The purpose of parenthood

Cover of "Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, an...

Cover via Amazon

We’ve lost the art of democratic debate, says Michael Sandel. He gives a wonderful talk during TED about moral philosophy and justice — and how to reintroduce them into our politics. He paraphrases Aristole’s theory of justice: “Justice means giving people what they deserve.” He says the real questions begin when we consider who deserves what and why, that we have to reason about the purpose of the thing or the activity, to fully provide justice to all.

So, this of course has me thinking. I have thought about the Mommy Myth, which demystified the current state of motherhood, deconstructing the societal forces which prompt women to give everything they have to motherhood, and devote their entire being to supporting their children.

I’ve been thinking about Misconceptions, by Naomi Wolf, which describes a very hetero-normative, upper class view of childbirth and the immediate postpartum experience — but it also talks about that which is concealed from women, in (from her view) a very strange vow of social silence. (And, I might argue, if choices are limited for the rich people — it’s got to be much worse for those in poverty.)

I’ve been thinking about a book I read in college, which I no longer own but was thinking about retrieving via the library system called “The Failed Century of the Child” — a book about the policies that were put into place during the 20th century which attempted, and failed, to remove children from poverty, and to make education a democratic thing.

I’m reading Raising America, by Ann Hulbert, who explores this question in her book: “As children — and just as important, their mothers — prepare to meet the pressures and the allures of an increasingly materialistic and meritocratic mass society, is it more discipline or more bonding that they need at home? the answers to the question have in turn reflected the long-running debate over whether nature or nurture counts most in shaping children’s destinies, which parenting experts across the spectrum and the decades have presumed are decisively cast in early childhood (7).”

So, to go back to the beginning of this post: What is the essential role of motherhood? What is the role of the mother to a child as an infant, a baby, a toddler, a preschooler, etc.? What is the role of the mother to herself during those same time periods? To her partner? To her family, and friends? The “common sense” wisdom seems to be that of primary care giver, and more than that, to be romantically (like “Leaves of Grass” romantic) obsessed with your child, watching their every coo and gurgle.

And, the flip question. What is the role of a father? I think that one is much more cut and dry to the “common sense” — the role of the father seems to be that of helper and bread-winner, and possibly the laughably un-knowledgeable one, as offered to us by sitcoms and commercials.

But is this really the purpose of mothers and fathers? What do you all think?


Motherhood and Feminism: What I know and What I want to know

How it all began

I keep fairly extensive journals. I can actually pinpoint with some accuracy when this particular unfinished business of feminism was brought to my attention. I read an article in the New York Times entitled Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood in September 2005, and I was simultaneously outraged and complicit.

I was outraged that the young woman profiled had worked so hard to get into Yale, but was going to give it all up for her future theoretical children, because she saw that it was her mom staying at home that had enriched her enough in order to go to Yale. It was, after all, her achievement. Why would she give it up for her children? Why wouldn’t she use her education to give back to the society she lived in, to help “save the world”?

I was complicit because she expressed something that I, perhaps, believed: that you cannot be both a good career woman and a good mother at the same time. Because, after all, I had been raised by a Stay-at-Home Mother, too, and my mother’s influence was key in making sure my homework was done, and that I excelled in school, that I was able to do after school activities. I didn’t even know how childcare worked – and a lot of my friends were the same way.

It lead me to a personal moral dilemma — what would I owe society? Should I give back to society through working a career, a career I was prepared for by the public schools and public universities? Or should I give back to society to raise the next generation of children — to put them through schools so they could raise the next generation of children? Were they even equivalent? How can you make this kind of judgment? How do you know what’s fair? Continue reading

Deconstructing Housework Priorities

One of the hardest things about living with other people, especially other people whom you are romantically involved, is negotiating differing standards of cleanliness, different understandings about the priorities involved with keeping house, and managing your home together. This is harder when you’re the type of person, like I am, who is aware of the symbolism of everyday acts, how things like cooking and cleaning and doing laundry, beyond their basic utility, are imbued with the expectations of society.

There is nothing remarkable about the fact that I do the majority of the meal planning and grocery list making, and cooking in my household. However, there seems to be something remarkable and praiseworthy of the fact that Tim volunteered to do all of those chores in November 2009, so that I could concentrate on writing a novel. The voluntarism shown by Tim in this example is an exception — when I don’t complete the menu related chores, and I don’t specifically ask Tim to do it, it doesn’t get done.

It isn’t that Tim doesn’t realize that the act of planning a menu is something that keeps our lives low-stress. And it isn’t that he can’t do it, and it isn’t that he thinks it’s unimportant. It is just that chores like menu planning are just something he doesn’t think about.

Why don’t they care? Why do we?

I’ve spoken with a number of other twenty-something women who are in long term and committed heterosexual relationships, and they all express similar frustrations: they care about the state of their homes, and think about home management, but their partner doesn’t think about it nearly as much as they do, doesn’t seem to care.

I can’t deconstruct why men don’t care about housework, but I can deconstruct why women care about housework — or at least why I care about housework. (After all, I am a white, cis gendered, heterosexual, upper-middle class woman. I can’t speak to the experiences of women growing up in poverty, or women of color. I want to recognize that there could be other intersections of oppression that could change this perception of the world.)

I grew up as the oldest child and oldest girl in a family with a stay-at-home mom and a bread-winning dad. I have two younger siblings, a sister and a brother. My mom subscribed to Good Housekeeping and Parenting, and at a young precocious age indeterminate, I began flipping through them and reading them too.

My little brother was born when I was 9. I was, of course, Mama’s little helper — carrying and fetching, and also picking up little chores, like folding laundry. By the time I was 10, I was responsible for doing the dishes as my family chore. I have distinct memories of cooking dinner, with some supervision — an adult put dinner in and out of the oven. One summer, when I was in high school, and my mom’s business was in full swing (out of our dining room), she paid me in books to keep the house clean, including wiping down the kitchen every day.

My mom was one who cleaned up everything — including vacuuming the draperies and washing the windows — when there would be an extended family party. There, I was pressed into service too, and when I complained, it was explained to me that while our normal state of cleanliness was okay for our immediate family, extended families and guests would judge us (and more importantly my mother) for the state of our home.

I grew up thinking that housework, that caring for a family, that cooking and cleaning — all of these things were part of what it meant to be a grown-up woman. Somewhere along the line, I came to expect that I should be embarrassed by clutter. At some point, I came to expect that I would be caring for others — at least a husband, probably kids — as an adult. And I was taught through the example of my mothers and my aunts, through the media that I consumed that all of this was to be woman, and that a woman’s self-worth and identity are somehow tied into housework.

I am not saying that my entire identity is housework, and I’m not saying that even that any woman’s identity is entirely formed around housework. I’m saying that on some level, housework factors into the calculus of my self-esteem and self-worth.

This is also not to say that I don’t have a choice in the matter. I’m exploring what got me to this crossroads of thought.

I think this the first in a series. Next week, I want to look at the current state of things in our apartment, and how Tim and I share the work of having a home. Until then, my tiny parcel of readers — how do you view housework? It is something you feel guilty about? Is it something that you see as a necessary evil, or something just evil? Or do you enjoy it?