Success and the Ooze Factor of Work and Home

Scene: kitchen. Three women. Two on the passenger side of a kitchen island. One on the cockpit side, deveining shrimp. All three are mothers. One is a professor, one is a painter of the visual artist variety, not the interior/exterior house variety, and the third is a writer. The professor is cooking. The other two are her guests. What I left out of those job descriptions is that two of the three have "and stay-at-home-mom" appended to them. Can you guess which two? That's correct, the painter and the writer. The professor, although also a mother, doesn't have any explanatory appendage to her job description.

What does this mean? Does it mean that being a mother isn't part of her job? Her only job is the academic post?

Does it mean that the painting and the writing don't equal "real" jobs? Or that they are part-time? Maybe that, huh?

The painter says, "I still hold myself to that Nineteen-fifties ideal."

I think about this. Donna Reed's famous New Look dress and coiffed hair comes up in the brain register automatically. But is that what the painter means? She's younger than I, and I am too young, actually, to have watched Donna Reed. Yet I know her as shorthand for 1950s housewife, cook, ever-pleasant, perfect-house, homemade-everything Mom.

The point here is that after a second, I thought maybe I needed to clarify that we were all on that same page: the perfect housewife, cook, cleaner, child-minder. Because this painter doesn't look at all like Donna Reed, but I want to make sure she's not talking style, she's talking Ideal Mother.

Yes, the painter said, that is what she meant. And by holding herself up to that standard, she was failing: because she likes to be with her children, to take them to the park and the playground. That means she gets tired with them, and when she gets home, there is all the rest of that Ideal Mother crap to deal with. With which to deal. However, she doesn't "really" do it. The house is messy and the meals are thrown together. So the housework is not a priority; and cooking square meals isn't either. But still the idea that it should be hovers. She feels guilty that she's not doing more. As if minding the children isn't enough -- well, to be exact, as if minding the children and painting isn't enough.

And like me, the painter finds it really hard to make time for painting, with the oozing to fill all spaces nature of childcare. So there is guilt about not painting enough, and guilt about not houseworking and cooking enough. And general frustration, too. Very familiar to me.

Meanwhile, the professor. When we turn to her I say, Well at least you know if everything goes south -- if your husband dies or loses his job -- you can provide for your family. I am totally dependent on mine, financially.

Yes, says the painter. That's another way we feel like 1950s housewives. There is tremendous guilt and inadequacy around not earning money. As good feminists, we object to this dependent status. As artists we need it, especially since were we to take on jobs, most likely teaching or something else not particularly lucrative, we would spend our non-kid hours doing work that was secondary to what we wanted to do, spend our tired hours with our kids, and turn over most of our paychecks to childcare.

The professor says she does feel that her work is very creative and fulfilling; but it is overwhelming and nonstop, even when she comes home. So she feels stretched thin as a parent and as if she is barely getting that done. Guilt, guilt, and more guilt.

Seems to me that because her job is paid and she is accountable to others, her students and her department, that work starts to ooze around the family life that she also wants to have. So she feels overwhelmed by the demands of her work. Whereas the painter and I feel overwhelmed by the demands of the parenting work and our desire to do our personal, creative work. Because we are accountable to ourselves to do that personal work, it's very hard to enforce the boundaries; therefore, that creative work often gets the short change. There are questions of legitimacy relating to money and to self-confidence in valuing what we do when we do it for nothing and no one for a lot of the time. That applies to the creative "work" we do as well as to the other creative stuff we do called raising children. We can't call it work, except amongst ourselves, because it's not considered legitimate "work" unless we earn something tangible from it like money. Or prestige. Prestige counts sometimes, too, intangible though it is. As Anne-Marie Slaughter points out in her new book, (haven't read) and in this interview (have read), one of the major issues we face societally is that we devalue childcare, or care of any kind. So those of us who spend much of our days doing that kind of work feel crappy about ourselves. Therefore, we insist we have to also fit in a full-throttle creative kind of work, like writing or painting. Then we feel crappy about ourselves because really, caring for young children is full time work and there is just not a lot left over to do the so-called "work."

Bottom line: We are all stretched thin, "working" and "not-working." We each need to be able to institute boundaries around our time, so we can do that thing we're supposed to do -- have it all. We all need it, but life as currently structured makes it too hard to do that satisfactorily. It's not sufficient to say we can have it all, just not at the same time; because the teeter-totter nature of balance is, well, kind of stressful.

The state of women. Is this how we want life to be?