Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Further reflections on home and work

Everyone's heard by now about Hilary Rosen's comment that Ann Romney "never worked a day in her life". Romney, who stayed at home and raised five boys, quickly answered this lazy charge, but this surely won't be the last time that a woman who stays at home will hear this accusation.

What grows personally wearisome is that this line of thought -- that staying home to raise children and keep house is not "work" -- suggests that these things are not because *I* am doing them. The maintenance of children would be work if I were paying someone else to do it; the education of children would be work if I were paying someone else to do it; the business of cleaning and cooking and generally managing a household would attain the status of "work" if I employed a butler, laundress, maid, and cook, but loses this distinction because I perform these activities in my own home for my own benefit and that of my family.

This raises the question of what, exactly, is work. Activity that receives financial compensation? Activity that takes one away from family? Activity done outside the home? Activity requiring management, external accountability, or special training?

Perhaps one of the reasons for the perception of stay-at-home mothers as non-working members of society is that they do things that have to be done even by people who work. Everyone's laundry has to be done; everyone needs groceries. All children need care and education. It's hardly surprising that a woman who, after a long day at work, drags herself to the store and feeds the kids and puts them to bed, might think, "Boy, women who stay at home really have it easy. Why should they complain when I do everything they do, and still put in a full day of work?"

This is a question that deserves to be answered, even if it's not an accurate description of the life of stay-at-home mothers (especially if they teach their children at home as well). The value of what women who stay at home do is not primarily monetary, though there is a large financial advantage in having an adult in a family whose time is dedicated to making the family and household run smoothly. But the stay-at-home mother is able to tailor her work to fit the family's specific needs and style. I know exactly where the stains in all the laundry are, because I'm here when the baby spills something on herself or the boy goes rolling down the grassy hill. I have the time to make meals that cost-efficient, nutritious, and personalized to my family's taste. All these are benefits that it would be very difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to replace were I not at home most of the day.

But these are all things that could be done competently by a live-in housekeeper, and even lovingly by a relative. The true value of being at home with my children is that I am the one who is raising them. At every point, whether we're doing schoolwork or cleaning or reading or just hanging around, they're absorbing my values and culture, not that of the daycare staff or the nanny or the neighbor down the street. They're also absorbing my flaws -- any child who takes after me will be a mediocre housekeeper and an inveterate procrastinator -- but it's fine with me that my children have a safe and loving environment in which to encounter the idea that adults aren't perfect. If children are a gift from God, then I see it as my job to be a gift back to them, in the most personalized and effective way possible.

Not every mother is able to stay at home with her children, and not every woman wants that lifestyle, but it's absurd for anyone to denigrate the work of a stay-at-home mother, as if the inherent desire of a woman to raise and care for her own children was the height of decadence and luxury.

UPDATE: Apropos of the discussion of what stay-at-home mothers add to the economy,Rebecca Ryskind Teti reiterates the point she made in her chapter of Style, Sex, and Substance.
The economy exists to be sure each household has what it needs. What that requires may look different for each household (does it make more sense for us to outsource childcare or provide it ourselves?), but it’s the flourishing of the human person that is the point. Is someone sneering at you for not working outside the home? Smile. They work for you!

...The human person is of course not reducible to a mere “worker.” Still, in strictly economic terms, people are our most valuable economic resource and the family is not a nostalgic religious notion, but also the most essential engine of the economy. Stay-at-home moms are not outside the economy, they’re at the heart of it.


The Ubiquitous said...

Well said!

Chris said...

As Megan Fox said yesterday, you and Mr Darwin have looked at the current alternative, counted the cost, and said "no". You would rather have non neurotic kids than a set of work clothes, a second car, and a job that could disappear anyway.

Jennifer Fitz said...

Here's what I find: Moms who work outside the home typically do a job and a half. Call it an eight-hour shift of paid work, and a four-hour shift of mom-work. It's a hard life.

Stay at home moms tend to compress that work. We watch the baby at the same time as we make dinner, buy groceries, pay the bills, etc. If we were working in an office, we'd pay someone to just watch the baby, and then we'd catch up on all the rest later.

As a result, we either have more leisure with our family, bought at the price of foregone income, or else we do more at-home work -- volunteering, extra chores, gardening, teaching the kids, better cooking, etc.

