Friday, January 30, 2009

Diary of a Mad Housewife (with apologies to Patricia Williams)

Several years ago I arrived late at a friend's house for a fundraiser to support Michael Nutter, who had just left City Council to run for mayor. I actually passed him on the side-walk on my way in, and although I had just recently introduced him at a Founders' Day function at my kids' school, I was too shy to say "Hey, remember me? I'm going to give you some money!" I knew I had missed him, but I still wanted my friend Beth to know I had tried to make it, so I headed on up to the ninth floor of Society Hill Towers, to the little corner apartment with the gorgeous views of the Ben Franklin bridge, where I often find myself comfortably ensconced with a glass of wine and a plate of cheese of a Sunday afternoon, gossiping about church politics.

The house party was still in full swing, and I knew almost nobody. I'm pretty shy, and really bad at jumping in with small talk, so I was grateful when a middle-aged woman, probably a lesbian, smiled and started chatting. She was a math professor, and the president of the Philadelphia Chapter of the National Organization for Women. Inevitably, she asked me "What do you do?" -- a question I had been pondering myself lately. Pondering, that is, not what I DO, but what I SAY I do when asked that somewhat perplexing question. For several years I had answered with some variation of "I'm home with my kids, and I do a lot of volunteer work." Responses to this generally varied only slightly. Occasionally, someone was genuinely interested in my kids and in my various volunteer gigs. But the most common response was some flavor of patronizing disinterest, usually including the phrase "the most important job in the world!" Now, I actually don't think that being home raising children is the most important job in the world. Raising children well may be, but I know way too many men and women who work and raise terrific kids to think that being home is the only way to do it well. And usually the people who say this to me likewise do not think that being home raising children is the most important job in the world. I know this because A) they are not doing it, even though most of them could be and B) they have no interest in talking to me about it, whereas presumably, had they just met someone doing "the most important job in the world," they would have lots to say. But I have found there is no better way to kill a conversation with a new acquaintance than to answer "I stay home with my kids" when asked, "And what do you do?"

So, I had been pondering for some time now a new response to that question. I had long thought "stay at home mom" was a pretty silly label, since I rarely stayed home. When my son was little, I did all sorts of things outside the home, I just did them with a baby and a toddler in tow. Most of the things I did as a volunteer are things other folks usually get paid for: at my church, I ran a Christian Education program, raised several hundred thousand dollars to support programs for kids living in poverty, and started an after school program; at my daughter's charter school, I researched bond deals, hired and fired staff, lobbied the School Reform Commission, launched a capital campaign and fended off lawsuits. So when the nice mathemetician from NOW asked me, "And what do you do?" I led by describing some of my work as Chair of the Board at my daughter's school. We were in the thick of lobbying the School Reform Commission for financial support we had long anticipated, and quite reasonably should have expected, but which had suddenly dried up upon the discovery that CEO Paul Vallas's budget was suddenly and unexpectedly running a huge deficit. I had called on several contacts from my law school and law firm days to get audiences with anyone who would listen, and I had met with and pleaded our case to all sorts of interesting, high-powered folks, some of whom were even sympathetic (we never did get the money). Professor NOW was intrigued by the crazy politics and the creativity and ingenuity required to keep a charter school up and running.

Then something occurred to her. I could see it on her face, a perplexing questions which she immediately blurted out: "But how can you get paid to be on the Board of a Charter School?"

"Oh, I can't. I wish I could! Goodness knows I put in enough hours! But I'm home with my kids, so I have time, and I'm a volunteer on the Board."

"Oh," she said. "That's interesting." And she smiled tightly, turned on her heel, and struck up another conversation with someone else.

This really happened, I'm not making it up. I actually almost laughed out loud, she was so blatant. In her defense, Professor NOW was just more blatant than even I, after years of being home, was used to. But her meaning, as clear as if she had spoken the words, was not so different than the patronizing "most important job in the world" folks: what you do does not have value because you do not get paid for it.

My life now would be even more offensive to the good math professor: almost all of my work these days revolves around my home and my family. For various reasons I am taking a break from almost all of my outside-the-home work at church and the school, and I'm finding, interestingly, that this makes for an even more mentally healthy me and a happier family. For the time being, and maybe for the long-term, I am fully and blissfully embracing this answer to the question, "And what do you do?"

"I am a homemaker."

I feel comfortable and non-defensive about that answer. But I'm still kind of intrigued by this notion that any sort of activity gets vested with value, becomes "work," only when one is paid for it. I wonder sometimes, if I had a house-cleaning business, or I was a baker, or a personal chef, or ran an urban CSA, or got paid to blog and read books and write reviews, or if I really could get paid for everything I do for the charter school and the church (I'd be rich, let me tell you) -- then it would all be "work," right?

I recall a case I read in law school, about the Commerce Clause. The Commerce Clause says, among other things, that Congress can pass legislation that regulates inter-state commerce. One case interpreting what constitutes inter-state commerce found that a farmer who raised wheat on his own land, entirely for his own consumption, was engaged in inter-state commerce -- and thus bound by federal legislation regarding grain quotas -- because even his subsistence farming created ripples affecting commerce across state lines. What he grew even just for himself and his family, impacted interstate commerce significantly enough to subject him to federal regulation.

Now, it should be said, I hate this case; and in hating it, I suppose it doesn't really support my point. But my point isn't that baking bread and hanging laundry to dry, making beds and knitting scarves, growing vegetables and picking my kids up right after school -- my point is not that these things should be seen as legitimate "work" because they affect inter-state commerce (Lord knows I don't want Congress telling me what to put in the compost, or how to can peaches and applesauce....) But as much as I hate that Supreme Court case, I think it's interesting, because it does sort of speak to this phenomenon I'm noticing, this notion that work is not really work if it does not clearly and obviously have economic value.

Which is all to say, I love being a homemaker, and I also love thinking about being a homemaker. This, you may find, is a bit of a theme in my life: anything I love to do, I also love to think about doing. And anything I love to think about doing, I also love to write about. Thus, the debut of "Diary of a Mad Housewife," an occasional series about my work, and about what I'm thinking about my work. If you've ever wondered what someone like me does all day, keep checking in to see all my secrets revealed!


Julie Steiner said...

Extra bon-bons for you, my write as well as you drywall, and with as much attention to craft. Let's eat out for supper--my treat.

Eos said...

I've been thinking about this for quite a while too except that, unlike you, I'm still not quite as comfortable...maybe if I practice saying it several times I'll be more comfortable with it! I get mildly defensive when I respond to the "and what do you do?" question (actually...I dread it!)and then get mad at myself for feeling that way (like I have to justify all I do). Thing is...I too enjoy being one but have this nagging feeling that I'm supposed to be out know...getting paid!LOL

Melissa said...

Michael likes to call me the COO of Gonzalez, Inc. It's a funny way to describe what I do.
I do find it pretty dull, though. All things considered, I'd just as soon have a (paying) job.
Interesting stuff, Marta, keep it coming!

Marta Rose said...

juie: sorry love-bug, but that was not so much a treat.... let's try a do-over soon!

Eos: It's only been very recently that I've taken the "just" out of my answer, as in, "I'm just a homemaker." Thing is, I find this soooo much more fulfilling than much of what I have tried to do outside the home, and sooooo much saner than all the stuff I did that actually felt meaningful. It helps if you love it! I'm looking forward to browsing your blog!

Melissa: get a job, woman! ;-) but really, life is too short to spend much time doing anything dull.

Claire said...

What will the nice math prof say when someone offers you a mainstream press book contract for your superkickass blog writing?
I am wondering whether it was the shame of it that shut her down. Like you are doing so many important things in the world -- things with tangible and living effects -- and she is going to committee meetings.

Patrick said...

Oh so much wonderful stuff in this essay, my Dear. Several years ago my mom wrote an essay titled "The Feminist Housewife". The first editor she sent it to said "that's a contradiction in terms."

I get a version of this when I tell people I'm an actor. Often the first question they will ask is "you mean you get paid for it?" Seriously. In other words, they're trying to decide if THEY think I'm an actor.

I feel very lucky to have grown up with two parents doing work they loved, and saw as vocations. It wasn't until I was an adult that I realized what a good cook and nutritionist my mom was,for example. I just thought meals were something you enjoyed with your loved ones.

Vocation, and its relationship to money is a big issue for me.

You've given me some good stuff to think about. I look forward to more in this series.

Marta Rose said...

Patrick: yes, that's exactly it! Acting, like homemaking, is not really work unless you get paid for it, right? You're just pursuing a hobby, which is all fine and well, and who wouldn't like more time for their hobbies, but most of us are too busy doing read jobs, and by the way: get a real job! That's the message, isn't it? But if you're getting paid, suddenly it's a real job.... sigh.

I know I'm incredibly fortunate that we don't need a second income. That's a combination of good choices on our part, and incredible generosity on the part of our families. But since we don't, why should I do something I don't love, just to get paid?

I would love to read you mom's essay. Was it every published? How are your parents, by the way. I only had one class with him (Poetry), and I remember bursting into tears in the middle of class because someone had just broken my heart, and the poems were just toooooo much! He was very kind to me, then and on several other occasions that I recall quite distinctly.

