Thursday, September 13, 2012

Home matters

I have been reading a lot lately, trying to weasel out the problems with the world today.  A big job, I know, because there are a lot of problems!

I read this article about Baby Boomers, and this response by a Gen-Xer.  Neither is recent, but they got me thinking about the huge amounts of social change we have seen in the past 60 or 70 years.  Unlike many people, I don't think the 1950's were a golden age.  As a matter of fact, I can't really point to any era that I can honestly say was a "golden age."  I like Chaucer's England, but on the other hand, some classes were repressed for the benefit of other classes.  I admire the Saxon Heptarchy, but they had big problems with Danes.  I wouldn't actually want to be alive at the time of the Saxon Heptarchy.  And for how long can we say America held to the ideal of the Founding Fathers?  I doubt the Constitution had even been ratified before people started plotting how to use it to get the most advantage for themselves, at the expense of others.

On the other hand, I have to admit -- there's been a lot of change in the past half-century, and not all of it has been good.  However, when I read about the childhoods of baby boomers, I notice that they struggled with different problems.  They don't seem to have been loved all that much, for some reason.  Sexual abuse appears to have been much more widespread than anyone knew.  Women's lives seem to have been so devoid of interest and excitement than the apex of their day, if we believe the magazines of the time, seems to have been making a nasty jello mold.

The number-one shift?  The family.  The end of the 1800's saw men leave the family farm for outside work.  The middle of the 1900's saw women do it too.  Then divorce became widespread, and then people stopped bothering to get married in the first place.  Births out of wedlock are always on the rise now.

Anyway, in addition to all that I've been reading What's Wrong With the World, by G. K. Chesterton (or rather re-reading it ... just flipping through and enjoying it; it's one of my favorite books and if I ever wrote in books (which I don't, I like to keep them beautiful) every word would be underlined and highlighted).  Also, I'm almost finished with Radical Homemakers, by Shannon Hayes, which is a truly fascinating book which I want to write a real review for later (though let's see if I do).

From all of these books and articles, I'm drawing the same conclusion: home is where it's at.  The family is what matters.  Gen-X was radically changed by having so often been the children of divorce.  I believe the baby boomers suffered from having been left to cry alone in cribs and not breastfed.  These things matter.

Just yesterday, I read this article about the difference between a married mother and an unmarried mother.  (Spoiler: married moms have more money and time to spend on their children; single moms have it harder, are poorer, and give fewer opportunities to their kids.) Then I read this one which said, in short, it's not the marriage, it's that our society doesn't provide all the things a husband could: "Why does it seem like a reasonable policy suggestion to tell Jessica she needs a husband, and pie in the sky to say she needs a union? Or a national day care system like the one in France, where teachers are well-paid, with benefits?"  (This at the end of a long list of other programs necessary to equalize things for single moms.)  You could also read it this way: "Why does it seem reasonable to say her son should have a father, and not reasonable to say he needs 65 government programs to do the job?"

Um, because fathers are cheaper?  Because no matter how many government programs you have, it just isn't the same?  Because raising kids really does take two people (at least) and there is no substitute for that?

Sigh.  I sometimes forget how good I have it.  I have a college education, a masters-educated husband, a house, and two beautiful children.  Reading the New York Times article, it occurs to me that if I'd done the "modern" thing and slept around in high school, I might have the kids and nothing else.  This is the real reason I waited till marriage.  Beyond any other reason -- like going to schools where people just weren't having sex in the first place, or having been raised to "just say no" to sex and many other things my peers were doing -- I knew that sex results in babies, that it sometimes does so even if you use "protection," and that it would break my heart to a) kill my children, b) give up my children to someone else, or c) raise my children without a father.  I knew that while sex looks like it only concerns the two people who are engaging in it, this is not in fact the case.  It often results in children, and the circumstances of your sexual encounter have a much, much profounder effect on them than they do on you.

When we get down to it, sex and marriage aren't really primarily about love.  Definitely there should be love, because love is what makes the necessary sacrifices possible and worthwhile.  But the real purpose of these things is to continue the species: sex begets new humans, marriage allows them to be brought up.  Read some Chesterton if you don't already know why divorce (or unwed parenthood) is bad for children.  I was going to type out a quote until I realized the really good stuff was pages and pages long.  It is hard to abridge Chesterton.

