Apparently I Am Destroying Civilization

A recent Pew Research analysis revealed that 40% of U.S. households now have a female breadwinner. As you can see, Lou Dobbs and Friends over at Fox News don’t take this news well:

At first, I felt a little offended by the clip. After all, I am a woman and the breadwinner of my family. But then I realized that they say absolutely nothing about me or my family situation at all. For them, there seem to be only two kinds of families: a nuclear family with a male breadwinner, which is inherently healthy and stable, and dysfunctional families with impoverished single mothers and absent fathers. (You should also watch Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, of all people, take these guys to task on that point, in this epically awesome smackdown.)

The “analysis” of Dobbs and his buddies completely bypasses the salient point, clearly articulated in the PEW findings, that the “breadwinner moms” are made up of two very different groups: “5.1 million (37%) are married mothers who have a higher income than their husbands, and 8.6 million (63%) are single mothers.” The jumbled, fallacy-ridden exchange skates over that distinction straight into apocalypse land, where the family is disintegrating, children are endangered, and men (or at least their balls) are nowhere to be found. There is no room whatsoever in their discussion for a man who chooses to be underemployed or forego employment altogether to be more present at home, because their notion of familial health depends upon a narrow, capitalist conception of masculinity: a man is someone who takes care of his family by making money.

Such assumptions about masculinity are rife in the Fox News clip – men have a “natural” or God-given role to protect, provide, be dominant, etc., and that is interpreted in exclusively economic terms; the definition of the Protector/Provider has become synonymous with earning a paycheck outside the home. Yet these talking heads seem oblivious that what they are defending as the “natural state” of humankind (nuclear family + male breadwinner) is a relatively modern, post-industrial invention.

Their high-pitched anxiety is not about what women are doing, but what men aren’t doing. In the world of Lou Dobbs and Erick Erickson there seems to be no space for families or men who choose to “lean out” of the workplace and into the home, who resist the contemporary American myth of material wealth and happiness as correlative.

I’d like to add another talking man-head to the conversation — one perhaps worth listening to — who sees the domestic sphere radically different than Dobbs et al: Wendell Berry. Just this week, I read his essay “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine” – an essay that ambitiously tackles a range of Big Ideas, from technology to capitalism to the sexual revolution. He raises enough fodder for twenty blog posts, easily, but I want to discuss the section in which he advocates the need for men and women to revalue the domestic sphere:

“There are, however, still some married couples who understand themselves as belonging to their marriage, to each other, and to their children. … This sort of marriage usually has at its heart a household that is to some extent productive. The couple, that is, makes around itself a household economy that involves the work of both wife and husband, that gives them a measure of economic independence and self-employment, a measure of freedom, as well as a common ground and a common satisfaction. Such a household economy may employ the disciplines and skills of housewifery [or house-husbandry!] of carpentry and other trades of building and maintenance, of gardening and other branches of subsistence agriculture, and even of woodlot management and wood-cutting. It may also involve a “cottage industry” of some kind, such as a small literary enterprise. […]

I know that I am in dangerous territory, and so I had better be plain: what I have to say about marriage and household I mean to apply to men as much as to women. I do not believe that there is anything better to do than to make one’s marriage and household, whether one is a man or a woman. I do not believe that “employment outside the home” is as valuable or important or satisfying as employment at home, for either men or women. It is clear to me from my experience as a teacher, for example, that children need an ordinary daily association with both parents. They need to see their parents at work; they need, at first, to play at the work they see their parents doing, and then they need to work with their parents. It does not matter so much that this working together should be what is called “quality time,” but it matters a great deal that the work done should have the dignity of economic value.”

Berry is describing a fundamental shift in values here, where domesticity becomes central, rather than tangential, to the identity of both men and women, and the work of home-making and child-rearing is given comparable “dignity” to outside work that rakes in the dough. Of course many people, myself included, find their job outside the home to be very meaningful and satisfying, but I agree with Berry that employment within the home is significantly undervalued in our society, and that needs to change.

