“I have a secret disdain for people who stay at home.” Thus writes Dan Kois in an article for Slate, describing the “stew of envy, disrespect, thankfulness, and resentment” he feels toward stay-at-home parents (mothers, more particularly). While he tries to give stay-at-home parents (SAHP’s) the benefit of the doubt in some instances, Kois’s article really boils down to this sentiment:
I do, deep in my heart, view working for a living as preferable to not working for a living. Where does this view come from? From my own working parents, I guess; from watching as brilliant women I knew in high school and college gave up the careers they might have led in favor of caring for children; from growing up embracing a kind of 1970s feminism that celebrated women breaking the shackles of housewifery and ascending, rapturously, to the workplace. … And because I can’t help but feel that my way of doing things is the best way of doing things, I respect people with jobs and subtly disrespect people without them.
What this quote reveals is that Kois, like many other people, has no idea what the “stay-at-home” position traditionally entailed (and often, still does entail).
The historical position of women-in-the-home was not a degrading one: as the breadmaker, gardener, cook, cleaner, and housekeeper, the woman was vital to the health and sustenance of her entire household. household. What Wendell Berry has called “the essential art of housewifery” was a noble, vital practice. Proverbs 31 speaks of a diligent housewife (who is also an entrepreneur and local benefactor) who is “praised in the city gates”: the place where the leaders of the city would traditionally gather. Being a housewife required craftsmanship, skill, and prowess. Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the 19th century, said this of American women:
“As for myself, I do not hesitate to avow that, although the women of the United States are confined within the narrow circle of domestic life … I have nowhere seen woman occupying a loftier position; and if I were asked, now that I am drawing to the close of this work, in which I have spoken of so many important things done by the Americans, to what the singular prosperity and growing strength of that people ought mainly to be attributed, I should reply—to the superiority of their women.”
But unlike the reverence Tocqueville expressed for the traditional housewife, the modern “stay-at-home mother” has found her position degraded. And I think there are several interesting reasons for this.
First, we do have the reason most often touted by traditional conservatives (and by Kois himself): the rise of feminism and careerism had a damaging effect on the position of women who worked at home. Many women were told that to be a SAHM was degrading, oppressive, demeaning to a woman’s full potential (and it’s worth noting that, for some women, this was probably true). In order to really be someone, women were told, one must pursue a career. That is one reason the position of SAHM has fallen out of favor: it speaks directly against our culture’s infatuation with careerism, individualism, and personal potential.
But there are other ways in which the work of the “housewife” has been weakened—and the industrialization of society is one of the most overlooked yet important, I think. It makes sense if you think of traditional housewives as craftswomen. They were taught a variety of crucial skills—skills that the entire family and household depended on for comfort and survival. They learned everything from baking bread to darning stockings, planting potatoes to feathering chickens, darning stockings to knitting scarves. Unless one was very rich, and could buy such things from a store, it was the wife who created both clothing and food for her household: she kept her family warmed, clothed, fed.
But then modern inventions began to circumvent the need for the traditional housewife: factories made clothing cheap. Department stores began selling canned goods, cereals, bread, and eventually frozen meals. Microwaves were invented. All of these things, harmless as they are, led to the simplification of the traditional housewife role. They, like much of the industrialization of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, circumvented customary types of craftsmanship. Housewives, like carpenters, for instance, were less valuable than they’d once been.
Also, many women traditionally devoted a lot of their time to welfare work—in ancient times, hospitality was seen as vital to the wellbeing of one’s community, as well as to the wellbeing of foreigners and sojourners. There were no hotels or hostels: strangers were entirely reliant on passing households for sustenance and warmth on a given evening. Housewives played a crucial role in this respect. In the U.S., throughout history, women ran many of the societies and organizations responsible for care of the poor, sick, widowed, and orphaned. Yet this work, too, has declined in our modern age. Christine D. Pohl, in her excellent book on hospitality titled Making Room, attributes this decline to 1) the deterioration of religious associations and practice in American society, and 2) to the atomization of the average American household.
Thus, divorced of its traditional practices of craftsmanship and compassion, the work of the “housewife” began to dim and fade. People began to associate it with ease and luxury, rather than the grueling care and work of ages past.
Yet it’s not true that the modern SAHM merely warms meals in microwaves and paints her nails all day. Though the craftsmanship of the traditional housewife may be less prevalent, other tasks and cares have risen to the forefront. Children and their schooling usually come with a myriad of obligations, extracurriculars, and parental involvement requirements. There is a need for parents to step in here. Additionally, the long hours and commute often required of full-time workers means that a SAHP must often see to the overall care of the home: whether it be lawn care or maintenance, grocery store runs or meal prep. This work adds up, takes time, and requires a degree of skill that is often overlooked.
But some women are also trying to resurrect the old craftsmanlike skills of housewifery: the modern idea of “homesteading” is an excellent example of this. Some women try to do everything from knitting their children’s sweaters, to making their own house cleaners, to baking their own bread. And while some look derisively or sneeringly on such attempts, I do think these are important efforts to resurrect an old style of craftsmanship that is very valuable—just as a man may decide to become a carpenter and make traditional, beautiful furniture from scratch. These things may not be (and need not be) for all women: but that doesn’t mean they ought to be denigrated. The old skills of canning, cooking, gardening, etc. often carry with them a bevy of benefits, and can be handed down from generation to generation.
What Kois and his fellow critics seem to forget is that, just as different careers often carry with them a myriad of unseen toils and cares, so too the position of SAHM often involves a lot of expertise and work. They do real work, day in and day out, for the good of their family and their community. Whether they do this work by modern means, or through the resurrection of old customs, many of us would be bereft without their influence on society.