But here's a little bit which in retrospect sounds prophetic: "The Hospital has been enlarged into the School and then into the State; not the guardian of some abnormal children, but the guardian of all normal children.  Modern mothers and fathers, of the emancipated sort, could not do their quick-change acts of bewildering divorce and scattered polygamy, if they did not believe in a big benevolent Grandmother, who could ultimately take over ten million children by grandmotherly legislation."  In short, either you have the family, or you have a vast government to take the place of the family ... which, more and more, is exactly what we are getting.

The family, the home, is superior to the state, though.  Not only is it prior to the state and more crucial to human flourishing, but it is also conducive to much more freedom.  More Chesterton for you:

"The truth is, that to the moderately poor the home is the only place of liberty.  Nay, it is the only place of anarchy.  It is the only spot on the earth here a man can alter arrangements suddenly, make an experiment or indulge in a whim.  Everywhere else he goes he must accept the strict rules of the shop, inn, club, or museum that he happens to enter.  He can eat his meals on the floor in his own house if he likes.  I often do it myself; it gives a curious, childish, poetic feeling.  There would be considerable trouble if I tried to do it in an A.B.C. tea-shop. . . .  For a plain, hard-working man the home is not the one tame place in the world of adventure.  It is the one wild place in the world of rules and set tasks.  The home is the one place where he can put the carpet on the ceiling and the slates on the floor if he wants to. . . . A man can only picnic at home."

In my case, my own home is the only place I can let my kids wander around with no pants (as I so often do) or decide to go gluten-free for a week or eat peas off the vine without washing them off first.  If I get all my food from a corporation or a government -- or, in the way our society currently works, from both -- I have to take it the way they want to give it to me.  My peas must be washed, my milk pasteurized.  If I make them myself, I can do it my own way.  The same goes for childraising.  I choose to raise my children in a way that (I believe) will help them develop into good people who will make the world a better place.  If we all were forced to raise our children (or have them raised) the same way, nothing would ever change and it could never be a better place.

The thesis of Radical Homemakers is that we should withdraw, as far as possible, from our consumer culture and do more for ourselves.  We should make more things from scratch -- cooking, gardening, building houses -- and spend more time with our family.  To support this thesis, Hayes throws in statistic after statistic showing how extremely unhappy and unfulfilled Americans are, despite being comparatively quite wealthy.  What we lack is family.

The problem -- the thing that prevents more people from being homemakers -- is the fear of gender inequality.  Let's face it, when one spouse is a homemaker, which does it usually end up being?  When a family decides to cook at home rather than eating out, who tends to do the cooking?  Women see being the one at home as getting the short end of the stick.  Hayes turns that around and points out that home is where you want to be. 

Chesterton: "Babies need not to be taught a trade, but to be introduced to a world.  To put the matter shortly, woman is generally shut up in a house with a human being at the time when he asks all the questions that there are, and some that there aren't.  It would be odd if she retained any of the narrowness of a specialist.  Now if anyone says that this duty of general enlightenment (even when freed from modern rules and hours, and exercised more spontaneously by a more protected person) is in itself too exacting and oppressive, I can understand the view.  I can only answer that our race has thought it worth while to cast this burden on women in order to keep common sense in the world.  But when people begin to talk about this domestic duty as not merely difficult but trivial and dreary, I simply give up the question.  For I cannot with the most utmost energy of imagination conceive of what they mean.  When domesticity, for instance, is called drudgery, all the difficulty arise from a double meaning in the word.  If drudgery only means dreadfully hard work, I admit the woman drudges in the home, as a man might drudge at the Cathedral of Amiens or drudge behind a gun at Trafalgar.  But if it means that the hard work is more heavy because it is trifling, colourless, and of small import to the soul, then, as I say, I give it up; I do not know what the words mean.  To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whitely within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets, cakes and books; to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it.  How can it be a large career to tell other people's children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one's own children about the universe?  How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone?  No; a woman's function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute.  I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness."

