Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Housewife / Writer

Last Monday, I went to see a new GP. As it was my first visit, I had to fill out an intake form. Like every form, there was a space for 'profession'; and, like every form, I left it blank. I hate to write 'housewife', and 'writer' seems too try-hard. Anyway, it doesn't earn an income.

The doctor checked my details, then asked me what I did. I explained that I was home with kids, but added that I sometimes write. 'Oh,' she said, 'you're a writer', and filled in the box, just like that. 'But I don't have time to write much,' I protested. She grinned. 'Anyone with three kids doesn't have time for much,' she said, and stood up; and I, filled with pride that according to this calm and lovely woman I Am A Writer, dropped my pants and had the most relaxed pap smear of my life.

On Tuesday, I took a daughter to a new friend's house for a play. As I was chatting with the mother, she asked me what I did. I explained that I was home mostly, but, remembering the doctor's office, added that I wrote a little. 'Does that earn a living?' she asked, one eyebrow raised. I found myself apologising that my husband earns enough for all of us, and so it didn't really matter – though in fact I did earn a little. 'Enough to pay for a few hours of childcare,' I added in a little voice, then felt so pathetic that I crept out the door.

Later I was filled with rage – first at her, then at the lovely doctor, and finally at me. Yet all three of us were operating out of the same model, society's dominant model: that a profession is the measure of someone. How each of us understood this differed, but the model was at the root of my rage, because in this model, I have no worth.

Although I initially felt affirmed by the doctor, on reflection I realise she dismissed four fifths of my life. I spend most of my time cooking, cleaning and fooling around with kids. These activities aren't always interesting or satisfying; but they are my reality, and they feed the writing no end. Without them, I'm not sure I could write at all. I can't dismiss them; and nor should she.

On the other hand, the friend's mother hinted that being a writer was suspect because it's not salaried. I regularly encounter the attitude that a good wife contributes financially to the household. If she has children, she contributes less than her partner because she spends more hours doing childcare and housework; however, her financial contribution is the fundamental indicator of her worth. I know many women who have put their kids into childcare and gone back to work not because they want to, but at the insistence of their partners that they 'contribute'; and I wonder who, exactly, does all the housework now?

I have no problem with willing women going back to work, and I understand that in many cases it's a financial necessity, but I reject the premise that a woman's contribution – or anyone's contribution – is measureable only in terms of economics. Other things, such as caring for kids, cleaning the house, offering hospitality and engaging in volunteer work make an enormous difference to a family, and to a society. They are indispensable, even if they're not economically valuable.

Would the world be a better place if I parked my kids in childcare, became a dental hygienist and added a second income to the household? Clearly not, although my kids' teeth might get a little cleaner. And yet the housework I do is so often dismissed, by others and, so much worse, by me, because it's not a profession; and the writing, because it's not an earner.

I found myself wondering when will the world – including women – value women's work: answering questions, wiping bottoms, folding clothes, peeling carrots and telling stories? No one asks whether I earn a living working from seven in the morning to eight at night, rinsing out wet undies and preparing meals and weeding the vegetable patch and swooping the vacuum cleaner over the floors. No one asks about income when I'm years short of sleep and woken at five in the morning by a kick in the kidneys from a four year old's foot. That work's a given; of course I do it, and of course it's unpaid.

And it is work. Sometimes it's so boring I could shriek; sometimes it's so frustrating and lonely and enraging and tedious that I could run screaming out the door. Other times it's fun, satisfying, enriching, enjoyable, or just a doddle. It's like any job, really: good and bad, except it's fundamentally relational, and it's grounded in love. I am lucky, too, that I can also write about it, and tell the familiar story. Whether or not the sweeping and the story-telling earn an income is really beside the point.

So I can't remain angry at the doctor or the mum for wanting to put me in a work box one way or another; they're just reflecting a societal attitude. In any case, the person I'm really angry at is, of course, me. I am the one who doesn't want to put 'housewife' on any form; I'm embarrassed to be such a fifties cliché. I am the one who feels apologetic that when I'm not caring for kids I'm not really earning money either. I've fallen into exactly the same trap as the doctor and the mother; I struggle to feel valued and, more importantly, to value myself in the work I do. Whether it's mopping the floors or stringing sentences together, picking up blocks or jotting down ideas, I still don't feel like it's Work.

