Monday, October 31, 2011

"I bend to sweep crumbs and I bend to wipe vomit and I bend to pick up little ones and wipe away tears. I bend over a big pot of stew and I bend to fold endless laundry and I bend over math books and spelling sentences and history quiz corrections. And at the end of these days I bend next to the bed and I ask only that I could bend more, bend lower.
Because I serve a Savior who came to be a servant. He lived bent low. And bent down here is where I see His face.
And people say, “Don’t you get tired?” and yes, I do. But I’m face to face with Jesus in the dirt, and the more I bend the harder and better and fuller this life gets. And sure, we are tired, but oh we are happy. Because bent down low is where we find fullness of Joy."
(from the blog of Katie Davis, a 22 yr-old who is foster mother to 13 Ugandan children.) 

I decided to end this blog.  And then this post crept up on me and now I just can't help myself.

It's a great article and it has it all.  Gender and class and political economy--everything I was trained to look for in a smart, well-considered analysis (of any kind) during my short stint in graduate school.  The concept of the value of work and the nature of women's work and the place of childrearing in a household economy and all of that is something I spend quite a lot of time thinking about.  As I sit at home.  With no outside job. And rear children while my husband is (usually) off at work in a job he finds extremely fulfilling. 

There have been other articles in the last few weeks, too.  About aprons and the "mommy wars" and all that.  Those are always out there and it's usually same old, same old.  Women arguing about which is best and more fulfilling, or which is more sacrificial. 

I hate that women who work outside the home are still accused of letting their kids down.  It strikes me as a worse accusation than that you are simply letting yourself down by not having a career--that you are failing to live up to your own potential or be a productive member of society.  But since those are both just really silly, they are easier to address.  More complex is the charge that women are being let down because they are expected, for long durations of time, to tend to the basic needs of others.

Yes, the above-mentioned post is fascinating and astute, but it also says this: "It’s always been a brutal gig to be asked to be intelligent and creative and engaged enough to raise a highly successful child, yet to be satisfied with only that, forever, along with some cleaning and cooking."

My Facebook friend through whom I found the post probably didn't really even notice that sandwiched in there, just as many of us don't notice any number of ways that women (unintentionally?) take down other women.  There hardly seems to be a way to read around the implication that to be satisfied with menial labor and tedium is to settle for a lesser life.  It is to accept to be treated as a lower being and less competent.  Furthermore, "creative" and "intelligent" people deserve more fulfilling work than mopping up spills and making sure the fridge is stocked.

So the question is, does that mean that the stupider and less creative people should do it?  Or, rather, that a woman who does this work will (perhaps ought to) be considered stupider and less creative?  Because it sure sounds like it to me.  I know this for sure: someone needs to do the cooking and cleaning and children need someone to look after and nurture them. 

Let me first clarify that in no way am I arguing that women's contributions to local and global economies have been recognized and appreciated as they should and I am certainly not saying that women ought to be the ones to cook and clean (rather than men).  The dignity of women is regularly trampled on and ridiculed and women are made to feel less than human in any number of degrading ways, not the least of which in the nature of the tasks and work they have been allowed to (or encouraged to) undertake.  But to suggest that it is degrading for a woman to care, full-time, for her own family's basic needs is just absurd.  Also, I would like to mention that I don't know anyone--male or female--who only cooks and cleans.  Not one.*

In my marriage, our roles and tasks are divided down traditional lines, more or less, but we know several couples for whom the roles are reversed.  In one family, she is the doctor and he has had to take over the childcare duties while she completes her seven-year residency.  He told me that he gets up at 4am on the days when she has to work all day and then stay overnight on "call."  He goes surfing really, really early in the morning just to get some alone time while she and the kids are still at home in bed.  And then he comes home, gets the kids ready for daycare and then takes himself into work. He cooks and cleans and gets the kids put to bed and then takes care of the night-time feedings for their infant daughter, too.

Vader geeft baby de fles / Father feeding the baby

When he told me this, you know what my first thought was?  "Man, that is one noble guy, to do all that so his wife can pursue her dream."  And you know what I think when it's my turn to do all that? "Man, do I have a raw deal or what."  

I should mention that I've only been doing "cleaning and cooking" full-time for about seven and a half years.  But I've learned something in that short time: first of all, that it's not just cooking and cleaning.  It's so much more involved than those two words suggest. I also need to plan meals, shop for them, use or re-use food and ingredients wisely and try to reduce waste. And then do all the dishes and mopping that follow from all of that effort.  I will also need to clothe everyone that I am feeding, and rotate out the winter clothes and rotate in the summer ones and make lists and make dental appointments and then even more cleaning and the training of the children to clean and chop and wash and all the rest.  It is so much harder and more involved than just "cooking and cleaning."  It also takes patience, forethought and even creativity.

