Americans introduce themselves by profession as a means of kind of assessing each other’s socioeconomic status right off the bat. We are such a capitalistic, sociologically oriented culture –I’m sorry, a caste oriented culture for lack of a better description– that what we want to do right off the bat is figure out who is worth listening to, who is important enough to merit respect, and who isn’t…We assess each other by visuals but we also assess each others by those non-visuals by that introduction of profession.”N.K. Jemisin, “N.K. Jemisin’s Master Class in World Building,” The Ezra Klein Show.
My husband listens to podcasts a lot and shared with me this little clip from an Ezra Klein interview with fantasy ficton writer N.K. Jemisin. It affected him quite a bit, because he is a computer engineer working for a recognizable company. When he introduces himself and his job, he automatically gets afforded a level of respect. He’s educated. He’s making an above-average income. His job is secure. His job is considered valuable. While my husband sometimes feels awkward having to explain his job –it’s not the kind of work most people find interesting in detail– he never gets questioned as to why he chose it or whether he is a functioning citizen. And in a way, that bothers him, because he’s aware that when talking to someone who is working a less-paid, less-respected job, an implicit disparity in the respective value of each’s work comes into play and shapes the conversation. Once we met someone new and through the usual ritual of introductory chit-chat exchanged job summaries and found out that this person was working for his family business …of selling used cars. It immediately made the conversation awkward. Like the reveal at the end of a round of cards, engineer trumps used-car salesman, and from that starting point it felt awkward moving forward.
So what card do I carry? What do I do?
I’m a homemaker.
“…So… what do you do?”
A Social Problem
Now, by using that N.K. Jemisin quote I do not mean (nor did she) to communicate that America uses a rigid caste system with a nice, tidy ladder-hierarchy of jobs. Most jobs are esteemed in terms of how much money they produce, how specialized the skills are that they require, and whether they reflect some cultural values (like generating the fine arts). All those things can be approached from different angles for different results, but a lot of people are perhaps a little unaware of how they evaluate the value of any type of work. Being a homemaker has forced me to see these approaches a little more, because the question of what I do brushes up uncomfortably against many peoples’ definitions of work and value.
My conversations with career people are sometimes hard for both of us to navigate. People spend a lot of their life at their job, and that yields conversational fodder like the week’s high points, complaining, skills and explanations, complaining, ambitions and plans, complaining. Especially in introductory conversations, there’s also a courteous expectation of equitable conversation: I share, you share, I complain, you complain, I tell story, you relate, you tell story, I relate. The closer we rank our careers on the social scale –the more we understand each others’ careers– the easier this goes. But when people find out I’m a homemaker they stall out. They are perhaps used to viewing their own life proportions like this:
So when they find out that I don’t have a comparable slice to their pie chart they have to quickly imagine what I do instead. Maintenance? Like, cooking, cleaning, and…kids? The maxim “kids are a full-time job” has enough respect to fill the gap –but I have no kids. So then, like, how many chores do you do? Everyone already does chores, and while most people would agree they’d be better off if they had more time to do chores, they don’t envision a whole day’s work (or a whole week’s worth of day’s work) could be replaced with just chores. And so their brain sort of deduces that my days really must average out more or less to something like this:
And while some people just accept this assumption quietly, perhaps cushioned in their brain with either vague confusion or private contempt, quite a few will reach out to me for help. I seem a decent person with a good work ethic, after all, not a bumpkin or waster. They’ll ask, almost apologetically, “So, what do you do?”
I’ll get to that soon. But before I do I want to also mention the complicated lenses that my homemaking gets looked through. For example, if my conversation partner is a career woman, perhaps one from a male-dominated field who has sought a lot of emotional and motivational support from feminist theory, my choice to be a homemaker is a little distressing. There is a conflict in feminist theory that while a woman should be free to choose home-making, the historical pressures to confine women to homemaking roles make my choice problematic. As my mother was largely a homemaker and I’m a homemaker, I’m available to be read as both a symptom and perpetuator of a forced cultural norm where the “good woman” stays at home. Preferable to the feminist cause, I should be balancing out the numbers of men and women working in a field, closing the gender pay gap, and deflating the housewife norm that suppressed and exploited so many unwilling women in history. Individualistically, my choice is my choice. Societally, my choice looks like part of a greater problem.
