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Sunday, September 20, 2009

The False Dichotomy Between "Work" and "Home" For Many...

Paraphrased from: Composing A Life by, Mary Catherine Bateson, copyright 1989, "A radical rethinking the concept of achievement." -San Francisco Chronical

"One of the things that haunted me while I was at Amherst was the different meanings of "work" and "home" that hide behind what is becoming a false dichotomy for many women and men. The daily walks back and forth between my office and the college-owned house where I lived and the effort to harmonize my work in each made the notion of homemaking newly mysterious and provocative. Amherst College has a committee that is responsible for deciding many issues, including making decisions on tenure and promotions. During the fall semester, this committee is always overloaded, meeting for four or five hours at a time. These meetings were especially burdensome for me, since as dean, I had the responsibility of recording the deliberations, getting up at five the morning after a meeting to prepare the minutes before the rush of boots and oatmeal and the escaping school bus. Eventually, the committee would be driven to the evenings; then, I would find myself at odds with my colleagues who preferred to take a two-hour break at home. I preferred to share a quick working supper that might allow us to adjourn at ten rather eleven at night.

My main concern was not when the meeting ended, but with the oxymoron for me of going home to relax. Going home for most of my colleagues meant putting up their feet, relaxing with a cocktail, having a meal served to them. Going home for me meant dealing with domestic emergencies and desperately trying to help with Latin homework in the kitchen while preparing a meal. For most women and for increasing numbers of men, home was a workplace, often for a second or third shift in a single day. It is still immensely difficult for a woman with a family to make the moment of walking through the front door a moment of release. There is the real work involved in housekeeping, in providing food and shelter, but even if we learn to minimize the mechanics of these jobs, the tasks of homemaking cannot be eliminated for their value goes beyond the mechanical. We enact and strengthen our relationships by performing dozens of small practical rituals, setting the table, making coffee, raking the lawn_ giving and receiving material tokens, even in a household of servants. I entertained steadily in that house in Amherst, as if the passing of wine and cheese could repair the erosion of trust and intimacy that had happened at the college during the previous decade.
Marriage creates work, far beyond the apparent practical need, in order that work may create marriage. Couples rely on real tasks and shared effort or, lacking these, they invent endless elaborations of unnecessary tasks to assure themselves that their relationship and their need for each other is real, to knit it together from day to day. Women living alone, men living alone, even women and men heading households with young children get the practical chores done, but they do less housework than women living with husbands. If you compare statistics on different types of households, you find that the presence of an adult male means more additional work for the woman than the presence of a child under ten, even when the man believes himself to be sharing the housework equally.* What is not usually pointed out is that it is aggregate work that is increased by marriage. It is not that males generate more laundry or dirty dishes or exude far more than their share of the fuzz that accumulates under the beds but that new tasks are created by standards and expectations.

*Heidi I. Hartman, "The Family as the Locus of Gender, Class, and Political Struggle: The Examples of Housework," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture & Society 6(3): 366-94 (1980).

My husband and I live in an apartment in Cambridge, but increasingly I do my serious writing in our studio in New Hampshire, a single room with a loft, perched above a stream. When I am working alone, I throw together a meal and eat it in a half an hour. My husband does the same thing when he is alone in Cambridge. But when we combine forces, working in the kitchen side by side, an hour is not nearly enough- it will be two hours before we have finished our meal. It's nicer and it's a better dinner, but we don't seem to be able to control it; as a result, both of us prefer to be alone when we have intensive work to do. The high points of Johnnetta's life have been the weekends spent with her sons or the time spent in courting a sweetheart in Washington, but she wonders out loud whether she could possibly live her present life if she were making a home for her menfolk day in and day out, even with domestic help."