Secondly, I learned that I will most likely do these things for a very long time, and probably for the rest of my life.  I don't mean that I won't ever have an "outside job," because I might.  But when it comes to caring for people who are too helpless to care for themselves, whether babies or a sick child or spouse, an elderly or demented parent, maybe I am just getting started.

So what do I make of my gut reaction to my friend's surfer-husband's role, except that I don't want to be expected to really work that hard or sacrifice in those particular ways?  Apparently, somewhere deep down, I still feel that it is less noble, for a woman, to serve.  As if I am not part of a faith community that treasures the example and sacrificial love of a young woman whose calling was to care for the physical and material needs of a particularly special Infant. 

One of the things that really helped me as my husband was going through his Medical Residency training was to keep sight of the ways our days and work was similar.  There seemed to be such a divide between our routines and we struggled with feelings of isolation.  So I numbered commonalities and kept a running list.  For example:

1. Neither of us gets uninterrupted sleep.  Patients or babies usually howl for help around 2 and 3am.
2. We both get puked on.  A lot.
3. People scream and yell and cry at us for no reason. 
4. We are expected to remain patient and calm and collected under extreme conditions.
5.  We have to wash our hands continually. (hey, that may sound very simple and unimportant, but it helped to imagine him doing the same thing I was doing, over and over again.)
6.  A lot of what we do is repetitive and often mind-numbingly dull. 
7.  At the end of a day/shift, all we want to do is watch a funny TV show about nothing in particular.

Okay, but there is the main difference that he gets paid and I don't.  And I believe that is the point Yuki was making.  Women are often the ones who do the chores and tasks that don't pay and that no one ever sees.  Childcare and home economics are not considered professional fields of work (if you are caring for your own children, I mean); we are not even required to study and we won't graduate with a diploma because we are just expected to do it for free.  Women get the raw deal when that's all they are given to do, right?

War production workers at the Vilter [Manufacturing] Company making M5 and M7 guns for the U.S. Army, Milwaukee, Wis. Ex-housewife, age 24, filing small parts. Her husband and brother are in the armed service (LOC)

Well, on the one hand, I say, good.  I am glad that at least there's one thing right with the world.  What's wrong is expecting to be paid for every little act of service.  Good that lawyers do pro bono work for those who can't afford the standard fees.  Good that some doctors realize that, once the bills have been paid, they might do well to use the spare time to volunteer in clinics for the poor.  Good that neighbors water each other's plants and occasionally roll each other's trash cans to the curb.  What is strange is that men (and women) do NOT expect themselves to serve the basic needs of others, but instead view service to others--especially to strangers--as optional.  What is strange is that relationships of love are transformed into relationships of power and that we don't blink an eye but instead we find ourselves rushing to jump in, too.

We ought to know better and I think we do.  We value service to neighbor and we pride ourselves on being people who help out when a tornado or hurricane comes through, or share trucks and men when wildfires rage out of control.  Just don't you dare ask us to put on an apron and start baking for our husbands.  We will do that if and when we want to, and for as long as we feel like it, but no more.

Last month I listened to a radio program on a different topic that made me groan out loud.  A representative of Catholic Charities (USA) was explaining his perspective on why Americans should willingly and generously assist new refugees to get settled and find jobs, etc.  His argument?  That you never know what they or their children or grandchildren might end up contributing to our country and anyway many of us are descendants of refugees.  I remembered that program as I listened to one about adoption this morning on the same station.  Who knows what gifts and treasures an adoptee might bring to the world, if they're only given a chance (they said).  For proof, just take a look at what Steve Jobs accomplished!  And the same has been used as a rationale against abortion: don't deny the unborn a chance to become the next greatest CEO!

What rot.  Children, refugees, women, men, the elderly, the disabled, the severely disabled, the unborn, are of extreme value because human life is valuable.  Period.  People are worthy of our service simply because they are people and as such have inestimable dignity.  Furthermore, as Blessed John Paul II said, women are particularly well-placed to humanize society.  He said that we need women because they are women, and by their existence and through their bodies and their experience, they bear witness in a special way to the value of the human person by just being women.
"Women first learn and then teach others that human relations are authentic if they are open to accepting the other person: a person who is recognized and loved because of the dignity which comes from being a person and not from other considerations, such as usefulness, strength, intelligence, beauty or health.  This is the fundamental contribution which the Church and humanity expect from women." (JPII, EvangeliumVitae)
 So then why on earth would we insist on a future that is not shaped by our gender? 

