New Mama Musings

Sunday, February 26, 2006

A Good Life for Humans

After writing my last blog entry I stumbled across a provocative article by Linda Hirshman that appeared in an issue of American Prospect late last year.

In it Hirshman says that an alarming number of college-educated women are leaving the workforce to raise their children, a choice that is "bad for them" and "bad for society."

She defines "a good life for humans" as "using one's capacities for speech and reason in a prudent way, ...having enough autonomy to direct one's own life, and...doing more good than harm in the world." By such measures, she says, these moms "will be leading lesser lives...bearing most of the burden of the work always associated with the lowest caste: sweeping and cleaning bodily waste."

Furthermore, society loses, she states, because these women are wasting their education: "Why should society spend resources educating women with only a 50-percent return rate on their stated goals?"

The solution in Hirshman's mind is to return to feminism's radical roots, in which staying home and raising one's children is not a valid choice for women. In order to avoid shouldering an unequal share of maintaining a household and raising kids, a woman needs to keep this foremost in mind when choosing a marriage partner.

In addition, a woman needs to keep money as the goal in seeking employment, as "it usually accompanies power, and it enables the bearer to yield power, including within the family." She faults idealism for directing some women into lesser-paying jobs: "[I]dealism on the career trail usually leads to volunteer work, or indentured servitude in social-service jobs, which is nice but doesn't get you to money."

Hirshman's last "rule" addresses the heart of the family itself -- children. She says you can have a baby, but only one: "A second kid pressures the mother's organizational skills, doubles the demands for appointments, wildly raises the cost of education and housing, and drives the family to the suburbs."


Let me begin by saying that I understand the problem Hirshman is addressing. Women are still a long way from being equal to men in the workplace. And that's a problem, I agree, as far as women being taken seriously and being given equal opportunities in all facets of society. We need to be represented in all areas in order to be validated in all areas.

However, her idea of what makes "a good life for humans" -- despite the definition she gives -- seems to be about making money and avoiding domesticity at all costs. In Hirshman's world you don't marry simply for love, or work just to make a difference in the world. And god forbid you should have more than one child.

I have problems with this on so many fronts:

  • The article focuses on well-educated women who can afford to stay home with their children and dismisses domestic chores as work for the lower classes. I won't go into how insulting this is, but I thought it needed to be mentioned.

  • Personally, I find "a good life for humans" to be about fulfilling one's potential, making connections with others, doing good in the world and striving to learn and do better. It has nothing to do with acquiring money and avoiding domestic tasks.

  • Being a mom (even for seven short months) has enriched me in ways no job ever could. The things having Henry has taught me -- about myself, my relationship with others, my own parents, and how we grow as people -- is not the kind of thing I would ever learn in an office. One could argue that I could learn these things while also working outside the home, but I disagree. My time would be too divided; I'd be too tired and stressed out to pay attention to the lessons that being with my baby 95% of the time present to me.
  • Despite Hirshman's dismissive view of stay-at-home moms, I'm not just sweeping floors and wiping up poop. I take this job very seriously. There are a lot of tough decisions to be made as a parent, and I research each of them carefully. So far -- in seven months -- I've addressed circumcision, vaccinations, television viewing, exposure to plastics, homeopathic care, and sign language, among other things. And I'm pretty sure my research will continue until Henry is off to college.
  • If Hirshman is so concerned about the future of our society and how women are treated by men and represented in our culture, why does she not look at how the next generation of women and men are being raised? Does she think such lessons are better learned in a daycare center than in one's own home, with one's own (well-educated) mother? And is education a waste if you are an influence on society's future?

  • Also, does this woman have any children of her own? Has she ever been a child? I grew up with a working mother. According to Hirshman, I probably learned that women can do it all, right? Nope. I remember my mom coming home every night too exhausted to do anything but fall asleep on the couch. My parents retired wealthy and now take trips around the world, but from my perspective, the trade-off was definitely not worth it. My take-away (to use a business term) was that working just for money was something to be avoided, especially when it comes at the cost of personal relationships.
I have to wonder if Hirshman wrote this article merely to spark a debate. If not, I feel sorry for any woman who takes her advice to heart.


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