March 3, 2004

Battle of the Moms

Lots of recent online (and, I suspect, offline) discussion about Caitlin Flanagan’s 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 Flanagan’s 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 women’s 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, it’s 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.

It’s a struggle that’s hard to imagine between men about fatherhood, for a lot of reasons. For one, there’s 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. It’s also clear that men don’t fight about fatherhood because they don’t feel defined by it: the battle over manhood is sited somewhere else. Women, on the other hand, can’t escape motherhood even when they’re 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 parenting—say, for example, the question of whether or not to ferberize kids. (We tried it, and it didn’t really work for us, both in terms of the emotional impact it had on us and our daughter, and in terms of results.) Then there’s 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 Hulbert’s Raising America, a history of advice aimed at American parents by various experts. One thing I take away from Hulbert’s 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 Flanagan’s piece and the reaction to it where I feel a bit distant from almost everyone in the debate has to do with Flanagan’s charge that middle-class feminists are exploiting and thus betraying other women by using them as domestics and nannies. In a way, it’s a silly point, because it’s awfully hard to contain to domesticity. What’s 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 Flanagan’s critique is suddenly a lot less about child-raising and much more a back-door socialism.

But I feel differently about it also because I’ve 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. I’d 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 early 1990s).

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 weren’t at all happy about it, and once I became aware of that, I really didn’t 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 wasn’t about exploitation for me—that was just a superficial thing, a cheap ideology, a slogan, and not at all consistent with my casual willingness to take advantage of other people’s 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 didn’t want any people seeing my dirty clothes, my books, my things, my way of life, if they weren’t 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 didn’t want them seeing the normal material conditions of my life. (I still don’t 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 doesn’t 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 myself—but I’d 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.