Thursday, February 17, 2005

Talking 'bout Our Generation

This is a draft! Warning, This is a draft! It's midnight, I fell asleep getting the kids to bed, and I need to write down some of the stuff that's been chasing around my brain before I can fall back asleep. (I hate falling asleep right after the kids. Even when I'm tired, I feel like I've been robbed of the only guilt-free adult time in my day. Why shouldn't adult time during the rest of the day also be guilt-free? Good question. Let's discuss that.)

There's a blog-o-splosion Warner-wise, and I do plan to get it summarized, I do. But I was struck, powerfully, by the first topic of conversation in Warner's interview with American Prospect. Warner's claim:
When I began the research for the book, I was spending a lot of time with stay-at-home moms. Hearing the way they talked about their lives and looking at the effect of not working, so much of it reminded me of Friedan’s observations [from 1963] -- that sort of vague, indefinable feeling of emptiness and unhappiness and anxiety and angst. ... [Friedan] had written about a culture-wide "mystique of feminine fulfillment" that was driving women quietly insane. Today, of course, we no longer worship women who, like the "happy housewife heroine" of Friedan’s day, can find fulfillment in making their floors shine. [Note: Obviously Warner has never spent any time on FlyLady because, oh yes we do.] Yet, while our world has changed so much, why were the women I knew speaking in such a similar way and seeming to feel such similar things? The concrete facts of their lives were different, but the stuff going through their heads -- and the internal struggles -- were so similar.

This isn't the first place Warner specifically compares today's generation to Friedan's. I'll go find the other references later. For now, though, let's just say that second-wave feminists everywhere are exhaustedly picking themselves up off their yoga mats and wondering, again, if anyone has paid any attention to the world at all since they first went to work. Warner must be willfully forgetting everything she knows about Friedan, the President's Commission on Women, NOW, Ms. Magazine, and the entire decade of the 1970s if she truly believes that the "emptiness and unhappiness and anxiety and angst" of today's mothers has much in common with the same set of feelings felt by women in 1963. Elizabeth at Half-Changed World links Warner's book to one about the tyranny of choices, and that about summarizes the problem with Warner's claim here. We have choices now; compared to us, women in 1963 did not.

I promise to get the real figures for this tomorrow, during my guilty writing portion of the day, but for now, let's just ballpark. The average age that women first married in 1963 was about 21; today it's 26. Most women in 1963 did not attend any college; most women today do. In 1963, a majority of the private colleges and universities that jockey for the top 100 spots on the US News & World Reports rankings did not admit women. Today, I think they all do. I'm not even going to bother cataloging all the careers and professions that were still considered unfeminine and inappropriate for married women and mothers in 1963; if you're reading this blog, the chances are good that you are now or once were or plan to be again employed in one of them.

Another bit of information the popular press manage to forget every time one of these mommy books comes out: the 1950s were in no way traditional when it came to motherhood and family. They represented a pretty radical break with the decades that came before them, on any number of fronts. Warning: I'm about to launch into US History intro mode. I know you know this. But apparently, Warner forgets that one hallmark of the decades that immediately preceded the 1950s was a crisis in marriage and family life. The Great Depression led to record-level paternal abandonment (there's nothing like economic failure to send men scurrying) and for a whole host of reasons, many intact families with unemployed husbands survived on the wives' wages, too. The farm crisis of the 1920s had sealed the fate not only of the family farm but of small towns, too: urbanization throughout the 1920s and internal migration in the 1930s (especially to California) freaked everyone out. Then came the war, and the inevitable explosion in the numbers of female-headed households, because now even the families who had clung to traditional middle-class respectability were divided by war. 1946 had the highest divorce rate in American history, right up until the 1980s, because all those war brides and husbands took one look at each other when the men came home and ran screaming to the judges. (Don't underestimate the role of post-traumatic stress for the men, either.)

Which of Warner's radical proposals for family change was implemented during the war, only to be dismantled in 1946? Government-funded childcare in the workplace. Why was it dismantled? Because 10 million men were returning from the war and they needed jobs and (almost) every economist in the country believed the post-war period would result in a major depression, possibly re-triggering the conditions of the Great Depression, which had only really ended with the ramp-up of wartime industry. Who suffered most from the rollback in wartime women's employment? Working-class women, the great majority of the 19 million women employed during the war, whose wages had risen, whose job status had risen, whose pride in labor had risen, and who were now shunted back into the low-paying jobs they had worked before.

Why were the 1950s the 1950s? Who knows, exactly. I tend to remind myself often not to underestimate cultural warfare: the popular press was filled with messages to women throughout this period to use their family lives to prove the superiority of capitalism over godless Communism. Also, and this is my favorite beef with traditionalist Republicans: for the first time in the 1950s, thanks to unions and massive government expenditures (on that trusty military-industrial complex and the various welfare provisions of the GI Bill), working-class Americans could afford a middle-class lifestyle. Women whose mothers had worked every day of their lives could finally stay home, and stay home they did. They considered themselves damn lucky to do so.

Finally, there's sex to consider. The 1950s were a decade of sky-high teen sexual activity and sky-high teen pregnancy. Why doesn't this register in the national memory? Because all those teens got married. That's what good girls and boys who wanted to have sex did in the 1950s: they got married. Then they clustered their three or four children very close together in age (because the women actually did know that the years of caring for small children are back-breakingly exhausting), they moved to the affordable houses in the new suburbs, and they sank into the depression that Friedan described.

By the 1960s, two things were happening: the oldest of the baby boomers, the late 1940s children of these 1950s moms, were entering their late teens and confronting the message to get married. Most working-class girls did get married, partially for the sex and partially for the economic security, while more and more middle-class girls went off to college and started to reconsider all their parents' rules. (My mom was a working-class granddaughter of farmers so she got married at 19 and spent the rest of her life telling me not to make that mistake.) Meanwhile, the 1950s moms themselves had a lot of free time on their hands, because their youngest babies were in school now, and so the mothers went back to work.

Fact is, throughout the twentieth century, very few women of any economic class remained unemployed for the full 22 or 24 or 26 years that they had dependent children in their homes. Some of the social change that happens in the 1960s is just boring old sequencing, and if the whole homeschooling movement doesn't short-circuit the process, we'll see it again with these folks like myself who've opted out. Granted, quite a bit of the labor of moms with teenagers still wasn't being paid in the 1960s and the 1970s. We're still suffering the fallout of the loss of volunteer hours that middle-class women used to provide, and while I admire Warner's touching belief that Americans want to replace that volunteer labor with government expenditure, I think if we're realistic, we'll set out to recruit retirees instead. But the real revolution in women's work wrought by second-wave feminism was the revolution in work by mothers with young children. And given that household wages have stagnated since 1973, even though moms with young children now work, it's possible to argue that that wasn't a cultural revolution but simply an economic necessity. When American families can afford to keep one parent at home with their young children, they do so.

Which leads us, of course, to the reason why I think mothers today feel "emptiness and unhappiness and anxiety and angst" and why the blogs on Warner's book are divided between those who think she's fear-mongering and those who think she's dead to rights. It is, sigh dammit this again, the men. It's the husbands and the fathers and the brothers and the sons, who still don't do their share of the housework and who still don't do their share of the childcare and who still don't do their share of anything other than the employment and the commute. Not that those things aren't crucial, they are, but let's get real. Caring for children and keeping a home is, along with everything else, hard physical and emotional and intellectual labor, and women bear the disproportionate share. Throw in enormous status-anxiety, the direct result of those thirty years' worth of stagnant household income, and you have a recipe for -- mommy madness.

Warner's answer is to emulate France (and France does sound lovely), because she thinks we'll have more luck changing our government than our men. This woman, I don't know what to say, is she an optimist or a pessimist or what? Because the men, they vote Republican, and the history, it's not encouraging on either front.

Tomorrow morning: an interesting comparison to Germany, where supposedly women have so internalized the message that children should be raised at home for the first three years that the country is now suffering a massive demographic crisis. According to some German politicians, their women, having gotten the message that you can't raise kids and have a job, have chosen -- the jobs.

The proposed German solution? We should be more like France.


Momzom said...

It's not just Germany. In Italy, birthrates are in free fall. It's not so much that women have internalized a message that they must be home with their children, as it is that they have looked at their options and said, this isn't all going to work, I can't run the house, do the job, and have more than one child. So they don't. That is starting to get the attention of some local governments, which are offering something like cash prizes for having more children. (my exquisitely fine-grained cultural knowledge comes from reading a NY Times article about this about a month ago, so discount for that).

It certainly gets gov't attention, but gee whiz, who wants to go first? You won't support me as a mother, so I just won't do it!

I think none of this will change unless it's also a father's problem, as Jody and many others have pointed out. I worked, very briefly, at a big, prestigious private law firm in DC and the lawyer/mothers were pretty much miserable. But the overriding message from the Firm was "it has to be this way" (and this was a firm widely viewed to be family friendly! They had on-site backup daycare for example, and were extending it to weekends, which really creeped me out because could work all weekend! The Firm was taking care of the kids, go bill some more hours). And the Firm, like all Firms, depends on some attrition because of its pyramidal partnership and advancement structure. So as long as it's "just" a bunch (not all) women dropping out, there's no incentive to change anything at all.

The men are going to have to say to their employers, "this is bullshit, and I'm not going to do it." Yes, the men who can do this are the men with massive choices thanks to class and educational background and it's hard to find a good job anyway--I know this.

But it's not just that men need to do more at home (this from a woman whose husband has never, once, in 2 and 2/3 years of fatherhood emptied the diaper genie. I know about paternal opt-out). It's that they need to do less at work and make their employers take it. That's the revolution.

chris said...

Clearly, mothers just can't do anything right, can they?

Anonymous said...

"I hate falling asleep right after the kids. Even when I'm tired, I feel like I've been robbed of the only guilt-free adult time in my day. Why shouldn't adult time during the rest of the day also be guilt-free? Good question. Let's discuss that."ME TOO! YES, LET'S DISCUSS IT!

Know what? This Warner person simply has blinders on. Doesn't see the whole picture, and must have something wrong with her neck 'cuz she seems incapable of turning her head to see all the vast ranks of mothers who are SO not like the one's she spoke to. And does she think that women for whom art classes & sports teams are not a financial possibility are somehow immune to the stresses of motherhood? 'Cuz it seemed to me as if the article was to represent motherhood in general, when really she only described the lives of a very targeted segment. Perhaps she didn't get a good view of mothers because she might not like the snacks she'd be served talking with a SAHM who lives in Section 8 housing and uses food stamps. Or maybe she wouldn't like the dose of spiritual reality she'd be served if she interviewed women who honestly rely upon a Higher Power for strength, courage, and fulfillment.

Of course I agree with your conclusion that a lot of the problems associated with Mommy Madness are related to men. But that's not a surprise, huh? Even a non-mad mom like me still thinks that bringing home a paycheck and spending an hour playing with the kids before bedtime hardly rates as a full-fledged partner in parenting. Or hey, maybe I am mad, because dang if my having to suspend my business to care for the kids these past few years hasn't given the hubby lots of ammo to shoot my way regarding his views of our inequal relationship. Maybe I'm a crazy lady 'cuz my DH seems to have confused the term "stay at home mom" with "abandoned spouse". But popping some pills and sending my kids off to daycare won't solve that problem, will it?

(Warning: run-on sentence!) On the other hand, several weeks ago when DH told his female boss that the reason he didn't come to work (for just one day) was because he had to stay home and tend to his sick wife and three sick toddlers, he was told to never use such an excuse again, and if we ever are all sick at the same time again we are to find some kind of alternate healthcare solution rather than him staying home & using sick time, personal time, or vacation time to care for us. I have a hard time imagining someone telling a working mother she can't stay home to take care of her family for one day.

I dunno, this still just seems like a whole lot of talking about a whole lot of nothing. Life is hard, people find ways to cope, Life goes on.



Laura said...

It is, sigh dammit this again, the men. It's the husbands and the fathers and the brothers and the sons, who still don't do their share of the housework and who still don't do their share of the childcare and who still don't do their share of anything other than the employment and the commute.I think this is the other elephant in the room, aside from class. In my mind, the women who struggle the most are the women who have to work and whose husbands do absolutely nothing to help with the kids. Yes, they're still out there. Warner doesn't even mention this. There's also the other end of the spectrum. Women who don't have to work, but want to, and are married to workaholics (upper management at large corporations, lawyers, doctors) who never have time for the kids (or so they say). Why is it that women don't have the option of either not contributing to caring for the kids or for working long, hard hours (not that I recommend those), but men do, and are often rewarded for it?

Lisa said...

I loved your history, it totally made me think of the traditional family and the 50's in a new light.
I have read Warner's piece in Newsweek and in NYT. I think something different everytime I read it.
Your argument on men is a good one. However, my husband parents fairly well. He does not do as much as I do, and sometimes doesn't do it to my satisfaction, but he does recognize his responsiblities.
Something no one is bringing up is that at times motherhood is not all that intellectually stimulating. If you are a SAHM I sometimes think your brain can turn to liquid and ooze out your ears. Boredom brings on loneliness and depression sometimes. So would you rather work where there are grown-ups to converse with, and tasks that are completed giving you a sense of accomplishment. Or would you rather stay home where most of your tasks are repetitous, and your job of mothering is so close at hand that you have no perspective you are accomplishing anything? Intellectually all of us would choose paid work I think. But emotionally many of us choose to have children. Some of us work because of economics, some of us work because we choose to. I think some SAHM become ubermoms because they are looking for the kind of stimulation and accolades they are missing because they aren't employed. I think some moms who are employed become uber moms because they are intent on proving they are good mothers, even though they work. I think we all need to cut ourselves a damn break.
How come dads are never analyzed this closely? How come we don't hear from them as much?
I know I have tons of grammar and spelling errors, and if you could smell my son right now you would too.
Great ideas- great ideas here. Gotta go.

Anonymous said...

We never have men analyzed because they are in the same unquestionable role they have been since the dawn of time... they are the breadwinners. Most men who try to stay at home and take care of the kids are criticized and accused of being lazy, sponging off of their wives. Men aren't analyzed because most (not all) haven't got a freaking clue what it's like to stay home with small children 24/7 with 8-10 hour stretches of being the only responsible adult available to take care of them. They have a secure role... and as long as they're holding down a job, making the bill payments... they're a good dad and husband in the eyes of society. I fortunately have a husband, though not perfect does try. He's inherently lazy... but he makes an effort. I stay at home because we can't afford to pay for day care right now, and secondly I would be paying out 80-90% of whatever I earned so that someone else can raise my kids. I don't see an extra $50 to $100 worth abandoning my children to someone else's values and care. i am however seeking some part time employment around my hubby's schedule so that I can earn that extra little bit a week without having to pack my kids off. Some women can send their kids to quality daycare and work . More power to them. I'm glad for them if that is what they want for them and their kids. I had a working mom and I never had a single doubt about why she was doing it or if she loved me. The truth was she did it because she wanted to give me better than she had. And part of her work involved making the world a better place for other children too. She wasn't a perfect parent... but the world sure could use a few more women like her. The thing is, it doesn't boil down to it just being men, or class distinctions, or economic necessity. It's a myriad of factors across the board, and those factors combine and add up in a series of individual circumstances for each family, and for each child. I think we create more problems for ourselves by just blaming on group or factor, than really trying to address a broad scope. Women need to quit competing and start connecting, rally against the freakin' corporations that pay their slaves (our husbands) a barely passable living so their big wigs can buy a new yacht or go to Europe, rally for more domestic help from husbands, and quit criticizng women for their choice to stay home or work. There is no one thing that works for every woman or every family. We need a sense of community, a sense of support from each other... that lack is part of what is so isolating... and maddening.

Lisa said...

Another thought, we don't acknowledge motherhood- indeed parenthood- is stressful no matter how you cut it. And instead of blaming the mothers for it, empathize, and look for ways to support them. Also realize no matter how much support is offered, even if this were utopia, it's going to be stressful sometimes, no matter what. I hate articles(Warner) that imply we are doing it wrong if we are stressed. It is stressful being responsible for another's life no matter how you cut it. There is no universal right way to mother. So let's quit calling each other wrong. Okay I am going to quit taking up your blog space and I will post about this in the next day or two. Thanks for such an intersting discussion, and such obviously brilliant commentors. It's given me a lot to contemplate.

Elizabeth said...

Another terrific post, with some useful historical perspective.

One of the things that I took from reading The Paradox of Choice, however, is that people are MORE dissatisfied when they feel like an unhappy situation is the result of a choice they made then when it's the result of luck or fate or whatever.

And god forbid you should complain about any aspect of something you chose to do (whether it's just have kids, to stay home, to work, whatever), someone will come along to tell you that it was your choice and didn't you know what you were getting into? (Or to tell you how lucky you are to have that choice.)


Stefan said...

Jody writes that

"Warner's answer is to emulate France (and France does sound lovely), because she thinks we'll have more luck changing our government than our men. This woman, I don't know what to say, is she an optimist or a pessimist or what? Because the men, they vote Republican, and the history, it's not encouraging on either front."

Well, I know this is a minor point (or is it?), but in the US there's not only a 'gender gap' in partisan voting, there's also an even larger and growing 'marriage gap', with unmarried men voting for Kerry by 8 points and married women voting for Bush by 11 points, while unmarried women went for Kerry by 25 points and married men went for Bush by 21 points. Or, put differently, unmarried men are 19 points more Democratic than married women, while women as a whole are 'only' 7 points more Democratic than men. Finally, while this is not a new phenomena, its magnitude has increased a lot since 2000, with married women going Republican with a 13 point shift and with unmarried men going Democratic with a 9 point shift.

These are huge differences and need to be understood. I have -- right now -- no idea what this phenomena implies for understanding the politics of 'mother madness' alleviation. Thought I'd not be optimistic in the short run.


Sources at

Economics, Politics, and other Stuff