In my reading of Berry, it doesn’t matter who makes the money; the money is not ear-marked as “his” or “hers.” The prominence of the “breadwinner” role is displaced by what one might call the “breadmakers,” husbands and wives who both work to make their home stable, loving, productive — whether or not they are also employed beyond the home.

julian in grass

Backyard baby.

A couple of days ago, Michael and I began talking about the possibility of him continuing to be a stay-at-home dad. We were sitting outside on our back patio, steaks on the grill, baby wiggling on a blanket on the grass, a light wind blowing through with the promise of summer. It was an idyllic moment, and I happened to be paying attention – enough to feel overwhelmingly grateful.

Then, a thought occurred to me: if Michael and I were both working full-time, this moment wouldn’t be happening. He probably wouldn’t be home yet, and I’d be throwing something easy and boring together for dinner (my culinary skills are stunted at best). We’d have only a small window of time together before putting the baby down for the night. The fresh greens on my plate and the abundant backyard garden around us wouldn’t exist, because Michael wouldn’t have time to maintain them. Our life would be significantly different than it is now and has been for months.

It has always been the plan for Michael to start applying for teaching jobs again and go back to work in the fall. But suddenly I feel the need to ask, why? Why mess with something that seems to be working for us?

Of course, it’s not easy to shirk societal values. It’s scary to choose the option that gives us minimal savings, less financial security, less status. And it’s certainly Michael who is making the more subversive choice, who will have to routinely and awkwardly field the question, “So, what do you do?” The myths about masculinity so apparent in the Fox clip are arguably more intact than cultural myths about femininity. We’re accustomed to the mother who works outside the home, but not the father who chooses to work only within it – a reality acknowledged by the Pew Research findings:

While the vast majority of Americans (79%) reject the idea that women should return to their traditional roles, the new Pew Research survey finds that the public still sees mothers and fathers in a different light when it comes to evaluating the best work-family balance for children. About half (51%) of survey respondents say that children are better off if a mother is home and doesn’t hold a job, while just 8% say the same about a father.

Of course, Michael and I are privileged in the sense that living on one income is a viable option for us. According to the Pew Study, the median family income of married female breadwinners is $80,000 annually; I make just over half of that, but that is still enough to get by on, if we choose to live simply and forego middle class luxuries like eating out, going on vacation, owning a second car, and buying new clothes, cable TV, magazine subscriptions, etc.

leaning out

John & Michael: Dudes leaning out

I know that Michael and I aren’t the only ones wrestling with these decisions. I have many friends who are choosing to “lean out” – and some of them are men. My friend who sent me the Fox News clip, John Meindersee II, recently made the choice to work part-time in the service industry in order to be more present to his family and to invest in his “cottage industry” of designing board game apps. No doubt he could be making more money working full-time in the financial sector, where he’s worked before, but he and his wife, Caity, are deliberately choosing to live by a different set of values.

And just yesterday, coincidentally, one of my favorite bloggers, Deja Earley, wrote about her family’s decision to leave her husband’s job behind and relocate across the country in order to pursue a more flexible, family-centered vision of The Good Life – even though this puts them in a more precarious position financially.

We are all new parents, we all have small babies, and we are all circling around the same questions: How to be more present to our children and loved ones? How to make a home? How to live a full life?

So maybe the talking heads are right. Maybe the social order is being undermined – not because there are more female breadwinners, but because some young families are abandoning the paradigm of the breadwinner altogether. And maybe that’s a good thing.

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26 comments

  1. My Nomad Life

    Hi, I enjoyed reading this post. I heard about these comments on the radio and while I can’t say I’m completely surprised, it is disappointing that people still feel this way. Reminds me that we still have a very long way to go as a society.

    • Abigail

      Yes, very true — although it is probably telling that you heard about them on the radio. Their comments are getting a lot of attention, and most of it hasn’t been positive. Even Megyn Kelly, who is a Fox News anchor (so, hardly a liberal icon), was offended and took them to task. I think it’s clear that their perspective is pretty out-of-touch.

  2. tarabean08

    Reminds me of the CS Lewis quote: “The homemaker has the ultimate career. All other careers exist for one purpose only – and that is to support the ultimate career. ” I’m sure he was referring to women (as was normative of the time), but this applies to both the men AND women who choose to “lean in” (as you say) to their families and “lean out” of their professional lives.

    • Abigail

      Interesting quote — never heard that one before. I like the idea, as long as it’s not gender-specific, like you say.

      • Jacob

        For CS Lewis, it is always gender specific, and makeup will mark the downfall of all women.

  3. Melanie

    I still remember someone telling me, when our kids were younger, that she was nervous about leaving her kids with the husband for a Saturday morning. This was perplexing to me: why be nervous about letting the dad care for his own kids? Because of the way we’ve carved out our family life, my boys have been fortunate to have two parents equally capable of caring for them, driving them places, hosting their friends, helping them with homework (though I defer on math). Truly knowing them. I don’t think that’s the case for all families, for some of the reasons you mention: a father who comes home for a quick dinner and bedtime doesn’t know his kids in the same way Ron has been able to know ours. It seems like this approach is absolutely family friendly, and should be celebrated. Fox et al. (and Bryan Fischer, of American Family Association fame, who made equally crappy comments last week) hasn’t a clue about what really makes a family work.

    • Paula Jean

      I don’t understand that nervousness (about leaving kids with Dad) either, Melanie. After Kelsey was born and I went back to my 30-hour a week job, Larry and I decided that whenever he had a day off or a break (he was teaching at the time) we would not pay a babysitter. So, he was “it” for childcare during spring break that year (she was 4 months old), and again the WHOLE summer. I seriously think Larry and Kelsey share a very special bond because of the time they spent together when she was very young.

      Abby, you’re right to notice the difference it makes to have one parent home most of the time: meals, gardening, caring for the baby, more relaxed and peaceful household. And you notice the “sacrifices” too: no “real” vacations, less eating out, scaled back entertainment budget, (and for us, a teeny-tiny college fund among other things). But in the end the sacrifices are worth it. From one near the end of the parenting finishing line, believe me. It’s so worth it.

      • Abigail

        I don’t understand that attitude either!! I remember watching some clip of Mark Driscoll and his wife laughing nervously about the idea of him EVER having the kids by himself. That idea is just completely bizarre to me. Why would you have children with someone if you don’t feel comfortable leaving those children with him???? And I also think that perspective is SO condescending to men. Please. They are perfectly capable.

        Paula — thanks for the encouragement. It’s good to hear from someone “down the line” that you don’t regret making similar choices for your family.

  4. Rachel Simmons

    love this. Very much what I’m thinking these days myself, though I am a single mom by choice so my circumstances and limitations are different. But — very much what I’m thinking.

    • Abigail

      I think that’s what’s interesting about this idea: everyone’s circumstances and limitations are different, so cookie-cutter models just don’t work here. Making the choice to “lean in” to one’s family and home life can take so many different forms, because every family is unique. Obviously, choosing not to work isn’t possible for many parents — I’m definitely keeping my job, but I’m still making choices about how to prioritize my home life, and keep my “roots” there.

  5. olmanfeelyus

    The problem with my wife and I is that both of us want to be stay-at-home! 🙂 If you can afford it and you like the set up you gusy have, then friggin’ go for it. Fuck what a bunch of scared old dudes think.

  6. Caity

    So true. I will have to read the Wendell Berry piece in its entirety, but he seems right on! Cute babies in that picture, by the way 😉 I am liking the trend we see in society of family being central…a very real focus on….the family. 🙂

    • Abigail

      FOCUS ON THE FAMILY. Oh no you didn’t!! 😉 But we are kind of rebooting that idea, I guess, just in a non-patriarchal way, with the conservative talking heads just can’t seem to grasp.

      Yeah, the Berry essay is definitely worth a read. He tackles all sort of things in there. Still mulling over some of it.

