Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Returning to Blogging and Being a Housewife

Shockingly, it has been over a year since I last wrote anything for this blog. Since then a few things have happened.
Firstly, I am pregnant again. Secondly the middle class job I was humble-bragging about in my last post (never underestimate the element of humble-bragging in any left wing acknowledgement of privilege) has gone completely tits up.
With the result, that I am now, once more, a housewife. And, true to stereotype, I am returning to Mummy-Blogging.

So far today, I have got up with my 2 and a half year old, gone to toddler group, come home again and put him down for a nap. Now I am pissing about on some feminist facebook pages and writing a blog post. This is my life now. It is the kind of gentle existence that is just perfect for someone still licking her wounds after failing disastrously to hold down a job. I fully expect it to be stultifying boring in about 6 months’ time.

So, just to break the blogging inertia, here are some observations on my current situation.

Firstly I get to call myself a housewife, or a Stay at Home Mum or a Full Time Parent instead of just a plain old unemployed person; which is a handy way to distance myself from the failure of unemployment. 

Being able to do this is a function of both privilege and oppression. Middle class women are pretty much the only group in society who have both the means and the social sanction to have any kind of work-life balance. This is not insignificant. Everyone should have the opportunity to have both satisfying work and a loving family life. The opportunity to take a couple of months or years out of the workplace, with the expectation of being able to return to employment later- is defiantly something I value. 

On the other hand- it’s also something of a trap. It is offered up on the assumption that we are not properly serious about having a place in the world (outside of the home) and it comes with the risk of long term loss of financial opportunity.
A couple of people have attempted to cheer me up about the horrible tits up work situation by suggesting that it shouldn’t matter to me as I’m “having a baby soon.” This is not comforting.  It feels like being sentenced to something.

Secondly- our of all the nicer sounding job titles that aren't "unemployed" and describe someone doing what Marxists call the "social reproduction of capital", I prefer "housewife." In fact I am going to reclaim "housewife." I realise "Stay at Home Parent" is the more fashionable term and might seem to give the role more dignity and importance- but I see this as a mental trap and here's why.

In 1950's America there was a consumer boom and a lot of new products became available. Things like washing machines, fridges, vacuum cleaners and so on. For families able to afford these things- housework became less time consuming and labour intensive. There ought to have been less reason for middle class women to be housewives.

Instead of sheer pressure of workload however, middle class women were kept in the home by the social ideal of being a "homemaker." Someone who would not only do housework but would do it to a high standard, whose home would be immaculate, who would sew, bake, jam-make, mix cocktails, throw fantastic dinner parties and look great. 

The idea of being a "homemaker" was superficially attractive, because it appeared to place a value on women's work. There was even an idea of "domestic science" or "home economics" which made housework seem like an important technical specialism. With the benefit of hindsight- we can see that it was a way of moving the goal posts. The effort needed to achieve a basic level of comfort and hygiene might have been drastically reduced- but a social expectation of ever higher standards emerged to keep women busy in the home.

Its fashionable now, to look back at those social values and have a laugh. Although "traditional" homemaking skills are making a comeback- we are not short of voices ready to critique the likes of Kath Kidson and Kirstie Allsop as kitchy purveyors of throw back anti feminism.

"Stay at Home Parenting" is just the same thing in different packaging. Superficially, it looks like an attractive label- one you could embrace: "Here I am- caring for my children- the most important job in the world." One thing I find endlessly fascinating on Mumsnet, is the wide variety of opinions on who should do what around the house. It was on Mumsnet that  first came across the idea that the "stay at home parent" is responsible for parenting only. Housework should be shared equally. I was surprised by this and remember thinking what a progressive idea it was.

Except that, like "homemaking," caring for children has expanded to fill all the time and space available.  Those same progressive "Stay at Home Parents" who only do half the housework (1) now think it is necessary to troll around a dozen toddler "activities," supervise improving craft projects on the kitchen table and puree their own bloody parsnips.

This is a genuine quote from Mumsnet, regarding a three year old child: "But everyone teaches their children the letters and numbers.That's just normal good parenting surely."
I love that comment because theres so much in it. It speaks to the narrowness of the posters hoizons ("everyone" certainly does not teach their three year old's letters and numbers) but also to the high expectations that middle class women place on themselves (what constitutes "normal good parenting") and even hints at the labour involved in living up to that ideal. I can just imagine her saying: "oh look darling, some leaves- shall we count them?"

All this is a completely new invention. One little factoid that's always stuck with me: The amount of time spent by a modern working mother and a 1950's housewife, on focused one to one attention to their children has been shown to be exactly the same.

Zoe Williams is one commentator who has always seen through the prescriptiveness of the modern middle class parenting ideal. Her new book, The Madness of Modern Parenting, is firmly on my Christmas list and I look forward to devouring it on boxing day with a hot chocolate and a dozen mince pies.

I particularly love her recent article in the Guardian, which touches on the implications for working class mothers, who find this questionable ideal imposed upon them by well meaning professionals.

Zoe is absolutely right to question the complete failure in public health to separate out causation from correlation. So much of a child's life chances are explained by structural class inequalities. Trying to make working class mums parent more like middle class mums does nothing but transfer responsibility for inequality onto working class women.

It also risks undervaluing the working class approach, where there are differences in parenting style between classes. 
At the very working class playgroup I attend- I get compliments from the other mums about how well my son "plays away." At the more middle class soft play centre I get evils for "not supervising" him. Common sense tells me that the working class mums are right on this one. Self sufficiency is a life skill, of course my son should learn it. At present, acquisition of this skill is undervalued. There are courses at the YWCA to teach mothers how to do interactive play with their children. There are no courses that teach helicopter parents how to back the fuck off.

This is why I will never describe myself as a "Stay at Home Parent." It is a label that implies the absolute centrality of the child, reduces what should be a relationship with another human being into a prescriptive and labour intensive profession and is reflective of an ideal which is detrimental to women. And possibly to children as well.

Being a housewife is a problematic social role. It is sub ideal in many ways. But its not going to get any less problematic by dressing it up in language that appears to validate but in fact obscures.
At least "housewife" encompasses the entirety of the job. It is what it is- cooking, cleaning, emptying the washing machine and all.

And, for all that I denigrate the "homemaker" ideal- some level of housework is important. For the task of parenting even (if this is going to be our central mission). It is part of what needs to be done, to provide an environment which is safe, relatively hygienic and in which things (meals, clean clothes, bath times) happen in a reliable and predictable manner.
Social Services can actually take your children away from people who are not able to meet these basic standards, regardless of whether they also make their own play dough or their kids know all their colours and shapes. So, you know, hardly unimportant stuff. 

So Housewife it is then. Housewife and Mummy Blogger. God help me.

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