All in the Family: Making Over Motherhood for Mutual Flourishing
Agnes R. Howard

I belonged to a swim-practice carpool for a while and I am not proud of it.

When my daughter joined her high school team in ninth grade, I failed to anticipate practices after and before school, which meant leaving before 5:00 am every morning to drive her there. To my surprise, few other mothers were looking for carpools. When I asked, one excellent woman consented. Miraculously, she offered to take mornings if I would do most of the evening pick-ups. I let her do this. Her reasons for wanting a carpool were more compelling than mine.

Here is what pick-ups were like for her before our arrangement. She would leave her job a little before 5:00 pm then go grab her son to take him to afternoon soccer/basketball/baseball practice, as season dictated. Sometimes she had to wait for him there. Other times, his practices would be long enough for her to drive to the high school, pick up her daughter, then pick up her son again. One irritable teen or the other was always left waiting. This woman looked apologetic admitting what I also had noticed: that swim practice didn’t exactly get out the same time every day. It might end at 5:00 but usually that meant 5:15 before girls came out dressed. If the coach called a meeting or someone needed extra laps, it might be closer to 5:30 before their release. Planning to arrive at the later time, say, 5:25, wouldn’t work either because sometimes practice might release early or the girls might decide not to shower and then her kid would end up waiting, wet and embarrassed, while the coach, tapping his foot impatiently, wondered where the mother was so he could lock up and go home.

I was so grateful to lose the morning drives that I would have agreed to pick up every day for the rest of high school and have still been in this woman’s debt. But our arrangement did afford me many sometime-after-5:00 spans spent idling in a line of SUVs and minivans, wondering at the situation. Sure, the sport was important to our kids. Sure, it was good of the coach to put his all into helping our kids be their best. But what had called this situation into being, dozens of capable adults, overwhelmingly female, commandeered into stop-start loops around the back entrance of the high school, unapologetically kept waiting fifteen minutes, a half hour, forty-five minutes, five days a week, not in a neutral slice of time but in that frenzied one wedged between finishing up a day’s work and heading home to cook dinner. What was the meaning of our own modest swim-mom queue multiplied by all the other sports and clubs predicated on the same maternal obedience?

So much has been written about problems of working motherhood, of the demands and compromises and rewards. Hasn’t all this been hashed over enough? Maybe. Usually this puzzle is addressed in terms of work-life balance, familiar solutions touting affordable childcare and gender equality in housework, with state or employer changing policy to make family life more sane. These discussions feel as exhausted as a working mom at her toddler’s bedtime. What we have to “balance” is not “work” and “life” but work and work. The fact that all these women still line up here, there, and everywhere suggests that something has yet to be fixed, and it’s not all fixable by parental leave or day care policies.

The problem stretches across a range of life issues but solutions tend to focus on single parts. Sometimes we focus on the children, willing parents just to do whatever is best for kids, as though the effect of nurture on the nurturers is insignificant as long as the kids come out okay. On the other hand, we might focus on jobs, cheering for whatever will allow women to keep their sense of self fixed in employment and earning capacity. In either case, children tend to be reckoned as objects whose fates will be decided by adult priorities and whose own agency does not enter in.

Both approaches miss the felt experience of working-family life. Any approach to the difficulty of holding a job and nurturing beloved children that scants the worth of either work will be inadequate. Women are shortchanged when we only esteem their professional accomplishments, when we do not count household work properly as such, and when the job description of parenthood expands with evermore childhood perks. The solution is neither to stop having children nor to stop having jobs, but to give motherhood a makeover.

In classic fashion, makeovers usually start with lopping off something. Very well. The place to start is by trimming off the accretion of unnecessary frills of middle-class childhood that weigh down middle-class mothering. That doesn’t mean paying other people to do the things moms now do, it means consigning some of those things to oblivion. Doing that would clear time and head space in children and adults alike, which we might use to help each other flourish. Second, children should be enlisted in the solution to the work-life crunch by becoming capable, full-functioning members of the households they inhabit. Third, we might rethink the place of employment in the flourishing life, trimming it down to size, too.