Excuse the massiveness of the quotation; like I said, there is really no way to abridge Chesterton.  The point is that the work of the home is important; to be the one trusted with it is, in many ways, the best thing.  Hayes points out that it doesn't have to be the woman, either; it could be the man or it could be both of them, working part-time or from home in order to be more and do more at home.

This is scary, though.  When we invest in the home, we have to trust that the other investor will stick around.  If we don't trust that they will, we'd better be earning an actual paycheck, right?  That way if they divorce us, we'll have something left.  Housewives with no employment history fare badly in divorces; after it's finalized, they have trouble finding a job.  Investing in the family is a bad thing if one member might bail; both of you will lose your investment, and whoever invested more will lose more.  This is one reason why marriage has to be for life in order to make a safe and secure home for all members of the family.  If divorce is considered a possibility, the spouses won't invest in the family.

However, if you intend to be married for life, there's no reason for a gender war. Who does what job within the family becomes an issue of practical division of labor rather than power.  After all, Hayes points out that before the industrial revolution, both men and women did the majority of their work at home.  Men would plow, women would tend the garden; men would make shoes and women would make shirts.  These tasks were governed by tradition, but in most cases the division of labor was rather arbitrary.  And there's no reason (in Hayes' opinion or mine) why it has to be divided any particular way.  The important thing is that both spouses make an investment in the home -- spending time with children, making home a refuge.

Chesterton agrees here:

"There is a plutocratic assumption behind the phrase, 'Why should woman be economically dependent upon man?'  The answer is that among poor and practical people she isn't; except in the sense that he is dependent upon her.  A hunter has to tear his clothes; there must be somebody to mend them.  A fisher has to catch fish; there must be somebody to cook them.  It is surely quite clear that this modern notion that a woman is a mere 'pretty clinging parasite,' 'a plaything,' etc., arose through the sombre contemplation of some rich banking family, in which the banker at least went to the city and pretended to do something, while the banker's wife went to the Park and did not pretend to do anything at all.  A poor man and his wife are a business partnership.  If one partner in a firm of publishers interviews the authors while the other interviews the clerks, is one of them economically dependent?  Was Hodder a pretty parasite clinging to Stoughton?  Was Marshall a mere plaything for Snelgrove?"

I admit I don't know who the two partnerships mentioned are; presumably every Brit of his era knew.  Perhaps it would help if we changed it to "Was J.P. Morgan a mere plaything for Chase?" or something.  The point is that in a partnership like this, it doesn't matter who's doing what; they are equal because they are both free people contributing something, but each reliant on the other.

If you're going to have a family, you're going to want a family home:

"As every normal man desires a woman, and children born of a woman, every normal man desires a house of his own to put them into.  He does not merely want a roof above him and a chair below him; he wants an objective and a visible kingdom; a fire at which he can cook what food he likes, a door he can open to what friends he chooses.  This is the normal appetite of men; I do not say there are not exceptions. . . . To give nearly everybody ordinary houses would please nearly everybody; that is what I assert without apology."

The hard part is to have this wonderful thing, the family home, without the economic means to sustain it.  We're all too busy surviving to have any leisure to invest in the home.  I do believe our struggling economy is a big contributing factor to the troubles we have in the family.  On the other hand, I think the problems the family has are part of the reason the economy is struggling so badly.  If you want to fix these things, you have to fix them together.

 But law can't fix the family side of things.  Family law exists for families that are broken; CPS exists for families in crisis.  There is no agency whose job is to make sure that people get married before having sex, that they stay married for life, that within marriage they treat one another with respect, that they sacrifice for their kids.  There couldn't be such an agency.  You.can't.legislate.this.

So in trying to solve the problems of the world, I've simply discovered another problem: the family is in crisis and no one but the members of each family can fix it.  On the other hand, I am a member of a family -- so I can fix it, in my family if not in any other.

If you've made it through this immense post, you totally win an internet cookie.  But what do you think?  I'm going to address some further issues in a future post ... or perhaps even a series of posts.  Is there anything you think merits further discussion?

