Real Talk for SAHMs: When maternal instinct leads to poor maternal health

This is just to say that SAHMs lose sleep because it’s hard to get to sleep at night when you expect the wakeups and in fact they come for years on end.  Then there’s the food issue.  Yes, there is joking around about eating the crumbs the toddlers leave you, but it can lead to either overeating to compensate for the sleep deprivation or slow starvation (and corresponding increasing exhaustion) as appetite shuts down in response to stress.

So people hear about SAHMs being up at 3am doing laundry and think they are silly and frivolous and making up reasons to make it all seem harder than it is, but they aren’t thinking about the four wakeups the SAHM already had to deal with since attempting her own bedtime at 9pm after the kids were down between 7pm and 8pm.  If you can’t even hope to get any sleep and everyone around is convinced you never need a helping hand because you’re home all day and what on earth is there to do, really, then yeah, you just might go ahead and save the laundry for at night since you have to get up every other hour to nurse anyway, or quell a nightmare, or get a water sippy for a toddler’s dry throat and hacking cough.

Then there’s the putting off of medical and dental care because the prospect of trying to deal with the entire process with a bunch of little kids underfoot is too overwhelming to even think about.  It used to be obvious as recently as the 1980s that trying to leave the house with many small children was just not something a woman could do on her own, but it’s now a bizarre expectation towards SAHMs specifically.

Basically, a lot of women are in really bad shape mentally, physically and spiritually, and it’s because they are just trying to follow their natural maternal instincts in an environment set up to work against that in poisonous and damaging ways.  They just need a break.

Labor shifting, not Labor saving, laundry edition

It is generally considered acceptable by conservatives and liberals alike to declare that SAHMs have it easy thanks to washing machines and tumble dryers compared to the grand old days of yore when they did “real work”.  This involves ignoring the explosion in ready to wear clothing that permits even lower-income households to own hundreds of pieces of clothing.  It also involves ignoring the reality that the older methods of laundering clothes were not always backbreakingly hard.  And lastly, it involves ignoring the fact that even for women in the lower tiers of the middle class, laundering their own clothing was often optional because of washerwomen who specialized in doing laundry for many families.

A side-pressing washing machine is more primitive technology than a top loading washing machine, but the former is easier on back and arms, given similar amounts of clothing washed.  Hand wringers could be more physical labor, but again, fewer clothes were owned in the first place, so there wasn’t as much total work involved on a family-level basis.

Having a washing machine perform the labor of agitating the dirt off the clothes (this is the part that cleans clothes, more so than the soap, although soap sure helps out) does save labor, but there isn’t a labor savings when you have to take heavy wet clothes out and transfer them to the dryer vs. hanging them up on a line.  In fact, the modern norm for SAHMs of washing, drying and folding multiple loads of laundry daily is not labor saving at all, no matter what people persist in claiming.  It is astonishing that it’s presented as a leisure activity and sign of how little SAHMs have to do all day compared to “the olden days”.

The feminist criticism that “mission creep” erases any potentially saved labor for housewives from a given technological advancement has some truth to it, as one can observe that creep with core household tasks like laundry.  The same conservatives who want all the women to come home pretty much never promote specialization in domestic tasks that again, even lower-income housewives used to take for granted.  And it’s a wealth problem.  Everyone has these machines that are supposedly so advanced and “labor saving”, so the idea can’t even form in the mind as an option.  People instead obsess about getting cheap machines rather than finding someone to do their laundry for them.  And there are always cheap machines around, so nobody can consider specializing as a source of income.

Part of the secret history of the domestic sphere is that “labor saving” devices are positioned as granting leisure to housewives, but do not, or do not save labor for very long.  It is perhaps the case that for a 1950s housewife a top loading washing machine saved some labor, as she didn’t have the full cheap clothing revolution that the 1970s housewife benefitted from.  But that didn’t last even a full generation before the metrics of acceptability changed, resulting in shifting rather than saving labor.

This isn’t to say that the modern SAHM has exactly the same level of physical labor on her hands as her domestic ancestresses.  It is to say that the idea that she has basically no labor is false.  Despite all the wealth and technological advancement, she still faces a great deal of physical labor to be considered an adequate or suitable SAHM.

Double Consciousness for SAHMs

Double consciousness, it’s not just a black thing!  It is a classic housewife problem, coming from servant classes but marrying well enough to afford servants yourself and not knowing what to do with them.  Chalk it up to another way to feel bad and a failure as a woman.

I think it doesn’t get enough real discussion among conservatives, because they are very wedded to the classless America myth.  But one of the conflicts with the idea of a “traditional America” is that America was peopled by folks who rejected proper authority and their proper place in existing hierarchies.  It was peopled by servant classes and third sons of gentry, people who would have been very low on their relative totem poles in the home countries.  Combined with the low population density and the love of technology, there’s always been a big conflict in “traditional America” over whether to have servants at all.  This was an added layer to slavery debates, incidentally.

Among the white ethnic groups who came over with strong traditions of sharing the labor out instead of having servants, Americans forgot or ignored that those ethnic groups relied on massive shaming and social pressure to spread the work around.

And so by the time we get to the modern era, the white-ethnic traditions that provided voluntary, unpaid support for housewives are nearly extinct and other forms of support are unavailable due to a mix of factors, including tolerance of disordered and sociopathic personalities in housewife-heavy subcultures.

This is incidentally why so many white American people are quick to claim they and their ancestors didn’t own slaves or benefit from slavery.  It’s a way to forget that lots and lots and lots of white people really really really wanted to have the wealth and subject labor that slaves represented.  There wouldn’t have been an entire industry peopled by those servantless whites around kidnapping free black people and claiming they were slaves with “missing papers” if slave labor was such a horrible financial drain to have and keep going *for the people who had slaves*. Having serfs is particularly nice if you don’t have to worry about your children dropping that far down the ladder because the serfs are an entirely different race.

Likewise, a small but influential number of women dismiss the idea of servants or household help as important, needful or useful because they are disordered and the wacky individualist strain in American culture provides cover for their madness, at the expense of having to deal with the fact that you just might not be “middle class” in origins or background and narrowly missed being the maid or nanny or housekeeper yourself.  It also is why there is such a belief, most particularly among conservatives, that the private household administered by a housewife is utterly essential but that household help is utterly improper as a social expectation for housewives.  Without that deranged, Randian individualism, conservatives could not gaslight women into believing that they must carry the full burden of maintaining a household with nothing more than a prayer book, a vacuum cleaner and a dishwasher.

There’s also the dismissal of the idea that life in domestic service could be a career with advancement and wealth-building opportunities.  This was even the case to a surprising extent (as in, it happened at all) in American chattel slavery.  If simply being a servant is the worst possible thing that could happen to someone, then having servants cannot be a moral or worthwhile thing.  This is an ongoing theme in American culture, that class and status conflict playing out decade after decade. But yeah.  Black Americans aren’t the only ones who’ve had to struggle with double consciousness as an artifact of their place in society.

Embrace amity, reject the husband-wife relationship as the sole dyadic one

This is partly a response to a comment I got about a post on SAHM socialization that I didn’t let through because it commits an all too common error of conservative thought, which is that the husband-wife marital relationship is the only really important lifelong one to have.  The commenter literally could not see outside the husband-wife relationship in terms of social outlets for a married couple.  There was nothing else they could think of, if the husband couldn’t provide all in all, there was no other way for a SAHM to have social time with other adults.

The inherent lunacy of this position should be more obvious and yet it dominates many conservative subcultures.  It is partially an outgrowth of marriage-as-romantic-companionship, but it’s also an outgrowth of American atomization.  I have noticed this pattern quite often, when social outlets for SAHMs are brought up.  It’s defined solely in terms of the husband and wife hanging out with each other more.  The idea that the domestic sphere would be a social sphere, where women came together and had their girls’ days and evenings and outings *with each other in groups small and large* is so alien as to not even be understood by many conservatives.  It is a curious sort of historical ignorance.

Amity, by the way, is simply a way of talking about lifelong friendships as deep as Ruth and Naomi, or David and Jonathan, that can occur alongside a marriage or persist long after a marriage ends due to untimely death of a spouse.  Back when childbirth, wartime and infectious disease could shorten the duration of a marriage, amity was well accepted.  Now that marriages are not cut short by environmental factors but all too often by personal dissatisfaction, amity has fallen by the wayside and the marital relationship is supposed to be the sole lengthy adult one.

Needless to say, this doesn’t work so well in practice.  What I mean when I say that SAHMs need community support in their social outlets, is that other women with leisure have to start the ball rolling and open their homes and provide that woman to woman support.  Of course it’s hard, awkward and not easy to begin, the broad-based social capital of previous eras is gone, gone, gone and will not return.  All we have is the locally-based capital of smaller communities, and it will have to be the starting point.

It is not something to be left to husbands at all, really.  It is female labor, deeply important female labor.

Preserving continuity of domestic traditions

Something that most people with conservative values and beliefs don’t really have knowledge of is that there is an extensive history of the domestic sphere and its evolution over the centuries as technology and economic developments shaped it into various forms.  This extensive history is mostly recorded linearly in feminist narratives speaking against domesticity.  Yet they are in fact the only ones preserving any trace of this traditional, culturally-specific knowledge.

So, to get quite practical, what would be useful is for some of the conservative homemaking bloggesses out there to use their leisure time they spend blogging in doing something far more helpful to women– reaching into those feminist texts and pulling out the threads of history and compiling a series of essays, ebooks or print books outlining the Anglo, Scandinavian, Germanic and other culture-specific domestic traditions and where they spread out into other cultures and where enclaves of transmission from older women to younger women remain.

Conservatives of all stripes talk about culture wars and values and such all the time, but live cut off from deep historical pools.  Diving in and gathering those pearls would be a valuable tool, as it would offer women a connection to traditional ways of living and show that there is status and glory in maintaining the hestia as a center of traditionally oriented life.  Instead of feeling beaten down and inadequate, women could be renewed by studying their ancestresses and bring that honesty and reality into their marriages, childrearing, homemaking and community life, lifting up so much instead of being pulled down into despair and anomie.  Older women with the free time to blog could shift to this other path instead of building themselves up as de facto authorities without any obligations of responsibility to the desperate SAHMs reading them seeking any crumb of support in their journeys.

It is quite cruel to tell women to come home, lie about  or deny the long history of the domestic sphere and its complexities, and then act surprised that not very many women want to sign on for a life of closely spaced pregnancies, zero community, relative or paid household support, and ridiculous, non-historical and physically impossible standards of “Christian SAHMness”.  It is practical and reasonable to offer them a true connection to the threads of the past and the ways of their ancestresses and allow them to know that they are part of a vast, complex and extensive historical world.  There would still not be vast waves of women rushing to SAHM, but you’d get more of the sweet nice types who currently end up 47 and unwed because they aren’t blind and would rather be “in ministry” than a crumbling wreck of health with a side order of spiritual and psychological abuse.

Also, accurate information would allow in a broader sphere for transition to a service economy that offered really sweet services instead of selling massages and poorly built townhomes to each other.