The false and harmful rhetoric of family life vs. work life

Over at Noble Savage a husband and wife team discussed the implications of a report in the Guardian UK regarding housework, childcare and heterosexual partners working in-home or out-of-home.

I thought I’d conduct my own interview with Ralph. As I conducted it I realized the interview questions and the “study” itself had inherent flaws and assumptions or supported such, but I figured what the heck, this was the mainstream language and framework most people could relate to. I didn’t warn Ralph of my reservations about the interview and I told him to be honest, “warts and all”.

Here is my interview and some of my thoughts after:

Do you believe that childcare is primarily a mother’s responsibility or are both parents equally responsible?

Those are two possible functional family structures, but the question implies those are it. That’s wrong dude, get a better question.

I believe a child has needs, and the parents and adults that are in the child’s life are at fault if they do not provide and meet those needs. This is everything from listening to excited ideas to changing diapers in the middle of a sleepless night. Different people meet those roles and needs. It is up to the adults in the child’s life to communicate honestly about who can do what task. The capability for an adult to provide loving care for children changes all the time. If there’s more than one adult involved, this can be accounted for.

But – a second part – in one sense, yes it is the woman’s responsibility, but only due to external pressures i.e. “Where was the mother?” [Many] external messages tell me my wife is responsible for the family, and I have a chip on my shoulder about that.

How is the childcare divided between you and your partner? Are you happy with the current arrangement?

Our children are older (6 & 8), so the immediate need for hands to keep the children alive is passed for now. We no longer need someone with the child at all times in case they choke, for example. Child care today, for us, means being present and able to respond to what/where/when our children have needs of us.

My wife is a stay at home parent, and I go to work for 40+ hours per week. She drives the bulk of domestic tasks, planning meals, washing clothes, and managing children’s scheduled appointments (when they happen, which is rare).

I pick up tasks when I can, and am primarily responsible for vacuuming, recycling & garbage, and during hours when I’m home try to take the lead on folding clothes, dishes, and cooking. I’m a slow cook, and so am sometimes discouraged by it.

I’m unhappy in the arrangement in that I wish I was home more. I work for an educational institution, which is more rewarding personally than when I worked for companies whose goals began and ended with money. But I find home life more rewarding and interesting. I wish there was some magic way we could both be home, and maintain our income and NOT have to leave home.

The unhappiness is not a drama, however. I do find rewards in a career, and am generally happy to have both work and family as highlights in my life.

Current research suggests that men with two children whose partners works full-time and childcare is shared are happiest and least stressed. Why do you think this might be? Are you happier when your partner works?

Just thinking about my partner working gives me some stomach knots. Having one of us at home means no school – we homeschool – therefore no school schedules. The shuttling of children to/from school, events, etc, would put us all on a schedule and disrupt our flow of life right now. That would increase my stress, definitely.

So having a partner work would increase my stress, I think. Also, my partner leads in the family with parenting theories, education, and style. So it’s easier for me to subscribe to her ideas and concepts of parenting than to balance work, schedules, life, and explore better ways to raise my kids. That means less stress. Doing it different means more stress.

I wonder if the study you mention takes into account a predisposition with lifestyle inflation, or a view that lack of money == stress and that more money/higher lifestyle fixes everything.

The study focusses on the happiness of the fathers; but do you think your partner would be happier with some work outside the home?

I believe my partner would find joy and reward, internally and externally, in employment. I think this because she’s she’s said as much. I also know there’s relief in just going and doing something you’re told to do, sinking your teeth into a task and thoroughly accomplishing it. There’s coworkers saying “Well done!” and all the validation that comes with a job.

We’re both aware of our culture’s disregard for women at home. Working provides positive, external reinforcement both culturally and financially (Hey, you’re worth THIS much!).

I also believe my partner would experience some stress, guilt, and frustration. Does it balance out, would it be more good than bad? That’s not really my call. It’s her business.

You touched on this a bit, but in an ideal world, and if work/financial constraints were not an issue, how would you balance your professional, personal and family commitments? Would you like to spend more or less time at work and with family?