7 comments:

Heather C. said...

Hm. Interesting thoughts. I only got through the part right before all the Chesterton quotes, but it is interesting. I like the first big quote where Chesterton points out that a domestic trade is only considered "drudgery" from a cultural standpoint, but from an economical standpoint. The reason this is, I think, is because the general culture across nations has been to force women into that role, with no other option, so resentment built and then, in the 20th century, exploded in a mad rush to make up for lost time and energies, in a way.

I also agree that historically, the family unit in the U.S. has been eroded by, first, the dad moving for work, and then the mom moving for work, and then the increase in divorce rates and general single-parenthood due to the shame factor and stigma of single-parenthood wearing off. And that kids do better mentally and physically and academically, etc, when they have a stable family unit. But I'd disagree that that family unit MUST have a married father and mother.

Now, my parents were married and my family members, extended and immediate, have all remained married and together through thick and thin, so I've enjoyed that benefit. They also all frown upon divorce. Not for any religious reason, but just because of the belief that you don't make a commitment without actually committing, you think before you act, and family units must be a strong unit. But even without that, single parenthood is not an evil or a guaranteed precursor to broken kids. I think it is just statistically more of a risk factor because there are so many more variables to WHY the single parent is single.

It could be death (as in my family's case) or incarceration, or one being deadbeat, or yes, random premarital sex that results in an unexpected baby. The main factor determining how the child grows up, I think, is whether the single parent is prepared, mentally and economically. What is the single parent's MINDSET and support network going into it? Was he/she caught completely unprepared? Are there supportive grandparents or other family? Is the parent surprised, but still committed - and able - to establishing a stable growing environment for the child? Do they live in a safe neighborhood? Does he/she have a stable job and day care/family support options?

In short, I just think that a home is more than just the sum of its parts. Although, I do think that nuclear families are making a comeback with the divorce rate as it is. People are growing up to want what they didn't have, and raising their kids to want that, too. So I think the pendulum is beginning to swing the other way.

Also, on the Radical Homemakers idea that what we as Americans lack is family, I don't know... Maybe in part, but I think we also generally lack that willingness to be self-sufficient and work for our supper, so to speak. We expect a lot of things to be done for us, whether by government, by servants, or by the magic of the store/invisible workers in another state or country. As a society, we're complacent and fixated on economic competition and financial rewards at all costs, even if we didn't truly earn it.

some guy on the street said...

Hmmm... I agree with Heather that one the The West (it's not just The ' States!) lacks is a common work ethic. I say this because I notice the tendency in myself --- particularly whenever I take the time to comment on fascinating 'blog posts when I ought to be researching primary factors of homotopy... But, well, anyway, yes, that's an important thing.

I have to express some reservation on the subject of home ownership, simply because it's a uniquely 20th C. idea that every family should own the home it inhabits. Tenancy per-se wasn't an economic problem for preceding millennia; rather, usurious landlords were --- and this is the evil Chesterton names in his aria "Because a girl should have long hair ...". The modern form of this injustice has, instead of a usurious individual landowner, a usurious corporation; and rather than claiming interest in the land itself or its furnishings or its produce, the coroporation claims ownership of the money spent in procuring it --- they make one the tenant of an unproductive abstraction with the weight of law behind it.

I should also agree, contra Heather, that Family is a neglected virtue in many places. I don't, however, pretend to know why this is, except I have as much blame to give the escalation of war in the last 150 years as to the industrialization of life in general.

There's so much in this post, Sheila, that I can't think of a next thing to ask about, so I'll suggest you just keep on with whatever you've got lined-up already. Even just as a collection of GKC quotes, this is worth a bookmark, and more than makes up for a passing lack of biscuits.

(* Irrelevant aside --- "family unit" as synonym for "a family"... I first heard this phrase in the film Raising Arizona, and it still sounds just as bizarre now as then. Is this some weird metonymy arising in mixed-usage appartment complexes? And why does "nuclear family" make me think of "free radicals"?)

some guy on the street said...

Wait... sorry... Heather, in case I'm not actually disagreeing with you... er... don't mind me! I'm just ... easily confused. Cheers!

