I haven't paid much attention to Linda Hirshman. Her name conjured up vague images of incensed bloggers burning through bandwidth in their outrage over her errors, but there are lots of incensed bloggers and lots of scorched bandwidth out there.
Yesterday I happened to read her piece from Wednesday's NYT (hey, Jody, if you see this, how do you do that cool linky thing with the non-expiring RSS feed of NYT articles?) and I had to wonder what I'd been missing. Why, exactly, should mothers Get To Work? Is it so we can boost the GDP? so we can find true fulfillment, far away from the annoying barracuda children we are foolish enough to enjoy? so we can retire in comfort, unafraid of our husbands' possible foibles and faithlessness?
I googled around a little, but I have to say, a person who compares herself to the persecuted Socrates sends my Self-Aggrandizo-Meter right into the red zone. It's been a long time since I read Socrates, but I seem to recall that he encouraged the pursuit of truth, not money.
Hirshman, conversely, says, "Money is the marker of success in a market economy." She says feminism has failed to be adequately radical, lamenting the decline of views like Betty Friedan's: "Vacuuming the living room floor...is not work that takes enough thought or energy to challenge any woman's full capacity." Nowhere, in anything I read before my S-A-M klaxons started going ah-ooo-gah, does she acknowledge the pleasures of time spent with small children, the delights of slow-paced days spent grinding the lenses through which another human being will one day see the world.
How do I reject this? Let me count the ways.
At bottom, Hirshman and I are measuring success with different yardsticks: I will consider it success when I can say with St. Paul, "I have learned, in whatever circumstances I find myself, to be content." We have lived on significantly less and on significantly more money than we have right now. Our goal is not to make the most money possible, but to be responsible and at peace in our situation today. For what it's worth, I like the middle ground, with less money and more time together.
I have posted before, coincidentally, about how much I enjoy vacuuming. Does it challenge my full capacity? Of course not. But doing it cheerfully is another facet of striving for contentment. The floor needs to be vacuumed. I can do it gladly or I can think bitter and useless thoughts about how my husband never vacuums. (Which he doesn't. But in the time available to him now that he doesn't work 80 hours a week at a high-paying consulting job, he cooks, tidies, does his own laundry, and takes the kids to soccer on Saturday mornings.) For me the choice is clear.
Lately I have been thinking a lot about mothers and employment because of my own job -- partly because I am spending a little time away from Pete each day, partly because my job takes me into homes and daycare centers and I talk with mothers, at least superficially as we are scheduling sessions, about their decisions. I despise the polarization, the pro-employment voices, like Hirshman's, that assume at-home motherhood equals cortical atrophy, and the anti-employment voices that equate any non-maternal childcare arrangements with Brave New World-style creches. Because (a) my cortex is just fine after those years at home, thankyouverymuch, and (b) there is tremendous variation in childcare arrangements.
I am using my non-atrophied cortex right now to offer an observation about all childcare and it is this: caring for small children is not an ergonomically sound undertaking. The inertia, the entropy, the chaos -- it is a highly inefficient enterprise. For women with average earning power, employment usually requires an attempt to make childcare efficient -- in other words, reliance on group daycare. As I mentioned recently, I just don't think it's an optimal setting for toddlers, with the hubbub, the constant competition for toys and attention, the stretched-thin caregivers doing exhausting jobs for little more than minimum wage. I would like to silence the S-A-M long enough to see whether Hirshman addresses the happiness of young children in between her edicts to their mothers.
And what about the happiness of those mothers? Hirshman wants changes to tax law, assuming wrongly that all couples are focused on the bottom line. What about workplace changes, to increase access to meaningful and consistent part-time work? I am extraordinarily lucky to have landed in a field in which I can find flexible, fulfilling work that pays me well. It shouldn't be so unusual.
What about the needs of women outside the top income quintile? What about untethering health insurance from employment, so that their children's need for health care isn't driving the job choices of so many mothers? What about subsidizing childcare workers' salaries, so that the work is more attractive and women can choose it because they genuinely want to do it? Hirshman would probably reject that idea out of hand, though, because she seems to think that caring for children is work for women who can't manage anything better.
Perhaps that's what irks me most about her writing: its echoes of dated second-wave feminism. Free to be you and me, as long as you don't want to do anything crazy like spending time with your children. Girls can too do anything boys can do, biological differences notwithstanding. But what about those biological differences? I think about all the oxytocin my posterior pituitary has pumped into my bloodstream over the past decade -- is pumping now, as Pete nurses in my lap. Oxytocin increases one's capacity for repetitive work, decreases stress responses, facilitates bonding. I am wired, biochemically, to do the work of mothering my children. Hirshman's insistence that I should short-circuit the wiring to do work she finds more important is myopic and intrusive.
Here's Hirshman's take on the tasks of at-home motherhood: "They do not require a great intellect, they are not honored and they do not involve risks and the rewards that risk brings." Really, I could write another thousand words fisking that, but in the interest of time I'll forbear. I will point out, though, that last Saturday when I skipped off to the computer lab to do homogeneity-of-slopes testing and ANCOVAs, it was with a keen sense that I was getting the easy job. Not that my husband would be doing the drudge work, but that he would be the one thinking about juggling our boys' many needs.
Full-time motherhood stretched me: sharpened my thinking, shaped my character, satisfied my soul. Hirshman, predictably, disputes the idea that God might have designed the default child-rearing system, but for me the presence of the divine is palpable, when I permit it to be, in the mundane tasks of motherhood. Which leads me, of course, back to Socrates -- to the Euthyphro, which considers the nature of holiness (in brief: mysterious, but unrelated to masterful money management). I believe there is an essential and enduring rightness, a quiet sacredness, in the messy work of mothering. Does it pad the CV? Does it beef up the bank account? Does it confer status? Obviously not. But a person who compares herself to Socrates might pause to consider what he had to say about such things: He is richest who is content with the least.
Hirshman excoriates the relativists who say this argument is exclusively about women's choices; she insists that she's a philosopher and philosophy is about what's fundamentally true. And hey, I'm all in favor of public acknowledgment that fundamental truths exist and should shape our decisions. But my observations lead me to believe it is fundamentally true that happiness and fulfillment are unpredictable. Women's preferences vary; children's needs vary. What mothers need is flexible options to accommodate those variations -- and not, if you please, any more condescending demands that we disregard what we want and Get To Work. We've been working.