And some of that problem is that homemaking isn’t really respected or attributed with any skill. Cleaning and cooking –drudgework. It’s the kind of work you do if you don’t have a formal education. All the more awkward and reprehensible because the fact is I’m really a masters-holding music educator. What a wasted education! And I received scholarships too! They should make me pay that money back for the sake of someone who’ll actually use their degrees! I’m not paying forward into the system, just consuming –which is all a housewife does anyways. Consume. Driving down the average estimation for what women contribute to the world, making us all prey demographics to the consumerist markets.
If the person opposite me in conversation is from a less-respected working class or maybe just not very fond of their job, then I’m a different kind of problem. There they are slaving away, perhaps working multiple part time jobs, or doing some kind of drudge work that they hate, and here I am free of the need to survive off my own income. It’s like I’m living in retirement without having earned it through years of misery. Though I’ve never received hostility from someone in this imbalance, conversation gets hard for me to navigate. I’m always fearful that to them my life looks comparatively petty, like I’m a toy dog with only slightly more utility, and a case study in W.A.S.P privilege.
I am aware that homemaking is a role that many people cannot afford. There are some people who make a point of hyper-thrifty homemaking and they are their own special thing. I am not one of them, but that’s because I do not need to be one of them. This get’s closer to the question of “What do you do?” but wait, it’s coming, it’s coming.
And, by the way, no one has ever blatantly leveled these accusations on me. It is only my own brain –to be very clear MY OWN BRAIN– that wages this self-accusational war because I am feminist, I do see the inequality of privilege, and recognize these things are real dilemmas. My preferred solutions are rather to get more men into homemaking and to rehaul our job market, but that’s its own topic. Anyhow. My inner paranoia is more about knowing how I fit into broad trends of thought rather than pointed hostility from someone. Sometimes these trends manifest in someone’s thoughtless comment, but even then the comments are not intended to aim at me. One friend once commented offhand, “I couldn’t be a homemaker, I’m too organized. I’d get everything done quickly and then just play games all day.”
But even this comment was not meant to be aimed towards me. It was more that this friend, perceiving me to be a homemaker, assumed that I was of the mindset that a wife’s best role was homemaking. The cultures that pressure women into staying home are at this point subcultures, but they still are loud and influential. Presumptuous and sloppy as my friend’s comment was, it wasn’t aimed at me personally and was just a hasty scramble on her part after feeling a pressure that historically was applied to women.
There are days where I just don’t want to face the pressures and balance my paranoia. When people ask me what I do, I dodge the homemaking and just say, “I’m a music teacher.” After all, it’s true. I’ve kept up on my certification and stay active in music, though on the margins. I don’t earn money through my music currently, but I do volunteer work with it and can talk about that. Music teaching doesn’t earn a lot of money, but it gets its own pie slice of respect among some people and still sits higher on the ladder rung than homemaking. Homemaking is sometimes uncomfortable to confess to because a lot of how we think of homemakers is shaped by tropes, particularly tropes found in advertising.
And also tropes found in sitcoms. Peggy Bundy‘s lazy homemaker persona was a shortcut source of jokes in the show “Married… with Children,” and it’s notable that many other sitcoms jab at their featured housewives for similar crimes. Or even if they treat the housewives seriously, they don’t know what to show those wives actually doing in their staged-perfect homes. (I will commend Everybody Loves Raymond for, in my memory, treating Debra seriously and playing her up as very skilled.) Bernie Mac’s TV show almost got my kudos for casting Bernie as a male homemaker in the episode “Ladies Man” and putting him through an identity crisis relateable to my own, but then lost it by making cheap jokes at the expense of male homemakers and tipping into the latest iteration of homemaker tropes, the wine mom. If I don’t have time to fight the tropes, then I’m a music teacher.