Sheila said...

I should have been more specific -- I DON'T mean "the nuclear family" when I say "the family." It can be nuclear, but as you point out, Heather, a supportive extended family can do a lot of the job of a spouse. Obviously, even if everyone was celibate until marriage, there would still be single moms and dads ... there always have been. It's not, for instance, my mother-in-law's fault that she's single, and I'm glad there's a safety net for her. I do think, though, that a much bigger safety net than the government has been available for her: her family, her late husband's family, her incredibly kind neighbors who cut and bale her hay and watch the little ones, her church, a wide network of friends who put together a college fund for the kids, and the older children who pitched in to fill their dad's shoes the best they could. Yes, a social security check helps. But it wouldn't have done half of what that family needed.

Maybe that's what I should write about next -- the WORK that we need to do, a work ethic we could discover. It's funny, but Radical Homemakers lists overwork as one of the main problems of society, whereas you worry about entitlement. I wonder if it's really just two sides of the same coin: the work that most of us do is so meaningless, we possess so little ownership of it -- not partaking in the rewards if it goes well, or the risk if it goes badly -- that our choice is either to enslave ourselves to it for fear of getting fired, or to opt out entirely.

Hmm. Gears are turning. Chesterton would have much to say about this as well: he felt that "owning the means of production" would make all the difference. Only I don't agree with him that this is something the government can achieve.

Some guy, home ownership is not so much a big deal to me either. Perhaps because Chesterton's dream has been so largely realized, and yet it hasn't brought the golden age he expected. In part I'm sure it's because these homes aren't really owned, but mortgaged; and in part it's because somehow owning three acres has not led us to also own and milk the cow he imagined would go along with it. The home, as a synonym for "where the family is," is important, but not in a house sense so much as an "intact home" sense. We want our home, whether farm or apartment, to be a refuge of peace, a place we actually spend time. Not a place we return to when absolutely spent, to watch TV and eat canned soup before falling into bed, but a place where we can engage in productive hobbies that fulfill us, and a place where our kids feel safe and valued.

Like I said, you can't legislate this stuff! You can hand everyone a house, but you can't make it a home.

Sheila said...

Oh, I forgot to mention one more area where I agree with you, Heather -- a lot of the fear of being a homemaker, among women at least, is that the time period when women were homemakers corresponds to the time period when they were considered lesser citizens. Especially around the time of the Industrial Revolution, but really throughout much of history, men possessed all the power in the home and women had none. Often neither spouse had a choice about what to do with their time, but if one did, it was the man. The man made the decisions, spoke freely in public, voted, etc., at times when women were still forbidden from doing so. No wonder just staying home, in itself, smacks of patriarchy to a lot of women. And being the one who stays home is opening yourself up, to some extent, to being isolated from the broader society -- which means you are in danger of losing your voice. I find it so *all the time,* and the only reason I don't feel oppressed is because my husband understands that I am in a vulnerable position and is very careful to protect me from being oppressed, isolated, and silenced. For instance, he's the one people call to see if we're getting together ... but he NEVER says yes or no without consulting me. He's the one involved in politics ... but he wouldn't dream of leaving for a political meeting without checking with me, or offering to let me go instead.

A lot of husbands aren't like that. It frustrates me that much of the more traditional segment of society, whom I otherwise identify with, tends to take subjugation of women for granted. I even -- as I've mentioned before when talking about pants or childcare -- have gotten some flak when I say publicly that I don't obey my husband, or that I consider myself his equal in every respect.

I don't know how to solve this problem in the framework I'm proposing, except through my old friend, personal virtue. I don't see that there is any other solution except individual people being willing to make the necessary sacrifices.

Blue Henn said...

Great post, Sheila!
Chesterton *is* hard to shorten...
This was basically what Dr. Cuddeback's talk was about at the last women's meeting. :)

Sheila said...

Wait, you go to my parish? I had no idea!

I read your blog from time to time, and I know we have friends in common ... but have we actually met? If so ... sorry for forgetting about it. I have not been very with-it lately, I mean ever.

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