Perhaps it isn't in the eyes of man, but to this woman, it undeniably is. And it's unavoidable. For all my ambivalence about what I do and how I describe it, I still have meals to cook, children to care for, and the burning urge to write. But can I stop being dismissive about it, to myself and to others? Can I claim it, name it, shout it from the rooftops? Can I turn questions about money into questions about worth? Can I write proudly on a form 'Housewife / Writer'?

The evidence suggests not yet. But someday, perhaps, someday.


  1. Hi Alison, this is great as usual! I have posted it on Facebook and sent a link to several (non-Facebook) friends who will enjoy it. Thank you so much for your regular honesty, gut-wrenching struggles being a parent (that I felt but could not articulate) and your gift of writing that you share on this blog. You are, indeed, a writer.

  2. Ah Ali, only you could make me laugh about a pap smear!!

    When I was at the doctor recently (for my puffy face), I encountered the same dilemma, and left the field blank too...

    Just wondering if it's semantics - I find that word 'housewife' has so much (50s) baggage, as you say. Doesn't capture my life at all.

    But neither am I a family manager, home economist or home engineer! Maybe a homemaker? Still doesn't capture the 'vibe.'

    Life is hard to sum up in a word.

    Maybe I should have put 'misfit' and handed the doctor the form with a smile!

    (And I echo Brenda's sentiments...)

  3. Hi Brenda & Bec,
    I once wrote 'general dogsbody' and was strongly criticised for that! I don't think there is a word which is not loaded - but this is only because what we do carries so much baggage. If we didn't feel such ambivalence about our roles, perhaps we might not feel such ambivalence about the terms - or at least, I think this is the case for me!

  4. When I fill in those forms, the only true answer is 'invalid' (as in 'sick person', but spelt exactly the same way as 'not valid'). I don't just do work that society sees as worthless, I genuinely have no work at all. I am chronically ill, and my 'work' is to do be kind to myself so that I don't exacerbate my condition, and to do a small portion of my self-care and a tiny amount of running our household.

    I have been this way for 8 years. Every time I write 'invalid' it is emotionally charged - often angry and defiant, sometimes just ashamed.

    I agree with you that your work is important and you shouldn't need to apologise for it (your kid-raising work, and also your writing). But, unless we are to agree that I have no worth as I have no work paid or otherwise, then your work is also not your worth.

    I often come back to an image I once heard of the body of Christ being like a wall. In the wall, most bricks support and are supported by others but all, even those simply balanced on the top like me, are part of the wall. I have worth as a member of Christ's body, and as a child of God, created in His image.

    I have worth as a loved member of my family and community, too.

    Our society values independence, individualism, productivity etc. very highly, and the 'what you do is what you're worth' paradigm is deeply part of that. It's so damaging, and so needs to be broken!

  5. Hi Alison and other hard working women out there connecting through the ether...

    Believe it, IT IS ALL WORK. "Work" is not defined by its income generation, love, training, dexterity, competency, variation or mundane-ness. I think, at the moment, "Work" as society sees it, is defined by the dominant paradigm, ie: Patriarchy.

    Accordingly, there is little value, financial or otherwise, awarded to all of the unpaid, voluntary, caring, child-raising, butt-wiping floor sweeping, family, social and community maintenance performed by all of us, but most typically, the world over, by women. So, that leaves us at the Drs office, or with new acquaintences explaining, justifying, apologising, rationalising.....

    So what can we do - exactly what you are doing, Alison - keep going, and MAKE IT VISIBLE!! Draw attention, big and small everyday to the reality of "being at home"; "Being a housewife"; "not working at the moment" and all of the other euphemisms currently used to describe the massive, important and hardest job ever - CARING for others, raising the next generation and keeping the community going. It is not easy, one comes up against it daily at the Drs, at a friend house, but can we all take responsibility for slowly, gently, consistently forging new and meaningful definitions of WORK?

    On a good day, yes! On other days, there is not much time between all of the "not doing much" that we are all currently engaged in....

    See you Thurs evening.

  6. Hi Heather, You're right - our worth is not predicated on work either, but is intrinsic to our existence; I'm just fumbling around trying to work it all out... a neverending process of course.

    And Mandi, You're right too as usual - how we view 'work' and 'not work' is wrapped up in a patriarchal system of values, which devalues most women, children, and the men who live on the margins.

    So I keep writing about the small stuff - kids and floors and nappies and volunteer work and gardens and rain - and dreaming of a society which values those who engage in acts of caring, vulnerability, hospitality, humility, patience and faithful presence in all different ways, some creative and others mundane, some visible and paid, but most invisible, unpaid and unappreciated.

    Thanks to all for your encouragement, in so many forms, to keep at it. al.

  7. Hi Alison
    I usually hate ever having to answer this question. There is no comeback line to "I am a housewife" or "I look after the home" or "I care for my son even though he is at school". In the setting of a dinner party or filling in a form for a Dr or even meeting new people at church its hard not to feel small & invisible. I have learned over the past many months that many of the thoughts we have in our mind are just thoughts. But we listen to them & then they become part of what we believe about ourselves. We think we know what people are thinking & feeling just by looking at them. But we cannot know unless we either ask them or they tell us. It could be that they wish they were doing exactly what we are doing! Once I stop struggling with how I imagine others think & feel, perhaps I won't worry so much about my choice of a satisfying career. Thanks for your thoughts!

  8. Hi Joanne,
    While I agree that much of what I worry about is nothing more than my own internalised voices (or my mother's), I have to say that more than once I've met someone at a party who, when they found out I was home with kids, gave me a lukewarm smile and turned their backs - I was clearly no longer sufficiently interesting to have a chat. With that sort of reaction I become apologetic, introverted and boring thus proving the assumption... and while I can't respect someone who gives me the cold shoulder merely because I'm home with kids, I still feel humiliated!
    (Which is why I am so grateful for the school mums, all in different boats but with so much shared experience that any conversation has the potential for joy!)

  9. Dear Alison -
    Honest and articulate. Thank-you. I've often wondered if I could be some kind of free-lance writer, which I think I would very much love. But as a single person, who will clean the house and pay the bills? Me, I'm afraid. I think this post touches on the nerve of many struggling artists, writers, photographers... etc.

    Don't let your passions be put out by society's wet blanket!

  10. Hi Mathew, Thanks for the comment. The thing of course is to ignore the floors and sit at the kitchen table after work or (for me) when the kids are in bed and get a few pages down - there are ways to write even when juggling paid employment and houses and cooking. I reckon when you write for love you find ways to squeeze it in somehow! As Joan Aiken once wrote, 'Whoever said it [writing] was easy?' alison.

  11. In his introduction to Home Economics (highly recommended), Wendell Berry writes, "If economy "management of a household'--which is the only thing that it can mean--then we have a system of national accounting that bears no resemblance to the national economy whatsoever; it is not the record of our life at home, but the fever chart of our consumption." Thanks for living and articulating the kind of economy that is truly renewable, resourceful, and redemptive.

  12. Hello Stay Well,
    I haven't read Home Economics, but have found other stuff by Wendell Berry to be helpful - thanks for the tip; I will look it up. Marilyn Waring, too, has a lot to say about what our economic systems value, and it's certainly not the work of women. Her book Counting for Nothing was very thought provoking!

  13. Hi Alison

    I have only just discovered your blog and I know I'm coming to this post late, but it and your later one reflecting on the violence within have really struck a chord with me. One of my favourite bloggers Rhonda Jean wrote an interesting post just the other day about answering exactly that question, it's a good and quite inspiring read: http://down---to---earth.blogspot.com/2011/03/supporting-others-in-their-choices.html

    Ally (aka Alison)


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