So lets evaluate homemaking not as a trope, but as a deliberately chosen method of adding value to one’s community.
Measuring with Money
So something that should be noted here is the assumption that we all want power and money=power. There is truth in this due to the fact that we have set our society up to function around money, so someone who has money has better ability to enact their will upon society. There is mistruth in this in that money is not the only source of power, and power is not always our goal. Still, this assumption has enough truth to reliably bias people to respect and value others according to their money.
For some people, the acquisition of money is a measure of self-worth, even when it stops being directly useful to their quality of life –and there is a point where more money stops being personally valuable. Is it making your life safer and more comfortable? Is it improving the quality of your health? Is it improving your function in society? While there perhaps will always be room for improvement in these areas that more money would facilitate, the truth is that after some point it is a diminishing return. At some point, acquiring money becomes just another form of consumption. While for most people that kind of acquisition isn’t a reality, it still holds a sort of aspirational sway that affects how we look at each other.
But money isn’t inherently valuable. We use it because everyone else uses it, and thus it becomes necessary. Once money stops being used, it stops being valuable. My husband and I are at a place of diminishing returns with our money. We have security, health, and education. Sure, we could also find uses for more, but again, diminishing returns.
You know what currency is inherently more valuable than money? Time. Time is much much more precious than money. When you evaluate what the mechanism of “work” is, you see that it is a process of turning time into money. Work can have many purposes and turn out other things of value, but its primary mechanism is turning time into money. “Time and skill” you might say, but even skill is a manifestation of time. You spent time learning that skill, and the money you earn through it is still just a transmutation of that time. The more time invested in a skill set, the more time you should be paid for. Ideally, that is. Turning time into money ideally should allow you to get more quality and comfort out of time you keep to yourself, the time spent in weekly leisure, vacations, and retirement.
The scary thing about time is this: you don’t know how much you have, and you can’t stop spending it. If the amount of money you make starts yielding diminishing returns on the quality of your personal time, then there is room for reevaluating whether the transmutation of time into money is worth it. As a publicly certified music educator, there are a number of factors to consider when dropping out of work. Teaching in America has a strong purpose of adding something to society, but comes at a high personal cost of stress. By my personal assessment, money is too cheap for that kind of stress and I could find other ways of adding value to the world. There was also the perk that if I stayed home and took the larger share of housework, then my husband’s time was also being optimized and he was free to add other non-profit value to the world. There are a number of other factors that went into the decision, but my husband and I agreed together that it was worth devoting my time to optimizing our time directly, through homemaking, rather than converting it into money.
So what do I do?
…A lot of cleaning, shopping, and cooking.
It’s embarrassing, but that is the way to summarize it. If someone asked me what I would be doing as a music teacher, I wouldn’t say, “Attending meetings, promoting the local instrument store, and keeping Tyler from emptying his spit valve on his neighbor’s shoes,” even if all those things are true and somewhat representative of what I’d do in that position. I would say, “I teach music fundamentals to elementary students and also rehearse the sixth grade band.” When asked such a general question, you give the general answer, the summary of your routine or work objective. Cleaning, shopping, and cooking are the items that you’ll reliably find me doing week in and week out, and doing those things are my baseline objective. They’re not all I do, but they are the relatable representative part of it.
