Get to Work: . . . And Get a Life, Before It’s Too Late

In “Get to Work,” Linda Hirshman argues – in a tone that fluctuates between starkly sensible and harshly snarky – that stay-at-home motherhood “is not good for women and it’s not good for the society.” She goes further than Jessica Valenti (whose arguments I now realize largely recap Hirshman’s) in declaring that (1) “[c]hild care and housekeeping have satisfying moments but are not occupations likely to produce a flourishing life,” and (2) “[h]ighly educated women’s abandonment of the workplace is . . . a sex-specific brain drain from the future rulers of our society.” While it is tempting to rage against Hirshman and her “plan to break through the glass ceiling at home,” both critiques merit reasoned discussion.

In order to address Hirshman’s aggressive statement that “[b]y any measure, a life of housework and child care does not meet . . . standards for a good human life” and the implication that women who choose to stay-at-home with their children use not “their wits and their brains, [but rather] their . . . reproductive organs” – we have to examine Hirshman’s gender-neutral understanding of what it means to do important work and what it means to parent. Taking a decidedly pro-capitalist (as in, the market’s valuation reigns supreme), work-til’-you-drop stance for all, she declares that people who say “[they’ve n]ever met someone dying who wished they’d had more time at work” are foolish. Hirshman venerates big impact phenoms (e.g., Mozart, Bill Clinton, and anyone working in cancer research) while denigrating direct service providers (like music teachers, local politicians, or clinical physicians). In other words, she fixates on money, power, and prodigy to the exclusion of other indicators of “a good human life.”

Hirshman also criticizes “[t]he new, hyperdomesticated family,” writing that those who work “sixty to seventy-five hour weeks” can parent just as well as those who don’t. After all, according to her, “[a]lthough child rearing, unlike housework, is important and can be difficult, it does not take well-developed political skills to rule over creatures smaller than you are, weaker than you are, and completely dependent upon you for survival and thriving.” To “rule over”? I guess not. To guide and educate? You betcha; stay-at-home mothering has required much sophisticated politicking as well as other newly acquired intrapersonal and interpersonal skills. Suffice it to say, Hirshman and I have different standards regarding both personal fulfillment and effective parenting.

As for the specifics of her arguments, in my response to Valenti’s book ( I largely addressed Hirshman’s first point – that “a life of housework and child care does not meet . . . standards for a good human life” – with the response that it might not always, but it can. While some women may not be well-suited for childcare, others are “using [their] talents and capacities to the fullest and reaping the rewards of doing so” by staying at home with their children, thanks to the many different types of intelligence (Mozart’s great, but we need teachers too) and particularly if they ultimately return to the workforce (full-time childcare builds skills that reap reward in professional sectors).

Moreover, what it means to be a stay-at-home parent is very different for some than others. On the home front, as Hirshman writes, “Men are not natural villains, but they will not make a fair deal . . . unless women stand up and ask for one.” More of us need to do that (see for my thoughts on the topic). Even when only dealing with their fair share of housework and childcare, Hirshman is right to question whether too many stay-at-home mothers live a life of drudgery and solitude. I largely refuse to “perform[ housework] in isolation,” preferring to invite other parents over on laundry days so that I can fold while we chat or to involve my kids in laundry “games” that are both educational and fun (e.g., sock matching as an exercise in pattern recognition and spatial reasoning). I connect with the larger community in a multitude of ways (in person and in writing) that use my “capacities for speech and reason” and constitute “engaging in political life with other adults[,] having social . . . independence[, and] giving . . . to the society” (also described in my response to Valenti). I demand flexibility from my husband, budget, kids, and community to pursue my own interests so that I remain a fulfilled woman as well as a wife and mother. Many stay-at-home parents – myself included – can do more to get out of the house, help others, enlist assistance in return, and generally engage more broadly so as to lead flourishing lives.