I suppose the insult is in someone assuming that because we could choose to act like a teenager paid minimum wage from 8-6, and then do a survival-amount of housework in the evening, that therefore that's what we do. Um, no.

There's a reason the Bible calls for us to have pity on the widow and the orphan. Done well, there's two adults worth of work in rearing a family.

MrsDarwin said...

I suppose the insult is in someone assuming that because we could choose to act like a teenager paid minimum wage from 8-6, and then do a survival-amount of housework in the evening, that therefore that's what we do. Um, no.

Jennifer, you've just said in one paragraph what I floundered around for a whole post without ever formulating. Thank you.


There's never any guarantee that one's children will turn out non-neurotic, since everyone has the free will to make destructive decisions, but I do believe that by staying at home with them and making every attempt to give them a strong and loving home and education environment, I'm giving them the strongest foundation I can from which to grow to an adult understanding of the world and spiritual realities.

JMB said...

Are we of value as a person only because we contribute to society by receiving a paycheck or are we valued because of who we are?

I spent a lot of years bantering about terms like "cross default" and "subbrogation" and making sure documents got signed and filed and dealing with auditors and the Fed. For that I received a nice chunk of change.
Then I spent the next 17 years never saying the words "cross default" and "subbrogation" and thankfully have had no dealings with the Fed or outside auditors. In exchange for my liberation from banking, I took care of four children, managed a house, learned how to cook, clean, hire outside help when needed, oversaw a budget, dogs, household inventory, chauffeured, coached, class-mothered, dealt with numerous school, medical, dental and veterinarian personal, for that and more I got paid nothing.

Jenny said...

This whole subject is an emotional spot for me. As you know, MrsDarwin, I work and my husband stays home.

I agree with Jennifer that a mother who works outside of the home has a job and a half. As much as my husband does (and I am very grateful for it), I cannot transplant all of my thoughts and the whole to-do list into his head. He is very much a big picture guy and I am detail oriented. As a result I feel like I spend my non-work time in a flurry of 'gotta get it done, I'm never going to catch up.' I do not have much free or down time. Everything is rush, rush, rush. We run around like crazed beings. I think about Mary and Martha and Mary having the better part.

Fathers who work outside the home may have the same feelings, but I suspect they do not have the added pressure of "YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG!" I look at my children and wonder if my outside employment is damaging them in some hidden way. I don't think fathers have those same doubts, but I could be wrong.

I'm rambling a bit, but I resent that a mother raising her children is treated like a sidebar to real life. It IS real life.

MrsDarwin said...

Jenny, I was thinking of you and of other mothers I know who work when I was writing. Fortunately the topic hasn't devolved, even in the wider sphere of commentary, into a "mommy wars"-style fight, but is being addressed at the level of what was said: do stay-at-home mothers work? And I think the answer is yes, unequivocally.

But a better question would be: is a mother's role at home valuable enough that she ought not to have to work outside of the home? And I think the answer to that is yes as well.

BettyDuffy said...

A friend of mine, B, was asked to watch a little boy down the street from her whose mother was returning to work. Considering the possibility, since B stays home with her own four kids, she asked what the going rate for child care is in this area. Two dollars an hour! She couldn't believe it--asked around at some other childcare providers--and sure enough two bucks.

B turned it down, for a number of reasons, but mostly to make the point: that what she gives her children, in her daily presence, providing meals, in the home schooling (she's a masters educated biologist) is worth much, much more than 1/3 of minimum wage.

I just find it interesting that "affordable childcare" is one of the top women's issues, and yet most childcare providers are also women who must accept bottom dollar (often under the table) payment. I also think it's interesting how little our society values good childcare if the dollar-per-hour amount we put on it comes in well below the price we pay for a cup of coffee.

mary said...

Betty Duffy,
Around here in the Northeast the rate is closer to ten or twelve dollars per hour! Two dollars per hour says one thing: six hours of television.

Anonymous said...

What about SAHMs who have childcare? Not everyone has a loyal cadre of people willing to watch infants and toddlers gratis, nor a child of requisite lumpitude to be carted about in a sling while SuperMom does all the housework in three hours with a magic system.

Anonymous said...

Also, not all women have endless reserves of energy after childbirth and during the years of lactation. Particularly older mothers who don't start at 19 or even 25 because they were busy getting that colledge degree or doctorate so people wouldn't sneer at their prairie skirts.

Anonymous said...