It's hard to define the minimum needed to provide a sense of home sufficient to sustain relationships and growth, especially in this society of material opulence in which we generate endless hours of needless work to cancel the savings offered by technology. I struggle to be a homemaker without being drawn into the wasted labor of most housekeeping. Many people have pointed out that the introduction of computers in offices, though it may increase productivity, does not tend to reduce labor. This is not news; the pattern has been obvious for over fifty years, ever since the mechanical washing machine was used not to reduce time spent doing laundry, but to make it possible to change sheets and clothing two to three times more often. In the past ten years, the pressure has been rising to use up the gains of convenience foods by elaborate gourmandise. We are a restlessly busy society, with little capacity to loaf in the sun (though we work hard at getting tans) or to laze in bed (where "joy" is a serious obligation). We are bullied by the obese Sunday paper as our New England ancestors were by two-hour sermons. There is some hope that even as the traditional distinction between home and work, which was elaborated to justify sharply divided gender roles, gives way before new kinds of family life, the distinction between work and leisure will also shift. The maintenance of relationships and refreshment of spirit associated with home and leisure are surely frontiers for the world of work, while more and more kinds of challenging effort find their way into off-duty hours. Increasingly, during the years of being a working mother and searching for quality time with my daughter, I have become convinced that the best times actually occur in the kitchen or the car, when some simple task like shelling peas or getting to the supermarket defines the time and space in which to strengthen our communication.

Relationships need the continuity of repeated actions and familiar space almost as much as human beings need food and shelter, but it is not clear how much food and shelter must be elaborated. I have always been moved by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas' description of the temporary homes the Bushmen build during periods of frequent moves through the Kalahari Desert.* As is true anywhere, there is a need for shelter; desert temperatures may drop below freezing at night. This need is met by a shallow concavity scooped out of the ground and lined with grasses. There, body warmth can be sheltered from the wind and conserved by a piece of hide. But shelter cannot be considered a home, even for a night, unless it has a hearth and an entrance as well as space to lie. The alignment of these establishes the internal order needed for privacy and propriety, and distinguishes the woman's side of the fire from the man's side, to keep elemental forces sorted out for the health of the community and success in hunting. For the Bushmen, a curved branch, leaning sideways, one end embedded in the ground, is the necessary minimum to define entrance. The arrangement of concavity, hearth, and doorway orders the common activities of a household; it defines the home. When people live together, the high purposes of that common living, including the binding and the freeing each, become expressed in very concrete details. The details vary, and we can experiment with changing them as we wish, but material tokens are a necessary part of those relationships.

*Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, The Harmless People (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1959), 40-41, 196, 221.

All huma groups share food in one way or another, often using different kinds of foods differently. The Bushmen share the roots and nuts gathered by women within the household, while they divide the game killed by the men among the larger community fo the band. But not all human groups use the ceremony of eating together to establish and maintain relationships as we have tended to do in the Western Tradition, and as we have elaborated in our Eucharists and Seders and wakes. The Passover Seder is an elaboration of the institution anthropologists call "commensality," eating at a common table. The rituals of the Seder echo the function of other family meals in defining relationships and reaffirming and passing on tradition, but this is not true for all cultures. A young American woman who went to Manus Island in New Guinea with my mother was scandalized to see her taking her meals alone and not inviting the villagers to join her at her table, convinced she had discovered evidence of racism. But my mother explained that even a traditional Manus feast did not involve eating together, but rather offering gifts of food to be taken home: families and friendships were not defined by shared meals.
It was not necessarily ominous that the formal family dinner is declining in many households or becoming limited to special occasions. We might be better off if we could separate food as nourishment and pleasure from food as the currency of care that leaves so many women laboring long hours to prove affection in the semantic muddle called nurturance. There is the splendid lesson to be learned from the elaborate labor involved in infant feeding during the forties and fifties- the sterilization, the equipment, the rigid schedules- before the rediscovery of the simplicity of the breast. The ideal is to find simple forms that can be elaborated for delight or turned into art rather than onerous obligations. But the giving and receiving of these simpler material tokens of caring will still be essential.

To be continued...

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