Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Greedy Labels

I have plans this afternoon to walk with a friend of mine who just recently had a baby.  I was counting in my head this morning how many weeks she has left on her maternity leave, and wonder what she's feeling about her impending transition back to full-time work.  

This wondering reminded me of an idea I encountered while reading about women in the workforce.  The idea is that the work world (aka our careers), and motherhood are both greedy labels, seeking to dominate the identity of women.  

I pondered this, thinking about how I feel about work and motherhood (though I'm not a mother yet), and the variety of feelings my friends have on the topics.  I came to the conclusion that I agree with the "greedy" descriptor.  It does seem that both roles in our lives strive to be the only one that matters, leaving us sandwiched somewhere in the middle.  At work we are told that we are career women, defined by our jobs.  At home, we are mothers, and caring for our children should be our top priority.  And when we go out to mingle, we wonder how to answer the question, "What do you do?"  Do we answer, "I'm a mother," or "I'm a human resource manager at So-and So Company"?  Because answering both at the same time is mouthful.  And though we might attempt to straddle several labels at once,  often the question then is "well, which one are you?"  This is the "greedy" part of work and motherhood.

The truth, of course, is that women's identities, and the roles we play, are much more complicated than that.  True, some women identify more strongly with their careers, and others with their children.  Other women identify with their role as wife, or as friend, or as homemaker.  

This reality is what makes me nervous to label myself as a housewife, as if the only two things that define me are my marriage and my home.  Those two things are important, but I also value my role in the marketplace, in the community, and will eventually value motherhood.  

The key, I suppose, is to not let "greedy" labels get the better of us.  This is easier said than done, since it would be simpler for bosses and children and social commentators like myself to place everyone in neat little boxes, as if "What do you do?" really has only one answer.  One thing I think that is almost universally true is that young women do not want to wear one label.  We do not want our children to define our lives as much as we don't want our jobs to define it.  We would prefer to define it ourselves, and our definitions almost always include variety.

Monday, April 28, 2008

DIY Stages a Comeback

I attended a baby shower this weekend and was interested to watch my friend open several handmade gifts from her guests.  Even more interesting to me was that the majority of handmade gifts were crafted not by retirees with lots of time and a fondness for the sentimentality (and frugality) of a homemade gift.  Rather, the crafters were young women my age, who, though still newly acquainted with their sewing machines, were clearly taking advantage of their creativity and skill.

It was no surprise to me, then, to stumble across a quick opinion piece in the Guardian this morning about the rising popularity of do-it-yourself crafting among younger people.  Apparently sales of sewing machines are up, and knitting groups are the new thing to do on a Friday night.  The article briefly suggests that this trend is tied to the declining economy, citing financial savings and "making do" as the motivation behind DIY.  And while I agree that saving money is a pleasant by-product of handmade efforts, I think there is more to it than that.

For starters, DIY projects are fun.  In this technological epoch, where everything is translated to gigabytes, it is nice to create something tangible.  Secondly, it fosters creativity, which is often in short supply in our hectic, modern lives.  Third, making, selling and buying handmade items can be an expression of idealist conviction, part of larger efforts to support local, micro business, practice eco-conservatism, and support economic alternatives to the giant box-store Goliath of modern consumerism.  

That said, one of the features that I enjoy about the Comment section of the Guardian is that you can read other people's responses to the article.  I found myself agreeing with the people who felt that this resurgence of DIY ingenuity was good for individuals and society at-large.  Certainly none of them professed that crafting is The solution to the maladies of this modern world, but hinted that it might very well be a solution to some of them.  

Many other writers, however, immediately connected the rise of sewing machine sales and knitting groups to feminism's decline; an indication that women were tired of trying to make it in the real world and were retreating back to the home.   And though I can certainly see how that assumption would be made, I wonder why we keep insisting that things always be so black and white.  You like to sew and knit?  Well, clearly you must favor a backward step for women.  This seems like quite a leap to me.  Since when is saving money, enjoying creativity, and supporting small business a step back for women?  True, maybe the stalwarts of the late 60's wouldn't be caught dead with a sewing machine in hand, but women have evolved (for that matter, so have sewing machines), just like economies have evolved, and commerce, and technology, etc.  