In an ideal world, I think we’d both volunteer for interests we liked, often with our children involved. We all like hanging out together, and we also like personal time to recharge. In an ideal world, my wife would sew when she wanted to, and be with the family & fully present when she wanted. I imagine as my kids get older, they’ll begin to engage with her in sewing, too, as participants and not just recipients. Maybe not fully participating, but at least dipping their toes into the art. For me, and my ‘work’, the stuff that’s most interesting to me turns out to involve others, and my kids are fine candidates.

We’re not big on exclusive activities, I guess.

So in this ideal world without financial constraints, I’d have a record label to help out local musicians. My son and daughter would help with the artwork, studio recording, and mailings. When they were willing, of course. Both have shown an interest in music. Or I’d be working/doing graphic art – drawing at the same table with my daughter as she draws is awesome. Or gardening. My son enjoys being outside, planting and harvesting. So I imagine there’d be an open invitation to other family members to come and participate in our activities, and vice versa.

Back to the real world! We all know that women have had (and still have) numerous struggles within the workplace and balancing their careers with their families. Do you see men having the same struggles within the home, trying to spend time with their children and be accepted as adequate parents?

Men don’t have the same struggles. They don’t have the same expectations. They don’t have the same judgements against/for them. The scale of the struggle in culture is such that it’s a different story. Men are given free passes by culture to ass out on so many things, that when they do step up and engage in domesticity it’s soiled by the heaps of praise invariably piled on. I think it’s a messy thing to dip into, because I find it impossible to shut out the world and lean entirely into family.

That last sentence is bugging me, the part about “trying to spend time with their children and be accepted as adequate parents?” I have a little slice of hate in my heart for fathers who whine about this, or sort of wave with the idle “wish I had been around my children more when they were growing up!” thing. Just fucking do it. You had a kid – that’s your qualification for being an adequate parent. Now, to be a better-than-adequate parent, do some work. Grow up even more. Learn about different parenting techniques. Be critical of the way you’re handling things, and try to fix the things that don’t work. “My child didn’t come with an instruction manual.” Nope, but there’s over a bazillion books on parenting. Read a few of them.

If you’re a father, and you’re trying to be accepted (by whom, actually?) as an adequate parent, you’re an asshole who needs to grow up and do a better job. Trying to be adequate is just not acceptable.

So in your view, are fathers genuinely interested in having greater flexibility between work and home?

I can’t speak for all fathers, but I’m very interested in that flexibility. I’ve got some flexibility, and I’m grateful for it. My work culture doesn’t punish me for spending time with my family, it doesn’t require overtime, and encourages me to bring my family to the occasional work function. Taking sick leave to care for family is legally protected (I work for the state of Washington in higher ed), and acceptable.

I think now my views have shifted enough toward family that I won’t take a job that doesn’t have these provisions. With employers, we’re merely travelling the same direction for awhile. My family with always be in my life.

That said, I would welcome even more flexibility. Open options from my employer to have reduced hours, etc.

Do you think women are less inclined to find working at home difficult and miss office life, or just that they’ve had to get used to it?

I think they’ve had a lifetime of american culture telling them to expect it, to tolerate it, and to keep quiet about any complaints they may have. With that environment, with little support, do they have much choice other than ‘get used to it’?

Final question: do you think ‘juggling’ work and children is something women do naturally or only do because they have to? Be honest!

Again, I can’t speak for others with any authority. I only have my own experience to go on.

Regarding ‘juggling’ work/home, I try not to have work and home life be these separate silos. If I’m having difficulty at home, it carries over into my job. If I’m having a success at work, I bring a positive smile home to my family. I try to think of it as just ‘life’ and it happens all the time. To think that one doesn’t influence the other seems a little goofy.

I used to believe that there was a special, chemical/magical bond that happens between mother and child right after birth. I don’t believe that anymore. I don’t believe one gender has a knack over the other, but it’s not a level playing field either. We all bring our past experiences to the table, and a life where one gender has expectations to be a selfless, tender nurturer and the other a breadwinner workaholic prepare people in different ways. Basically, we all have baggage when we apply for the parenting job. It’s important to our future that we strive to do the best with what we have, and to grow as parents. I read once that the problem with parenting is that the child is the teacher, and once we realize that, learning gets easier. I totally get where that’s coming from.

