Aug 24

Book Review: In Praise of Stay at Home Moms

In Praise of Stay-at-Home MomsIn Praise of Stay-at-Home Moms by Laura Schlessinger

I chose to be a stay-at-home mom, and did so for more than a decade, so it came as a surprise to me that a book dedicated to lauding my decision would piss me off so much. I’m giving it three starts, because I enjoyed reading it. Apparently, I kind of like to be pissed off. It gives me great fodder for book reviews.

I’ve read other books by Dr. Laura, including the ten things people do to mess up their lives. For those of you who haven’t been exposed to her books or her talk show, she’s basically a conservative taskmistress who coaches people to act prudently and put their duties above their desires. Not terrible advice, especially if you have a tolerance for myriad references to God. Ie, teach your children to live a godly life.*

Generally, her arguments for being a SAHM are that being with your children, and raising them, is the best thing for them, and that it’s a duty and a privilege, more important than anything else to do with your life. If you’re pregnant and on the fence about what childcare options are right for you, this is not the book you’re looking for. This is the book that your (mom, sister, friend, aunt) who is already firmly in the SAHM camp will hand you to convince you.  This is not a book that will give you a balanced discussion.

The strongest arguments this book posits are the ones where women talk about sad children at day cares who want to be with their families instead of at a place with too many rules and too little love. I have to say this is a compelling argument. Anything that’s considered women’s work (cleaning, cooking, caring for children or the elderly) is paid peanuts, and if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. Is having a mother at home better for the children? I think so.  On this page, Dr. Laura and I are in agreement. Is it better for the husband? I also agree. I mean, who DOESN’T want a wife at home? I want one myself. Is it better for the woman? Dr. Laura says yes. Of course. That’s what God and nature have created you for. She glosses over concerns, such as this woman’s, whom Dr. Laura coached on the importance of being a SAHM.

“At first she felt like less of a person, leaving her professional life to be ‘just’ a mom….She would watch people’s eyes glaze over when she told them she was a SAHM, and she felt like she had to rush in with a ‘But, before I left I was…,’ as if to prove her intelligence to them.”

This is a real, valid concern. Often, when you tell people that you’re concerned about how you are viewed, you’ll get the blase “What do you care what other people think?” which always strikes me as facile and ignorant. We live in society, and what society thinks impacts us. Anyone who insists that one can just ignore what all ones peers think (and by peers, I include the entire western hemisphere, and the media which binds us) is either willfully blind or socially maladjusted.  Try eating your pet dog if you disagree, and see how what the neighbors think will impact you.

The problem with being a SAHM is that your pay (which is to say, none) is the same whether you cook your own organic vegetables, make gourmet meals, homeschool your children, and teach them to play guitar while maintaining a spotless house, or if you’re the kind of SAHM mom who sits and watches television all day, drinking bourbon and eating frosting straight from the can. Except for the homeschooling (and I taught multimedia visual art, not guitar) I was more of the former kind of mom than the latter, and yet, I saw the same eyes-glazing-over when I told people what I did. I completely understand feeling an obligation to lie, to obfuscate for the sake of saving face, conflicting with a willful pride.  It’s hard to feel proud of your occupation when your society largely sees you as a slack-jawed heifer who sits at home all day because she’s too lazy to get a “real” job.

Dr. Laura also glosses over the important fact that a SAHM is financially dependent on a man. As television is wont to tell us, a wife who cares for her children instead of working is laudable, in a mousy, God-fearing, martyr kind of way, but a single woman who cares for her children instead of working is just a lazy, good-for-nothing welfare queen. Dr. Laura seems to think that if a woman puts her husband and children at the center of her life, if she makes sure that she’s always happy and cheerful and loving and doting, that she remains sexy and always gives and gives, that she won’t get divorced. After all, only women who selfishly listen to “feministas” who brazenly mislead these poor women into thinking they need autonomy, those are the shrews who get divorced, as a direct result of them emasculating their husbands with their demands for equality. One would think, by reading this, that real men desire happy placid fembots rather than complex human beings.