And so I was glad to see my friend get a handful of handmade gifts for her baby.  Now, if only I could figure out how to sew a killer dress for my upcoming reunion...

Thursday, April 24, 2008

I'm Not a Stay At Home Mom

Just before logging onto blogger, I was surfing the baby registry of a friend of mine so that I can figure out what to buy for her for her shower this weekend.  I couldn't help but think, as I'm scrolling through lists of wipes and blankets and diaper genies, about something I have come across in several of my books on housewives and the feminist movement.

Caitlan Flannagan's book, "To Hell With All That," was the first one I read to make the distinction between a stay-at-home mom and a housewife.  Her statement, "I'm a stay-at-home mom, not a housewife--there's a difference," struck me.  I immediately understood exactly what she meant.  Since then, I have encountered that very distinction in other literature on the topic.

It seems to me that the first option--stay-at-home-mom--though not quite what the feminists were hoping for, is at least partially accepted in society at large.  During my time at the bank, when I was asking clients about their professions (a question I frequently asked), I often heard the response "I'm a stay-at-home mom," or simply "I stay home."  The answer was often sheepishly given, as if I was someone judging them for not working, but it was given nonetheless.  However, never once did a woman answer "I'm a housewife" to my question, as if housewife was not even an option in my drop-down menu (which, incidentally, it was).  

Reflecting more on this trend, I recall that at no time during my education was "housewife" presented as an option for me to choose when I grew up.  Even the sitcoms that were popular for my age group--Full House, Family Matters, Growing Pains--never cast the moms as housewives.  N0--they were lawyers or tv anchors or journalists, magically balancing the responsibilities of home and profession the way that only sitcoms characters can do.  

The overall message that is communicated (in my opinion) is that to be a mother and devote yourself to that role as an occupation is okay.  Not great, perhaps, but okay.  But to devote yourself to your home and your husband--that is unacceptable.  It is politically incorrect.  This is why, though many of my friends have chosen to stay home with their babies, none of them identify their new role as a "housewife."  They are mothers, staying at home.  And I...well...I just stay home.  

I wonder, though, when I finally become a mother myself, if I'll really become a stay-at-home mom.  I doubt it.  Instead, I think I'll probably remain a housewife (for lack of a better word--see earlier post...).  Because there is a difference.  A difference I'm sure I'll talk more about in the days to come.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Feminism's Unchartered Territory

A friend forwarded an opinion piece to me this morning from MSN online, on (no surprise here) the 2008 presidential primary.  The piece, written by Susan Shapiro Barash, was a commentary on Hillary's bid for the Big Job, and the corresponding angst it has created along gender lines in the US.  Barash, aligning with many women, would clearly like to see a female head-of-state for our States, and encouraged women to stand in solidarity with the first female candidate who actually stands a chance.  

The problem?  Barash cited her confusion and concern over the divide among women regarding their feelings for Hillary.  She seems to afford for women who legitimately disagree with Clinton's policies, but she does not understand the women who publicly sting Clinton, deeming their comments as disrespectful of the candidate, and to the feminist movement at-large.  And while I recognize many of Barash's points to be true, I think her concerns will persist throughout this process, and beyond.

I wrote to my friend that it would be easy for readers to assume that because I write about my affection for the domestic life, that I am a traditionalist (aka anti-feminist).  This is simply not true.  Though I was not raised during the feminist movement, I can clearly see how feminists cringe at the criticisms presented from my generation, particularly because we have directly benefited from their painstaking efforts to open doors for us.  Furthermore, I would love to see a woman in the Oval office, and think that the female perspective is a necessary compliment to the male perspective that already dominates public policy.

That being said, I think feminism finds itself in unchartered territory with globalization in full force.  Solutions that were indeed revolutionary during the late 60's and throughout the 70's--the ones that led women like a flood into the marketplace--seem far more complicated now in today's global economy.  Which leads me to ask: what is the objective of feminism, anyway?  Is it a movement to promote women's advancement in the market with the goal of achieving equal status with men, or is it to provide opportunities for women to make their own choices, even if those choices are for a lifestyle that directly opposes feminist ideals?  In truth, I'm not sure there is a clear answer to this, but I do think that ambivalence toward Hillary is a fruit it.  

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

For Lack of a Better Word...

