher, and I am a school counselor – and this is what makes our working/parenting arrangement work. We share all tasks, pretty much equally.

    However, when our kids were younger, I stayed home with them, and my husband worked full time. It was so hard, that I thought it would kill my inner Self. But here’s what actually happened – I kept my former skills and education, and I added new skills from being a SAHM. I am such a better professional, because of my time as a SAHM. And my bond with my kids is rock-solid and priceless.

    Well, it sounds like I’ve got it all neatly figured out. The truth is that time passing has helped me so much. Just a few years’ distance from those tough years as a SAHM have really improved my overall life situation.

  5. Angie says:

    I have the greatest respect and admiration for anyone who sacrifices for the life and well-being of a child. It is hard to figure out the balance between self-preservation and sacrifice. That’s why it is such a sacred thing to help a child, whatever form that help takes. God bless all o us who care about children! They are worth the struggle!

  6. mraynes says:

    I recently heard somebody describe motherhood as mortgaging your heart forever, which seems so apt to me. I have three little souls who I love ferociously but who also fill my life with never-ending sources of anxiety (my daughter had surgery today-whew, talk about about an anxiety-ridden hour). I wish somebody had told me about that before I became a mother because that was something I was not prepared for.

    Flanagan description of losing something incalculable no matter if you chose to work or stay at home rings true for me. I have done both and it is painful to admit that either way, I’m losing something. Right now I stay at home and while the intimacy with my children is intense and at times wonderful, I’m not sure that it’s the best thing for any of us. I say that though looking ahead a year for when I finish grad school and will be getting a job and mourn the loss of intimacy. Sigh, motherhood is just so, so complicated.

  7. Amber says:

    Quick note: these are only my thoughts as I read through this post; they are not meant to be patronizing or reflect on you or your husband. Just to be clear. : )

    I am very satisfied in my role as a stay-at-home mom. I also enjoy doing housework–something I’m still coming to terms with. I think what makes this possible, for me, is that housework is not tied to my identity as a mom or woman. It’s something I enjoy doing so I can have time to listen to intellectually stimulating podcasts completely alone. Plus, my husband doesn’t think it’s my responsibility to complete these chores.

    That said, I find it ridiculous that as a woman we must choose between staying home or working–either option which does, as Flanagran describes, force women to leave something behind. Rather than choose, shouldn’t the professional world be more flexible to a woman’s needs as a mother? I realize this question is more complicated and would require many points to answer, but it is something that I think about frequently. Perhaps rather than fighting to be regarded as men, we should pronounce our womaness (a made up word) as a sacred–including our maternal instinct–and fight to be rewarded in the workplace with essentials to help make being a mom and worker possible. Just a thought.

  8. Corktree says:

    I’ve been struggling with coming to terms with this very issue. I don’t currently work for pay, but my attention and time is very much divided between my family and my “career” as far as efforts that take me outside the home, both physically and mentally. I do think, and my family agrees, that I am a better person and mother for making time for myself and my goals in this way, but recently I’ve had to admit that the balance isn’t always as it should be. I’ve been sacrificing too much to do the things I want, and it took some convincing, but I’ve had to put more effort into making sure that I don’t let my priorities become weighted in the wrong direction.

    Of course, this relates more to being a mother for me than a housewife. My compulsion to clean has helped me not to resent the housework so much and I’ve developed ways to make that a negligible part of the equation. Though, being busier has actually helped me to be more mentally healthy in my treatment of obsessive cleaning, and I’ve been able to let things go that aren’t important. That’s been a nice side effect.

  9. chanson says:

    Re: “whichever decision a woman makes, she will lose something of incalculable value”

    I’ve written so many times about this same point. Most women in our culture have to make some sort of compromise, and end up regretting (at least sometimes) whichever part they missed out on. But if we understand that others are facing the same choices and are also balancing as best they can, it’s easier to honor our own choices and respect others’ solutions without jealousy or defensiveness.

  10. Teresa says:

    “Retaining most of our former selves” — that’s the key here, I think, whether you stay at home with children or go to work for pay.
    I’ve done both, at different times, and for me personally, bringing up four children as a SAHM was by far the hardest job, physically and emotionally, even with the help of a supportive spouse. Now, in my 60s, I work from home as a contributing writer for a newspaper. I’ve never asked permission to go out and do what I do best, I just did it and everything adjusted around that. We’re a family who talk about everything, and it’s never seemed strange for all of us to follow our ambitions. Because that’s not all of us all of the time, it’s easy to support each other.
    Never forget who you are. Don’t let the lovely idea of lots of children con you into having more than you can take care of: it’ll just exhaust and frustrate you unless you want that to be your career. Make sure you marry a husband who will pull his weight, gladly, at home. Enjoy your life’s work, and never let anyone tell you it’s unimportant. You were born with gifts; use them. Love your kids, but know that though they will leave home one day, they’ll be back — with grandchildren they may expect you to care for so THEY can work! So know and set your limits.
    Then again, who am I to be giving the world advice? I’m just happy things worked out ok for me.

  11. proud daughter of eve says:

    “Yet when a woman works outside the home, she uses the best of her mind and education, exerting her influence on the world beyond her doorstep.”

    *snort* That depends quite strongly on what exactly her job is, now doesn’t it? This is heavily skewed toward the white-collar set – toward the set that can AFFORD to pay someone else full-time to do the job of mothering while they’re out there “exerting their influence.”

    I recently went back to work part-time and while I admit I find a kind of enjoyment in using the skills I’ve learned over the last few years in the office, I hardly feel like I’m using “the best of [my] mind and education.” But it’s a good office and a steady job and the salary helps, which is probably the situation most working mothers find themselves in. If I could afford to stay home full-time, I would in a heart-beat. I don’t like being pulled in so many directions at once and I don’t like the effect it’s had on my daughter’s health. (Her baby-sitter is wonderful (thank God for family); the problem is figuring out how to feed a nursing baby when you expressed milk has too much of some enzyme and turns foul in about four hours.)

  12. amelia says:

    So maybe I shouldn’t rain on the parade, but I’m gonna do it anyway. Cause I see a lot of problems in the assumptions made in this post.

    1. “the domestic skills associated with being a mother are not innate.”

    Domestic skills are not actually associated with being a mother. They’re associated with being a human being who must take care of her- or *him*- self. Everyone must be able to do domestic chores. The simple fact that stay at home mothers tend to do more of those chores than their husbands working in the marketplace does not mean there’s a necessary relationship between being “mother” and possessing “domestic skills.” In situations in which the father is the stay home parent, he’s doing the domestic chores more than the mother who works in the marketplace (at least he should be). And childless singles do the same chores. As do children and teenagers. In other words, being a mother has essentially nothing to do with domestic skills. Being human has to do with domestic skills.

    2. “Few will admit- because it is painful, because it reveals the unpleasant truth that life presents a series of choices, each which precludes a host of other attractive possibilities- is that whichever decision a woman makes, she will lose something of incalculable value.”

    Why focus on what is lost? Why not focus on what is gained? Because if there were not some pretty important gains, people wouldn’t be making the choices they’re making. Why is it that we always couch the conversation about being mothers, whether stay home or working-for-pay, in terms of what these women lose or sacrifice? We don’t do that to fathers who stay home or work-for-pay. Why do we continue to use a rhetoric about mothering, whether of the stay home variety or the working outside the home variety, that requires feeling guilt or regret?

    3. “The kind of relationship between a child and a mother who is home all day caring for him is substantively different from that formed between a child and a woman who is gone many hours a week. The former relationship is more intimate, more private, filled with more moments of maternal frustration-and even despair- and with more moments of transcendence that comes only from mothering a small child.”

    Wow. Just wow. Does it not trouble anyone else that the stay at home mother gets to be “mother” while the woman who works for pay is not a mother but a “woman”? I’m really sorry, but this is just hogwash. Is it true that a mother who works outside the home will necessarily miss out on some of the moments in which a stay at home mother would be able to bond with her child? Yes, of course. But that absolutely does not mean there’s a substantive difference between the relationship of mother working outside the home with her children and the relationship of stay at home mother with her children. I know women who worked outside the home who have much better, more intimate, more trusting, more loving relationships with their children than some of the women I know who stay at home. There is no magic spell cast by virtue of a woman choosing to be a stay at home mother that will guarantee a substantively better relationship with her children. To believe that is the same as believing that doing all the Right Things(TM) will necessarily lead to happiness, marriage, prosperity, etc..

    And don’t you think a mother who works outside the home has plenty of opportunity to feel maternal frustration and despair? As if when she goes to work for the day, she stops being a mother? Do you really think that working outside the home is essentially a form of neglect? Which is what this woman is implying.

    I’m not saying there aren’t trade-offs being made when a woman chooses to work outside the home. I am saying that there’s nothing inherent to being a stay at home mother that will guarantee a substantively better mother-child relationship than that between a working mother and her child. I am saying that it’s unconscionable to even imply that a woman who chooses to work outside the home somehow loses her right to be seen as a mother.

    4. “Yet when a woman works outside the home, she uses the best of her mind and education, exerting her influence on the world beyond her doorstep.”

    Another big wow. Either this woman doesn’t understand the nature of paid labor or she has been very, very fortunate to never have a job that was stultifying and dull. And apparently she’s never had the pleasure of engaging creatively and intellectually with children or teenagers, or the joy of helping a child make connections. While those things are not the same as having a rigorous intellectual conversation with adults, they’re stimulating and rewarding in their own right and can certainly require the best of one’s mind and education. And I guess she doesn’t think that when a mother uses her mind and her talents and her gifts to help shape her children, she’s influencing her world.

    5. “it is the ones who work- the ones who spend their days taking part in the commerce and traffic of the adult world- who seem to have retained the most of their former selves.”

    Anyone who retains their former self without evolution isn’t living enough. Regardless of whether they’re working outside the home or staying home as a mother. The point is not, and has never been, to retain our former selves. The point has always been to grow, develop, evolve–to become. And the reality is that people who stay home to provide for their children can do that or not do that; and people who work outside the home can do that or not do that. Because whether one evolves has more to do with a willingness to embrace change and to question and examine and to reconsider, to engage with their world rather than just exist in it. It has very little to do with where one spends one’s time or with whom. Those things will influence the direction of the change, but the change, the becoming, will only happen with the right attitude and it’s an attitude anyone can have.

    I don’t think the point, as women, is to live deliberately and then be able to defend our choices. I think the point is to live deliberately, recognizing that doing so means that you don’t need to defend your choices because they have been made based on your own particular circumstances rather than on some externally imposed ideal about which path is right.

  13. Hydrangea says:

    Thanks Amelia. Don’t worry, what’s a parade without a little rain 🙂 I agree with #1 that moms don’t have a monopoly on doing household chores. However I think that mothers and “homemakers” are different in that they tend to use an orderly house to validate themselves. It’s part of their identity.

    I agree that we should be focused on what’s gained. Good point. We should be glad that we have the best of both worlds. It’s hard to see that when you’re forced to make uncomfortable choices.

    “live deliberately, recognizing that doing so means that you don’t need to defend your choices”- Well put!

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