March 3, 2004
Battle of the Moms
Lots of recent
online (and, I suspect, offline) discussion about Caitlin
Flanagans article in the Atlantic Monthly that criticizes working
women and praises stay-at-home mothers.
At least some of
the bad juju circulating in those discussions (and Flanagans piece) concerns
settling old scores within feminism. There are many who have never forgiven
the feminists of the 1970s for the evident disdain they demonstrated towards
middle-class women who remained in the home. With good reason: women who felt
liberated from domesticity tended to falsely assume that all women should want
the same. Just as a matter of politics, that mistake was costly, alienating
many women who might have been sympathetic to a more loosely conceptualized
feminism. The womens movement has never really recovered from that blunder,
losing the sympathy both of middle-class women who have chosen domesticity and
working-class women for whom the workplace is not liberation but brutal necessity.
Taking a step back,
its interesting that the conversation continues to pit two sets of women
against each other, each vying for the title of best mother, each
notably defensive about their own choices and lives while projecting the charge
of defensiveness onto their opponents.
Its a struggle
thats hard to imagine between men about fatherhood, for a lot of reasons.
For one, theres a wider plurality of archetypes of the good father out
there: men can get kudos for being domestic and attentive or being strong and
above the fray, for being breadwinners or slackers. Its also clear that
men dont fight about fatherhood because they dont feel defined by
it: the battle over manhood is sited somewhere else. Women, on the other hand,
cant escape motherhood even when theyre not mothers: they are held
accountable to it by society, and hold each other to it as well.
There are brush
fires that burn in the struggle over parentingsay, for example, the question
of whether or not to ferberize kids. (We tried it, and it didnt really
work for us, both in terms of the emotional impact it had on us and our daughter,
and in terms of results.) Then theres the wildfire of staying at home
versus day care versus nannies. In either case, the small or the large, everyone
involved would gain a lot of perspective by reading Ann
Hulberts Raising America, a history of advice aimed at American
parents by various experts. One thing I take away from Hulberts book is
a confidence that kids are resilient, that the parental choices we treat as
momentous have far less import that we might guess. Another thing I take away
is a wisdom about how remarkably stable the long-term terms of contestation
over parenting (permissive vs. strict, involved vs. distant) has been within
the American middle-class, and how much those contests are about middle-class
manners and self-presentation rather than a disinterested evaluation of the
development of children.
One thing in Flanagans
piece and the reaction to it where I feel a bit distant from almost everyone
in the debate has to do with Flanagans charge that middle-class feminists
are exploiting and thus betraying other women by using them as domestics and
nannies. In a way, its a silly point, because its awfully hard to
contain to domesticity. Whats the difference between a once-a-month cleaning
service and all the other kinds of service jobs that the middle-class makes
use of? If the charge of exploitation attaches generically to domestic work
(not to specific low-wage conditions of employment), then it attaches to all
service-industry labor and Flanagans critique is suddenly a lot less about
child-raising and much more a back-door socialism.
But I feel differently
about it also because Ive spent a substantial amount of time living in
southern Africa. During my first fieldwork in Zimbabwe, I was intensely phobic
about domestic service, and felt as Flanagan does, that it was exploitation.
Id read Maids
and Madams, I knew that domestic workers in southern Africa were exploited.
So I was determined to wash all my own clothes and clean my own apartment (there
were no laundromats in Harare, even in the good old days of the late 1980s and
The family who
lived in the small home behind my apartment building had a different opinion
about domestic service, since they provided it for everyone else in the building.
From their perspective, I was a selfish prick. I could pay to have my clothes
cleaned, but here I was occupying a unit in the building and refusing to employ
them. They werent at all happy about it, and once I became aware of that,
I really didnt know what to do. I went on washing my underwear in the
bathtub but grew more and more puzzled about my reluctance to do what virtually
everyone around me regarded as the right thing, including local leftists I knew
whose commitment to fighting racial segregation and colonialism had been deep
and abiding for the entirety of their lives.
I began to realize
that it really wasnt about exploitation for methat was just a superficial
thing, a cheap ideology, a slogan, and not at all consistent with my casual
willingness to take advantage of other peoples affordable labor in other
spheres of my life. What it boiled down to was that I was intensely uncomfortable
about having strangers inside my domestic space. Not racially phobic, but generically,
universally so. I didnt want any people seeing my dirty clothes, my books,
my things, my way of life, if they werent very close friends or family.
I still feel that way, actually. For a very long time, I blocked my wife from
hiring a once-a-month comprehensive cleaning service for this same reason, even
though we were finding it increasingly impossible to handle that kind of cleaning
with a toddler around. I just didnt want them seeing the normal material
conditions of my life. (I still dont allow them in my home office). I
was eventually convinced--and view that service like any other comfort in my
life provided by human labor, made possible because I earn more than the people
whose labor I purchase. I do it because I can. If I don't like it, that's for
different reasons entirely.
I wonder a little if the stay-at-home moms argument doesnt come from some of the same attempts to assert privacy, to cocoon some of our lives away from the world, to close the circle of family and shield ourselves from the world. I have some of that same attitude myselfbut Id like to avoid draping myself in laurel leaves and anointing myself Ace Exploitation-Fighter for having what is ultimately less a principle and more a phobia.