Women understand and live the experience of the less powerful; we carry and birth the most vulnerable among us. And, if we are honest, we know what is at stake if we refuse to feed and nurture the bodies of those people who count on us to care for them.  We lose out.  Not only the young or the helpless or the elderly, but also us.  Because we turn away from our own humanity--male and female--if we refuse to tend to the needs of others and if we walk away from opportunities to bend lower and opt rather to reach higher.  We make the mistake of believing that creativity and intelligence are separate from, and stifled by, a lifetime of service and in doing so we harm our very concept of self.

One final quote:
"The enhancement of intelligence and of humankind's cognitive powers has, unhappily, not been matched by any enhancement of our capacity for love.  It seems, in fact, that this capacity for love counts for nothing, even though we know that to be happy or unhappy depends not so much on whether we know or don't know, as on whether we love or don't love, are loved or are not loved.  It is easy to see why this is so: we are created "in the image of God," and God is love.  Deus caritas est! ...It is not difficult to see why we are so anxious to increase our knowledge and so unconcerned about increasing our capacity to love: knowledge automatically translates into power, but love into service." (Fr. R. Cantalamessa, "There Were Also Some Women")

* Which is not to say that they don't exist, because they do.  I just realized, as I thought about it that anyone I know who stays home full-time also homeschools, or knits, or prays, or writes, or works out of their home part-time, or tutors, or reads, or keeps books for the family business, or blogs, or volunteers their time, etc.  I think in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan there are women who are not permitted to do anything else and even in Morocco, but I really can't think of anyone I know personally who fits into that mold.  Do you?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

on further reflection

Pretty soon after saying that I don't read too many blog posts about poverty or service to the poorer among us, I realized that wasn't really true.  In fact, one of the very times I read Molly I ran across a quote that she referenced (by an Orthodox monk, maybe?) about how the extra pairs of shoes in your closet are ones that you have withheld from the needy.  Then Kris wrote this short piece in which she pondered the nature (and varieties) of poverty.  Pentimiento has several posts in which she wrestles with her discomfort on the origins of wealth and sometimes she writes about reality for her undocumented friend.  Earlier this week Heather wrote about her grocery shopping habits and it turns out she manages to spend less than $24 each week so she can have a little extra leftover for hungry others.  And then there is Rae, who doesn't have posts devoted to the subject, but simply lives it out (just an example: $50 for food during Lent's six weeks for herself and her husband. That's serious).

And there are plenty more that I am forgetting, for sure.  Trying to set the record straighter.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


1. My youngest has started morning preschool.  For two hours and forty-five minutes, five days a week, I am on my own!  You wouldn't believe the amount of stuff I can cram into that short time frame.  It's actually a little ridiculous and I probably need to chill out.  Heck, at least no one can accuse me of wasting it.


(stopped next to me at a red light over the weekend)

3. Right now in our backyard, there are thousands of tiny baby grasshoppers.  If you take a step toward the grass (okay, it's all weeds), dozens of them scatter with a sweet pippity-pippity sound. I never remember they are there until I go out to hang up the laundry.

4. Ooh, I just said "laundry" so now I have another excuse to tell you more about my laundromat.  Not only are there folks wandering about with coolers full of breakfast burritos, snowcones, and "biscuits" (whatever those might be), but the other day I was folding sheets at a table only to realize that no one within earshot was speaking English (only Navajo). I looked up and realized I was the only white person in the place.

5. Last week, the thought of making a pilgrimage (and possibly never coming back) to one of these Greek monasteries was very welcome.  An acquaintance told me on Saturday how blessed I was, to have the three kids and my health.  "From the outside, you know," he said, "it's easy to see how much of a blessing it is."  Sadly, I don't always have the outside perspective on those sorts of things. 

6.  My kindergartner's sight words for the past two weeks have been "I," "am," "the," and "little."  I feel like that ought to prompt me to some profound thoughts, but it doesn't really.  It's just kind of cute.

7.  It's a good thing I have two daughters because only one of them likes to lie in bed in the late afternoons and exchange back or head rubs.  The older one is off creating and researching and reading and writing comic books or doing crossword puzzles and generally not doing anything that remotely resembles sitting still.  And the son never gets tired of launching himself off bookcases or onto couches.  It's going to be a long, long winter.

8.  It's not winter yet, and I still love to sit outside when I can on my new favorite chair. 

sometimes we get views like these: