When Flavia recently posted a letter from one of her readers, about running into a bunch of 40ish stay-at-home moms at an Ivy League college reunion, I expressed some skepticism about whether these women really didn't work for pay, or whether perhaps they did (from home?), but the letter-writer was rounding down whatever it was these women did to "housewife." Flavia assured me that the letter-writer wasn't making assumptions, so in this particular case, case closed.
That said, I do think I was justified in bringing up the possibility, because there's a huge amount of blurriness between what constitutes "stay-at-home" and what's just being the member of the couple with the less high-powered career. Which brings us to Ashley Nelson's article in The Nation, "Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Mom." The key to the piece lies in a small but important detail: Nelson wasn't a stay-at-home mom, but a freelance writer:
[...] I left my job, figuring I could freelance while the baby napped.So. Was Nelson working? Was her primary identity "mom"? She goes back and forth on this within the course of this short paragraph. If she "published well and often," and I mean actually did do this, it sure sounds like she had (has! she's in The Nation!) a job. I mean, according to the NYU career office, "freelance writer" is a job. Also according to some but not all freelance writers. It's complicated. But let's say she were not a woman, but a man. Or not a man, but single. (I've heard tell that some freelance writers are unmarried women.) Was her income not enough to live on, or was it simply laughable in comparison to the overall budget of the family she happened to be a part of?
I hired a sitter, but for a time my work took a back seat to life. We moved and, two years later, moved again so my husband could take a job overseas. A second daughter arrived. Then, shortly after, I found myself in a situation I never predicted: sitting across from a divorce lawyer who didn’t even bother writing down my annual freelance income. I had published well and often, but my compensation was less robust. It would barely have covered a month of her costs.
Nelson explains that this isn't just her story, but that of other women as well:
[E]very mother I know who scaled back or quit work to care for children feels a similar anxiety about what the decision has cost her. Like myself, most never felt they were relinquishing their “work selves” completely, just momentarily turning down the tap. Many do some work, but it feels supplemental and underpaid. The climb back into full-time employment seems monumental.In other words, neither Nelson nor the women she's discussing were ever really housewives/SAHMs/what-have-you. They did work, but weren't properly compensated.
And thus the problem: couples have this bizarre tendency to want to live together, especially when there are kids. This means that even if staying put at a job and not moving anywhere for any man serves as insurance against possible future divorce, it also can, to a degree, kind of preempt the marriage-and-family to begin with. A nuclear family can function as a unit, or (especially if there are no kids) as two autonomous individuals for whom a divorce would be upsetting in the way it is when one has a falling-out with an old friend, or breaks up with a college sweetheart. The perfect household, where divorce would have no financial impact on either partner, yet where the couple managed to live as if a family, and one not so front-and-center aware at all times of the precariousness of all marriages, is hard to picture. The lucky few who have this seem especially keen on writing about it, which confuses matters, I suspect.
Ideally, none of the household-and-childcare who-does-what would be gendered, beyond the pregnancy-and-shortly-thereafter aspects of it. The reality, though, seems to be a lot of women who do work, but who have opted for a lower-paid version of their chosen profession, but one that allows for more geographic and/or childcare flexibility. Had this couple lasted, there might have been time enough for a "see-saw marriage." It might not have always been such a gendered worst-case-scenario.
This gets at something I couldn't quite pin down in my response (responses) to the (ever-more-compelling) conversation at Flavia's, and elsewhere as well, one that led me to various posts from a couple of years ago as well. The women having this conversation (posts, comments) are, it seems, women who studied the humanities. Many are now tenured professors. The conversation is about Important Careers, but tilts to being specifically about careers in academia, specifically non-STEM academia.
The issue with this, as it relates to the topic at hand (women's feminist duty to be ambitious), is that once one has opted for the humanities, without simultaneously opting for something more marketable (the double-major in air-conditioner repair), one has already quite severely risked opting out. One finds a small and probably ever-shrinking subset of humanities-types in high-powered positions that use those skills. Tenured professors, big-deal editors, and so forth. It exists, but a girl (as in, pre-college) whose main priority is financial independence is taking a big risk if she goes down that path. And that's new, really, because there was always law school. Now there isn't always law school.
So. While a woman who reaches the point of having a tenure-track position and then opts out has opted out, can the same be said of a woman who leaves after X years of adjuncting, or upon learning the odds? Because if by "elite women" we mean (among others) women with humanities PhDs or near-PhDs, well, a lot of the time, this leads straight to a career that's never more than a dream, for a man or a woman (although everyone's always wondering about the perma-adjuncting vs. TT gender breakdown), and while employment-outside-the-home is still likely, it won't necessarily be elite employment, a career.
And! Then there's the question of whether the mere fact of women's growing majority in a given field will in and of itself end up making that field more precarious, whether it will end up encouraging society to think the work in question is nonsense (while nevertheless still demanding the work in question). College students are still being taught, but why by adjuncts? Is it maybe because women are viewed as pushovers, secondary-job-havers, and that $500 per semester could purchase an awfully nice pin? Are freelance rates at all impacted by a sense that (for certain publications, at least) this is work done by housewives?
I could go on, but I have other humanitiesish tasks to contend with.