I’ve been thinking about that question quite a bit lately.
My kids are ten and twelve years old, and now I find myself caring for a 4-month old baby most days as a way to earn some money. This fall I advertised to provide child care for one infant, thinking it’s one job I know how to do and I can make some money at home while doing it. Anybody would be happy to have their baby in my care all day, I reasoned. I hold the baby. I don’t let him cry it out, ever. I feed him when he’s hungry, and I’m very attentive to when he needs a diaper change whether he’s wet or poopy. And when he’s awake (which is sometimes all day long), we play and talk and bounce around the room.
I’m doing, by my own estimates, a pretty good job with this little guy. And, also to my own thinking, having him around justifies my “still” being at home now that my own kids are growing older. (Never mind that I’m homeschooling my twelve-year-old Asperger kid, in the world’s eyes I don’t NEED to be doing that as there’s a school just blocks away. He could be there all day while I go out and get a job like the rest of the world…or so they say.)
There is so little respect for a woman, or man, staying home and doing the domestic things. The other night on 30 Rock, there was even a joke about this. Southern boy Kenneth gave one of his usual witty sayings. “That’s about as useful as a mom’s college degree!” was the joke, implying a mom had no use for a college degree. I laughed, thinking yeah, what did I get that college degree for?! I can take a joke. It didn’t offend me, but it certainly spoke to me of our culture’s general perception of homemakers and stay-at-home-moms.
All joking aside, I would never give up that college degree. It’s as important to my life as raising my children has been. I miss those days of studying and hanging out with friends 24/7. I miss the intellectual conversations I could have just by plopping into a chair in my college house living room and engaging one of my housemates. I miss being able to sit and read British Lit. or theology until tears streamed down my face from the eye strain. I have often wondered why I ever left college! It was my “glory days”, for sure.
When I look at my kids, both son and daughter, I picture them going to college. I imagine Eli as an engineer of some sort, maybe designing video games, maybe presiding over a wood shop making bows and arrows all day. I imagine Rose as the CEO of some fashionable company, able to boss people around and get things done, leading a life of continual busyness and socializing because that’s what she loves.
What I hardly ever take the time to imagine them doing is raising babies, or vacuuming the floors, or cleaning up dog vomit. Those are just things we DO in life. Nobody talks about them. Nobody makes plans for them. (Well, maybe the HAVING the baby part gets planned, but after that who can imagine all the stuff you’ll have to do with those babies?) And nobody seems to respect that they’re as much a part of our necessary life as all the college degrees and high-paying jobs we dream about.
Making and keeping a home and family take a lot of time. It used to be that EVERYBODY was home. Men, women, children, babies, animals. Everybody was doing housework, whether out in the field or garden, or hunting/gathering in the woods, or tending the fire and soup pot. The focus was on home, food, staying warm and dry and alive. It wasn’t until the industrial age that men started leaving the home in droves, to seek jobs building the railroad or manufacturing goods. And just a century or so later, women in large numbers wanted to “get out” too.
To my mind, that’s no surprise. Our highly mobile society had cut women off from not only their husbands who were at work all day, but also their families of origin and even friends and neighbors they might’ve had a move or two back. It’s lonely being the only adult around. And once some women went out of the house to work, it got even lonelier for the other women “back home”. I look out the window at my neighborhood and see almost no adult my age, male or female, during the hours from 9 to 5. (I see no kids, either, much of the time because even at the day care homes on my block the kids are inside or in a fenced-in backyard. When adults stopped being home, it seems kids lost a lot of freedom.)
When George and Rose were home for Christmas break last week, I enjoyed their presence more than ever. They became more arms to hold the baby, and more smiling faces to entertain him. I declared then and there that “one adult alone with a baby all day is insanity. Babies are meant to be shared!” It was like an epiphany for me, little good that it will do me. I don’t see society changing any time soon, to make more of us at home (depending on how bad the so-called Great Recession becomes, though). And now George and Rose are back at school and it’s just Eli and me home with the little guy all day again. It will be fine, but it does seem over-bearing and I feel as if I’ve lost all freedom (the key word is “feel” there–I think it has more to do with cultural pressures than actual loss of freedom).
So to get back to my original question and the title of my post…Why don’t we think more about raising our children to be parents? Why don’t we see it as the highest calling that it is, and get as serious about preparing them for it as we are about preparing them for the “real world”, aka school and jobs?
For indeed, most of us do become parents, college degree or not. Most of us do end up vacuuming floors, cleaning up after pets, and doing what has been called the “hardest job of all”, raising babies. Yet in today’s world we do it woefully unprepared and woefully short of respect, support and help.
I know there is a fringe culture, namely Christian fundamentalists of a certain ilk, who are raising their girls to be submissive wives and doting mothers and homemakers, and their boys to be providers and heads of household. I have had many glimpses into this world as a homeschooler and a curious seeker into the lives of others through their writings. A few blogs on my blogroll come from this fringe group, and there’s one I found recently, The Aspiring Homemaker, which is written by a homeschool graduate girl of 18 who calls herself a “stay-at-home daughter”, learning the so-called “gentle arts” of domesticity and waiting for her knight in shining armor. (That sounds derogatory, “knight in shining armor”, doesn’t it? Not a hundred years ago the majority of young women lived at home until they found a husband, doing exactly what The Aspiring Homemaker is doing. It should certainly be her right to choose to live her life in that way and I don’t mean to put it down.)
But should it be that only fundamentalist Christians (and by no means all of them), with their limited views of gender roles, are the only ones raising up the notion of the domestic arts? Indeed it’s not the only place you find it. Martha Stewart gets much credit for doing this, for placing value *again* on so-called woman’s work of cooking, baking, sewing, keeping house, etc. But she does it all, perfectly no less, while running a Fortune 500 company and sleeping four hours a night. She presents a model of “having it all” that is all too common and all too exhausting in the current Western, particularly American, world.
I think there can be a middle ground between the submissive wife/homemaker that goes along with the head of the household husband, and Martha Stewart’s model of perfection and having it all. We hear talk of there being “seasons” to our lives, time to go to school, time to work, time to have babies and raise them, time to pursue a career. This can be a middle ground, but only if the time of being home doesn’t take a lesser place than the rest of it. By no means do I suggest all women should again stay home, anymore than I suggest men do. But I would like to find ways to elevate what I’ve been doing for nearly 15 years now, namely being home, and make it part of the conversation with my children.
I’d like to raise my children to become parents, and maybe do other stuff too…
How can we go about that? I’d be interested in any ideas you might have. But one way I’ve been thinking about it is to at least start talking about it with them. At least as often as I say to them, “you must do this to get into college”, I’d like to say to them, “here is how you hold a baby”. At least as often as I dream of my daughter running a company, I’d like to talk to her about establishing a housekeeping routine. With at least as much emphasis as I put on her about making money someday, I’d like to show her how to balance a checkbook and budget for groceries. At least as often as I imagine Elijah being some guy in the woods building his own cabin, I’d like to see him (and talk to him about) bundling up his baby and carrying him/her in a backpack through those woods. And at least as often as I picture my son being a computer geek, I’d like to picture him making beds and cooking dinner too.
I need to start PICTURING my kids as spouses and parents, in order to help them get there. And whenever I talk to them about it, I’m sure to add that this Grandma will want to help out as much as possible! I’ll be there.