The Problem

Write-ups about what’s wrong with American motherhood all mark the same things—that women in charge of children are assigned too many tasks. Children of all ages require work, and much of what American moms do just comes standard with the embodied, changing needs of children. Some extra efforts spring from the initiative of mothers themselves, from women well educated and capable of doing virtually anything who, for a period of time, direct their best efforts to the young ones in their homes. This is motherhood “in an age of anxiety,” as Judith Warner named it years back in Perfect Madness (2005), preceded by Sharon Hays’s The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood (1996), Ann Crittenden’s The Price of Motherhood (2001), Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels’s The Mommy Myth (2004), and a lot of mommy-lit like Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It (2002) et al. But after all these words and debates, mothers still are asked to do all kinds of ridiculous things in the name of children’s opportunity.

It is in fact a little surprising that this situation does not generate more of an uproar. After all, Americans have rejected old models of female subordination. In earlier editions of the American wife, a wife’s fulfillment was supposed to be found in providing amusement, adornment, and domestic maintenance for the man she married. In the nineteenth century this meant creating a haven from the bustling outside world. By the early twentieth, it meant becoming an interesting companion, facilitating a man’s rise in business. A wife’s sense of accomplishment would come from being useful to someone else who was accomplishing something. We have tossed these models to the curb, and no longer mostly perceive wives as accessories to husbands. Instead, women are repurposed as accessories to children. To be clear, the error here is not in the fact of children or the love and nurture and moral formation mothers give children. What is objectionable is the foolish disregard for women’s time and abilities that comes in the course of carting them through pitstops of American childhood. The offense comes not so much from children themselves but from institutions putatively in service of children who demand uncomplaining obedience from their mothers. The mother is made into a tool with a soul, and motherhood is warped by pettiness, consumerism, and on-call utility.

The Problem Explained

In addition to paid employment, women do disproportionate degrees of domestic management. This is old news. Americans have wrangled over this imbalance for decades. While women now share many more household tasks with partners or husbands, they retain a lot of them, either because it is not obvious how some tasks should be divided or because some tasks, when offered to men, did not seem to them worth doing. Women then had to decide whether they would let those tasks lapse or take them back, sending birthday-party invitations, writing thank-you notes, completing school forms, making pediatric appointments. Before going any further, we must recognize that some men are really good at these things and do a lot at home. But even due defensiveness on that count can hit a sore spot, that dads get fulsome praise when they do the kinds of things moms do unheralded every day.

Nature lays the groundwork of this conundrum. Unless prevented, reproductive coupling produces new humans who need food, clothes, and care. But who takes care of them, and how, are decisions made by culture. Women were long shut out of other opportunities and works on the grounds that child-rearing was theirs to do and that angling after other prospects might disrupt or unfit them from doing it. The short story of the culture of American motherhood is not all pretty. By the early nineteenth century, gendered division of labor sequestered middle class white women in the home, justifying this as natural and desirable. The sweet matron made the home a haven of peace from the hard, competitive world. But by the early twentieth century, smothered by mother love, many modern Americans wanted to knock that matron off her pedestal. Mom: yuck. A whole boom of babies raised more “naturally” let mom be comfortingly distant, discernable from afar by a whiff of the cookies she’d taken fresh from the oven or by the chemical-clean smell of floor wax, but mostly an enabler of the playscape where children ruled and roamed at will—glory days now hearkened to by free-range parenting advocates. Underemployed at home, more moms went to work. Others, as decades wore on, found themselves urgently needed at home, where a lot needed doing.

What needs doing? Here distinctions must be made. Caring for children is not the same thing as doing housework. Though some women announce gladly that they are stay-at-home-moms, not many are likely now to describe themselves as housewives. To wit, mom bloggers routinely gush about love for husband and sweet babies and then admit with some pride that their home is kinda messy. Here’s the rub: children tend to be at home unless you put them somewhere else—daycare, school, aftercare—and if a parent is also in that space to take care of children, it makes sense to simultaneously do tasks that need doing. Taking care of children may be distinct from taking care of the house, but the presence of children generates more household tasks and requires their performance. In a reciprocal continuous loop, care of home and care of children entangle.

That knot, housework, can be untangled in many different ways as culture dictates. The fact that a family has children who must be fed and kept from drowning in wells can present a problem that a woman, Mother, solves by her own lights. But there are other solutions. We can mechanize it, assigning more to our internet of things. We can monetize it, hiring other people to do what machines cannot. Americans have kept and do keep servants to perform domestic and child-rearing tasks. This solution can turn exploitative by race or class or both, richer women undervaluing the time of poorer women. Under some terms, buying “help” is sensible. American households used to require lots of heavy labor—cooking over wood fires, heating water for laundry, beating rugs, draining iceboxes—and when the work was too much for one woman, she could bring others into her space to help complete it. Alternatively, the work of one household could become too small for one woman, inefficiently done by her alone in her own space, and better done with a pooling of efforts. Serious social reformers used to think about how to solve this problem. Lyrically grouped as “dreamers of a new day” in historian Sheila Rowbotham’s book by that title, such women, whom another historian, Dolores Hayden, calls “material feminists,” sought better lives through changes at home. Hayden traces their experiments in a book whose title reflects their urgency and optimism: The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities. Rather than each private family having to duplicate efforts in their own private spaces—I cook my dinner and mind my children while my neighbors separately do the same thing—they sought ways to make the work collective or collaborative, like having professionally prepared food delivered to kitchenless homes.

These women’s campaigns for shared or outsourced housework were not just trying to find an arrangement to make their own private lives go more smoothly. Their plans differed, as Hayden explains. Among faculty wives and literary folk around Harvard, Melusina Fay Peirce organized a housework cooperative in the 1860s, managed and staffed by women. Later in the century, admiring how industry was transforming other facets of city life, Charlotte Perkins Gilman dreamed of hotel-like apartments with professionally planned and industrially produced food. Ellen Swallow Richards showed off a public kitchen at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. Ethel Puffer Howes in the 1920s tried to organize women’s cooperation in household chores, facilitating women’s service in “trained vocations” outside the home. Collaborative dining clubs, public dining rooms serving whole buildings or neighborhoods, and dinner-delivery services seemed like the way of the future into the early twentieth century. Women organized group housekeeping, some contributing management skills and paying employees to do the laundry, cooking, and cleaning of individual members. Others built collectives for meals and childcare, joining time or money or both to supply food and eat together and watch children. Some of these experiments got off the ground, Hayden argues, but none persisted in the face of rising incomes and commercial marketing in the 1920s, and certainly not through the baby boom after the end of the Second World War. Still, these efforts are worth remembering as attempts to address a tension still straining the lives of many American women. Long ago, these women recognized the working-mother puzzle as a systemic problem not best left to the strained scrambling of each particular household.

Most Americans since have found such cooperatives unattractive. We’ve gone all in for prepared-food delivery and meal kits and take-out, but eliminating our kitchens or sharing our appliances is another matter. We like our privacy, home as a refuge from the work world. The very fact that nineteenth-century folk—or we—could configure home as a refuge away from work shows our blindness to the work that gets done in houses, especially by women. It may be a measure of how stuck we are in private-home idealization that the only way we can imagine sharing household duties with our neighbors is in a dystopia. Or a natural disaster.

But our preference for this lifestyle creates other problems for us. In some ways, it makes sense for us to idealize our single-family homes: because agriculture dominated our economy for many formative years and that backyard used to be the back forty, the start of your farm; because many Americans came from places without opportunity for their own land or home and here could pitch a home under their own vine and fig tree. In other ways, though, it does not make sense to idealize the single-family home: it separates families from each other while wasting resources in land and water and transportation. As Hayden reminds us, it is an ideal shaped by land-use policy, real estate development, and transportation planning—as well as gendered ideas of what home was supposed to be and who was supposed to be in it.

The problem gets personal. Picture the American woman-with-young-children in her house around 6:00 pm, making dinner. She may have just returned from her job or may have been here all day. Parents nickname this the witching hour. The woman tries to cut carrots, tosses chicken in a skillet. Children tug on her shins or throw blocks on the floor, or smack each other or jump off the back of the sofa, or watch TV or play video games. She tries to return to her cooking, perhaps convinced that it’s important to provide children nourishing food or because the other adult returning home soon expects this kind of dinner. The picture grows more complicated as it pans out across the street to peer in the window of her neighbor, duplicating the same labor that the woman next door is doing, each of us separately simultaneously cutting vegetables while minding children while wiping countertops, instead of collaboratively, say, three families doing it together. The way we live makes our daily work harder to do.

Now, any one of these particular women may really like to cook, enjoy her children’s company, or find peace in tidying up. But that does not solve the problem. We don’t even know what to call the problem. Being too busy? We now cover up the drudgery by claiming to find cooking or cleaning relaxing in contrast to, say, analyzing spreadsheets. But still, cooking dinner for a single family with young children has its downsides. Saying so requires neither regretting the cooking nor the children. We may try to make it a joke. We can print slogans like “Mommy’s Sippy Cup” or “Mommy’s Time Out” on wine bottles, making light of affluent moms’ admission that days with children drive them to drink. Or we could see all that domestic labor as just trivial, hardly worth fretting over. In her 1970s Redstockings classic, Pat Mainardi remembers that she was just finishing a paper on housework when “my husband came in and asked what I was doing. Writing a paper on housework. ‘Housework?’ he said. ‘Housework? Oh my god how trivial can you get?’”

Housework was harder in other eras, especially before electricity, but it was also reckoned with more honestly as work in other eras. When in the nineteenth century men increasingly earned wages outside the home, unpaid labors of the home correspondingly got demoted. In her book From Marriage to the Market, Northwestern University sociologist Susan Thistle explains how support for what women did in the home ebbed in elite and popular opinion in the second half of the twentieth century. Whereas state and society previously had supported women’s work done in the home, by the 1960s, with women’s livelihood increasingly coming from wages rather than marriage, men began to think that “[L]ifelong support for women’s domestic labor” was “a poor bargain.” Thistle quotes one man’s explanation of how he successfully got out of having to marry: “I find I just have to own an awful lot of underwear and shirts.” What women were doing at home began to seem like doing nothing, so they were free to seek gainful employment.

After all, appliances enabled women to manage their own housework without hired help and still have time to spare. Our homes now bristle with machines eating electricity. But some measures show that women spend even more time on housework and childcare than they did formerly. Why? Washing machines save time—but we have more clothes and change them more often. Refrigerators and ovens save time—but we crave better food. Children have more toys to keep them busy—but children have more toys, and these need to be chosen and put away and maintained. Most of us want to live well rather than at bare minimum. Living better means more work for Mother. Much as we downplay the importance of housework in the life well lived, the well-lived life presupposes clean sheets and family dinner. We want somebody to do this. We resist giving up the expectation that it be done somehow out of love and not just for cash after services rendered. One benefit of looking to earlier solutions to women’s work puzzles is that household flourishing then had to be taken seriously. There was no path to stimulating and profitable employment without a solution for a family’s daily bread.

Why Bother?

A few years ago, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and political scientist Anne-Marie Slaughter argued about “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” Slaughter’s title of the Atlantics most-read article of all time, both insisting rightly that workplace structures need change. But both are wrong when they describe family life in terms of having. Being a mother is not “having” but doing. Some parts of parenting are necessary and good, if hard. Features like this come pretty much standard: surviving on interrupted sleep for months while newborns accustom themselves to circadian rhythms and liquid diets; teaching fine-motor-manners in use of forks, spoons, toothbrushes, shoelaces, buttons, and zippers; punctuating transportation to and from anywhere with buckling and unbuckling unwilling passengers in car seats; supervising homework assignments boring to teacher, child, and parent alike; stomaching stink in shoes, gym uniforms, in sports gear unpacked from sports bags; navigating interactions with other women more or less permissive, more or less wealthy, more or less woke; bra shopping with a twelve-year-old girl; driving with a fifteen-year-old boy; managing drug testing, STI testing, AP testing. No exhaustive list, that, and it mostly describes normal tasks on behalf of relatively privileged, healthy kids in a stable environment. Add poverty, add mental illness, add accident, addiction, disease, disability, or crime, and the requirements for bringing a small person safely to adulthood overwhelm.

On what grounds would one human being do this for another? Even trying to parse the reasons risks sounding obtuse, especially to those with experience in doing it. Children appear. You love them. They need things. You provide things. You do your best. You fail them in countless ways even when your efforts are excellent. It may all work out. There are fun parts.

