A reader who stays home with her children recently asked me about how to avoid feeling guilty that she’s not bringing in a paycheck the way she did before becoming a mother. She writes, “I still feel ‘less than’ for not monetarily contributing to my family. I have a hard time with being financially dependent on my husband.” She is experiencing what I think so many mothers struggle with. How does our self-esteem react to that “lack of a paycheck”? I often describe myself as a “ballet teacher” even though I only teach one or two afternoons a week rather than “stay at home mom,”( a far more accurate description of my life.) Why? Why do I feel the need to emphasize my work outside the home?
I think we need an entirely different perspective. One that doesn’t equate value with money and liberation with consumption.
I went from being the breadwinner while my husband was finishing his degree, to staying at home with our first child and working only 5-10 hours a week. My paycheck was suddenly tiny and it was often hard to see my contribution to our family as something of real value.
One of my favorite writers is poet, novelist, essayist, and farmer, Wendell Berry. His essays completely changed my view of the value of my role as a mother and “homemaker.” Berry acknowledges the lack of respect given to those (men and women) whose work is centered around the home. In an essay titled “Racism and the Economy” he notes:
“…it should not be necessary to point out the connection between the oppression of women and the general contempt for household work. It is well established among us that you may hold up your head in polite society with a public lie in your mouth or other people’s money in your pocket or innocent blood on your hands, but not with dishwater on your hands or mud on your shoes.”
Wow. Work comprised of caring for one’s own home: laundry, dishes, and other home maintenance is nothing to be proud of in our society and even carries a hint of shame. It is viewed as drudgery. But why is homemaking drudgery and any work outside the home “liberating”? Berry questions how freeing the kind of liberation both men and women seek in our society truly is:
“Our present idea of freedom is only the freedom to do as we please: to sell ourselves for a high salary, a home in the suburbs, and idle weekends. But that is a freedom dependent upon affluence, which is in turn dependent upon the rapid consumption of exhaustible supplies. The other kind of freedom is the freedom to take care of ourselves and of each other. The freedom of affluence opposes and contradicts the freedom of community life.”
Why is it that obeying the requests of an employer is liberating, while working out of love to care for one’s family is oppressive? We need a different view in which freedom means the ability to care for “ourselves and of each other” and emphasizes the community of the whole family.
In one my favorite essays of all time, “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine,” Berry compares the modern household of consumption with a different kind of household—one that views marriage and the home not as a competition between spouses for power and success, but as common work and common life:
“The modern household is the place where the consumptive couple do their consuming. Nothing productive is done there. Such work as is done there is done at the expense of the resident couple or family, and to the profit of suppliers of energy and household technology. For entertainment, the inmates consume television or purchase other consumable diversion elsewhere.
There are, however, still some married couples who understand themselves as belonging to their marriage, to each other, and to their children. What they have they have in common, and so, to them, helping each other does not seem merely to damage their ability to compete against each other. To them, “mine” is not so powerful or necessary a pronoun as “ours.”
I just love this description and I think leaving behind the need to compete with one’s spouse over the amount of one’s financial contribution to the household and beginning to see your family and home as a common work and common life is the key. What you have you have in common.
And this understanding of home as something held in common must be paired with an understanding of the immeasurable value of raising children. For those of us who take on the role of mother (whether we work in the home or outside the home as well), we undertake a colossal task of great value.
I’ll leave you with a quote about the huge task of motherhood from G.K. Chesterton, one of my favorites:
“To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labours, and holidays; to be Whitely within a certain area, providing toys, boots, cakes and books; to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can imagine how this can exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone and narrow to be everything to someone? No, a woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute.”
Motherhood is a larger and more overwhelming realm than any job or academic program I have ever experienced. It challenges me at every turn. I don’t get paid as a professional chef, but I have learned to provide nourishing meals for my family. I don’t get paid as a professional teacher, but each day I am educating my children. I am not a professional nurse, but I’m often stroking fevered brows, giving breathing treatments to our asthmatic toddler, and caring for my family’s health. My contribution as “mother” to my family doesn’t come with a paycheck, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a rich and valuable contribution, and the most rewarding role of my life.