The Little House on the Prairie and its autonomous mamas.

This is kind of an overview of the Little House On the Prairie books, hereafter LHOTP, as is common when discussing them online.  I recently read the original eight book series and it was truly astonishing how much autonomy and independence Laura’s mother and Almanzo’s mother had.

There is a fascinating phenomenon in which this cultural bedrock of Americana is being transmitted solely through (mostly Frontier-American) women and Frontier-American men are basically ignorant of a major piece of where their women’s beliefs about home and family are coming from.

So Ma and Mother are these women who have a huge span of responsibility and authority, along with far above average native talent and skills in the homemaking arts of their eras, but this has not become codified as any sort of serious norm for housewives/SAHMs.  Caroline Ingalls was a truly astonishing cook, with a high level of natural understanding of chemistry and plants to be able to cook on an unreliable stove with inconsistent heat and a nearly random selection of ingredients sprung on her at any point in time.  She was also a truly above average hand sewer.  Mrs. Wilder was a weaver and a food processor extraordinaire, whose skill with cloth and butter making accounted for much of that family’s cash income and nearly all their clothing and linens.

And Mrs. Wilder’s workspace is arranged and designed to suit her, so she can be the most highly productive she can be for her family.  Almanzo’s child’s eyes view of her weaving room is very insightful, you see a little boy who expects a grown woman to have her own separate space that Father doesn’t have any input into, beyond making it to her specifications.  You see a little of this in how Almanzo sets up the house for Laura when they marry.  He assumes it’s important for her to have things set up so she can be as effective/efficient as possible.

This was actually an interesting subtheme in a lot of early 20th century writing, because men were still building a lot of the houses directly and the whole notion that you needed to make the wife-offices, so to speak, tailored to your own wife’s skills was one that crops up in a lot of the women’s writing of those early decades.  Like, you were supposed to get a spec list out of her and then make it happen.

It’s interesting that the Frontier-American subcultures who are most into LHOTP as a world and worldview tend to not allow the wives and daughters and sisters the sort of free hand that was clearly not at all outside the norms of the era (late 19th century).  There are a number of reasons for this, not least of which is the desire to believe there is no skill in domestic arts precisely because of the increasing arrival of mechanization and automation.

A lot of other things about LHOTP struck me as I was reading, but this one, that the two main mamas were badasterisk but also very lightly headed by (some) modern standards despite not at all being psychically of one accord with their husband’s desires and wishes was one of the bigger ones.

 

Practical Definitions: Conservatives and Multi-Level Marketing aka MLM

MLM is short for “Multi-Level Marketing“.  This is a form of sales in which the majority of the income is earned by signing other people up and receiving a portion of their sales (and the sales of those they sign up).  This is a variation of a pyramid scheme.  Conservatives tend to fall prey to MLM scams because the veneer of capitalism appeals to conservatives tricked into monetizing their relationships.  With liberals, the scam tendency is towards self-help, self-improvement and spiritual awakening cons, in which the veneer is monetizing friendships and relationships for “spiritual growth”.  Liberal scams cater to self-focus and individual autonomy.  Conservative scams cater, with their more pseudo-democratic pyramid structures, to the idea of community while horrifyingly undermining it in (ineffective) pursuit of money.

While both conservative men and women tend to fall prey to such schemes, the reason for this post is what I have observed among conservative housewives on and off the internet.  There are an astonishing number of schemes designed for them far beyond the kind of stereotypical makeup and cookware MLM businesses.

Three in particular that one runs into are book sales, essential oils (this one is health-risking as well, since they are not designed for internal use and yet that is part of the con), and even a bolting-on of MLM to real estate brokering.

There is nothing about books, essential oils or real estate sales or anything else that requires an MLM component and yet over and over I find “conservative”, “homeschool”, “Biblical”, etc. “work at home opportunities” seem to have MLM tacked on no matter what the supposed product or service for sale is.

If you’re discouraged from just selling the product or service without signing other people up, it’s probably MLM and you should walk away before you sink too much cash into startup costs (which MLM usually has more of than other at-home business opportunities).