Before I move on to the other things I do, I also want to defend this baseline description. Everyone cleans, shops, and cooks, or else pays someone else to do it for them (transmuting money back into time). The universal mundanity of these tasks means they aren’t treated with much dignity, all the more so because people find them unpleasant and seek to minimize the amount of work they put into them. People who cook, shop, and clean professionally are often treated as a skill-less class (unless they manage to brand themselves as an elite resource). There is a wide range of skill that can be brought to these tasks, and the view that they constitute menial labor is not true. Because I have time, I can put better quality into these tasks and make a point of being intentional with them. I seek out ethically produced products. I properly sort, prepare, and dump my recycling (we’ve no collecting service here). I monitor my and my husband’s health and react to things that threaten it. I mend, purge, and optimize the material goods we already own. I combat waste in our habits and possessions. I do home projects that raise our quality of life. Many people do not have the time to do these things and must go for the easy and convenient. In my place of privilege, I’m positioned to vote with my purchases for ethical services and goods, hopefully affecting the market to eventually make them the easy option for those without my privilege. There is personal and social value in optimizing one’s “drudgery,” and a range of skill and effort that can be brought to them, and this deserves some respect.
But still, we live in a modern age where washers, dryers, vacuums, and online shopping have made the realm of housework a much briefer task. It does not fill up the working pie-slice of most people’s life charts, and this is where the waters get dangerous. Our world is so full of Terrible Triviums.
Some people are disposed to play those hours away, and it was a critical choice on my part to remove solitaire, minesweeper, and all such infinite-click games from my electronic devices. Our capitalist world is also full of baits and bargains to draw me into dallying my time and wasting our money. Many people resist these baits with the rebuffs “I don’t have time” or “I don’t have money,” so I can understand why they’d suspect me of being a sucker. However, I am deliberate in my philosophy and values and cognizant of their pandering, so like a Jedi resisting the dark side this is an issue I’m always called by but also prepared against. The other danger is that people, assuming I have a comparative wealth of time, are eager to spend it for me. I’ve learned to guard against this from watching my mother. She’s really too nice, and when I was growing up she regularly got minioned into someone else’s schemes and subjected to their obligations. Churches and homeschool parents are dangerous factors for a person with skill and fluid time. But when time is your ever-dwindling currency, you really can’t afford to let anyone measure your time so cheaply.
It is easy to assume my time is cheap because a lot of how I fill my hours is through volunteering, i.e. giving my time away. One of the products of work besides money is putting value into the world. There are a lot of worthy causes out there that can’t afford the labor they require, and a lot of social glue that does not function around money. So I donate my time. When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, many peoples’ jobs didn’t stop, but I was available to clean out houses. When a friend needs daytime child-sitting, I can usually step in for a few hours. I currently maintain several conversation partners and teach them English. I participate in and administer several ministries through my church –which I can do because my congregation is both egalitarian and respectful of my autonomy. I write this blog which, although it yields me no money (actually, it costs me to make this ad-free for you), gives me meaningful work and I hope it contributes value to the world. I give away my musical skill by teaching a seasonal choir at my church that enriches our congregational culture. Not to mention I must take steps to keep myself professionally valid by maintaining my certification and resume. There is a lot with which I fill my time, but a lot of it does not notch into a fixed schedule, build a routine, or blend into what people would expect to hear in the job description of “homemaker.” The reliable, relatable routines available to summarize a general inquiry are still:
Cleaning, shopping, cooking.
At the End of the Day You’re Another Day Older
This question of schedule, and of having a life full of things that do not build a fixed and consistent schedule, is the thing that defines most of the dilemmas for a homemaker. A few months ago, a friend of mine re-entered the job market, during which transition he had to live as a homemaker. It wasn’t a permanent thing for him, but it was indefinite, and he approached me to ask how I got things done without the forced productivity of an extrinsic structure. We talked about to-do lists, of keeping self-respect, and self-driven personal development. That conversation planted the seed for this post, because it reminded me to check my pulse and see if I’m living up to my ideals.
