Monday, February 22, 2010

bred to work

Bred to work

“Any fool can get married and have a baby,” I remember my mother saying to me as a teenager. “Work” was the mantra of my mother’s generation as they drove the ideal of independence into our skulls from birth. Their daughter’s career was our mothers holy grail. Proof that generations of oppression was over, the women’s revolution complete and women were finally “free”.

Well that didn’t last long. In a recent survey it was revealed that young mothers between the ages of 18 and 34 are fuelling a switch towards homemaking as an aspirational lifestyle choice. Put bluntly, the next generation doesn’t want to go out to work anymore. They want to stay home like our grandmothers, decorating cupcakes, potting up jam for the farmer’s market and spending quality time with their children. The lifespan of the “Amazing Juggling Woman” is over. We made it look too hard.

And it is hard. Our mothers wanted us to be independent from men – but they equated independence entirely with money. So while we no longer rely on men for cash, now that we are working, we need them more than ever in so many more ways than before. The monthly wage packet no longer buys them their slippers by the fire. We need them to empty the dishwasher, and forgo their Saturday sports to take the kids off our hands so we can scrub the kitchen. Men have gone from being the petrol that fuelled the household machine, to being an essential cog in the wheel. Except now it only works when it is prodded and pushed and we have to provide half the petrol ourselves. Did our mothers honestly think that men were going to step up to the plate and take fifty percent of the fall out from a battle that was, frankly, not theirs?

My parents were both teachers. My mother worked locally, my father in the city. So every morning he would leave the house an hour earlier than my mother with his paper tucked under his arm and get the tube to work. My mother had to wash, dress, and feed and transport three of us to school, leaving the baby at home with her mother. After school she had to take us all home, feed us and do our homework and by the time my father got home, exhausted, less one hour after she did, have a hot meal ready on the table and his slippers by the fire.

The truth is she was so thrilled to be allowed to work (her own mother was a trained teacher who had to, by law, give up work in Ireland after she got married) that she didn’t take all the other ‘work’ into account. The unpaid, thankless work that women had been doing since time began, so low was the self-worth of our mother’s generation that they barely noticed that they were now bringing home the bacon and cooking it.

The drudgery of cleaning and cooking and child-rearing that had trapped women in their houses until the 1960’s it has now transpired was actually very important, and very skilled labor. So skilled, in fact, that we now need television programs to show us how to clean our toilets, and rear our children and cook our dinners. The most basic housekeeping skills, like working out how much money you have to spend each week and sticking to it, seem to have completely eluded us. Debt? Our grandmothers did not know what that meant. For them it meant your children must have been starving with the hunger and some evil landlord was trying to “come to an arrangement.” Could they have ever imagined their granddaughters would be stupid enough to spend half a month’s wages on a handbag and the other on Marks & Spencer’s ready meals? Or throw a perfectly good blouse out because of a missing button, or not know how to bake a batch of buns without looking up a lavishly illustrated cookbook. Or how about this - having to leave the house on a wet night to join fellow women in a “knitting” club – because if you try and sty at home and do it your attention craved kids are hanging out of you so much you feel like poking them with the needle.

Our mothers wanted to go out to work for all sorts of reasons. Independence, freedom, fulfillment – but mainly they wanted to do it because men did it and their work was more valued in society.In actual fact, men were not valued because of the work they did outside the home, but simply because they were men. And you have to value and respect men because they have ridiculous egos and if you don’t value them and thank them and tell them they are marvelous – they won’t do anything. They set the rules, but in reality, if men don’t feel valued and important, they won’t do anything.

So we set a new rule saying, we’ll go out to work too (if you do fifty percent of the house and kids stuff. Ok – do thirty and I’ll pretend it’s fifty. Hell – I’ll pretend it’s eighty!) and in one generation we have reversed the situation so that a man who allows his wife to stay at home and keep house is doing her a favor. Economically, the woman who has time to stay home and cook her kids a dinner from scratch is not down-trodden but privileged. Menu-planning and having the time to steam clean your upholstery is a luxury ladies. I remember my poor, emancipated mother looking on aghast one Saturday afternoon as I modeled my new Anthropologie apron and my sisters and I discussed brownie recipes and Good Housekeeping tips. (Keep your bin liners in the bottom of your bin – oh, oh – a bowl of lemon juice and water to freshen the microwave.) “ I made sure you were educated so you’d discuss Proust – or at least current affairs!” We reminded her that as full time working mothers, we barely have time to read the newspapers never mind discuss them. Our homes and children have become our recreation. Our aspiration is not longer to be more intelligent, or accomplished but to become more “homey”. Money has outlived its promise as a means towards independence or even a designer handbag. What we want money to buy us now is time, the time to sit around our perfectly managed kitchens discussing current affairs. The time to not feel guilty about the amount of time we’re not spending with our kids. The time to give our cutlery drawer a right good clear out without eating into a precious Sunday afternoon. Enough time to feel that being a good mother and earning and income is not an either/or decision. Our mother’s told us we would need to learn to “juggle our lives”. Not that hard. You’ve got dishwashers now, the men are great nowadays – they’ll help out, cook a dinner with one hand tied behind your back, microwave some chips – that’ll do them. After a generation of trying to hold it all together frankly, we’ve already dropped a few balls and now we’ve discovered they were the one’s marked “cup cakes” and “cuddle baby all day”. Balls marked “2 Hour Commute” and “Midnight empty-dishwasher” we’re still endlessly throwing round, and round, and round.

We’re not fighting for our right to work any more, we’re fighting for our right to knit.

Our grandmothers thought going to work was important because men did it and that staying at home was rubbish because it was what women did. Our mother’s told us working was great. What they neglected to tell us was that women had been keeping the show on the road for centuries. That our skills as homemakers were important. That the gentle crafts of sewing and knitting – quietly embroidering tray-cloths with our family initials, pickling our summer fruits were worth something. That they were not simply things we had to do, but creative occupations that added as much value to family life as they money the men bought it. Or, as we are discovering now, more.

It seems we have screwed up the fight so much that the next generation of women want to take us back in time. The pressure of the modern working mother is turning them into Stepford Wives.

Maybe instead of passing the values of working independence to our daughters, our mother’s would have been better placed in validating the importance of being good homemakers to their sons.

With a growing macho TV chef-culture of men’s competitive cooking it looks hopeful that, before long, men will be convinced that at home growing vegetables and pottering around the kitchen, baby in one arm, roulade mould in the other is truly where they belong.

The question for us women now is – can we get back in there first before men discover the joys of knitting?

1 comment:

  1. Superb! "What e'r was thought but ne'r so well expressed " or words to that effect!