Thanks for taking the time. I’ll be posting soon!


Responses to my husband’s interview aside for a minute, I was struck by the subtle and overt article and interview suppositions mirroring those I see in Western cultural attitudes – namely, that “work” means (only) paid work, that “work” and “family” are and should be discrete and separate and there are problems when they are forced to co-exist, that there is something exciting and empowering about work life that cannot be found in home life (this last conversation also erases the lives of the many who have stress-filled, unpleasant, or socioeconomically-forced work that lacks “enriching” factors), and finally, that there is something rather dull, less ambitious, and more chore-like when it comes to raising children and keeping a home (which will then necessarily set up a tension and/or struggle over who “has” to do these things).

On the other hand, my observations make it clear most parents/carers genuinely do love their children and find family life restorative, or aspects of it anyway – usually more so than most paid work. Most people want their out-of-home or paid work to have meaning as well; they want to relate and share good relationships with those they spend their day with. In fact our patriarchal and kyriarchal framing of family and earning life coupled with the valuation of the acquisition of property, financial success and “security”, and our insistence in the reality and rightness of dominator and insecurity narratives fights these well-intentioned and hardworking parent/earners tooth and nail. I suspect many men and women aren’t following their hearts and minds because they’ve internalized such toxic worldviews. This is one reason it’s important to me to identify aloud the instabilities and corrupting narratives in our culture while extending compassion and understanding to those who participate in them.

My observation is many self-labeled “progressive” USian men claim they want things to be more egalitarian with regard to house and kid “chores” but those in the socioeconomic strata empowered enough to make this a realistic venture – well, when it comes down to it, they are not willing to give up privilege and learn some new tricks and/or disentangle from a life centered around the ownership and upkeep of material possessions. They tend to be dismayed and angry about the work that child- and housecare really entails and find it “not good enough” to center more of their life around (yet requiring their partners or state or private institutions to focus on it is fine). Many women attempt to evade or at least lessen their portion of the work judged as less-than (and the lack of pay, validation, retirement and social security benefits, and village support). They try to carve out some security and respect by eschewing this workload or at least lessening it or attempting to (hence: paid childcare, schooling, “shortcuts”, Costco trips, goods and products made by sweatshop labor). Our children watch our attitudes and values and evasions and frustrations and thus internalize many of them.

Conversations referring to the “distractions” of children, the (apparent) necessity of “juggling” once you have kids, the concept that the only real “work” is paid work, and the oft-touted construct that childraising and the running of a home is innately “braindead” stuff – those are cultural fables in the Western world continually repeated and reified such that they set up a zero-sum framework entirely toxic to children – who are going through crucial stages of development – and their parent/carers. In most of the articles I come across “childcare” – even the care of one’s OWN children – always sounds like shit-work, frankly. A lot of people believe it is. And, more devastating still, children learn come to believe this themselves.

Tangentially: as a figure of speech the fact “juggling” comes on the scene much more after we have progeny (without children our lives were “busy”) is quite interesting. “Juggling” implies an instability and a danger – something, somewhere, will have to give. That we don’t “juggle” until we have children suggests, however subtly or largely, that it is the children who are the resented presence introducing danger and impoverishment of resources. In short, I find the language compartmentalizing life with children to be downright creepy lots of times.

As for my husband’s answers, there were some surprises for me. I am pleased to see though, that our first thoughts were the rejection of the family-work binary. And I’m glad my husband and I both began, long ago, to see through the devaluation of the raising of children (all children, not just our own). We don’t think of our (single income, working class, homeschooling) lives as “juggling” and we don’t feel some of our work is better or deserves more status than other work (although sometimes it’s hard to see an upside to changing the litter box).

As a life learning /radical unschooling family we’ve researched a fair bit on what happens when a person has internalized concepts that something is a “chore” or a tick-box, rather than a conscious, joyous, hard-earned effort that involves the mind, body, spirit – and has the capacity to change and heal the world as much, if not more than, anything else.

I feel deeply grateful to begin my journey anew every day.

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