“‘It is important…to shield your family from youer personal sufferings'” a SAHM wrote Dr. Laura, and Dr. Laura agreed. “Those are wise words. That means you have to ‘stifle yourself.’ Well, in a word, yes!”

Still, if you, like me, have been incensed when tv watching mouthbreathers who haven’t read a book that wasn’t assigned by a teacher, dismiss you as uneducated because they sit in a cubicle all day and you “just” watch children and maintain a home, this is a good pick-me-up that someone out there knows you made a good choice. I agree with Dr. Laura that one occasionally has to make sacrifices for what’s important. You can have it all, you just can’t have it all right now. And, like she says, your children will only get one childhood, don’t you want to be there for it?

However, Dr. Laura loses me when she trots out the old tired gender roles and expects us to fit neatly into them. At one point, she has an anecdote about a woman who was complaining that while she was at work the house didn’t get cleaned and the dinner didn’t get cooked and her husband and son got a stressed out wife and mom when she was at home in the evenings. Dr. Laura responds:

“Well, the obvious answer to this problem is to hire a housekeeper, a cook, a personal assistant to take care of errands and calls, a nanny as a surrogate mother, and a surrogate sex partner for the husband, who largely bears the brunt of the exhaustion, resentment, and outright anger of his overworked, frenzied spouse…”

Wait, hold up a minute. The husband is the one who has to suffer the most, because he–poor lad–has to live with a woman who is overworked. It seems to me that the obvious solution is to share the housework, but of course, that doesn’t occur to Dr. Laura. Men don’t do housework or cooking or cleaning. Men are men and women are women, and when they step outside their gender roles, chaos and horror ensue.

This book is very much geared towards women. She gives advice for how to handle your men like, don’t argue, just state whatis imporantant to you and you know he’ll be man enough to accept the responsibility. She talks about “priming the pump,” ie. sweeting your man up with praise so that he’ll be more tractable. She insists that it’s a well known fact that happier men will spontaneously help with the housework. I’d like to see a double blind study testing this, as I’m not convinced, but okay. Nowhere is there anything about how a husband can please his SAHM when she’s been caring for his children all day. Nowhere in this book is there the idea that maybe you and your spouse share the same gender, or that you might have a non-standard arrangement. Nope. If you are reading this book, you are female and heterosexual. End. Of. Story.

This is what riles me up more than just about anything. Because no one is completely male or completely female. Yes, I have a vagina. That doesn’t mean I am all about the cuddling and loving and nurturing, any more than a penis precludes a person from being a good parent.  All people who have female bodies have male characteristics, and all people with male bodies have some female characteristics. Saying “these are men and those are women” reminds me of when I was a child and my mom told me to sort my laundry into lights and darks. Like a primary-school wardrobe, people don’t fit neatly into one category. (Yes, even something as superficially binary as gender.) Dark and light should be as easy as male and female. So where does the lime green go? How about the red and white striped jersey? And the floral print? And the check? Maybe the charcoal grey and the pale yellow feel that they’re not too squished in their narrow category, but just because I’m not navy blue doesn’t mean I like being lumped in with the pastels. I think this is a conservative thing, wanting everyone to fit into neat categories. The ultra-conservative viewpoint wants people to be clean and simple, to fit into their external category no matter how they feel on the inside.

And the decision to be a SAHM isn’t a simple one. Like life, it doesn’t fit into one category or another. If you make the decision to stay at home, you take a huge risk by absenting yourself from the job market and placing your trust in a spouse, knowing that half of marriages are going to end in divorce. If you make the decision to continue working when your child is born, you take a risk that your child will suffer (and/or you will suffer) by not being together. Like my Kindergarden wardrobe, the decision is more like a pink pair of shorts dotted with purple footprints that doesn’t fit neatly into good or bad. It’s a judgement call.