And lastly, it would be worth noting the locale where illegal wages for childcare are standard and apparently not reported to the proper authorities, as my own experiences suggest a norm even in cheaper towns and cities closer to 10-15$/hr, and double that for children with special needs.

BettyDuffy said...

Here's the data. I may be doing the math wrong, but for 2000 hours of work in a year (roughly a forty hour work week) Indiana residents can expect to find childcare in someone's home for just about $5000 annually--which is about $2.50 an hour.

MrsDarwin said...


What about 'em? More power to them if they want and can afford childcare. I often wished I lived closer to my family so I could have some backup more often. Housekeeping is work, and hard work -- that's the point of this post.

But you might make more interesting additions to the conversation if you were actually engaging with what's being said and not with the prairie-skirted straw woman in your head.

Lauren said...

2.00/hr is slave wages. When my first daughter was 6 months old, I paid a friend with a child the same age $10/hr for two days a week, and that's cheap. Full time nannies in the dc area make 15-20/hr. Some make as much as 25. Babysitting rates are similar unless you find a teenager. Day care is less, but not by a huge amount. I've got too little ones in day car three days a week, and it works out to more than our mortgage every month.

To weigh in on the working mom vs stay at home mom, both are tough. I work part time, so I'm a little of both. I don't think I could be a full time stay at home mom. I'm really lazy, and I'm ready for a good kid break after a full day at home with them. Maybe when they get a little older, I won't feel that way. The oldest is three. I think I'd enjoy staying home more if I didn't have to deal with so much poop. I woke up from a sound sleep the other night because I thought I smelled it. "AHHH, someone pooped in my bedroom." I actually had a nightmare about poop. So not everyone is cut out for full time motherhood. While I don't want to outsource the raising of my children to someone else, I do think that I'm a better mom for being out of the house away from my kids three days a week.

JMB said...

My sister who lives in NYC pays 48K a year for a nanny for two children. Yes, you read that right. Here in NJ, the going rate for childcare is 12 to 18 per hour, depending upon the number of children. I had a part time nanny for years and paid her 12 per hour. This all sounds great, I suppose, but cleaning help is far more expensive here. The average cleaning person makes 20 per hour in my neck of the woods. Average house cost $80 to clean, which takes approx 4 hours.

Anonymous said...

The false binary between working mother and stay at home on the childcare issue is also a straw-lady. Having in-home childcare for infants or toddlers while you do other tasks at home is not 'having someone else raise your child', no matter how many people say it, including in this particular little thread in the randomness of the interwebs. It is crazy and stupid to expect women to do a bunch of housework with infants and no help, often multiple infants in the stricter Christian subcultures and make no provision for childcare.

But you can't even have the conversation about how broken the entire conception of 'household sphere' is because everyone is too busy frantically defending or fretting about 'outsourcing the care of their children to someone else'. As if nobody ever farmed out watching littles in earlier eras of human history. Someone has to, and it very often wasn't the same mother expected to engage in household labor.

Trads are as ridiculous on this front as everyone else, especially the subcultures requiring delayed fertility *or* rapid-fire fertility, which makes it even harder to keep up appearances as an older mother just doesn't keep up the same way and a younger mother with 5 under 5 is going to be overwhelmed by the sheer madness of having such close spacing and no support/help.

Jenny said...

Well I see the party started after I left work yesterday.

Is a mother's role at home valuable enough that she ought not to have to work outside of the home?

I think the answer to this question is absolutely yes. The longer I am in this vocation of motherhood the more I think that this whole home/work balance that many women (including me) try to pull off is pure insanity. I really don't think the children mind which one of their parents they spend their time with, but this mommy is really starting to care about my absence.

I'm not sure what thread you are reading or which mommy-war pot you are trying to stir. Really. I believe the question at hand is does the work that a stay at home parent does rise to a level to be considered worthy of being called work. The answer is obviously yes and yet this is somehow controversial in some circles.

Anonymous said...

Urgh. It isn't 'mommy-wars' to notice that over and over again, the SAHM is basically not supposed to have help because...she's at home all day, so get cracking! Which is ahistorical and nutty. There are a lot of exhausted, depressed, ill women crushed under the burdens of staying home with very small children because this false binary is set up that you can only warrant access to childcare if you work outside the home. This is separate from the larger issue of how badly managed childcare is in America particularly.

