It is often when we are feeling the most vulnerable that we begin to toss spears. This seems to me to be the cause of so many of the sharp words hurled back and forth between the encampments of working women and stay at home mothers. Our culture does not seem to support women in a way that allows them to grow gracefully into the role of woman and mother. Instead, so many of the women I know seem to be struggling to create a precarious balance in their lives.
My mother “didn’t work”. She was home with nine children, feeding them and clothing them and keeping the house from burning down- a very real possibility when the two year old set the pile of papers on the top of the piano on fire and then locked himself in the bathroom. She line dried all our laundry, grew a huge garden full of vegetables and flowers, and supported my father in his many entrepreneurial adventures. These were various in scope- hog raising, bee keeping, guiding tours of devout elderly people down to Alabama to visit Mother Angelica when the southern spring had settled into full on glory and the eager pilgrims could escape the icy death grip of neverending late Wisconsin winter. Between the farm and the nine kids and my father’s dreams, it was clear that my mother had a full time job on her hands. These days, she is subbing as a schoolteacher in the tiny rural Catholic elementary and public schools that my siblings who are still at home attend. She often uses the time at work to catch up on the reading and correspondence she fell behind on during the past 30 years. I often receive letters that begin “Dear Kate, I’m at school, and it’s so lovely and quiet I thought I would finally write!”
Though she is teaching much of the school year, my mother is passionate about the importance of the wife and mother as the heart and hearth of the home. She feels that it is vital for a family to have the mother creating a home, in the home. We often have heated discussions on this matter as I attempt to speak for the working women of my generation. So many women that I know are working split shifts with their husbands to avoid daycare, working all night so that they can be with their kids when they wake up. These are not selfish women, they are far tougher than I am and they are fiercely dedicated to their families. They work to pay the mortgage, to gain access to increasingly insanely expensive health insurance programs, to pay off crushing debt. They forego sleep and they pump milk on every break, receiving a level of raised eyebrows that no smoker I know has experienced, and fighting to keep their milk supply so that they can continue nursing.
In my early twenties I thought a lot about the kind of mother I wanted to be someday. I wanted to be able to be at home with my kids, but it was important to me that I be able to contribute to the financial wellbeing of my family. As my father would tell you, with a great and gusty sigh and a shake of his head, it is a tough to raise a big family on one income in this day and age, and getting tougher on a regular basis. It was tough, for him. Still is. I spent a lot of time in the past ten years working to acquire skills that I could use to earn income for my family without working in a conventional 40 hour a week job. I am grateful that I am able to play the harp in fancy ballrooms and gritty nursing homes and fancy ballrooms in fancy nursing homes. The bulk of the marketing and practicing occurs within my home, and the baby is often a bonus at the job instead of a detraction. This is also true in many ways of teaching and performing dance. My childhood as the eldest of a homeschooling back-to-the-lander gave me a great deal of experience in living thriftily, hanging out my laundry, baking my bread, and growing my own food. All these things help pay our bills. They also help me define myself. I am a wife. I am a mother. I am a harpist, a dancer, and I am sure that I will someday again be a person who works with farmers.
While I felt that it was important that I stay home with my children, I have always had a hard time with the idea that when you stay at home, you are a Mother and a Wife. Period. It seems to me that this is often a defensive response to the dismissive attitudes of women who are in the workplace. Conversely, I think that women in the workplace feel the weight of tight lipped disapproval from the “full time mothers” at home. I recently read a book that helped me a great deal in broadening my concept of what it means to be a wife, mother, and worker. The book is titled Women’s Work and does a fascinating job of viewing the early years of human history through the roles of women in making cloth. This book revolutionized my view of women and working by pointing out the obvious fact that women have always worked. Not only did they care for children and do a great deal of work in maintaining and creating literal hearths and homes, they spent a vast amount of time creating practical and surprisingly complex and beautiful cloths and garments.
Women were able to do the work of creating cloth from rotting weeds, which contributed not only to the home but to society at large, because it was something they could safely do while caring for their children. In the many thousands of years before formula, women’s work was integrated into their motherhood. Reading this book led me to think a great deal about the concept of work, and the fact that in our present society there is a great divide between Work and Home. This segregation of work as something that almost always happens away from home is a great deal of the reason that work is tearing women apart. I believe that it is crucial to expand the idea of what work means in the life of a woman and mother, and to expand opportunities for women to contribute to their families through their work.
It is embarrassing to admit, but before reading this book I always wrinkled my nose at the idea of the virtuous woman of Proverbs, she whose worth is above rubies. What a boring woman! I thought, imagining her sitting in a corner somewhere while her mean patriarchal husband gloated over possessing such a prize. How wrong I was. It would probably be a good idea to read the bible more often, but in the meantime it was amazing to stumble over this passage in a scholarly work, illuminating my concept of this Proverbial Woman:
“Who can find a virtous woman? for her price is far above rubies. The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her… She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands. She is like the merchants ships; she bringeth her food from afar. She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens. She considereth a field, and buyeth it; with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard… She perceiveth that her merchandise is good; her candle goeth not out by night. She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff. She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hand to the needy. She is not afraid of the snow for her household; for all her household are clothed with scarlet. She maketh herself converings of tapestry; her clothing is fine linen and purple…. She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant. Strength and honor are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come. Proverbs (31.10-25)
This woman is amazing. She considereth a field and buyeth it! I love the strength of this portrayal. She is a businesswoman, an artist, a farmer, a wife. She gives generously to the poor. She provides for her household in so many ways. She is confident and strong. For me, spending time with this passage was exhilarating. I felt free to continue working to use the gifts that God has given me in my life as woman, life, and mother. I want to be a Proverbial Woman.