I've never thought I would ever want to be a stay-at-home mom. It's drudgery, I reasoned. Intellectual stagnation, unappreciated, and menial labor. The thought of getting any kind of personal satisfaction from changing diapers and washing dishes when an entire world of opportunity was open to me was laughable. Added to this is my general disposition to question cultural norms: good Mormon girls get married, have babies, stay home, and force themselves to be content with such a life. And I was going to make sure I never allowed myself to follow suit. In short, there was no room in my good life for this pattern. However, a reassessment of these personal doctrines and an intellectual maturation with which to do so has altered my paradigm radically. This shift in my attitude toward family work owes a great debt to feminist theory, changes in my ideas of what makes something valuable, a new view on the technologization of motherhood, and religious reasoning.
I. Feminist Theory
Second and third wave feminism—feminist thought in the context of the 1960's to the 1990's—are often credited (and often over-generalized) for categorizing the family as oppressive for women. Much of their reasoning was sound, as many of the cultural expectations surrounding housewifery were demeaning of women. For example, Betty Friedan wrote about “the problem that has no name” in her 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique. This problem, she argued, was that many middle-class American housewives suffered from what can now be classified as moderate to severe depression in their attempt to fulfill the expectations set for them. The implied conclusion is that something about domestic life is not satisfactorily fulfilling for women, leading to an increased tendency toward depression. Friedan is often credited as a founding mother of second wave feminism due to her authorship of this book and her appeal for women to liberate themselves into more satisfying roles. Furthermore, the attitudes toward and prevalence of domestic abuse in the 1940's up until second wave feminism were generally unchallenged as the domestic sphere was considered private business. To say that family life in post-WWII America—at least for women—was a fulfillment of the American Dream is categorically false. The watered-down superficiality we consume when we assume that all families were like the Cleavers and all women were like June is a dangerous way to set social norms, and feminists couldn't have been more correct in their challenge of such an ideal.
However, where feminism fell short was in its response. With the urging of women like Friedan and Steinem, many women left traditional roles and entered the public sphere to seek personal fulfillment there. This was an accomplishment in the sense of challenging the limited sphere of a woman's perceived capability. However, there was a simultaneous devaluation of women who did not leave their traditional roles. While an unfortunate sentiment held at the time by some feminists, this thought has continued into today's general attitudes of women who are full-time homemakers. Even though cultural expectations still dictate that women should still occupy only the roles of wife and mother, at the same time we, as a society, place them lower on a hierarchy of value than employees of the public sphere. So what should we do with such a paradox?
The answer is a feminist reclamation of the domestic sphere. This means a shift in our cultural consciousness which allows space for a woman to be valued and appreciated for her position in the home on her own terms. It also requires an understanding that claiming paid employment to be more important or valuable than family work comes from a place of inherited misogyny. As men have historically and sociologically been the privileged gender class, their actions and advances of position have been favored over those of women. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, men and women both shared in family work. While men's work was on the farm and women's work in the home, both believed each other's labor was equally necessary for a sustainable family. After the Industrial Revolution, men began working in factories and offices while women remained in the home. As public sphere labor progressed with labor laws and an emphasis on status, men's work days became shorter and less burdensome, and the employment itself more prestigious. Women's work and responsibilities remained much the same throughout this evolution of men's work. It is this fact that lead to the thought that valuable work was done outside the home rather than inside. After all, an advancement of work in the public sphere is evidence of the power and influence of individuals that characterizes the ideal American capitalism. But this progress has favored men more than women. Therefore, the claim that employed labor is more valuable than domestic work, as some second and third wave feminists made (and many more of us still make today), is a claim backed by misogyny.
II. A Reassessment of Work and Value
The first step in the feminist reclamation of family work is presenting more accurate descriptions of what constitutes work and, more specifically, what constitutes valuable work. I've often seen the bumper sticker which proclaims, “All mothers are working mothers.” The fact that this is a sentiment reserved for bumper stickers ought to tell us something about its need for understanding.
It is necessary for us to classify exactly what differentiates traditional women's work from traditional men's work. This differentiation is time-oriented versus task-oriented work; while traditional men's work is time-oriented, traditional women's work is task-oriented. Because there is no clocking-in or periodic paychecks in motherhood and family work, there has to be a different standard of success against which to measure the two kinds of labor. Nancy Cott explains this distinction between time-oriented and task-oriented work: “The dominant characteristic of work in such an agricultural/artisanal economy is ‘task-oriented,’ in contrast to the ‘time-discipline’ required under industrial capitalism. Task-orientation implies that the worker’s own sense of customary need and order dictates the performance of work” (15). The belief that time-oriented, paid work outside the home is more valuable than task-oriented work performed in the home is likewise the result of male privilege and misogyny and was mistakenly adopted by second and third wave feminism. Our modern conception of work includes a need for some sort of quantifiable means to measure the input and output of work performed in order to standardize placement of various kinds of work in a hierarchy. Dorothy Sayers wrote that “The habit of thinking about work as something one does to make money is so ingrained in us that we can scarcely imagine what a revolutionary change it would be to think about it instead in terms of the work done” (4). Hours spent in an office and a paycheck are such measures for traditional men’s work outside the home, but there is no similar way to measure the input and output of family work done in the home by women. Therefore, we must be able to appreciate work by some measure other than its quantifiable input and output in order to better appreciate task-orientation of family work.
