Housewife Confidential

I've named this domestic everything category in honor of Caitlin Flangnan's book of the same title because it was her article on Erma Bombeck that first introduced me to vast difference between housewives and Stay at Home Mothers (SAHM's).  From her original Atlantic article (sorry for the long quote, but it is so apt): 
The notion of a domestic life that purrs along, with routines and order and carefully delineated standards, is endlessly appealing to me. It is also quite foreign, because I am not a housewife. I am an "at-home mother," and the difference between the two is vast. 
Consider the etymology. When a woman described herself as a "housewife," she was defining herself primarily through her relationship to her house and her husband. That children came along with the deal was simply assumed, the way that airing rooms and occasionally cooking for invalids came along with the deal. When a housewife subjected herself and her work to a bit of brutally honest examination, she may have begun by assessing how well she was doing with the children, but she may just as well have begun by contemplating the nature and quality of her housework. If it had been suggested to her that she spend the long, delicate hours between three and six o'clock squiring her children to the array of enhancing activities pursued by the modern child, she would have laughed. Who would stay home to get dinner on? More to the point, why had she chosen a house so close to a playground if the children weren't going to get out of her hair and play in it? The kind of childhood that many of us remember so fondly—with hours of free time, and gangs of neighborhood kids meeting up after school—was possible partly because each block contained houses in which women were busy but close by, all too willing to push open a window and yell at the neighbor boy to get his fool bike out of the street.  
But an at-home mother feels little obligation to the house itself; in fact, she is keenly aware that the house can be a vehicle of oppression. She is "at home" only because that is where her children happen to be. She does not define herself through her housekeeping; if she is in any way solvent (and many at-home mothers are), she has, at the very least, a once-a-month cleaning woman to do the most onerous tasks. (That some of the most significant achievements of the women's movement—specifically liberation from housework and child care—have been bought at the expense of poor women, often of poor brown-skinned women, is a bitter irony that very few feminists will discuss directly, other than to murmur something vague about "universal day care" and then, on reflex, blame the Republicans.) 
The at-home mother defines herself by her relationship to her children. She is making sacrifices on their behalf, giving up a career to give them something only she can. Her No. 1 complaint concerns the issue of respect: She demands it! Can't get enough of it! She isn't like a fifties housewife: ironing curtains, shampooing the carpets, stuck. She knows all about those women. She has seen Pleasantville and watched Leave It to Beaver; she's made more June Cleaver jokes than she can count. (In fact, June Cleaver—a character on a television show that went off the air in 1963—looms over her to a surprising extent, a sickening, terrifying specter: Is that how people think I spend my time?) If she has seen Todd Haynes's sumptuously beautiful recent movie, Far From Heaven, she understands and agrees wholeheartedly with the film's implication: that being a moneyed white housewife—with full-time help—in pre-Betty Friedan Hartford, Connecticut, was just as oppressive and soul-withering as being a black man in pre-civil rights Hartford. The at-home mother's attitude toward housewives of the fifties and sixties is a mixture of pity, outrage on their behalf, and gently mocking humor. (I recently received a birthday card that featured a perfectly coiffed fifties housewife standing in a gleaming kitchen. "The smart woman knows her way around the kitchen," the front of the card said. Inside: "Around the kitchen, out the back door, and to a decent restaurant.")  

The at-home mother has a lot on her mind; to a significant extent she has herself on her mind. She must not allow herself to shrivel up with boredom. She must do things for herself. She must get to the gym, the spa, the yoga studio. To the book group. (She wouldn't be caught dead setting up tables and filling nut cups for a bridge party—June Cleaver! June Cleaver!—but a book group, which blends an agreeable seriousness of purpose with the kind of busy chitchat that women the world over adore, is irresistible.) She must go to lunch with like-minded friends, and to the movies. She needs to feed herself intellectually and emotionally; she needs to be on guard against exhaustion. She must find a way to combine the traditional women's work of childrearing with the kind of shared housework arrangements and domestic liberation that working mothers enjoy. Most important, she must somehow draw a line in the sand between the valuable, important work she is doing and the pathetic imprisonment, the Doll's House existence, of the housewife of old. It's a tall order.
It is a tall order that we housewives gladly toss in the trash.  Kitchen sinks, cups of tea, snotty noses, life administration, waugh management, marriage bedsprings, elementary education...we housewives handle it all, and then some, yet our life is far more free than the Working Mom or SAHM's life.  Using myself as an example, I have to do things for my children, of course, but I don’t fret that I should be doing some other modern mother thing whenever I sit down to type.  And whenever I am doing for them, I don’t fret that I could be doing something supposedly more meaningful than cooking dinner, dousing a tantrum, or changing a dirty nappy.  The good of the family directs me to spend enough time with them that they are well behaved, happy, and secure, but not to serve them so much that we are in danger of remaking Lord of the Flies and Heathers

These days, however, housewives are self-conscious about our role.  To take but one example, housewife blogs tend to have titles like "The Thinking Housewife" or "Not Just a Housewife".  We want the world to know that we are not June Cleaver, but I ask, why did we ever think we were?  

Unlike the power woman at the mercy of her career track or the SAHM at the mercy of the immediate needs of her children, housewives are the women with the perspective and the time to influence the world.  Consider some famous housewives, from the supporters of old such as Abigail Adams or Clementine Churchil,l to the modern culture shapers of a Bombeck or Rowling, to the fully engaged powerhouses of Palin or--lest we forget--Thatcher. Regardless of what you think about these women's ideas, there is no doubt they were each enormously influential.  Why have we women ever bought into the notion of a 'mere' housewife?  I know, because "the problem with no name" concerned housewives not being able to take action--although that isn't quite right, is it?  Betty Friedan, herself, was a housewife.  Consider the impact of the women on that short list of housewives.  The list needn't be short; I could continue for a while.  Factor in the old adage about the hand that rocks the cradle and you might find that the word "mere" has no business anywhere near the word "housewife".








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