The question comes up from time to time, usually in runs. Who owns the term housewife anymore? I do. I did even before I started writing. I chose the term deliberately back in 2007 when my husband first encouraged me to start blogging. The term “housewife” was the topic of my first blog post, An American Housewife in London. (Followed quickly and unexpectedly by furious posts about the American Academy of Pediatrics endorsement of a ritual nick to appease practitioners of female genital mutilation.)
Like most GenX women, I hadn’t thought of using the traditional term while I was growing up. But in September of 2003, while I was nesting through my final trimester of my first pregnancy, I read Caitlin Flanagan’s Atlantic article, “Housewife Confidential“. I had already become a Flanagan fan earlier that year when “The Wifely Duty” made the rounds among my girlfriends. (Actually, it made the rounds because I sent it to all of them. Based on the reaction, I think if social media had been around then, it might have held the Atlantic‘s most read article until Anne Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” in 2012.)
“Housewife Confidential” was a tribute to Erma Bombeck. I recommend reading it for that. But more importantly for me, it gave words to what I was starting to intuitively understand, that Stay at Home Mothers (SAHM’s) were a very new and not-so-savvy creation of culture. From Flanagan’s opening description:
The notion of a domestic life that purrs along, with routines and order and carefully delineated standards, is endlessly appealing to me. It is also quite foreign, because I am not a housewife. I am an “at-home mother,” and the difference between the two is vast.
Consider the etymology. When a woman described herself as a “housewife,” she was defining herself primarily through her relationship to her house and her husband. That children came along with the deal was simply assumed, the way that airing rooms and occasionally cooking for invalids came along with the deal. When a housewife subjected herself and her work to a bit of brutally honest examination, she may have begun by assessing how well she was doing with the children, but she may just as well have begun by contemplating the nature and quality of her housework. If it had been suggested to her that she spend the long, delicate hours between three and six o’clock squiring her children to the array of enhancing activities pursued by the modern child, she would have laughed. Who would stay home to get dinner on? More to the point, why had she chosen a house so close to a playground if the children weren’t going to get out of her hair and play in it? The kind of childhood that many of us remember so fondly—with hours of free time, and gangs of neighborhood kids meeting up after school—was possible partly because each block contained houses in which women were busy but close by, all too willing to push open a window and yell at the neighbor boy to get his fool bike out of the street.
But an at-home mother feels little obligation to the house itself; in fact, she is keenly aware that the house can be a vehicle of oppression. She is “at home” only because that is where her children happen to be. She does not define herself through her housekeeping; if she is in any way solvent (and many at-home mothers are), she has, at the very least, a once-a-month cleaning woman to do the most onerous tasks. (That some of the most significant achievements of the women’s movement—specifically liberation from housework and child care—have been bought at the expense of poor women, often of poor brown-skinned women, is a bitter irony that very few feminists will discuss directly, other than to murmur something vague about “universal day care” and then, on reflex, blame the Republicans.)
The at-home mother defines herself by her relationship to her children. She is making sacrifices on their behalf, giving up a career to give them something only she can. Her No. 1 complaint concerns the issue of respect: She demands it! Can’t get enough of it! She isn’t like a fifties housewife: ironing curtains, shampooing the carpets, stuck. She knows all about those women. She has seen Pleasantville and watched Leave It to Beaver; she’s made more June Cleaver jokes than she can count. (In fact, June Cleaver—a character on a television show that went off the air in 1963—looms over her to a surprising extent, a sickening, terrifying specter: Is that how people think I spend my time?) If she has seen Todd Haynes’s sumptuously beautiful recent movie, Far From Heaven, she understands and agrees wholeheartedly with the film’s implication: that being a moneyed white housewife—with full-time help—in pre-Betty Friedan Hartford, Connecticut, was just as oppressive and soul-withering as being a black man in pre-civil rights Hartford. The at-home mother’s attitude toward housewives of the fifties and sixties is a mixture of pity, outrage on their behalf, and gently mocking humor. (I recently received a birthday card that featured a perfectly coiffed fifties housewife standing in a gleaming kitchen. “The smart woman knows her way around the kitchen,” the front of the card said. Inside: “Around the kitchen, out the back door, and to a decent restaurant.”)
The at-home mother has a lot on her mind; to a significant extent she has herself on her mind. She must not allow herself to shrivel up with boredom. She must do things for herself. She must get to the gym, the spa, the yoga studio. To the book group. (She wouldn’t be caught dead setting up tables and filling nut cups for a bridge party—June Cleaver! June Cleaver!—but a book group, which blends an agreeable seriousness of purpose with the kind of busy chitchat that women the world over adore, is irresistible.) She must go to lunch with like-minded friends, and to the movies. She needs to feed herself intellectually and emotionally; she needs to be on guard against exhaustion. She must find a way to combine the traditional women’s work of childrearing with the kind of shared housework arrangements and domestic liberation that working mothers enjoy. Most important, she must somehow draw a line in the sand between the valuable, important work she is doing and the pathetic imprisonment, the Doll’s House existence, of the housewife of old. It’s a tall order.
It is a tall order. A ridiculous one at that, in ways big and small.
Big: those who must demand respect do not actually have it.
Small: all of the shoulds seemed like performances. It was irrelevant if I actually wanted to do a book club with like-minded friends. Rather boring, that, a chorus of “oh, me too ” and “I thought exactly the same thing.” I was just supposed to do what everyone else was doing, making much ado about not being June Cleaver.
Not quite home yet—I was an in-house attorney at a major oil company—I knew that I was a housewife. I did not yet know how lonely that would be. Looking back, I’m not sure how I managed, although it does explain how I found time to read. Since we are not the power woman at the mercy of her career track or the SAHM at the mercy of the immediate needs of her children, housewives have more time—if only because we have more control over it.
In addition to being able to zig when required, housewives also trust ourselves more. Yes, I have to do things for my children, of course, but I don’t fret that I should be doing some other modern mother thing whenever I sit down to read or type. And whenever I am doing for them, I don’t fret that I could be doing something supposedly more meaningful than cooking dinner, dousing a tantrum, or changing a dirty nappy. Those things need to be done, and done competently. The good of the family directs me to spend enough time tending to the children that they are well-behaved, happy, and secure, but not to serve them so much that we are slouching towards Lord of the Flies or Heathers.
Doing housewifery the old way is counter cultural these days, and one cannot do counterculture without conviction. True, many play the rebel by doing what everyone else is doing for whatever we have dubbed ‘counterculture’. But rebel cool doesn’t require conviction. It is “cool”, peer approved, by definition. Being a modern housewife is truly subversive. The timid won’t try.
I did not start to find similarly minded mom friends until we moved to London in 2006—English and European mothers are not quite as intense as US mothers—and then when the Free Range Kids movement was born in 2008. It was okay to stop hovering over your kids for the sake of your kids so more women started to do it. House and husband time became pleasantly surprising pluses to the free rangers.
But they were not the goals. It is still easy to see this truth in all manner of mom discussions. We phrase our decisions as benefits to our kids. It is acceptable to pull back from whatever to benefit your kid but not your husband. Never him, June Cleaver. The term “housewife” remains irredeemable.
And so, just the other day, I sat among a large group of women, generally my age and marital, kid, and income status. We were discussing housewifery and stay-at-home-momery, without using the terms, of course. Now it is all ‘do what works for you’ and no term really works for the absence of any standard, in the same way it is hard to define a “not”. But that was the point of the discussion, really. The experienced voices were telling us that the old housewife formula, marriage centered, low on kid activities, high on kid chores and family dinner, that’s what works for most of us, our spouses, and our kids. Switch housewife for househusband, even. The basic successful formula doesn’t change.
Shame we banished the simple terms we could use now, as we rediscover what our grand-parents knew.