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?


  1. I completely empathize with everything you say in this post. I too am a stay-at-home mom who has admired men who choose to do that but have not always thought it's a noble thing for me to do. I also hate the way there is always a fight between work-outside-the-home moms and women who don't work and breastfeeding moms versus bottle feeding moms. Motherhood is a challenge and a blessing no matter how you look at it or do it. Thanks for this post (and thanks for being the first non-family member to comment on my blog!)

  2. I'm half at home and half at work. There's definitely a divide, which I sometimes hope to bridge, but instead an awful lot of the time I feel like Batman, but with no cool superpowers and definitely no cool car. The only thing I've learned is that it's really easy to tear someone else down, so I try not to do that in either life. Anyway, you said a great many things here that needed to be said, so thank you.

  3. To start with your footnote--that is precisely why I think it is silly to try to pretend that women should be fulfilled merely with "housework." Most of the time meal planning or switching out clothing simply isn't that interesting. In fact, most of the things that you find interesting are so precisely because you are trying to do them exceptionally well and thus make them harder than they have to be. It would be wonderful if we could snap out of this stupid American need to pretend that our "jobs" are our lives and recognize that most of us do a whole lot more than X (though goodness knows that if you're going through residency or trying to make partner or get tenure or whatever you may be forced to become unnaturally lopsided, but that is another problem).

    But back to the real point about service, of course you are entirely right. I cannot escape the fact that it is always privileged women, with typically privileged husbands who have these conversations. As Dorothy Sayers points out, the fight is always whether women should have fascinating and fulfilling jobs outside the home or be relegated to the home. No one argues about whether women should endure drudgery outside the home as that is accepted as necessity for the lower classes.

    Ultimately there is little that could come close to being remotely important as your children, and however you work it out to best raise them must be best.

    And, at least according to my mother, mothering is significantly more fulfilling when your children are old enough to take care of their own basic needs and you feel like all of your hard work has turned into people you view as friends. Which may be worth thinking of because even though you are right that we should care because we care (thank you for phrasing it much but I'm trying to break the habit of just quoting and agreeing!) there is still a basic human need to find fulfillment in life.

    I hope that you keep blogging.

  4. Rae, that is a great point about women who must endure drudgery in work outside the home. So true!

  5. Your beginning sentence about ending this blog forced me to comment! Please don't stop, you give me so much to ponder as I go through my days. I comment in my head all the time!!

    I like Rae's point about it being privileged women who have these conversations. Just the fact that we have the time or the mental energy to think and worry about such things puts us in a class of privilege that many the world over do not have.

    I just had a conversation with a man, who in a moment of frustration said, "Women have it so easy, they just have to choose the right man to marry and they're set!" Meaning you just have to choose the man who will support you in the way you want, and your worries are over. He is so wrong and yet right. I bristle at the idea that this was the method I used for choosing a mate. Some women may do that, but the majority do not. BUT - when it came time to have kids, I didn't give a second thought to the fact that I would stay home and Mike would work. I had decided at an early age that when I had kids I would stay home with them. In fact Mike and I didn't even discuss another option or whether my staying home was financially feasible, I just stayed home. Now he is under pressure to support all of us in the manner to which we are accustomed. We aren't accustomed to great luxuries, but it is still pressure.

    The greatest shock about staying home with kids? It wasn't as "good" as I thought it would be, and I wasn't the kind of mom I thought I would be. It's definitely harder than I ever dreamed. More than anything, I admire women who are able to do more than I can. The idea of working outside the home right now makes my head explode. Not in a "oh I'm so invested in my kids I couldn't possible do any more" way, because I'm most definitely not doing the best mothering job I can do, but just the idea of having to do so many things well, and having to fight the constant guilt and pressure, whether personal or societal is too overwhelming. That being said, give them two years to grow up a bit and things might change. Why must we be set into a pattern that remains static?

    I've come around to believing what Rae said (again). "...however you work it out to best raise them must be best." Exactly. We are all different, all able to give and do differently. Would I do the same things with my family that you do? No. Would you follow my path? No. But we raise our children with love, the best way we can.

  6. Eve said: "I also hate the way there is always a fight between work-outside-the-home moms and women who don't work and breastfeeding moms versus bottle feeding moms. Motherhood is a challenge and a blessing no matter how you look at it or do it."

    I totally agree!

    Why is it that we feel we MUST compete with each other. What does it accomplish to have us fighting each other, forcing one agenda or another onto each other?

    We should be supporting each other. We should respect each other's different callings and talents. We are after all those who nurture the future!