With all this talk about housewifery, it has occurred to me that some of you readers probably have the same 1950's image about the role that I tend to have.  You know, the Stepford wife, adorned in her pink dress, mopping the floor, cooking dinner, hanging the laundry, etc.  I suppose this is the most common image.

During my reading this afternoon, I encountered this exact same imagery of the housewife.  Described in a chapter titled, "I'm a Stay-at-Home Mom, Not a Housewife!," the traditional female was described almost exclusively in her relation to domestic chores.  Naturally, the modern women that were interviewed for the book were not too eager to be pigeonholed into such a description.

Admittedly, I am a bit more fond of domestic life than most; however, I, too, do not want to be seen as simply a mop-wielding, laundry-hanging Stepford wife!  That said, for the record, when I talk about the modern housewife, it is only because I don't have a better word to describe her.   The housewife I'm thinking of does more than chores.  She manages her finances assertively, she engages in entrepreneurial activities to express her creativity and earn her own income, she raises children, but is not defined solely as a "mom," and she connects to her community through both knowledge and action. 

I suppose that perhaps "housewife" may not be the best description of this creature I seek to emulate, but I'm not sure there is a better word.  So until I invent one (or one of you dear readers sends me a suggestion), "housewife" it is.  

In other posts from me today, check out my homework assignment on Cigars in the Parlour, as well as new updates On Claremont (see the sidebar for links!).  

Friday, April 18, 2008

"What do you Do?" Reunion Angst

I just got an email reminding me to rsvp for my 10-year high school reunion.  I find myself hesitating a little to reply and send in my check.  Part of my trepidation comes from a fear that my friends--many of whom I still stay in touch with--won't show up, leaving me standing there alone with a bunch of people I no longer know.

The other part of my hesitation has more to do with my recent switch from "banker" to "housewife."  Or, from "cool professional with a future" to "lame apron-wearing drone."  Yes, I suppose that I do more in a day than just cooking and cleaning, like writing and launching an online boutique.  But leaving "traditional" work behind leaves me feeling a little inadequate, especially under the hyper-pressure of a ten-year reunion.

A quote I read yesterday in a book on work reads: "Being serious about one's work is supposed to mean a full-time, indeed an extended time, commitment: every day, every week, for a lifetime.  This is what is traditionally meant by having a "career."  Anything less and work becomes just a job..."  This quote illustrates the reason for my discomfort.  I am serious about my work as an entrepreneur--a writer--but not in a 9-5 way.  And because I've chosen to place a higher priority on running my home, I feel less valuable to society in general.  

Thinking of the reunion night, I imagine myself talking around what I do, tempted to make myself seem more career and business savvy than I really am.  I will most likely answer the question "what do you do?" with "I'm launching my own small business as a writer and accessories designer" rather than "I'm enjoying being a housewife," which is at least as true as the first line.  

I suppose that my angst highlights an insecurity I have about my current choices.  I realize that I might even run into a lot of young women who have made the same choice, and are enjoying it too (although I'd bet most of them have kids, whereas I do not).  I'm sure I'll get over it, send in the check, and have a good time.  Oh, and I'll definitely have to buy a killer dress first.  At least I can be a stylish housewife, no apron in sight.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Hall of Household Arts

I was driving around my town today, close to the university campus, and I pulled up next to a stoplight just long enough to notice that one of the campus buildings had an etching I had never noticed before.  It read "Simon Guggenheim Hall of Household Arts."  Clearly a relic from bygone days, I couldn't help but smile.  You see, I was on my way to the university library to renew some books I checked out on housewives but hadn't finished reading yet.  What synergy.

My guess is that the authors of my books, all written in the last decade, would lament to see those stone-carved letters prominently displayed on a main thoroughfare.  They represent everything the women's movement passionately worked to leave behind.  Their efforts were obviously not in vain, as I believe the building now hosts business classes, not "household arts."  Whereas the first female students in those halls were most likely taught a variety of domestic skills, the females now are studying economics and management and overall asserting themselves into "man's world" of business.  And though certainly I am glad that today's female students are pursuing MBA's (click here to read a recent post on women, politics and money), I couldn't help but feel a little sad that "household arts" was no longer a part of the university's offerings.  

My sadness is entirely personal--I love domesticity.  I actually feel like a better person when my house is clean and my husband is well-fed.  Again, the authors of my books would lament.  I'm not suggesting, of course, that the university resurrect the "hall of household arts," but I might argue that we shouldn't bury them from society all together.  It is not an argument I would have a difficult time making, judging by the triumphant success of Martha Stewart, Rachel Ray, and the brains behind "Real Simple."  So, domesticity is still alive and well, just not on college campuses.

For other posts from me today, check out:
--my thoughts on the role of blogsphere in international politics (and why bashing your ex on YouTube probably isn't the brightest thing to do)
--what French legislators, the Pope, and feminists have in common
...and stay tuned for more updates "On Claremont"

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Sunset Gardens

Yesterday I posted on one of my sister blogs, Cigars in the Parlour, about growing a garden to help alleviate the burden on the global food supply.  (to read the post, click here.)

Fortunately, as I am not an avid gardener, I remembered that Sunset magazine recently published a simple how-to for creating your own backyard kitchen garden.

Click here to read Sunset's article, find inspiration, and maybe grow a garden of your own:)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Girlification and my Housewife Notions

I read an opinion piece this morning by feminist Polly Toynbee (I think it's safe to call her a feminist).  The article focuses on the "girlification" that continues to happen in Western culture, in spite of advances made by the feminist movement.  

It is always interesting for me to read these thoughts from women who were alive and actively involved in the feminist movement's rise in the late 1960's and early 1970's.  So many of them are still passionately focused on the benchmark ideals of the movement: equal wages for working women, gender neutrality in child rearing, shared home labor, etc.  Many, like Toynbee, feel discouraged that more progress has not been made.

I find myself filled with mixed feelings when I read their views, for many of the same reasons that I am currently wrestling with my occupation (see previous post).  I was born in the '80's, a full decade after the movement began, and am therefore way too young to have that nostalgic collective memory of revolution that still fuels them.  I've certainly inherited a righteous indignation for underpaid women, and I've even experienced some gender discrimination myself.  I can remember balking when a woman I once knew made the statement that "all mothers should stay home with their children," and getting fairly irked at a political seminar when the speaker focused only on what young men can do to prepare for office (hello!  did he see the women sitting in front of him?!).

On the other hand, I find myself gravitating toward the role of the domestic housewife--a role solidly rejected by feminists--and even see potential for it to contribute to the greater good.  I suppose this is why I noticed Toynbee's article in the first place.

I don't want to be guilty of only looking at the world through the eyes of feminist vs. traditionalist.  That is a tired argument and one I'm not sure I want to jump into (although perhaps I already have in spite of myself).   But I suppose I am guilty of looking at the world through the eyes of a woman.  It is potentially a narrow view, but we all have to pick some kind of lens to see things through.  

Anyway, more fodder on housewives to come!

Monday, April 14, 2008

To Hell with All That

In a grand experiment with my life, I recently (three months ago) decided to quit my career in finance with the intention of pursuing more entrepreneurial ventures from home (like writing, and selling hand-crafted items online).  Most of my friends and family have been supportive of the move, especially since I was so discontent in my occupation as a banker.  Regardless of the support, though, I cannot help but feel that I am cheating a little bit.  Cheating because I'm relying on my husband's income.  Cheating because I don't hop into the car every morning and ride off to the 9-5 grind.  Cheating because I'm home and Not raising children.  

It is probably because I am wrestling with my new "career" that I've started to leisurely research the role of the housewife in history and culture.  The traditional housewife is, after all, about the closest thing I can find to describe my current experiment with life.  Thus, the first book on my housewife list was To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Your Inner Housewife, by Caitlin Flanagan.  Published in 2006, this book has already stirred up my thoughts on all sorts of topics, like growing up in a post-feminist culture, having children, keeping a home, and the like.  

My intention is to write about these thoughts over the coming weeks, partly to purge my own brain, but also because I'm wondering if perhaps I am not the only young, twenty-something female who is wrestling with her place in the world (I invite all wrestlers to respond anytime!).

On another note, I will also be launching my online boutique shortly, updating my website, www.stephaniehillberry.com, and begin posting on Two new blogs (see sidebar).  Please visit any and all anytime!
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