The following conservative Christian SAHM, who is an excellent blogger in many respects, has written some insightful posts detailing the problems with MLM.

http://thecommonroomblog.com/2014/08/of-mlms-truth-and-beauty.html

http://thecommonroomblog.com/2013/09/essential-oils-and-mlms.html

http://thecommonroomblog.com/2013/07/mlm-some-of-my-concerns.html

Each of her posts is longer than this one and worth the read, she delves into the problems of monetizing your relationships with friends and family.  She also unpacks the flaws of MLMs as a business model, and most importantly covers the spiritual pitfalls of these terrible schemes.

This post is just an introduction and overview, a lot of conservative people truly don’t understand that business structures don’t have to look like Amway or any of the other MLMs I’ve linked to because all the stuff they see and pass around does look that way.  But no, these are a bad deal and should be avoided.

Reasonable community standards are functional community standards

Pre-60s housewives were generally NOT expected to cough up fresh bread daily, or gourmet meals three times a day.  They were also not expected to keep a very large home spotless whilst mincing about in heels and pearls.  The community standards for what a housewife was supposed to do were actually pretty minimal and attainable for even relatively brokedown women.

A simple (truly simple) dish of meat/eggs/fish, a starch and one or two spices was considered completely decent and good enough.  Needless to say, this is no longer true, particularly among conservative SAHMs, who tend to be most driven towards expectation inflation in the matters of domesticity for various reasons I’ve either already covered or will the next time I read through old posts to note allusions I haven’t written up yet.

One of the reasons Mormons are still functionally conservative in many respects is that they remember that you can’t keep up appearances if the appearances are very complex and detailed.  People sometimes make cracks about how Mom wouldn’t let them mess up the ‘parlor for company’, but this dramatically slashed the ongoing cleaning burden and made for an attainable cross-class and cross-income and cross-racial set of housewiving standards that average to slightly dim women could manage with a little elbow grease.

Conservatives, if they want normal life restored, have to remember that broad-based community standards must consider all God’s children and be minimal without being token.  It can be a fine line to navigate, but we have so much tradition from so many of the cultures that infuse American identity to draw upon in shaping those simple, reachable goals.

But it can be hard when Walter Mitty syndrome is rampant.

When you can’t afford to be frugal, or unexamined assumptions conservatives have about frugal tips

Frugality and being a good steward of the household income are not impossible goals.  However, what “frugal tips” are available to housewives these days rely on a bevy of unexamined assumptions that don’t apply to an average SAHM these days.

It is possible to make your own curtains, to store meat in small portions, to bake your own bread, to make your own household cleaning products and to keep a price book, to name some fairly typical tips one will run across on the old intertubes with a quick google.  But frugality of these types is generally not compatible with the current domestic setups of most American housewives.  They have no spare capital for a deep freezer, or to buy meat in bulk quantities to take advantage of sales or direct-purchase opportunities.  They don’t have domestic help even on an occasional basis, so whatever they do has to be compatible with kids underfoot.  And of course kids aren’t young forever, but how can good habits be established when it’s full-tilt survival mode when they are young?  Teaching little kids to be useful or even to consider other people and obey adult rules about where and when to talk/run/etc. takes focused effort and isn’t readily done with a casual phrase here and there.  That can be the way of it only after the habitual behaviors are in place.

Thus you have a pretty major obstacle to frugality early on, even if you are “saving money on daycare”.  The other obstacle is pregnancy.  A lot of frugal tips involve large amounts of ongoing physical labor that is difficult to manage during pregnancies.  If you haven’t spent your years growing up doing that kind of labor, you are unprepared for the extent of it later in life.  You’re also out of luck if pregnancy is hard on your body.  And some women never get back to pre-pregnancy fitness/endurance levels whether it’s one kid or seven.

I come back a lot to the physical stuff because there’s a parallel unexamined assumption among conservatives (not just the male ones) that modern technology means no real physical labor is necessary for a housewife to expend.  Pregnancy is always easy and quick to recover from, barely a speed bump, nursing is also no big, not even requiring extra food or effort (except of course many women switch to formula with “many” kids precisely because they can hand a bottle off and let the older kids feed baby so they can get stuff done).  And even if all that stuff is a little bit difficult, KIDS R FREE.  There’s a weird fixation on the infant and toddler years as being super-cheap by default among conservatives and this is used to extrapolate that children are extremely cheap to raise to 18-21 years because somehow breastmilk production costs nothing (not even calories, it’s like magic) and you can just rely on an infinite supply of thrift stores with appropriate clothing and insert all the rest of the stuff you hear from conservatives about how totally cheap it is to raise infants/toddlers, so therefore have eight.  I guess they’re supposed to drink breastmilk and wear cloth diapers until they marry at 18 somehow?  It’s a quirk I never really noticed until a recent clickbait article about tradeoffs appeared on some home decor site and conservatives tore into the writer of the article for being selfish and stupid, didn’t she understand kids aren’t expensive because BREASTFEEDING and CLOTH DIAPERS?

So, let’s recap some of the unexamined assumptions conservatives dump on housewives regarding frugality:

  • Assumption of “traditional” domestic economy skills that actually date from the middle of the 20th century and rely on a pretty vast industrial infrastructure (including exploited labor by women and children in foreign lands) to be feasible as “economizing” at all.
  • Minimizing the physical risks and stresses of childbearing and nursing, as well as the physical labor that is still necessary to run an “economized” household.
  • Fixation on the early years as being so cheap that there are no real expenses added by having more and more children
  • Parallel dismissal of the importance of child spacing or domestic support in being able to have children doing chores effectively at young ages.
  • Dismissal of chaotic early years as a major obstacle to domestic tranquility and structure, while assuming that such structure is there (no need for a sitter while homeschooling, for example, because infants and toddlers and young kids will just play quietly while you instruct older children…somehow, or alternatively that older children will not resent the play of younger children who aren’t ready for academics partying in front of them because no big kid ever envied a little kid getting to play instead of write an essay or do math problems).  Without structure, frugality is hard to consistently achieve.
  • Assumption that the average housewife was educated in domestic skills by her mother, and if she was not, that she can instantly acquire these skills in a few days’ time via youtube and blogs and immediately apply them effectively.

Feel free to toss more into the comments.  The core issue with having all these assumptions is that without them, it’s nearly impossible to economize systematically.  And that means rebuying things, buying more expensive versions of whatever because you don’t have the skills or time to go with cheaper approaches, and stress spending.  But to help people who need to be more frugal, the assumptions have to be dropped and conservatives have to start looking at the actual conditions people are living under, not the idealized conditions a small percentage of conservatives manage to live under.  Here’s hoping!

Why very low income and very high income SAHMs often treat frugality as a very part-time job

With the very low income, they have to because there’s no room for error and low enough on the income tree, it’s a real financial loss plus massive stressor to have two workers maxing out at 43k or so.

For the very high income (in W2 income terms anyhow), it’s related.  If your husband makes 400k, you get the same benefit spending 10 hours a week or even month finding an extra 25k in the budget as you would working a 50k/yr job because you only end up with a little more and you have to work 40 hours a week to get it.  You have to crack six figures yourself before the extra money is harder to find via frugality than just working a job for it.

This isn’t to say that frugality is pointless unless you only make under 40k or over 400k, but that at the extreme ends of wage income (as reflected in both extremes having the highest rates of SAHMs), it’s mostly going to be easier to conserve cash rather than earn marginally more cash.

The math is different closer to the median married income, which is partly why the median is rising.  The reason is that people who are willing to marry when both incomes are likely to be about even set up their finances differently and as a result losing one income doesn’t create the space to segue into conserving the remaining one.

Of course, another reason the median married income is rising is that if you weren’t taught household management and homemaking skills, which is a very large number of marriageable women these days, it is terrifying to figure out how to get along on a low income and marrying a higher earning man sounds like it will be safer/easier.

I am Shirley Jackson and Shirley Jackson is me

As T.W.O. would put it, that’s overegging the pudding a tadge.  I’ll never publish the most notorious and universal short story in American history.  More intimately, my husband is not a Kavorka Man.

But she and I both are housewives with strong intellectual drives living in whitopias where household help is only for weird inferior women who can’t manage entirely on their own or micromanage the bleep out of that poor cousin they did have come by a few days a week.  She couldn’t get nice college girls because mother’s helping was beneath them in 1950 and non-college girls were from families that hadn’t moved in 50-100 years and so they didn’t have anyone “strange” come help.  People tend to think college towns are all the same, but they operate along a continuum.  And Jackson was not in a college town where the degree was a MRS.

She also put her kids in preschool, which was called “community nursery school” and which 10-20% of women used back then.  Exact data is had to come by because of terminology and lack of collecting data issues.  And even back then it was the middle and up stay at home mothers who used it part-time and the smaller pool of working mothers using it full time.

I have her sense of anxiety and frustration, but not her pretty solid domestic skills. Our children find us odd but loving.  There is a sort of weirdly beautiful e-drama online somewhere where one of Stanley Jackson’s coed affairs is bragging about it on salon or something similar and Shirley’s kids post comments defending their mother and whaling on the smarmy coed selling the only interesting thing about herself. I was touched by the love her kids (one of which I think was a grandparent by now) had for her and their respect for her hard work keeping their home so it could be an entertainment vehicle for dad.

Stanley Jackson was a literary critic and professor who tomcatted around and expected his wife to produce both domestically and intellectually, but was jealous of her ability to get thousands of dollars for a handful of stories about women and children and often the domestic sphere.

I 100% do not think I can compete with the mad literary skills of Mrs. Jackson, but it’s reassuring in a strange way to know that this literary ninja had some of the same struggles I, a much more ordinary housewife, have sixty or so years later.

It also brings me back to wanting to smash conservatives in the face for chronically declaring that there was no widespread frustration among average women in the 1950s and during the WWII era and that anyone talking about it was just a loser who was unhaaaaappppy or a communist.  Shirley Jackson wrote for Good Housekeeping, for pity’s sake.  She was not writing some edgy scandal stuff like Peyton Place.  And yet there remain in both sets of writing much the same sort of struggles of women trying to adapt to the rapid shifts in technology, social roles and relationships with men.

One of the anecdotes in her domestic memoirs is about a pregnant woman she meets at the hospital when she has her third baby who is running late on delivering and is relieved and happy to be free of household tasks for what in the anecdote is about two weeks and heading into a third.  General audiences of women wouldn’t have wanted to read about stuff like that if it didn’t seem real.  They were very quick to write letters where they believed something to be unrealistic in its slicing of life.

Anyway I’ve only just begun reading her domestic memoirs and that sensation of being drawn close in time to a writer across so many seismic changes in daily life is dizzying.

Dear Conservatives, setting things up so all housewives are drudges is anti-natalist and untraditional

Bullying women into staying home obviously doesn’t work, and yet it appears to make up the whole of the conservative argument for women staying home.  This is one of the core problems with American conservative Christian culture.  It leads to conservative Christian SAHMs putting kids into preschool as soon as the children age into it for breaks because “well, it’s not daycare now, it’s school!” It also leads to those women having fewer and fewer children.  Three is the new five and two is the new three.

Take cooking, as one example. Making stock takes time.  Sure, you don’t have to stand right over the pot, but you have to be in the general vicinity of the kitchen for 3-5 hours for relatively modest amounts of stock.  Now, this is the sort of homemade staple that we SAHMs are supposed to just have handy at all times, but it takes time to make it, and it takes even more time to make huge batches that you then freeze.  That’s a day or two or three you aren’t doing much else.  And I’ve already covered laundry.

As for childcare, we can’t all have lump babies that stay put wherever you plop them and we can’t all have children who hear an instruction to play quietly when they are older and do so for hours on end (this is actually fairly rare).  And the current status quo of spinning the childcare out to public school or preschool is not tenable, because it limits fertility and the false idol of homeschool robs a lot of communities of the stability they desperately need to have a functional school system.

There is no argument against homeschooling on a family level. Parents have the right and duty to educate our children as we see fit, and a state that interferes with this is acting unjustly. On a larger level, however, homeschooling as a movement is extremely uncharitable and antisocial.

Not everyone can homeschool.

As a society, we need schools and other collective institutions to spread the burden of childcare and primary education and to properly civilize and educate young people. But if you saddle enough individual families with the total burden of the care and education of their own children, you ensure that those families will have no surplus to support any such institutions. And this is in fact exactly what has happened. Everyone blames this on the homeschooling families themselves, because when you’re talking about homeschooling families you’re really talking about homeschooling mothers and no one ever passes up an opportunity to blame mom for everything, but individual families are just doing our best in impossible situations.

But people who can’t homeschool are left entirely at the mercy of the world all the homeschooling families have retreated from. There’s no civil society to join run by homeschooling mothers because we’re all too tired. Homeschooling mothers generally don’t even help each other out.

There are studies suggesting that being there when the kids are little is worth a lot less if the SAHM isn’t relatively rested most of the time.  And there is an argument (though not one I would advocate or consider pro-woman) for working while they are little and then, when they need the intensive parenting in teenagerhood, being available then as a SAHM.

This is why it’s insane to set things up so all women are drudges, it’s not Christian or functionally patriarchal. A lot of personality disordered people are able to hide out in “traditional womanhood” because there is an irreducible amount of domestic work and right now, that burden is going to fall on women. People can fantasize about it being different but right now, that’s how it is. Moreover, very few people can make more money than their labor is worth at home and very few couples can split the work effectively, for exactly the same reasons jobsharing doesn’t work, which is that you need a manager.

Much of femininity and marriage is socially constructed but you can socially construct it well or you can socially construct it stupidly and marriage and patriarchy are BETTER so who cares if they’re natural plus, Christian patriarchy is the only society that supports female liberation so stop sawing the branch you’re sitting on.

Lastly, women used to produce concrete results in their domestic work.  The industrial age was a rapid process of removing those concrete accomplishments from the domestic sphere and replacing them with vague repetitive tasks like driving the kids to activities (which goes all the way back in America to the 1920s!) and endless cleaning up kid messes and of course our dear friend laundry.  Those things are not terrible or wrong for mothers to do, but the conservative approach to the whole thing is to lie to women that they never had any other aspects to their domestic work and that they should delight in the abstract repetitive slog with no clear results at the end of each day.  Women then run to “crafts” in a flight to concrete accomplishment, and then are mocked for the crafts not being sufficiently useful or practical.  It’s a vicious trap.

Anyway this is all just random notes accumulated over time so if it doesn’t read like an essay, well, it’s not. I don’t know how to help women get the concrete aspects back for domestic labor when it’s simply not essential to survival anymore.  Our household has lived a pretty agrarian lifestyle and we ended up back in upscale suburbia.  And that’s pretty much the core of the problem.  The concrete accomplishments of my agrarian living helped alleviate the stresses of the worst of modern housewiving, but it couldn’t actually work long-term, which is why “be agrarian LARPers” is not a general solution to a general problem.  Even if people keep proposing it as one every 15 years or so like clockwork for the last century and a half.

Real Talk for SAHMs: SAHMs who aren’t morning people aren’t lazy, chronotypes are real

The tyranny of the morning people has got to end.  Traditionally, mostly servants got up early.  Now it’s college educated working class people (i.e. most of the relatively new married class).

SAHMs frequently act like just getting up earlier is the solution to any difficulties with prayer time, exercising, or arranging the day.  It is a recurrent theme.  I think the earliest I’ve seen or been told offline is to get up at 3am, though 4-6am is the typical range, usually 4-5am.  Which is feasible for a morning person, even through lots of kid wakeups.  Not so much for people with a different chronotype who don’t physically get tired before 10pm.

Wiki says that morning types don’t necessarily predominate, but in American culture they have taken the moral superiority reins and galloped right off with them.  There has been and continues to be a general tenor in American culture that early rising is morally better.  Someone could probably write a monograph connecting it up to the inherent consumption mentality that has ever dominated American society even before the Industrial Revolution.  They could also throw in some anti-Scandinavian polemic.  Thorstein Veblen is the spiritual grampa of overwork as a form of consumption behavior instead of bling.  He wasn’t the only one (there were some Scandinavian ladies behind it too), but his name is probably the most recognizable.  Overwork as consumption good is part of the tyranny of the morning people.

Repeatedly, morning people tend to act like it’s either getting up at 5am or sleeping until noon, and that obviously nobody should pick the latter choice.  The idea that chronotypes occur along a continuum and that even late-night types might well be able to “do mornings”, just at 9am instead of 6am, is utterly alien and threatening to a surprising number of morning people.  They place a stupendous amount of personal value on being up really really early and if other people are up later in the day and still have clean houses and functional kids and regular prayer lives, then maybe being up at 4am isn’t the one true path to holiness and merit.  It’s especially bad in the SAHM world, because the domestic sphere is so totally unvalued that it sometimes just might take a 14 hour day to actually get anything done effectively since the support is mostly in name only.

But chronotypes are real.  And valuing the domestic sphere for its own sake rather than declaring women who aren’t morning people lazy/selfish/spoiled/ungrateful would allow more private households to be functional no matter what time of day the lady of the house arose.  The Proverbs 31 wife is an ideal, not a literal woman.  Also, a lot of cultures have midday nap traditions for a reason, even if they are agrarian and the master and mistress have to pop up at 4am.

Domestic au pair and homemaking program

It could be more or less formalized, but training young women in the domestic, homemaking arts and giving them practical experience in childcare would be amazingly useful.

There are a number of avenues by which this could conceivably be enabled, not least as part of a general program of supporting women in their women’s work.

A model to start with would taking the system of the current international au pair program, and figuring out how to adapt it to the needs of young women who’d like to be keepers of hearth and home for their families and future husbands and families who could use the help of energetic girls in their late teens and early 20s.

 

Some historical downsides of having household help, American edition

Infectious-licious!

  • Unvetted servants carrying infectious diseases.  The above is the most famous example, but there are plenty of other examples to draw upon.  Because a reference wasn’t necessary to secure a position due to the chronic labor shortages of a growing, wealthy society with free right of travel for all whites (and many blacks), a lot of servants would turn up to work in a household and get everyone sick.  Usually it wasn’t lethal (even Typhoid Mary had fewer than 10% of her 50+ victims die, the rest recovered), but it still was a very real risk and concern.  Anonymity was an early feature of American society, even when housewives still needed domestic help, and this was one of the nasty little side effects of that
  • Harder to present the image of a classless society.  Being the land of opportunity, America has always struggled with the fact that some people are going to be servants or employees to others for their working lives.  Instead of considering this a reason to keep working conditions for domestic servants decent, it was considered a reason to just not have servants.  Or lie about them.  A notable example can be found during the Eisenhower presidency of the 1950s.  His then Vice-President Richard Nixon’s wife spent years pretending she did not have a live-in maid (Swedish), a yard man (ethnic background unknown), and loads and loads of babysitters to watch the two children they had, even to the extent of demanding the help never be photographed or spoken to by reporters doing “A Day in the Life of the Veep’s Wife” fluff pieces.  Something to keep in mind when hearing about how housewives don’t need domestic help because appliances.  As early as the 1950s, American women had many of what we currently consider modern appliances except for the glorious microwave and front-loading washing machine.  But they also had maids and childcare help (which was exempted from wage laws, of course).  Well-off Americans have claimed for a long time that they just magically do it all themselves, especially but not strictly conservatives.

They just wanted a ten hour workday.

  • Violent responses to poor working conditions.  The above is a picture of the Papin sisters, who were French and killed their mistress and her adult daughter after years of 14 hour days.  While not American, working conditions for American domestics were frequently not better.  This is occluded somewhat by racial stuff, but Northern white women were quite as happy to leave a white female servant bleeding from a slap or the strop as Southern white women were with black female slaves.  This is, of course, memoryholed like whoa in American discourse on domestic help.  Domestic service is not necessarily servile, and given decent working conditions, many women are quite all right with serving others even if the pay is not the toppiest of top-end.  American women ran from service because the conditions and pay were both pretty crummy (the Woman Homesteader of Wyoming I wrote a bit about a white back was willing to trade the conditions of working as a laundress in an urban area in the early 1900s for the backbreaking work of homesteading in Wyoming.)  They didn’t run because they disliked serving others necessarily.  Some did, but others would have been happy to keep doing that as a job if they were treated like humans by their employers.  Things these days are not going in that direction, with the rise of “servant apps” where you just-in-time schedule your domestic help (“assistants”).  Meanwhile, the paternalism that drives our own hiring is sneered at for not being all-encompassing enough.  Vacation days, feh!  You don’t pay health insurance!  Health insurance?  Pah, you don’t put in a 401k!  Middle-class American women used to be able to afford domestic help not just because the wages were exempted, but also because it wasn’t considered a job, it was considered a relationship with pay at its best (and worst, of course).  Nobody wants to have human relationships anymore or accept the consequences of paternalism at its best (being responsible personally for those you employ) and in America part of that is being able to just up and move away from paternalism at its worst (Papin sisters, worst of chattel slavery).