I'm just going to link to a better-written summary of what I have been talking about:

MrsDarwin said...

Anon, that comment is well-written and cogent, and I agree with a lot of it, with the caveat that most people in history have actually NOT had servants, but have lived near family who could help them.

My question for you -- why did you show up swinging here? No one is attacking you. I agree it's easier with household help to get tasks done, and I agree that having some help for a few hours is not the same as out-sourcing child-raising, nor has anyone here claimed that. I don't think that sending one's kids to school is outsourcing child raising either, though I don't choose to do it. I think it would be a fine thing if stay-at-home mothers had a larger support network and more societal respect. The reason we're having this conversation is because the Dem talking head actually considered acceptable to insinuate that being a stay-at-home mother (and Ann Romney has had housecleaning help) isn't work, and I think we can all agree on what a ignorant sentiment that is.

Anonymous said...

Ann Romney had a lot more than housecleaning help, but I'm not going to say more about her specific case for reasons of privacy. That was why I bothered to come on here. There is a whole world of women who have much less money than Ann Romney who nevertheless SAHM and also, in addition, have help. But that is just left out of the discourse entirely. Even the comments here were SAHM=no help and working mother=gets help. It always goes back to that, regardless of anyone's personal feelings on staying at home or working outside the home.

Everyone got all worked up about Ann Romney when she is actually the model for how staying at home should happen-- fully supported, with help, especially when the kids are under school age. She has the infrastructure and instead of discussing how to provide that for all SAHMs, there is just the derail that they don't really need it or should be able to get by and anyway, people should 'respect' them more.

I don't care about respect. I want someone to watch my three under 4 for a couple hours so I can shower and get a nap before doing eight loads of laundry. And that totally won't happen so long as childcare is presented as something women can only get by working outside the home and not itself part of a larger reorientation of the culture towards hearth and home.

It's the kids, not whether mommy stays home or goes to a job. Letting the careerists set the terms pushes the false dichotomy and marginalizes all the women out there struggling because trads truly seem to think help is a nice-to-have and not crucial whether you work at home or outside the home. I start from the premise that obviously staying home is work and just goes without saying, hence my strident tone insisting that the discourse be recentered around what that means instead of 'how dare people not say it's work'.

Also, I keep thinking this blog is Aussie, but that is clearly a personal quirk.

Jenny said...


I also generally agree with your linked comment, but honestly I don't see a lot of that attitude in my experience.

My neighbor on the right is a SAHM with three kids. She sends her kids to preschool three days a week.

My neighbor on the left is a SAHM with three kids. As far as I know, her kids do not go to preschool, but she has a housekeeper that comes once a week.

My husband is a SAHD and we have three kids. We don't do preschool or have a housekeeper. We can't afford it. He does what he can do and the rest doesn't get done and he does not worry about it. I have found that the state of the house is a special area of mommy guilt.

My sister is a SAHM with two kids and she also does not do preschool or have a housekeeper. She and her kids go out and about most days of the week. She could afford both if she wanted, but she doesn't.

The most frequent criticism I hear is, "Oh, your kids aren't in preschool? How ever will they be ready for school?"

The attitude I encounter is that we are damaging our children by not getting help. The attitude definitely is not that we should avoid outside help. I know my experience is not universal.

MrsDarwin said...


I've had three children under age 4 as well, though thank God that is a stage of life that passes. I wish that I had lived much nearer to family at that time.

My guess would be that both stay-at-home mothers and working mothers feel that they don't get enough help. I don't see anyone here saying that a stay-at-home mother needs to do everything herself to qualify as a "real" stay-at-home mom. This post was written mainly to combat the Rosen quote and to muse on why staying at home is not motherhood lite. But the points you raise are good ones, and perhaps should be spun off into a new conversation.

I have to say, though: I DO want the respect, more than I want the outside help, though at other points I may have chosen differently if I'd been given the opportunity.

We're so far from being Australian that we're in Ohio. :)

Darwin said...

Though we do get a constant trickle of Google hits from people looking for parishes in the diocese of Darwin, Australia.

Sarah Reinhard said...

I need to dig out the econ book I have that outlines the economic impact of women at home...written in the 60s or 70s and caught my attention in grad school...I think Darwin could enjoy it and explain it (I never made it throught the thing).

Anyway, great post. Wish I had time to chime into the combox conversation!