Eric said...

Marta this is an absolutely wonderful post! I love it. BTW, a close second to "homemaker" as conversation killer is "pastor".

Marta Rose said...

Eric: I bet! And thanks for your kind words. Btw, I've always thought I totally missed my calling as a pastor's wife. Not as a co-pastor (isn't that what you and your wife do?), which seems to me a totally cool way to strike a work/family balance and keep everyone who wants to work happy. But I *don't* want to "work" in the traditional sense. I'm talking about a traditional pastor's wife: singing in the choir, extending hospitality, serving as theological sounding board, raising kids.... sounds like the best of all worlds to me!

kosheapa said...

marta- love readin your blog. and of course, love that your hugging my little rubes in the pic! so, i'm thinking about saying i'm a house wife. i mean - what is that?! was i an out-of-the-house wife before? the ladies out here like to say they are SAHMs. i thought it was some kind of east asian ethnicity at first and then realized- aha- i'm one too..... i'm so glad that life is feeling sane and happy (and snowy!) for you. looking forward yo joing you in it soon!

Marta said...

kate: I CAN'T WAIT FOR YOU TO BE BACK!!! i love this picture sooooo much, miss that baby girl of mine. hope you're feeling well.

Marta said...

claire: you are the ALL TIME BEST. i rarely feel so well understood as i do by you. it means a LOT. xoxo

Patrick said...

You know, I'm not sure if that essay of Mom's ever did get published, I'll have to ask. She is a proud and determined Luddite who refuses to use computers, so if it wasn't published, it only exists in hard copy. Maybe, just maybe, she'll allow me or Dad put it online, but if not, I'll get a hard copy to send you. My folks are well, thanks for asking. Dad understands matters of the heart quite well, I'd say, I'm glad to know he was a comfort to you when poetry was hitting you in some tender spots.

Cat said...

I had this question recently at a nursery school fundraiser. Asking people what they do is a badic question one asks strangers because... I can't think of much else beyond that and where they live/grew up. Then I feel like somehow I'm offending the moms who are with the kids? I don't really have follow-up questions on that, though I'm always up for exchanging kid stories.

To be honest, no one is interested enough to ask follow-up questions about my paid job either. Which is fine because I don't feel like talking about it much outside if the office. And my husband feels men turn away from him because his career is not in finance or very businessy and he doesn't watch or play sports.

Maybe small talk with strangers is just hard.

alice said...

Thank you for this, and MAN, that woman is a piece of work. I never thought I'd have to deal with these questions when I was listening to my mother lament the lack of options for the 'what do you do' question. However, here I sit, having followed my academic partner, with volunteer work composing the majority of my activity while he holds down the financial end of things.

It's wonderful to hear your well-thought out opinions on this, especially as I'm not fully comfortable with my answers to that question yet. I still keep hoping that a movement for small talk based around what we *enjoy* as opposed to what we're paid for will take off someday. Until then, I'll just take solace in hearing about others' experiences.

Amanda said...

Hi! I came here via The Modernity Ward. I am a homemaker and have a 20 mo. old, and have experienced the same things. One thing that I thought to add into the mix, though, was the issues wrapped up in being a professor, especially a math professor (only 30% of PhDs granted since 1999 have been to women). The academic world does not always allow for women to be women all that much, and the freedom to have a child and keep your career do not always coincide. For example, one of my female mentors was told that another woman "who was completely dedicated to her job" fit the position better, with the understanding that, as a parent, her interests and abilities were somehow lessened. A recently married female friend who is applying to grad school was told not to tell anyone that she might be pregnant because noone would look at her application. Children are not seen as assets in academia, in my own experiences as a PhD candidate. I don't deny that she really *does* seem to come off in the way you describe, but there could very well be something else there behind the brush-off. Like envy. Or despair. It may be hard to show interest in something that you have deliberately tried to talk yourself out of ever wanting if it might possibly be seen to interfere with "academic achievement". The joke in my old field was that, for women, only Virgin Scholars ever made it.

Marta said...

Cat: I'm sure you are right, and really the bigger issue was my own discomfort, until fairly recently, with answering "I'm a homemaker" and feeling like that was enough. I'm terrible at small talk myself, so I'm a fine one to criticize!

Alice: It will be a fine day when vocation and money don't have to go hand in hand! In the mean time, I hope you are enjoying your work, even if you don't loving answering the "what do you do" question!

Amanda: I've been feeling sort of bad about this story every since I posted it, because I really do know how hard that work/family balance is, especially for academic women, and *especially* for academic women in male-dominated fields. You're a more charitable soul than I am, lol!