Nurture bears big benefits for children, obviously, but the experience also has parts to recommend it to any thinking adult. Observing a child observe the world, acquire language, mobility, curiosity, is among the most astonishing phenomena we know, like discovering a new planet or synthesizing the human genome. It is jaw-dropping. Any human should be able to see this of another human. Except mostly we do not situate ourselves to see it. Some of us miss this phenomenon because we lack proximity. Even if we know this amazing development is occurring right now next door, we simply are not around enough to see that fourteen-month-old learn that the sound “dog” means that loud hairy thing that licks his hands. And then we miss it again when his brain connects those odd squiggles on a page, d-o-g, with that sound his mouth makes and his ear hears and signifies that hairy animal. It is not only parents who have proximity to witness this. But affection helps us pay attention. When we care about someone we watch him, learn her habits and dislikes, listen to her words, even meaningless words. Being a mother to a young child includes not only having to feed this creature and keep it from harm, but also having the affective inclination to scrutinize him or her and a lot of time to do it. Not only do men and women often find themselves with these small humans physically adhered to them 24/7, but they often find themselves warmly disposed to them and, happy miracle, have their attentions reciprocated by the fascinating subjects of their human development study. Appreciating this is not sentimentality. This is what women, having been stuck with this job over long centuries, have learned to see. It would be a thousand pities to waste this insight.

One might say that the very nature of loving someone requires self-effacement, that virtues are advanced by self-effacement in service of children. But we don’t say this! Middle-class American mothers in the nineteenth century were reassured that they were morally superior because self-sacrificing by nature, and then encouraged to practice this congenital endowment. In contemporary America, that very idea offends. Instead, parenting advice and markets expect women to behave like this without crediting it either to mother’s nature or excellence, presenting it as simply what a normal woman would do in the face of what a normal child wants. Moms just do these things.

The problem is not that base-model parenting is arduous. It is, but that can be handled. The problem is the way institutions and conventions, empowered in the name of doing what is best for children, run kid-servicing operations with appalling disregard for the time, intellect, and dignity of women. Childhood has been glammed up in ways that have made mother-work swell grotesquely. Nice, normal, middle-class child-rearing calls for whimsical cupcakes for the full calendar of school holiday parties: Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Hundredth Day, End-of-Stand-ardized-Test-Day and so on. Also cupcakes for birthdays, gussied up as gnome parties, spa parties, floral-design parties, Minecraft parties, slime parties. For spending weekends at generic hotels by interstate exits, watching girls with supersized hairbows and undersized skirts in cheer competitions. For ironing five layers of tulle in a wear-it-once tutu so the dance teacher won’t call you out for wrinkles spotted from the audience during three-hour recitals. For chaperoning field trips to historic sites where fourth graders make fun of old-fashioned underpants. It may sound wrong to complain about things that are actually luxuries enjoyed by comfortable people in safe neighborhoods. But this stuff should not be normal.

Nobody is conspiring, necessarily, to take advantage of women trying to be good mothers. Sure, there is a lot of money to be made by making women feel like they have to do a bunch things or else their children will feel unloved or disadvantaged. This is not all the market’s fault, though. Some items on moms’ burgeoning to-do lists also come at the behest of pediatricians, classroom teachers, team coaches, or college admissions committees, bodies carrying moral authority high enough to prompt guilt and dishing out tangible rewards that moms can’t afford to pass up.

What there is to do proliferates endlessly in Making Every Day Special. Social pressure has turned what might have once been rare treats into daily dues. Children may feel and be deeply loved without requiring that a mother do all this, but it is hard to opt out of doing it individually. Kids think: you would if you loved me. Other mothers think: what, are you a Bad Mom?

In the past few decades, requirements for middle-class child-rearing have ramped up. As traced by Viviana Zelizer’s landmark book, Pricing the Priceless Child (1985) and Jennifer Senior’s analysis in All Joy and No Fun (2014), economic uncertainties make frenzied parents feel like they have to put 110 percent into everything so by some chance their children may succeed. Rising wealth allows rising expectations. Some rise is attributable to women themselves who, becoming mothers later after acquiring education and experience, accustomed to bringing their best to whatever occupation they do, find quite a lot they can do on behalf of children.

We may pride ourselves on our creativity in parenting, just loving those kiddos and having a blast watching them grow, etc. But we have less liberty to improvise than we may think. Motherhood does not really come on our terms. Unless we raise children in isolated caves, we are subject to somebody else’s script. Tacit obligation to observe all the trappings promises not much option or honor. Worse, the very engines pressing women to do all this stuff come with built-in critical apparatus faulting women for doing it too well, calling them helicopter moms, lawnmower moms, snowplow moms.

To change the terms of what constitutes a good childhood, we might offer less confetti and more responsibility. What is needed is for us all, or at least a critical mass, to say, no, I’m not doing that. Because who has time for all that nonsense? Women now have access to jobs that both fulfill some social good and supply income, and it is right that jobs once closed to women now offer opportunity. We applaud women’s entry into careers on grounds of opportunity and equality. We recognize that the economy and the state profit from women’s contributions. We rightly rue inequities, gender pay gaps, glass ceilings. But we do not have to concede to work the power to define whole lives, selves, of males and females. The best critiques of American working conditions not only aim to grant women access to arrangements designed for men, but seek to make work fit together better with family life. Even as child-rearing became more demanding, jobs have become more “greedy,” disproportionately rewarding those who show up for extra hours and unpredictable schedules—often men—and disadvantaging those without that flexibility.

Childcare—subsidized or universal or safe and affordable—is usually the first solution proposed to allay working-moms’ distress. This comes with its own conundrums. Childcare is expensive, though people who work in daycare are not notoriously well compensated, often featuring poor women taking care of the children of wealthier women. Occasionally women made wealthy by a high-stress, high-status job cash it all in to do something meaningful like teach in elementary school. My children have had a few such teachers. I have not yet met any who left a rewarding career to become a nanny and take care of somebody else’s babies instead. Although that certainly would be interesting.

Paying for childcare in accordance with the importance of the job would make it unaffordable for most people. Think of what the job of taking care of young children actually entails. Sometimes your kids are good for the babysitter. Sometimes your kids, unaccountably, decide to injure each other or themselves, refuse to go to bed, or vomit all over the carpet in your absence. You just can’t pay someone enough to have made this temporarily not your problem. Sometimes babysitters not only behave warmly to your children—they are, after all, getting paid to be nice—but they all authentically admire and enjoy each other. When this happens, is there an hourly wage adequate to return value for this? It may be possible for some to pay others a reasonable wage to oversee safety and occupation of young children, and people who seek this work might even do it happily and well. But that’s a lot to take for granted.

Another assay at work-life balance seeks more flexible work schedules. This is possible in some jobs. But the trouble with jobs may be not jobs themselves but thinking about them in the wrong way. Employers can alter the way they hire and compensate, but we may reconsider work in a personal way too. Some people love their jobs. Plenty of others, even highly placed and well-paid people, experience frustration, their humanity boiled down to metrics and rankings in stressful but meaningless jobs that they feel unable to leave because of lifestyle choices that depend on those earnings. These laments are prevalent in 2019. Highly educated men and women who make careers the center of life and determiner of identity may find themselves unfulfilled. When we size up our skills, hopes, demands of dependents, why is work the only category in which we think to “lean in”?

The Solution

Without dismissing the potential benefits of affordable childcare, flexible office hours, and gender-balanced housework, I suggest changes closer to home. A big positive change in family life requires three subordinate ones. The first gestures at simplicity: strip some of the bells and whistles from the childhood-experience package, conceding less to the way commerce and fashion dictate kids’ needs. The second concerns children themselves, who get a promotion: inviting them to become collaborators in the goods of the household rather than passive dependents awaiting delivery of services. Together, those shifts help cultivate a household where life together is the point of living together, not just as a second shift or break room for working parents or a launching pad for future adults. The third change concerns work, which gets a demotion: recasting one’s job not as the dominant feature of adult identity but in a proper subordinate place, work put in relationship to other aspects of a flourishing life.

Too often when reckoning up demands of home and family, we include children only on the demand side of the ledger, generating needs that need to be answered. We talk about equitable division of labor, but contention over which share falls to mom or dad presupposes a finite pie, his and hers tasks—just you and me, honey. But that is not how families are. Those other people in the household, the ones who generate more work to do, can also do some of it. At present, men and women work so children can play. We can shift that order. When children enter a home, they start as entirely dependent creatures. But as they grow, adults should do less for them and more with them. Living together as embodied creatures generates real work. It belongs to all in the family.

It turns out that placing oneself in service to another human being, especially one with acute needs, curiously helps not only the receiver but the giver, too. Caring for someone else may help us become more patient, observant, considerate, and courageous, whether or not the good we give is appreciated or reciprocated. If, as we sometimes say, changing diapers and making sandwiches has the effect of making the doer greater-souled, it would be selfish for women to keep this benefit to themselves. Men and women should both avidly seek opportunities to grow in this sphere. And they should share these opportunities with children.

Special conditions may prevent some children from participating, but by and large, most children tend to have more raw energy than adults. And unlike their parents, most have all kinds of time on their hands. Parental time-crunch problems frequently arise from having to keep kids busy while adults attend to needful household tasks, paying bills or vacuuming or making dinner or cleaning it up. Kids can’t do all of those things but they can contribute to many of them, so parents both lighten their own loads and remove altogether the keeping-kids-busy duty. Moms should shift the work-life balance for their kids. Indeed, we may even frame childhood helplessness as a feminist issue. If children do not learn to take care of possessions and share the work arising from their embodiment, somebody else has to do it. More often than not, even now, the somebody who does it their mother. And when one party gives and the other does not, the recipient of all this parental largesse not only depletes precious and finite gifts, but trades character development for bratty entitlement, and learns that picking up slack is the function of female adults.

Objections raise themselves. Kids won’t like doing more housework. Kids love the little sports-resort worlds their parents have created for them, money in the school-lunch account, free Wi-Fi at home, snacks in the pantry. They might prefer that it stay this way. But we can treat kids more as active agents. Certainly that is how they think of themselves, if not in terms of housework. Parents may find it irksome to make kids do chores because they have to supervise, assist, and correct. Most parents agree that it is easier for the grownups to do these tasks themselves. Absolutely it is. All those obstacles can be surmounted.

To be sure, many people actually do have their children perform a few chores on the grounds that it will help them become functioning, independent people, that it’s good for kids in the future. But that’s not the only reason to do it. The American approach to parenting already is too focused on stocking kids up with resources they might be able to use in the future, kids like polyps prepped to float away after they have absorbed enough bulk. There isn’t a twelve-year-old kid who, knowing how to do his or her own laundry and cook a few simple meals, would fail to reap the benefits of that after going to college, getting an apartment, or finding a loved one to share that domestic felicity. But their benefits later are not the only reason why we want them to do it at present. It is for the good of the household right now, so that during those precious years when kids live together with parents in the same house, all do better together. Benefits might be a little delayed or elusive with some children, but some mutual boons can be experienced nearly instantly. Parents even may be nicer to be around when less beleaguered.

If we still wish to use a future-oriented justification for kids’ housework, consider the disapproval attached to parents who fail to ensure that their kids know how to read, brush their teeth, or drive a car by the time they leave the nest. We might attach similar censure to letting kids enter adulthood lacking basic techniques of keeping themselves in domestic space. Why do we disadvantage them this way? Perhaps the reason we let slide instruction in how to make beds or do laundry or cook dinner proceeds from adult confusion about the value of these things when we do them ourselves. We may regard this household stuff as something on the side, whether something unpleasant that impinges on our time or something we choose as a hobby, but think of a job as the thing we really “do.”

Along with a different approach to family life, then, we might try a different approach to work. Given the history of relegating women to home and hearth, it is not strange that women, like men, would want to look to jobs for satisfaction and sense of self. People who have unglamorous jobs might be ahead of the curve in recognizing that one’s job does not deserve investment of one’s whole self. Jobs that boost ego and buy luxury do not necessarily deserve it either. Dissatisfaction with high-demand work is daily news. Human beings can find a range of worthy ways of framing their short lives beyond work.

Like what? Many of us do poorly at naming ambitions for life beyond the professional, the consumer-oriented, or the personal-best. Indeed, for all our refrains about being exhausted and busy, some, frankly, might be terrified to imagine what we would do if there was nothing we had to do. What is there that is not a subset of vacation, consumption, binge-watching, or just decline?

Motherhood on FIRE

A spark of possibility comes from a source that is perhaps surprising: the FIRE movement. That’s Financial Independence, Retire Early, a life plan advocated by savvy folk like Peter Adeney, otherwise known as Mr. Money Mustache (www.mrmoneymustache.com). Because its ambitions reach around the categories implicated in the career-and-childrearing problem, the FIRE approach yields some options not dependent on either of these categories. The basics: youngish people in well-paying jobs commit themselves to living within strict budgets and high savings in order to be able retire early. Really early. They may step away from the weekly paycheck in their mid-thirties. Then they do lots of different things. Their aim is not not to work, but not to need to work, not to organize their lives around what they get paid or titled to do. But neither are they just on vacation. Not be misconstrued as idle rich, FIRE people live their long retirements with a kind of conscientious frugality in order to make money go further. Way-of-life frugality—choosing food carefully, cooking it and perhaps even growing it, shopping at thrift stores, riding bikes more often than cars, learning how to repair things that otherwise would have been spendy to have serviced, reading more books, cultivating friendships, cultivating one’s body, mind, and curiosity—incidentally compose a kind of program for living well. On top of that, their retirements, as the euphemism suggests, gives them more time to spend with family while children are of an age to desire that attention.