Family work is considered task-oriented rather than time-oriented because a mother does not simply decide that she will spend 30 minutes playing with her children, then 20 minutes sorting laundry, 10 minutes driving child A to soccer practice, 25 minutes at the grocery store, etc. She will almost assuredly be interrupted by some other task which must be immediately completed. A suddenly ill child, a clogged sink, or a broken dryer all characterize the need for stay-at-home mothers to remain flexible and task-oriented. Further, there is no definite completion of family work: there will always be work in the home to perform.
One important example of the task-oriented work performed traditionally by women as part of family work is emotion work. The kind of work a mother does when she is patient with children and husband in stressful situations when her primary emotions would lead her to be angry or upset is emotion work. Emotion work is also done when a mother sees to the needs of her home and family when her personal desires dictate otherwise. In short, emotion work is the difference between what a mother actually feels and what she thinks she should feel (Doucet 342). This work—a fundamental characteristic of family work—is not quantifiable and therefore sometimes mistakenly not counted as valuable work.
A common goal of feminism is to eliminate gendered value-assessment bias wherever it occurs. Rather than seek for a solution in devaluing the position a woman has traditionally held in family work, feminists should reclaim that position on the condition that it ought to be valued not by a means to a quantifiable end, but as valuable as an end in itself.
III. The Technologization of Motherhood
In “The Question Concerning Technology”, Martin Heidegger argues that we have mistakenly defined technology as simply a human means to an end (312). He argues that this definition doesn’t actually reveal technology to us. Near the end of his paper, he discusses why our misunderstanding of technology can be a danger to us. He writes, “As soon as what is unconcealed no longer concerns man as even an object, but exclusively as standing-reserve, and man in the midst of objectlessness is nothing but the orderer of the standing-reserve, then he comes to the very brink of a precipitous fall; that is, he comes to the point where he himself will have to be taken as standing-reserve” (332). Standing-reserve occurs when we order the world according to the way we allow technology to enframe it. Objects discontinue having essence for their own sake when they are ordered as standing-reserve, but rather only become valuable as a means to an end performed by humans. As we do this, reasons Heidegger, we ourselves become standing-reserve.
I believe Heidegger’s ideas surrounding our misapplication of technology and use of standing-reserve can be applied to motherhood and family work. When men’s work evolved at the turn of the nineteenth century from the domestic to the public sphere, women’s work also changed within the domestic sphere. A paradigm of home economics which was popularized at the time of the Industrial Revolution was the scientific management paradigm. This paradigm favored a vertical view of society, modernization, administrative control of the home through management techniques, and empirical science as the only rational way of knowing (Brown 49). According to Marjorie Brown, the results of such a paradigm included a low opinion of human nature, a view of the home in merely physicalistic terms, and an adulation of technology (51-2). The emphasis on the home management paradigm was efficiency. The goal was to do as much housework and child care as possible in the shortest amount of time while expelling the least amount of energy. This same goal for efficiency is still practiced today. However, the overarching implication in this is that family work is not valuable in itself, but rather it is valuable only in its ends.
We can use Heidegger’s argument regarding standing-reserve to illustrate that just as family work has become ordered standing-reserve, mothers themselves have become likewise. Evidence of standing-reserve in family work can be found when cooking meals is done with the goal of feeding people, or when cleaning is performed quickly and strategically to get such tasks out of the way. Examples of the technologization of motherhood can be found historically with the popularity of labor-saving devices such as washing machines and vacuum cleaners. With the advent of these devices, women actually started spending more time cleaning floors and washing clothes. In fact, women in the 1980’s were washing on average 10 times the amount of laundry their mothers had done (Cowan). When the tasks of family work become ordered in technological ways, mothers simply become the technology used to perform them; mothers become the standing-reserve. When the tasks they perform such as cooking meals, cleaning homes, and raising children becomes technologized, seen as equally valuable when those ends are met by anyone, and not valued as actions in themselves, motherhood becomes technologized and thus expendable. And nothing is less valuable than that which can be easily replaced.
The answer, then, is that the tasks performed by mothers ought to be valued for their own sake. When a mother takes care of her child, it is not valuable because that child simply has food or clothing, but because it is that mother taking care of that child; neither is replaceable when the value of that relationship is placed thus. When she cooks a meal for her family, it is her specific act of love for them which carries the value, with the act of feeding peripheral. It is only when we see the acts of family work performed by a mother as valuable because she is doing it, and not because they are efficient or productive of the “best” outcomes, do mothers and the work they do become valuable as a means rather than a means to an end..
