Thursday, January 27, 2011

Thoughts on Domestic Work

The China and the iPhone article I linked to in my Tiger Mothers post, has reminded me of a related point.  The bit about China having lots of low skill labor got me thinking that this Tiger Mother stuff was a luxury of families who didn't have to worry about things like food or shelter.  If you are a poor Chinese family, you teach your child what to do to survive in China.  I see this often in the Mommy Wars, too.  These heated discussions about modern motherhood ignore, or even use, poor mothers.  Caitlin Flanagan made this point a few years back, but it bears rereading.

As Flanagan puts it, the feminist movement's success is really about success of upper middle class plus women who had to turn to lower class women to do their "shit work" for them.  Read the whole thing, but she concludes:
It's easy enough to dismiss the dilemma of the professional-class working mother as the whining of the elite. But people are entitled to their lives, and within the context of privilege there are certainly hard choices, disappointments, sorrows. Upper-middle-class working mothers may never have calm hearts regarding their choices about work and motherhood, but there are certain things they can all do. They can acknowledge that many of the gains of professional-class working women have been leveraged on the backs of poor women. They can legitimize those women's work and compensate it fairly, which means—at the very least—paying Social Security taxes on it. They can demand that feminists abandon their current fixation on "work-life balance" and on "ending the mommy wars" and instead devote themselves entirely to the real and heartrending struggle of poor women and children in this country. And they can stop using the hardships of the poor as justification for their own choices. About this much, at least, there ought to be agreement.
This all sounds good to me, and I'd like to add another: it is time that we stop thinking of domestic work as "shit work."   Granted, I don't love cleaning toilets, but it is necessary work.  One should neither make a big deal out of it nor neglect it.  My concern is that when people think of some sorts of work as "shit work," they often think of the people who have to do it as beneath them.

Topics tend to run in streaks in my life, and today was no different.  On the scoot to school, Christopher Robin asked me something about leadership.  This led to a discussion about the battle scene in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and how as they are running together King Peter is the point of his line, out in front of all those fighting for him while the White Witch hangs back and doesn't join the battle until later.

The connection?  A good leader never asks others to do something they would not do.   Cheryl Mendelson made a similar point when discussing cleaning floors.  While describing the proper way to hand polish floors, she admonished the reader not to ask housekeepers to clean floors on their hands and knees because it was demeaning.  I think it is only demeaning if it is something you would never consider doing yourself.  Fact is, sometimes the floor needs hand, knees, and bucket cleaning.  (Swiffering Isn't Sweeping. Heh.) Having a housekeeper do it because it needs to be done and you pay her to do the cleaning is one thing.  Having a housekeeper do it because you think you are too precious to do it, that is another.  

Flanagan had another excellent, related article, How to Treat the Help.  I might comment on it later, but for now it is just good reading.


Anonymous said...

Christopher Caldwell has written an excellent piece on the Tiger-Nightmare "Mother" in the FT. I think it was last Friday or Saturday, but anyway, LeBon brought it to my attention as he was struck by how angry I was about the whole topic after reading an excerpt from her book in The Sunday Times Review section (normally my favourite bit of the paper so after reading it my Sunday was ruined). I don't know how to upload links, sorry, but if you do a search it will come up. I really enjoyed his analysis of it and would love to know what you think.

M&M said...

Try this....