  7. Richard M Kennedy

    As a father and a grandfather, I think maybe you….as well as our daughters, as working mothers with solid marriages are redefining a social order that’s desperately in need of a thoughtful, serious overhaul. If Lou Dobbs wasn’t a radical flannel-mouth you’d have never known who the hell he was, think how pleasant that would be. Lou is about as useful as genetically modified crops and just about as dangerous. I know Lou as the guy that was cashiered from CNN and went to Fox. That’s like being cut from the Mets and being picked up by the Cubs…..no real or apparent future. By the way I am a Cubs fan, sixty plus years……….still they’re world class losers……..just Like Lou. As more women like you stand up and speak out for what’s needed in today’s familial social order, the more older guys like me will find the courage to stand up and speak out on your behalf. As I’d like to believe, ‘we’re old, not brain-dead or uncaring.’ We’re hopeful that our children can provide a better life for their(your) children.

    • Abigail

      Thanks much, Richard. I do hope we’re seeing a wider societal shift on this issue. And I think it’s important to realize that it’s not just women who are creating this “revolution” (if I might be permitted to optimistically call it that). The real change I see happening is men choosing to define themselves through family life rather than working life. Alongside each of the married female breadwinners is a man willing to re-imagine his role as a husband and father, and that’s pretty cool.

  8. dcsmiller

    Word, Abigail, this is challenging and inspiring. While you’re focus here has a lot to do with family, I think it also says a lot to those who are unmarried about community.

    I’ve been thinking about the importance of land and place in ethnic reconciliation–if we all agreed we all needed food and worked the land together, we’d realize we’re all just human beings with the same needs, all of us guests at the table of Mother Earth. After reading your post, I wonder if the same is true for reconciliation between the sexes. If men and women came to work on a literal common ground, to “bread-make” together, it seems we’d come to a better understanding of how much we need each other. When we go out to the workplace away from our home land and community, we begin to think we are individuals who could live an earning for ourselves. But if we live on land together, we can’t deny how much we need each other, because when the earth reminds us of our dependence upon her, we can’t hurt each other. While I fully realize farms can be bastions of patriarchy, it also seems that when men and women come before the storm, beauty, and awe of creation, we remember that we’re just human beings who need each other to survive.

    Robert Bly says that in order to have a strong relationship, fathers must connect with their sons on a cellular level, working and living alongside them in a non-industrial, homestead setting. The same seems to be true for all of us–if we don’t live alongside each other and the land, it will be harder to build strong, human relationships.

    -Drew Miller

    • Abigail

      Love this, Drew. I’m just really starting to explore this idea of “place,” and how we might become more intentionally connected to the land — especially for those who don’t live in rural settings. What does it look like to be connected to one’s patch of earth in suburbia, for example? When I read Wendell Berry — which isn’t often, honestly, though I’d like to read more — I can’t help but think, “Yeah, well, that’s easy to say if you have a beautiful 145-acre farm in Kentucky, but what about the rest of us? What does it look like for us to live differently?” Is home-steading the only option? And what if that isn’t an option? Etc.

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  10. Déjà

    I love this post for many reasons, not the least of which is your kind shout-out. And it’s useful for me to think of our decision in context of these larger ideas. While family and friends have been supportive, there’s sort of an undercurrent of fear or concern because this is just not how things are done. But we looked that traditional model pretty squarely in the face, and we were willing, but full of dread. And ultimately it seemed crazy to just ignore that level of dread about our impending future. We’ll see what it all comes to, but we’re pretty bright-eyed and hopeful. I wish good things for you guys, too.

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  12. Alaina Mabaso

    I really like the way you pinpoint the fact that the “undermining of the social order” might not be such a bad thing – since the current social order isn’t working for so many families. I also reacted strongly to this infamous clip, and did a bunch of reading. I concluded that the only response I could make to these men’s philosophy was satire. So I imagined that Erick Erickson is launching his own foundation to restore American social order. What would it do? Maybe you’ll enjoy: http://alainamabaso.com/2013/06/07/introducing-the-erick-erickson-scientific-family-foundation/

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  14. Dominique

    This is an amazing post and I really appreciate reading other thoughtful perspectives on the whole balancing work/family – especially small children. I ran across this article/letter from the Washington Post and thought you might enjoy it. It’s not directly related to this post but certainly tangentially related. http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/answering-harvards-question-about-my-personal-life-52-years-later/2013/06/06/89c97e2e-c259-11e2-914f-a7aba60512a7_story.html