I recommend this book for SAHMs who want some encouragement. I recommend it for husbands and fathers who support a wife who cares for the family, so you can feel good about yourself. I also recommend it for conservatives who want to feel self-righteous and liberals who enjoy a good bout of indignation. I do not recommend it for women who are financially constrained to work while their little ones are in day care. You have enough on your plate without having Dr. Laura breathe down your neck.

 

*I presume this does not mean literally, because I’ve heard a lot of those bible stories and God can be kind of a dick.

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6 comments

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    • ZT on August 25, 2011 at 12:06 am

    ‘Anything that’s considered women’s work (cleaning, cooking, caring for children or the elderly) is paid peanuts, ‘
    It’s not paid peanuts because it’s ‘women’s work’. It’s paid peanuts because just about anybody can do it, including women with no other qualifications.

    • Jessica on August 25, 2011 at 5:32 am

    Thoughtful review. My favorite image is eating frosting out of a can. As always, your reviews are fair and are honest about your own bias.

    “Often, when you tell people that you’re concerned about how you are viewed, you’ll get the blase ‘What do you care what other people think?’ which always strikes me as facile and ignorant. We live in society, and what society thinks impacts us.”

    But isn’t this true whether you”re telling “society” you’re a SAHM or you have latch keys kids who play unsupervised? Judgement will happen on both sides of the coin. So if you”re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, shouldn’t you leave society out of the equation and make the decision that”s best for your family? In other words, not care what society thinks?

    • Kater on August 25, 2011 at 6:48 am
      Author

    Zach, you could extend this argument to any job. “Anyone can do it” (as long as you don’t care how well it’s done.) Technically, I could coach football or practice medicine. I would do it poorly, the team would lose and people would not get healthier, but if they regarded football and medicine as unimportant as raising children and housework (and if the demand for coaches and doctors was as high) I’d get paid $7.50 an hour and no one would care that I wasn’t any good at it.
    Psychiatrists get a lot of money because they have a stressful job and hold peoples’ lives in their hands. Child care workers have a stressful job and they hold peoples’ lives in their hands. One is masculine, one is feminine. One gets respect and pay*, one is done by cash-strapped college kids. Part of this has to do with supply and demand (the demand for child-care workers is so high that it drives qualifications down) but a lot of it has to do with gender roles as well.

    *And yes, I know that to legally practice psychiatry you need a degree, but that’s to keep the supply low. If you don’t care about qualifications, it’s a job anyone could do (poorly.) Or, you could just throw them in there and let them figure it out.

  1. And teachers? Anybody can do that too, right?

  2. Re: Frosting out of a can. I resemble that remark. 🙂

    The cake is just a vehicle for the frosting anyway, so why not save yourself the trouble?

    Have you read The Feminine Mystique? We recently read that and A Strange Stirring over on Triple Take. (Which I will link to my name in this comment.)

    Seems to me Schlessinger could stand to read both of those.

    Her Wikipedia entry is very enlightening. It doesn’t seem to me she was living a stay-at-home mom life! Her kid was born in 1985, so just compare that date with the years under ‘Radio Career’. Plus the first time she was married, she was still pursuing her PhD.

    • ZT on August 25, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    “And teachers? Anybody can do that too, right?”

    As a matter of fact, they can, if they know the subject matter. For example, when I was in the Navy, the instructors at Nuclear Power School got a few weeks of on-the-job training before they taught people how to operate nuclear reactors. Most professors at the college level have never taken an ‘education’ course. Teaching in the public schools is regulated by credentialism at its worst.

    ““Anyone can do it” (as long as you don’t care how well it’s done.) ”

    The point is; these ‘women’s’ jobs are low-paid because it is easy to perform them at an acceptable level. Most women (and men) can learn how to take care of children. It does not require much special training or years of experience. This means the pool of potential employees is large, and the Law of Supply and Demand then causes the wages to be low. It is not a plot by the Patriarchy.

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