Friday, August 25, 2006

A Kept Woman


Jesus and Me

There’s been a big debate lately about college-educated housewives, and if we’re wasting our brains and baccalaureates by abandoning good jobs to wipe little noses and butts all day. It started with Linda Hirshman’s “Homeward Bound” article in The American Prospect, wherein she decried homemaking as a detrimental road leading to a “demonstrable future loss of income, power, and security for the woman who quits.”

Intense reaction to the piece landed Hirshman in “Good Morning America” segments that engaged career, hybrid and at-home moms in side-by-side tête-à-têtes. One homemaker was asked if she feared her husband leaving her destitute. Hesitating slightly, a nanosecond of silence masking her dumbfounded state, she offered a terse and defensive, “No.”

If only she’d let down her more-motherly-than-thou guard long enough to tell the truth: that some of us save promising want ads until late-afternoon lessons with our kids compel us to toss them. That after heated fights with our husbands, we stare into nothingness and long for the freedom our discarded dollars might have bought, mentally calculating the months since the end date of the last “real job” on our resumes. That sometimes we ask:
What the hell have I done?

When Two Bucks Become One
Housewives of the 1960s and ‘70s weren’t experiencing this dilemma; they were escaping their kitchens and storming boardrooms, copies of Betty Friedan’s 1963 call-to-work manifesto,
The Feminine Mystique, tucked into their rigid Samsonite briefcases.

Of the 5.6 million moms who stayed home in 2005, I bet a good deal of them are like me, still reeling from the emotional upheaval that accompanies losing one’s entire income to rely completely on that of another. My question is: If those ERA-fueled ladies of yesteryear gained economic parity, greater independence and more autonomy by joining the rat race, have contemporary women who’ve opted-out now lost all those same things?

Money, Power, Respect
I sought out
The Feminine Mystique for answers to my middle-class angst, to the “problem that has no name.” In it Friedan admits that monetary fulfillment isn’t everything, but writes in the epilogue that “only economic independence can free a woman…” I agree that money is key; I won’t go so far as to call it king.

Education is also a strong factor, but not a cure all. One lawyer-turned-homemaker said she wanted her daughter be career-focused, as if that would insulate her from economic dependence. “But when she gets married and has kids…and if she doesn’t want to put them in day care…” I trailed off, both of us speechlessly understanding the cyclical conundrum.

Marrying Up, Divorcing Down
Betrothing ourselves to business bigwigs isn’t the bottom line either, though you wouldn’t know it from the way some of us spout off our husbands’ company names and job titles as social-status markers. I’ve known homemakers whose mates made decent salaries but refused to give their wives credit cards or much cash. Some full-time moms bank on the divorce card. One well-to-do wife pointed out her hot nanny’s piece-of-crap car to her husband in case he ever developed designs on the young lady. “That’s what you’ll be driving, because I’ll have everything else,” she warned.

You Gotta Serve Somebody
Call me a romantic (or a proud and stubborn fool), but I’m determined to be a mom contributing serious cha-ching to the household income, with enough flex-time to still pick up my kids from school. Like Julie Aigner-Clark, who, as a stay-at-home mother, noticed a need to expose tots to the arts. Using $15,000 and borrowed equipment, she filmed in her basement the first two videos in the wildly successful Baby Einstein series, a brand she later sold to Disney for an estimated $20 million. Even when I’m rich and famous, I won’t put my security in fabulous lucre alone. Economies downturn, companies downsize. Black Mondays send “Masters of the Universe” sailing out of high-rise windows.

This is where get-to-work experts get the equation wrong and discount the intangible value of housewifery, so busy are they calculating our “million dollar mommy tax.” Yes, at-home childcare should be recognized as valuable work and compensated accordingly, but I’m not banking on Uncle Sam to cover my arrears. I subscribe to a fishes-and-loaves theory that says one plus one doesn’t always equal two. Sometimes it equals a thousand.

I’d be lying if I said the resurrected hotbed issue hasn’t made me rethink my working status. Maybe it is time to start chasing bigger bylines from the vantage point of a cluttered desk outside my house. But when I do, it won’t be from financial fear-mongering, but because I’m walking head first into the door opened unto me at the perfect time – not by the hardworking and well-connected bridegroom who is the conduit of my current prosperity, but by the only One who has kept me all along.

Paula Mooney is editor-in-chief of Real Moms magazine.

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Paula Neal Mooney