contemplating women’s work and wiling away time

A few weeks ago, I listened to Rick Santorum on Meet the Press complain that radical feminists have forced us to believe that women need to be in the workforce, to the detriment of families, to find their own happiness and peace. Nonsense. I don’t even know what “radical feminist” means. I know how people use the phrase, but that’s not the same as knowing what it means.

The inspiration for my blog’s title came from the writings of a historical figure I admire tremendously, the actor and author Fanny Kemble. She was something of a radical feminist in the 19th century, if you’ll excuse my anachronism. She went to work in the theater as a young woman because that was her family background, and because she had talent. Her family needed money to support themselves and to save their theater, so she went to work to raise that money. She went back to work after her marriage fell apart because she had talent and because she again needed money. She also, from what I can tell, found fulfillment from sharing her art and her talent with the public. She was a brilliant woman. Yet while she was unmarried and while she was married, all the fruits of her labor legally belonged to her father and husband.

Another beloved Fanny, Fanny Fern (Sara Willis), was another brilliant woman, a writer, in the 19th century. Before her career, she married, had three children, and became a widow. She was left destitute and her family did not step in to care for her and her children. As a woman alone with children in the 19th century, she essentially needed a man for reliable support. So she remarried. Her second husband was a controlling jerk, and she divorced him. I cannot overemphasize the strength and self confidence that took for her in the period. She then became a writer–a very successful and talented one. She needed to support her children and herself, and was very lucky that she had the intellect and ability to do so.

These two women were radical because the inflexible social structure of the era left them without support or a clear place in the system. Women went to work because they needed money to support their families. Women went to work because they needed financial independence. Women went to work because they needed a way to support themselves separate from the men in their lives. Women went to work because almost every adult needs to work.

Let’s think about “work” though. Women always worked, so my “went to” only makes sense if we’re talking about something so far back in the past as to be prehistorical, or as a discrete event in the lives of every woman. I fight a constant battle with my students to get them to stop saying about the past, “Men were supposed to work, women were supposed to stay home, to take care of their children, and to make life pleasant for their husband.” I ask them, “Do you know what it took for women or anyone to make life ‘pleasant’ in the 18th century?” It took hard work. Domestic work took incredibly hard labor. It required working land, making cloth and clothing, treating illnesses and injuries serious and minor, caring for their and other families in birth and death, performing animal husbandry, educating children, trading and bartering with neighbors, and engaging in countless other really difficult tasks. That work had absolute economic, if not clearly financial benefits. That’s because so much less of the world was financial before the 19th century.

Personal fulfillment and intellectual engagement are not the same as work, although some people are lucky enough to find both in the same place. Fanny Kemble and Fanny Fern (and so many other women over time) were extremely lucky to be able to do that. So many other women have and had to just go to work. Yet even they have used the financial benefits work gave them to have independence and to pursue other dreams. To degrade that independence is to deny that historically, so many women have been degraded and abused by economic and political systems that have withheld from them equal rights and access. It is to deny that families and children suffered because of it as well.

Not every man, not even most men, would deny that historical reality now. Yet, we have a new problem in the present, from my perspective. Work has become almost exclusively financial. My students cannot understand without a lot of explanation and examples why I want them to understand that economic and financial aren’t the same. The calculators we use to measure the domestic work women still mostly perform all translate to financial terms. What could I trade the laundry, the vacuuming, the scrubbing, the cooking, and the shopping I do for in the open market? When this baby is born, assuming he’s alive and well, I expect I’ll be able to breastfeed him like I did Samuel. What will that save us in formula and medical costs and lost time from work for illness for Josh, me and the baby throughout our lives? I am so privileged right now to think these aren’t the only questions I need to consider. What will all those tasks I do mean to me and my family beyond their financial rewards?

When I think about work right now outside of my home, I feel trapped by the financial marketplace. I feel trapped by calculations. Will our budget balance at the end of the month? Will we be able to save? So much of this comes from almost a decade of not having quite enough, first because we were in grad school and then because the market until this year only provided one of us at a time with a full-time job, while friends not in grad school bought houses, took vacations, and saved for retirement and kids’ college costs. It comes from having to ask for loans and gifts to get by. It comes from making many many thousands of dollars less per year at 34 than I did at 22. All of that, however, was worth it. I wouldn’t trade the learning, thinking, and writing I did for a big house and $100,000 in savings.

It’s mind-boggling to think that for a family to just get by, two adults have to have jobs. The economy and deregulation, not radical feminism, created this trap. A book I read recently, Elizabeth Warren’s and Amelia Warren Tyagi’s The Two-Income Trap makes a very clear case for how the movement of more mothers into the permanent workforce has resulted in a decline in families’ financial security, and the actual destruction of economic safety nets for families. But it’s not simply that women are working–it’s that the policies of the past thirty years have taken advantage of the rising incomes of families to slowly but surely make those incomes necessary rather than helpful. Rising healthcare costs, daycare costs, the housing bubble, and the problems with public schooling have made it so two-income families cannot save as much as they did historically, nor can they handle the loss of even one job despite having two. In no way, though, do Warren and Tyagi argue that women should leave the workforce if they don’t want to. They do state that the best financial decision a family can make is to live off of one paycheck regardless of having two. But then they acknowledge that that’s essentially impossible for most families. It’s a trap.

But what if you want to try?

It’s a major challenge to pay enough attention to your family with a full-time job. It requires you to buy packaged food, to use machines, to purchase distractions for your children, and to outsource a lot of care. If that work is just for  a paycheck, and gives you nothing else emotionally or intellectually, that feels to me like torture. I know that’s not a universal experience, but it is mine.

To me, it feels like a trap. This idea that I have to work outside the home in order to protect myself if my marriage fails, my family if I want to be able to live in a neighborhood where my kids can go to good schools, to have security if God forbid, something should happen to Josh. It’s a trap of our reliance on financial markets and paychecks. It crushes my mind. I suppose it’s the trap of modern adulthood. I suck at it. There are all these “ifs” that now compete with the “whens” of my childhood and young adulthood. I had plans for when I graduated high school, when I graduated college, when I finished grad school. All the work was for that eventual payoff. But the work itself was rewarding. Now the work is for “ifs.” I can’t really tolerate it anymore. I need the when to be now, and the “ifs” to stop plaguing me.

Hence, my plan for next year. We are going to learn to live primarily on one paycheck. I’m teaching one evening course because our insurance cost is insane, and then I’m going to focus on providing as much as cheaply for the family as possible. If anyone has suggestions, I’m open. I’m going to post about what I’m doing towards that. I’m also hoping my mind will feel freer, that I’ll feel happier, and that the growing list of writing projects that have been waiting for when I’m free, will make their way out of my mind and onto a page. I am hoping, of course, for an eventual reward. That at the end of my period of unpaid work, I’ll have something that sells, and that can make up for all the lost pay I could have gotten continuing in a field that is strangling me. Or at the very least, that I’ll figure out what else I’d like to do next and feel happy and like myself again in the process.

We shall see.

6 responses to “contemplating women’s work and wiling away time

  1. Fascinating post. It sounds like you’ve really given this a lot of thought and are taking the steps that are right for you.

  2. (Niobe, I miss your blog).

    So. Living on one income. You write that you’re open to suggestions. The problem I have (nothing whatsoever to do with you) whenever I hear a woman talking about the shift from being a two- to a one-income family is that, while there is certainly a great deal I could say about my experience raising a family, and raising them well, on very, very little money (read: below the poverty line), I tend to shy away because from where I stand, there seems to be such a wide divide (in life experience, in understanding) that I tend not to know what on earth say, where to start (comparisons: odious &c) … The simple answer is that it is very, very possible to live well — to live full and joyous and wonderful lives — on far, far less money than many Americans believe is possible. If you’ve got rent/mortgage covered, and health insurance (blessed be: I haven’t **bemused**) and food, you’re golden. You truly are. Enjoy every second with your babies. Soak up the gift of being able to be at home with them. Write. Write your heart out. It sounds like it’s going to be a wonderful year.

    • Thank you, Ellie. We lived very, very cheaply for years as graduate students. Doing calculations, we can actually continue to cover basic expenses on one income. We need a second car because my husband has to commute and our city is very spread out–we can’t live both walking distance from grocery stores and schools and doctors’ offices, for example, and public transportation isn’t regular and reliable. But we used having two incomes this year to pay off every cent of debt and build some savings. We’ll pick up a mortgage and a car under $15,000.We have old, mismatched furniture. Particle board bookshelves and garage-sale stuff. Had we continued with two incomes, I know I’d have started dreaming about replacing our furniture with nicer, matching, higher quality pieces. I’d have also wanted nicer, newer clothing. I’ve had lots of “wants” I haven’t fulfilled in terms of material items. I’m willing to give those up for this.

      But I would like to spend even less, so that we can build up a better savings. So, I’ve been reading about tips for saving money–like making your own dish soap, laundry soap, and shampoo. We make bread, and I’m curious about other processed foods we can eliminate to save money. We almost never eat out. But I’m wondering, do those things actually save? More than half of our grocery budget is fruits and vegetables–can we cut even further there and keep a healthy diet? These are the things I plan to spend lots of time figuring out.

  3. Baking bread is definitely less expensive the buying (healthier too). We have celiac and even though GF grains are so much more expensive than wheat, still, baking is far cheaper (tastier too, than store-bought GF breads).

    I always cloth diapered — I couldn’t bear the thought of anything but cozy cotton on my babies’ skin, but it was also so, so inexpensive! If you home wash, it’s least expensive, better for the environment, uses far less water, detergents, bleaches and so on when compared to a diaper service (or disposables). And I always used cloth wipes for baby, too.

    Food is a tough one. Eating healthfully is so important, but doesn’t come cheap. Especially if one doesn’t have the sort of life or talents that lend themselves to extensive gardening and canning. It’s one area that we spend a little more, because it is so important (I feel) for our health. We’ll pay more, for instance, for organic, for free-trade, for chicken (now that we’re no longer vegetarian, post-brain tumor) that was free-range. When finances and ethics collide, it can get difficult!

    I know that making soaps and all can be inexpensive as well as nice, but it always looked like so much work!

    (and may I say, wow, congratulations on getting debt-free. Good for you! That’s not an easy thing to do)

  4. Sara, I love this post. We’ll have to swap budget ideas.

    • I look forward to it Courtney! You and Bill have been doing this for years now, an inspiration. (And thanks to only hearing about Bill through you and your blog for a year and a half, I typed “Billy” there at first.)

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