Dear Tim Challies, your wife’s homemaking is neither rare nor counter cultural

A while ago, one Mr. Challies wrote an article extolling the glories of homemaking alone, and then cheerfully noted that all the comments he received were positive ones.  Well, here is a not-positive one.  I tend to disagree with glowing portrayals of the choice to stay home with kids presented as a choice where mom will never need or want a break or help and further of presentations of staying home as some sort of radical choice.  Challies talks of “nannies and babysitters” only being in the homes of two working parents.  Gosh, what the man would think of me, staying home with my children and also *gasp* having babysitters and even people to clean the house!    It’s also not a rare choice, as even in Canada (where Mr. Challies hails from) nearly 1 in 5 married couples with children under 16 have a stay at home parent (nearly always the mother). In America the numbers are about twice as high when the kids are little.  Depending on if you want to include women who work outside the home for one hour a year or more, it’s a plurality of married women with children under 15, something like 40%.   One in five or six isn’t rare and every second or third is pretty definitely not rare.

It’s also telling that he and Mrs. Challies made the decision to have no more than three children and that those children are all in public school.  Mr. Challies’ audience is mostly the kind of evangelicals who identify their faith as “Calvinistic” or “Reformed”.  These people are not being presented those other pieces of the SAHM puzzle as acceptable Christian choices.  In America they’re being told to homeschool, to live agrarian or “prepper”, and to work at home earning money, sometimes concurrently with the default-assumption SAHM life of cooking, cleaning and childcare.  Private school is tolerated due to the fascinating resurgence in Christian private schools.

His wife gets some degree of respite from being able to public school the kids.  She gets some degree of respite from a small family size.  The people reading his site, not so much.  They’re significantly more likely to be under vast amounts of performance pressure to avoid both of those things.  And to his credit, he does relate the anecdote so that we have this information at all, which is also not something you typically see among American Christian upbeat portrayals of the SAHM life.

Staying home is not that uncommon if you’re married and the kids aren’t all teenagers.  It’s just not.  There are millions of us. What’s uncommon in America is the socially-present SAHM who has lots of casual and random social interactions with adults throughout her day of staying home with small children.  What’s uncommon is the SAHM of school-aged children who isn’t strongly encouraged to do a raft of “self-sufficiency” stuff if she does have the kids in public school.  Even pastor’s wives like Mrs. Challies.  By presenting something that a vast number of married women do for at least a few years in their married lives as “counter-cultural”, the ones currently making the choice are led to believe they are uncommon and that nobody else is out there.  So you have the spectacle of multiple SAHMs living relatively close to each other (because married-couple families with children tend to live near same) and not knowing the others are there for months or even years at a time.  And as the hippies came to learn (sort of), when you tell someone basic life stuff is counter-cultural, you cut them off from all the social capital they could have used to make the basic life stuff easier and force them to reinvent the wheel over and over.  And there’s no female solidarity when we’re all on different treadmills because nobody realizes there are other women around to carpool with or send the kids over to play in the yard with.

I hope the homemaking of Mrs. Challies is likely to be providing a positive example for her children and it obviously gives her husband social status, which is why he brags about it at great length and writes multiple posts about it.  But I also think this kind of thing, portraying it as one lone woman against a cruel world of hard charging career dames just makes it harder.  There is suffering to an end and there is suffering that is not needful.  It’s not always the case that the suffering we endure is necessary.  Sometimes it’s just pointless and thoughtless and therefore a little cruel.  I know it makes my own life harder because in both articles I’ve linked to Challies doesn’t present his wife’s life as particularly challenging despite talking up the hugeness of the sacrifice, which means the actual challenges she and other SAHMs might face and the fact that improvements are often incremental rather than logarithmic are considered selfishness and petty carping about an easy ride from people who aren’t part of his sympathetic audience.

And they’re not uncommon or rare either.

 

Market salary for a housekeeper/cook/nanny is 35-50k/yr

This is just for the people who claim that a grown woman who really was raised with full domestic skills in those things, including household inventory management and orderly cleaning routines and a decent time spent in child caring has zero money-making skills and is completely doomed if her husband dies or leaves.  It’s not the stupid and unhelpful 200k/year of occasional news articles, but it’s the general range of what women get who do this for pay.  Being a housewife is economically fragile these days, but if you were brought up to do it, you probably can perform at a professional level if you have to make money.  And if you have credentials like a basic B.A., you can certainly command more.

Sharing the services of such women or hiring one outright is how quite a few homeschooling Christian SAHMs in my neck of the woods with no relatives nearby homeschool and keep the house from melting into a puddle of soda, pretzels and Cheeto dust.

Lindsay’s unhistorical logic, or fisking some typical conservative dismissals of the domestic sphere

Fisking is a fine old internet tradition and this is a pretty good example of the kind of conservative polemic that actually dismisses the domestic sphere it claims to promote. So the post (most of it) follows below, with my interpolations to the post and a few remarks on the comments.

The Vital Importance of a Wife and Mother at Home

 *snipped intro*
We live in a culture that sees us primarily as individuals who simply make associations with each other. Marriage is generally seen as just a partnership between two separate people. The Christian view of marriage, however, is radically different. The Bible says that the two become one. Not two that have a connection, but one. God doesn’t give separate overall missions to each individual person. There is only one overall calling for that one marriage entity. A husband and wife are a family and have a calling together, but the husband bears the primary responsibility for fulfilling that mission while the wife bears the primary responsibility for supporting her husband’s work toward the family’s calling.
This is not really where the danger lies.  Wives supporting husbands is fine.
That is what it means, for example, that the husband is the spiritual head or leader of the family. A husband will answer to God for the spiritual health of his family in a way that the wife will not because it is the man’s primary responsibility. His calling, above all, is to lead his family to know and serve God. Other parts of his mission may involve outreach beyond his family such as missions work, serving in the church, witnessing to coworkers, etc., but his primary responsibility before God is to lead his own family and ensure their spiritual health. A wife’s primary responsibility in this area is to support her husband’s leadership to ensure that chaos does not derail their family’s spiritual journey and that her husband has the time and energy to devote to spiritual leadership because he isn’t distracted by other minor concerns.
This is getting a little patriocentric, but we haven’t quite gotten to the core derailing tactic yet. Lindsay sounds like she’s starting to talk about delegation of properly ordered authority.  Let’s see if that’s the case.
The story comes to mind of Acts 6 and the choosing of deacons to take care of details like feeding the needy so that the apostles could concentrate on preaching and teaching. This kind of hierarchy is found throughout life, not just in marriage. It’s not about inferiority, it’s about efficiency in fulfilling a purpose. It was the deacons’ role to handle logistics so that the apostles could spend their time pursuing the main mission of preaching the word and saving souls. In the same way, it is a wife’s role to handle logistics of the home so that her husband can concentrate his energy on pursuing the family’s main mission for God.
This sounds like properly ordered delegation…. BUT!
The other thing to consider is that the responsibility for providing for the family is given primarily to the man. It simply isn’t the wife’s responsibility in the same way it is for the husband. Not only are men given the responsibility of spiritual leadership, but they also must provide for their family’s economic needs. In both cases, men will answer to God for how they do so. Providing is a heavy burden given to a man. It requires much time and effort. It is a great support to the husband when the wife takes care of the logistical details of the household so that the husband can devote his efforts to providing and the spiritual training of the children and then, if energy is left, to outside endeavors to further the Kingdom of God.

Now, can a woman handle the logistics of the home, ensure her family is cared for, and still work outside the home? Perhaps, in some cases – especially if they do not yet have children. But no woman is Superwoman. We all have limitations. It’s just not possible for any woman to adequately care for children and home while holding down a full time job. The care of children and the home is primarily a woman’s responsibility in a way it isn’t for her husband. If there are no children, it may be possible for her to care for the home and her husband and still keep a job outside the home, but she must keep the home and her husband as her priority.

Once children arrive, it becomes pretty much impossible for her to work outside the home and still fulfill her duties at home. The funny thing about children is that they need constant care. One cannot care for children and work outside the home too. The choice once children come along is whether to outsource the care of the children to someone else or to do it yourself. I firmly believe that God entrusts children to a husband and wife because he wants them to be the primary influences in their children’s lives. That doesn’t happen if the children spend a majority of their waking hours in the care of someone else.

Children don’t just need food and shelter provided to them, they need love, teaching, discipline, a sense of security, and examples of how they are to live. All of those things are best done when the child spends time primarily with his or her parents. Daycare workers, school teachers, and even grandparents simply cannot provide them in the same way parents can. No one loves a child like his own parents do. No one has such a vested interest in ensuring that he grows up with the proper spiritual and moral training. Even if others care about the child, the responsibility for the training of a child belongs to his parents. Daycare workers and teachers and grandparents won’t answer to God for the soul of that child. His parents will.

There it is.  Three paragraphs of false dichotomy in which the only economic activity possible must occur outside the home in a full time capacity.  Further, Lindsay also ignores the extensive history of the domestic sphere not being carried on the backs of individual housewives at all, but upon mistresses and delegation to their servants or shared labor among the women of the village/town/neighborhood.  She’s also presenting a fundamentally anti-patriarchal view of the housewife by dismissing the loving community relationships that children gain access to in traditional Christian patriarchal societies. In this following paragraph, she continues with the straw-housewife portrayal.
So, given the needs of children, I am convinced that women are called to be with their children, training and caring for them as their primary caregiver. Does that mean a mother can’t have any job outside the home? In theory, no. In practice, yes. A woman’s priority must be her own family. If she can have her children with her or leave them for only a short time each day, she may still be able to provide the necessary training and care they need from their mother and earn some income. But in doing that, she needs to be sure she is not neglecting her husband’s needs either. Theoretically, a woman can have it all – keeping a job and caring for her family too. The problem is that it is a very rare woman who has the energy to keep up with the constant needs of her children for care, training, discipline, and love and those of her husband for companionship, sex, and a partner in life as well as the logistics of running a household and still have something left for even a part-time job.

What usually happens when a woman has an outside job is that her family simply suffers the lack. Either her children spend a lot of time with other caregivers or teachers or her husband does without the companionship and marital intimacy he needs or some of the household chores descend on the husband, taking away some of his time and energy to train his children spiritually and impact the world for Christ. Often it’s a combination of these. A woman simply cannot meet all the needs of her family when she is spread that thin and, as a result, something important gets left undone.

A tired, worn down woman doing all the childcare and (somehow) all the household chores like cooking and cleaning also cannot meet all the needs of her family when she’s spread so thin.  The idea that just being home all day with no breaks from the needs of the children while still being expected to produce a Better Homes and Gardens style domestic haven is even possible for a solitary housewife with no paid or unpaid help should reveal itself to be obviously impossible.  Yet here Lindsay is, dutifully pushing this classic conservative trope of housewiving.  And she follows it up with more doubling down on the false choice of “work full time outside the home and GOD WILL HATE YOU AND YOUR BABIES” or “work yourself into exhaustion and early physical breakdown FOR THE KINGDOM GURLFREND”.
Of course, there are circumstances where it is necessary for a family’s survival for the wife to work outside the home. That is not the ideal, but it sometimes happens. In that case, the goal should be to do whatever is necessary to make it a temporary situation so that the wife can return to the home and children and be available to meet her husband’s need as well. If that means downgrading the house, foregoing vacations, having the husband take a second job or a better paying job, having the wife work from home, or whatever, the goal should be to work towards having the wife available to fulfill her responsibilities at home. It is vital to the health of her family – both physically and spiritually. There is no replacement for a wife and mother. The family will never be as effective for the Kingdom of God as it could be if the wife is not at home, taking care of her family.

I and a few others responded in the comments, one brave lady named “Mrs. Lamp” attempted to confront the silliness and was met (as was I in my own comment along those lines) with doubling down or a redefinition of history to fit the narrative that mom as primary caregiver is the One Way to Love Jesus if you have kids.  I am so, so tired of this craziness.  It is craziness, you see.

No, mamma is not always going to be the sole caregiver, or even primary one, and that’s not unholy or unBiblical or even untraditional or unpatriarchal.  A good case could be made that the real problem is pressuring women to forego the fellowship and support of other women to carry a heavy burden alone and tying that to Heavenly salvation.

It’s also possible for housewives to be economically productive in the home or on a part-time basis outside the home.  There is a whole range of possibilities, even post-industrially.

The token mansplaining from “Conan the Cimmerian” in the comments is only worth mentioning for how ridiculous and silly it is, effectively nonsensical but so, so usual and standard among a certain kind of conservative man.

The reason I fisked this at all is not because it’s unique or unusual, but because it’s pretty standard-issue.  Way too many conservatives love this black and white view of the wife’s role in marriage.  They love this unhistorical, unreal, unhealthy, not doctrinally sound idea of a housewife as a sort of Platonic being of pure love with no real physical, spiritual or emotional needs or reality.  They love her being a consumption good in herself rather than a potential economic contributor to the household coffers (unless, in a post I really will someday finish, she does Amway or some other similar scam/exploitation).

It’s so poisonous and terrible, especially the Christian variation Lindsay used, where not being on board with this false ideal means you’re a bad Christian wife.  That little bonus should be far less common but is all too sadly quite easy to find among Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant housewives all.  Ultimately it subverts the ability to maintain a properly ordered domestic sphere and thus is an own-goal.

Chesterton’s wife had nurserymaids and other domestic help

Mr. Price over at the Spearhead discovers some wise words of Chesterton’s regarding how women turn being at the job into a sad caricature of the domestic sphere, but Price misses the servant-shaped elephant in the room.  

Chesterton is a great favorite of internet conservatives, particularly (though not in this case) internet traditional distributist-loving Catholics.  But the man didn’t go live the agrarian distributist fantasy he spoke so eloquently about, and his wife certainly didn’t tenderly raise their passel of lovely children by herself.

This doesn’t mean Chesterton wasn’t brilliant and amazing, but it does call into question why people like to refer to old anti-feminist writings written by men whose wives had full domestic staffs (and less often, women who relied on having staff to have leisure to write for hours at all) when that would tell you something fairly important about what conditions are necessary to restore or reinvigorate middle class domesticity.

 

Consider the new/young mother in meal planning

Ah, meal planning, a staple of the conservative-leaning frugal housewife.  I could just make this post a link roundup of the various strategies out there, but that is not so practical for my target in this post, the young and/or new stay at home mother.  Such SAHMs are ill-served by the defaults that are part of the typical meal planning post.  I’ll list the necessary adjustments.

Firstly, go-to meals should be minimal.  Not ten simple fallback recipes, not even five.  Three.  Three easy meals.  That’s it.  A lot of women who come home after the first child are not getting the benefit of being raised in traditionally conservative households.  Expecting them to have ten or even twenty default meals is one of the reasons women are very reluctant to stay home.

Second, meals need to consider the reality of cooking in the 21st century.  Many SAHMs are, as I’ve noted, not coming from home-cooked meals every night backgrounds.  Many of them face massive learning curves.  Advice that worked with that reality instead of the assumption that any SAHM can cook it all from scratch would be immensely helpful and prevent burnout and meltdowns over not being able to do three homecooked meals per day from, well, nothing.

Lastly, these are women having little babies.  People need to be there for them, bringing already-cooked meals, helping out around the house and generally just supporting the woman at home with a new little baby by actually doing so and not just talking about it on television or before an election.  They can learn the skills to have twenty go-to meals in a few years.  Right now they just need someone coming by regularly and assurance that it is in fact fine to eat omelettes most days of the week if that’s what you can cook.

Understand why SAHMs, especially homeschool SAHMs, need socialization

A number of people have noticed that American women work because they can get social interaction and an adult world that way.  Well, without providing that for SAHMs, you end up with feral teens or hypocrites, experts at presenting the front that will keep them unharassed while they go party/drink/drug/etc.  Without being considered part of the adult world, a mother can’t consistently or reliably model wisdom and cleverness for her children and be interesting enough to listen to for a balky teen.  You’re stuck with selection bias, where a few women can make it happen anyway, but the rest cannot because staying home with your kids doesn’t turn your home into Lake Wobegon.

In America, the SAHM is not seen as a real, complete human because the domestic sphere is not seen as part of the real, complete world.  It’s just where your stuff is, not where you live.  But it is part of the world and the damage wrought by pretending otherwise is that women are incomplete and denied the fullness of their nature as wives, mothers, women, children of God, daughters of Our King on High.  And it cascades down like rot through a tree.  SAHMs need to be treated as complete adults with real social needs that are part of them doing their job and part of them fulfilling the completeness of their role within the family.

This would mostly look like encouraging women at home to come together for reasons other than to sell each other stuff or do homeschool co-opping.  And again, due to selection bias, because a few make their social opportunities happen they believe it’s all about an individual’s efforts, which is ridiculously not conservative and also not the point.  Life in community means helping it happen for the shy homemakers too.

Definitely returning to this one.

 

 

 

Schedules are Important

Without schedules and routines, everything becomes a high-priority emergency. Every small problem blooms into a full on chaotic disaster. A general pattern arises, but not one of peace and productive living. Rather the pattern is one of chronic low-grade tension and unease, with intermittent adrenalin spikes followed by crashes into long-standing depressive episodes.

Having said that, though, schedules and routines are important because when their form is correct, they can allow for room to let go and be a little loosey-goosey. You have to schedule quiet time. You have to schedule rest. Our Lord schedules REST. It is an assigned day, and with the Israelites, there were many other assigned times to set the daily work aside and rejoice/relax.

This is what’s left out when conservative Christian SAHMs bustle around trying to find the perfect schedule to solve their problems of overwork and exhaustion. An ordered understanding of what schedules are would entail not burdening women with the idea that schedules are just about more and more and more tasks and filling up every second. You use schedules to build a routine, you use the routine as a baseline, and then you have something to retreat to when everyone is sick for weeks or there’s a big family emergency, or business travel, etc, etc.

Schedules aren’t supposed to be so strict the least deviation destroys the day. Schedules that accounted for what people can actually physically do would be quite limited by the crazy standards of American Christian SAHMland, but they’d be achievable and given how even among a lot of women raised in the church SAHM skills have been lost in transmission, having achievable standards would be a superior situation for everyone. Women could then teach the kids to help out, could meal plan, could organize the house in a more pleasing manner, could go hang out with some other SAHMs at high tea…just not all in the same day!

Schedules also cannot belong solely to an individual. That is to say, being orderly and having a routine at all is not truly possible without support from the external community, not just one’s spouse. It’s a total package, everyone has to recognize that home is part of the world just like work and school and church and that coffee place down the street and the grocery store, with rules and structure and form specific to it.

I was going to go somewhere further with this, but I think the takeaway is that the hestia is a real place, part of life as completely as any other physical locations and realms and only when it is part of an integrated life can a society and its communities support schedules and routines that vary with the needs of individuals but hold fast to broad general standards and expectations.