We can help them do so. Hirshman is correct that “women have squeezed as much out of their days as they can without more help.” Let’s get them more help. Hirshman rejects public child care, paid housework, and other suggestions meant to enable women to work happily outside the marketplace as solutions that “involve wishful thinking about changing a deeply conservative culture and politics.” Instead, her “strategic plan to get to work” includes the following: “Don’t study art. Use your education to prepare for a lifetime of work. Never quit a job until you have another one. Take work seriously. Never know when you’re out of milk. Bargain relentlessly for a just household. Consider a reproductive strike. Get the government you deserve. Stop electing governments that punish women’s work” (i.e., abolish “joint marital [tax] filing”). In other words, work in a highly paid profession and have fewer kids. Once again, I hear a feminist asking women to shoehorn their own values and desires into the glass slipper offered up by society. At the risk of drawing fire for misremembering my history, perhaps she is the Booker T. Washington – urging the oppressed to work and rise within the system – while the “opt-outers” are W.E.B. Du Bois saying we won’t take the seventy-five hour weeks (that keep us from interacting with our children as much as we’d like) or the woefully insufficient part-time options.

Hirshman makes one argument regarding stay-at-home parents’ long-term happiness that gives me pause. It is one from economic independence: “your ‘choosing’ to shoulder the household at the expense of your market employment means you will be disempowered at divorce.” I personally put my faith in my husband and the law (a.k.a., both varieties of spousal support). I refuse to live my life preparing for a doomsday scenario where both abandon me. I’m also comforted by my desire to return to the workforce no later than when my youngest begins kindergarten. Each stay-at-home parent ought to mull over her/his own degree of economic dependence and plan accordingly, and policymakers should monitor the development of the law to ensure that a non-working parent’s contributions over the course of a marriage are fully valued and remunerated upon divorce.

Finally, there’s the contention that strikes the deepest chord with me: even if an individual stay-at-home mother lives a fulfilling life, she is morally irresponsible. According to Hirshman, only working women “giv[e] more to the society than they take.” Those “who drop out of the public world demonstrate a singular indifference to the larger society . . . . [W]hen the[y] . . . do some volunteer work, it [i]s almost always at their children’s schools or at churches . . . . [T]he social good is concentrated only in a narrow, familial world.” I happen to believe that we should get more stay-at-home moms involved in volunteering and provide institutional support for the community strengthening they already do. Let’s also work on social and economic integration so that volunteering close to home doesn’t mean only serving those who look, act, and live like ourselves. But how anyone can discount the power and importance of grassroots efforts after Obama’s election is beyond me.

As for the second prong of the moral responsibility argument, Hirshman writes: “The abandonment of the public world by women at the top means the ruling class is overwhelmingly male. . . . The stay-at-home behavior also . . . tarnishes every female with the knowledge that she is almost certainly not going to be a ruler.” In other words, it’s less the brain-drain that’s the problem and more the sex-specificity of it. If I believe that stay-at-home parenthood is a personally and societally beneficial institution that fits some personalities and skill-sets better than others and can be improved with institutional and communal support, how do we get more men to do it? Get more SAHM’s to serve as examples of market “rulers”? After mulling it over briefly, I find myself turning to one of those ideas that “involve[s] wishful thinking about changing a deeply conservative culture and politics.” Hirshman says that women like myself who plan to parent full-time as a sabbatical of sorts and think they can then return to professional life and achieve great things are kidding themselves; they’ll never go back, and those who do will have lost too much ground to get the “ruler” positions. Here we have a bit of a cart and horse problem. If we alter the marketplace so that opt-outers returning to work can ultimately assume positions of power, maybe more of them will do so. If we count days or years at home as job development (something like a stint at the local DA’s office would be for a big firm lawyer or a year writing in the countryside would be for an English professor) and give both mothers and fathers who have worked “in-house” for a few years a fighting chance, practically and culturally, maybe more men will choose it. Once again, Hirshman has a fair point – though not one that should be wielded at women like a cattle prod, herding us back to the market.

In “Get to Work,” Hirshman is right to ask probing questions about the institution of stay-at-home motherhood, and I am grateful for the opportunity to think deeply about my chosen occupation. What I don’t appreciate is (1) her wholesale rejection of the institution and the women who choose it, rather than a willingness to look at reform, and (2) the current of judgmental nastiness (like calling Naomi Wolf a “so-called feminist”) that underlies much of her book. We do need to “get to work”; we need to get to work on the twin necessities of cultural and institutional change that will address Hirshman’s valid concerns – and to pay no heed to the rest of what she says.


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