Work that is accountable to some external authority or structure is kind of comforting because it helps you measure and feel secure in how you spend your time. A loose schedule can be hard to measure or feel certain of. Without validation it is easy to grow little unhealthy manias. In my paranoia of fearing that everyone thinks I’m a bum, I sometimes get too concerned with proving that I’m not and tally all the things I’ve accomplished in any given day. Once when my husband came home from work, he asked me, “How was your day?” I responded by listing off the tasks I’d worked on and he interrupted me, “No, not what did you do. How was your day?”
And since work isn’t being defined by clocked boundaries, it is possible to fail recognizing when you’ve trespassed on your rightful and healthy slice of leisure. A downside of working in the church is that it affects what you get out of time there, losing some of its restful quality. And when you don’t have many fixed points in your schedule, it’s easy to overbook yourself, believing that you can just adjust around every new item and forgetting that your time capacity hasn’t actually changed. In my case it’s also easy to go without interpersonal contact for extended amounts of time. I’ve very few homemaking friends, and none without kids. I live rather far from most of my contacts and resources, and so much of my life gets spent in the car (it’s the only way to get around this city) that I can feel my humanity draining away. Then when I do meet up with people, that disconnect of me being a housewife who cleans, shops, and cooks (and has weird niche interests) can make conversation awkward. There is a mental tax on homemaking, and sometimes my husband and I have talked about me going back to work just to address that.
Sometimes I don’t have productive days. Sometimes I spend time on a task and then find it futile. Sometimes I let the dishes sit in the sink and long for takeout. Sometimes my cooking stinks. It’s important not to beat myself up too much when that happens. Working people don’t always have productive days, they just still get those days validated by being paid. When I have an unproductive day, I have literally nothing to show for it. I can’t stop spending time. That doesn’t mean that I’m a worse person than anyone else, it just means that in losing some of the quirks of the workforce, I have also lost some of the perks. At the end of my day, if I’ve not gotten anything done, I’m just that much poorer on time. And like any other job, if you can’t be productive with your time, then its time to find a new line of work.
Who’s the Boss?
There are a lot of topics related to this discussion like pro-housewife subcultures, refuse-to-work abusers, historical models of marriage, the unfair ways we exclude men from homemaking, and the impact of raising children. The last thing I need to discuss, though only through the narrow limit of what is relevant to my story, is power dynamics. Being a homemaker does mean becoming a dependent. City-living does mean that money is the sole source of survival these days, and my husband is the wage-slave who provides the money and ensures our survival. To many people, this means that he is my boss. Since he makes the money, then he gets to dictate how I spend it, tell me what to do, and has final say over all aspects of my life.
This is… dumb. Family finances are never as simple as percentage-I-earn-equals-percentage-of-control. Two people working careers rarely results in them having equivalent income, and decisions between the two people will always have to factor in whose job best supports their mutual quality of life. If I was a music teacher, my husband’s salary would still be the greatest contributor to our life quality. I would be in a better position to initiate divorce, but that’s a deep can of worms that isn’t relevant to my particular story. I maintain my professional validity and have a supportive network, not as insurance against divorce but for my own quality of life and preparation for any potential hardship. There are a lot of ways the power between a bonded pair can go wrong, but inequality of salary is less the source of those issues and more a source of tension once they start happening.
The thing that keeps my husband from being my boss is not that I earn as much money as him and hold power through it. It is rather that we have established mutual ideals and agreed upon our respective roles in working towards it. I think a big mistake in many wageslave-homemaker combinations is that they have defaulted into it and haven’t made explicit their expectations. They have no way to measure whether it is working and no terms with which to diagnose abuse. My husband and I went very deliberately into this relationship. We set up why we’ve made this choice and how we expect it to work. I’m not working for my husband, I’m working towards our ideals, and we keep this decision explicit in our relationship and reaffirm it regularly.
Because at the end of the day, money is not the only source of power and value, especially when you stop elevating it as such. When we let money and the acquisition of it factor so strongly into how we evaluate people, we miss looking at what kind of value they do contribute and what kinds of values they stand for. And by not seeing it, we maybe fail to let the other person see it in themselves too.