What can we learn from the FIRE movement that can help make better sense of motherhood? Consider what stay-at-home moms have in common with early retirees. First, it’s generally clear that both are still “working,” and in no meaningful sense should we see them as simply leisured or lazy. Second, both are clearly pursuing some human good that extends beyond their own particular preferences. Third, while wide variations exist, some evidence suggests these frames of life both can be conducive to strengthened bonds with other people. Both sets are not doing nothing; they are doing things eminently worth doing and often obviously so. The fact that they could be employed for wages but are not helps limit the import of paid work in their sense of self to just that: pay. Jobs don’t make them who they are. They can step into them, out of them, away from them, back over to them. Who they are comes from some other integrated sense of purpose not named by gross earnings or title.

It could be objected that this package only exists for the affluent, and that carries some truth for both groups. Some people’s jobs would never allow early retirement. Furthermore, that FIRE ideal hits at the work conditions many Americans now choose or obey, a gig economy constantly demanding one to self-promote, pressing us to identify as competent at a certain job even if we don’t stably hold that job and aren’t getting paid regularly to do it. Still, the ideal itself is powerful, and may be no less out-of-reach than popular alternative ambitions, ones inviting smart young people to stock their whole selves in supposedly glamorous work, sidelining the rest of the stuff of life, and making all choices expressive consumer ones.

FIRE mindsets can go far to adjust the work portion of the working-mother equation, so that both work and children get fit into a larger sense of purpose rather than jostling for priority. The very idea of “family life” suggests a common weal. Rethinking common good can begin at home. It does not need to end at home. The dreamers of a new day had something right. Imagine a woman who has balanced work and life so effectively that she’s feeling great when she pulls into her garage at 6:00 after a productive day at the office, with dinner in the crockpot and the dishwasher unloaded.Should we declare victory? No, because chances are that her neighbors do all have it together so well.

Which brings us back to the swim carpool. I am ashamed that I lay in bed on subzero mornings at five o’clock and only took the easy shifts. And ashamed that I didn’t seek a more general solution to that problem. Perhaps such a solution would look something like this. Carpooling would be part of pretty much every kids’ participation. Parents with schedules that conflicted with pickup or drop off times could rely on those whose schedules didn’t. Parents toting homemade go-team posters, sandwiches and cookies and orange slices to meets and tournaments could understand themselves as not just supporting their kids but supporting each other. Sign-up sheets would circulate not only for snacks for athletes but for rides and supplies helpful to their parents. Going to a meet—or orchestra concert or basketball game—might then become another expression of a family’s commitment to all its members and to others. Kids, having taken note of their parents’ support, would reciprocate in small ways at home that investment of time and care, cleaning up after dinner or going out early to scrape ice off predawn windshields. Weird practices or erratic schedules threatening holidays or family life would be refused. Those are the conditions. Agree to them, or no one plays.

Whether or not we are in thick of child-rearing at this moment, some of our neighbors are. It helps us and them to recognize that child-rearing really has merit, accessible to those who have children and those who do not. At base, care for our neighbor must be part of the fix for our privatized, drained-dry lives. And that care, for our own family and for others, is work as real as the kind drawing paychecks. We’d better learn to esteem it.


Agnes R. Howard teaches at Christ College, the honors college of Valparaiso University. She is the author of Showing: What Pregnancy Teaches Us About Being Human, forthcoming from Eerdmans Press.


Works Cited

Hayden, Dolores. The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods and Cities. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982

Rowbotham, Sheila. Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century. London: Verso Books, 2010. 

Sanderg, Sheryl. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. New York, NY: Knopf, 2013.

Slaughter, Anne-Marie. “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” The Atlantic July/August 2012.

Thistle, Susan. From Marriage to the Market: The Transformation of Women’s Lives in the late 20th Century United States. University of California Press, 2006

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