IV. A Religious Perspective
During the Fall General Conference in 2007, I remember listening to President Julie B. Beck’s talk entitled “Mothers Who Know”. I also remember rolling my eyes and sighing a few times during it. However, in spending more time thinking about the purpose of motherhood in the context of family work, I am drawn to one of her declarations known by successful mothers: “Mothers who know do less. They permit less of what will not bear good fruit eternally” (Beck). President Beck wants to proliferate the understanding that mothers should make value judgments on their actions, and that we should value choices made by mothers which “bear good fruit eternally.”
When Adam and Eve were made to leave the Garden of Eden, God pronounced blessing-curses on each one of them. Eve’s was to bear children. The account in Genesis 1:16  emphasizes the curse portion, in contrast to a declaration of their blessed state in Moses 5:11 . It makes sense to me that Eve knew exactly what she was doing when she ate the fruit and broke the commandment. As a woman, she also knew the greater importance of the other commandment God gave them to bear children. By sacrificing one commandment for another, Eve sacrificed paradise for motherhood. She understood the eternal principle later extolled by President Beck; she ate the good fruit which allowed her to bear the good fruit.
In her essay, “Why Work”, Dorothy Sayers presents a Christian perspective on the value of work. She said that with any work, “the work itself must be accepted and respected as the medium of divine creation” (8). Motherhood (especially in the act of pregnancy and childbirth) and family work are in every sense—when their meaning is placed appropriately—media of divine creation. Sayers also said that whatever position in which a person is employed, his or her first religious obligation is to perform that employment well (8). Recognizing family work as valuable and productive work then gives to a mother her home and family as her primary religious obligation.
Valerie Hudson, a former BYU professor, wrote that “one of the most profoundly feminist acts one can commit is to share the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ with others” (Hudson). Often, Mormonism (and Christianity as a whole) is accused of acting on misogynistic influence. I would argue that while the culture is sometimes violently anti-woman, the Gospel of Jesus Christ itself is the exact opposite. It allows for woman and man to have the opportunity to receive equal salvation, resurrection, and exaltation, and it requires from all, regardless of gender, self-sacrifice and an offering of will. We are given responsibilities in the Gospel according to our ability and level of understanding to accomplish them, not according to our gender. While some may argue that men are given more of these responsibilities inherent in their exclusive Priesthood authority, this argument is set upon superficialialities and shows nothing more than a misunderstanding of obligations to God in the Restored Gospel.
The anthropologist Dorothy Lee wrote often on the culture surrounding family work and the kind of value which ought to be placed on it. She wrote:
We built homes as if they were backgrounds to set off our imaginatively selected furniture and our fabrics, our artistic arrangements and color combinations, and particularly kitchens as if they were there to set off the wonderfully designed new household equipment, in which we can perform our time-saving operations most efficiently. Somehow we forgot to build a home for zestful, boisterous, untidy existence, full of the opportunity and invitation to real talk and quarreling and anguish and absorbing spontaneous activities (68).
I’ve always acknowledged, however begrudgingly, the possibility that I would end up a full-time homemaker. The realizations I’ve here addressed go beyond the scope of a term paper for a class and into my very personal self. No longer do I see homemaking as menial, non-intellectual, unmeaningful work. It’s no longer vacuuming the living room in pearls, hosting dinner parties for the husband’s boss, or having the best-made cookies for Relief Society. It has become something much more. It has become dirt perpetually under my fingernails from gardening, the sounds of chickens and goats coming from out back, and muddy footprints from active children racing through the kitchen. The bitter smells of bread rising and cheese culturing. The cries from a child with a skinned knee or a need for a new book to read. Producing more than consuming. It has become the search for value and meaning. It has become poiesis: growing vegetables—and family—in rich, nourishing soil. Indeed, it has become the good life.
Beck, Julie. “Mothers Who Know.” lds.org. 4 April 2012
Brown, Marjorie. “Home Economics: Proud Past—Promising Future.” Journal of Home Economics 76.4 (1984): 48-54.
Cott, Nancy. The Bonds of Womanhood. Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1978.
Cowan, Ruth. “Less Work for Mother?” American Heritage 38.6 (1987): 4 April 2012
Doucet, Andrea. “You See the Need Perhaps More Clearly than I Have.” Journal of Family Issues 22.3 (2001): 328-357.
Freidan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. 1963. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.
Heidegger, Martin. Basic Writings: from Being and Time (1927) to The Task of Thinking (1964). Ed. David Farrell Krell. San Francisco: Harper, 1993.
Hudson, Valerie. “The Curious Appeal of Roman Catholicism for Certain Latter-day Saint Intellectuals.” SquareTwo. 4 April 2012
Lee, Dorothy. “Home Economics in a Changing World.” Family Work and Relationships in the Home. Ed. Jenet Erickson. Provo: BYU Academic Publishing, 2008. 68-69.
Sayers, Dorothy. Creed or Chaos. 1949. New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, 1995.
1 Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.
2 And Eve, his wife, heard all these things and was glad, saying: Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient.