Housewives: A Lifestyle of the Rich and Famous?

Whenever the “mommy wars” erupt in the blogosphere–as they do with some, though perhaps decreasing, frequency–there’s always at least one blogger or commenter who tries to shut down the discussion using the following argument: “Guys, we are talking about a TINY MINORITY of wealthy women who even have the option to stay home. Shouldn’t we instead direct our efforts towards improving the lives of working-class women, instead of squabbling about what millionaire women do with their time?”

I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment that we should care for “the least of these” (Matthew 25: 45), and that obsessing about whether Michelle Obama should keep working probably isn’t a vital part of this goal.  But are the Michelle Obamas of the world the only women who can afford to stay at home?

To the contrary, the data indicates that there are, in fact, a good number of working-class women who stay home with their children. According to the Pew Research Center’s survey on working mothers, 40% of all its female respondents do not work outside the home–a far cry from “a tiny minority.” The report states that stay-at-home mothers actually have “lower household incomes than working mothers . . . 37% of at-home moms report an annual household income of less than $30,000, [but] only 20% of working moms fall into this income category.” Stay-at-home mothers are also disproportionately non-white. Whites constitute 72.4% of the American population, but only 54% of stay-at-home mothers in the survey were white.

The survey had a small sample size, and unfortunately I can’t use Census data to get a better idea of the true scope of the issue, since it doesn’t count the number of homemakers in the population. However, sociologist Stephanie Coontz confirms that low-income women are legion in the homemaking population:

The women most likely to become stay-at-home moms today are in fact the ones whose husbands can least afford to support a family. Women whose husbands’ earnings are in the bottom 25 percent are the only sector of the population where full-time mothers outnumber those who combine paid work with parenting. Fifty-two percent of these wives are out of the paid labor force, compared with only 20 percent of wives whose husbands’ earnings are in the middle range.

Coontz argues that poor women become homemakers because they have no other options.  Without citing any data as to why the poorest women are the ones staying home, she breezily assumes: “many American women, then, are full-time homemakers because they cannot afford to work. They do not have the education or job experience to earn a salary that would cover the costs of child care or transportation, even though the family could really use a second income.” But given that poor and nonwhite women tend to be more traditionally-minded and religious, I think many of them stay home because of conviction, not lack of opportunity. Interestingly, the poor and uneducated have higher fertility rates than educated women–so if they truly hate being trapped at home with young children, why do they keep having them?

Though I can’t test my hypothesis without conducting a survey of my own, I personally think that lower-class women stay home because they believe it’s good for the children, because they find it fulfilling, and because they understand that paid work isn’t as glamorous as The Feminine Mystique portrays it. Therefore, if we really want to support lower-class women, we shouldn’t trivialize the “mommy wars” or throw universal day care and job training at the problem, but should instead work to strengthen marriage (since one can hardly be a homemaker without a supportive husband), create more jobs for men, and improve community support for mothers.


Just A Housewife

In an episode of the Donna Reed Show, Donna Reed notices that housewives tend to designate themselves as “just a housewife,” belittling the important vocation of wife and mother. She goes on a crusade to show the world that housewives are as skilled as professionals who work outside the home, since the housewife role comprises many jobs: chef, seamstress, accountant, psychologist, tutor, etc. Therefore, they shouldn’t refer to themselves as “just” a housewife any more than professionals refer to themselves as “just” astrophysicists or college professors.

Nowadays, many housewives engage in an even greater variety of tasks: running a business on Etsy, writing widely-read “mommy blogs,” homeschooling multiple children while simultaneously caring for an infant or toddler, telecommuting from home part-time. As Jennifer Fulwiler argues, this array of options has enabled women to balance family with intellectually fulfilling work and has, to a great extent, rendered the “mommy wars” obsolete.

However, I worry that people now look askance at women who don’t take advantage of these opportunities–like a woman is lazy if she “just” cares for the household and children. But as a person who wrote and defended my dissertation while also caring full-time for a baby, I can attest to the fact that there can be disadvantages to working, even inside the home. In order to get work done, I constantly tried to get my daughter to play by herself–and resented her when she wouldn’t. (She does like to play with her toys, but she lets out bloodcurdling screams if I don’t sit down on the floor playing with her, preferably no more than 2 inches away at all times. I hope this doesn’t portend future psychological issues). I was always distracted from both tasks and probably performed poorly at both. Had I maintained such a work schedule long-term, I would have either had to 1) drug my daughter with television or 2) stop talking to my husband, washing the dishes, and other little niceties of life.

I somehow got through this past year with a completed dissertation (and a modicum of sanity still intact.) My graduation has prompted many inquiries: “So what are you going to do now? Are you going to teach/go on the academic job market/publish your dissertation as a book?” I wish I could retort “Do you not see the giant toddler velcroed to my leg? I think she constitutes an 80-hour work week in and of herself,” but instead I usually mutter something about working on articles for publication and starting an academic editing business. While it’s true that I’m undertaking the latter tasks, they only constitute a tiny part of my daily life. For the most part, I really am “just a housewife.”

And I think that should be enough. A job is just a job, but being a wife and mother is a vocation.

Book Review: Silence

*This review contains major spoilers.*

I was recently enthralled by Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel Silence–the best book I’ve read since reading Kristin Lavransdatter last year. It is the story of two Portuguese missionaries, Father Rodrigues and Father Garrpe, who arrive in Japan during a persecution of Japanese Christians. They seek to secretly minister to underground Christian communities and also to recover another Portuguese missionary, Father Ferraira, who is said to have apostatized under torture. Rodrigues is betrayed, arrested, and plunged into a nightmarish dilemma in which the authorities threaten to torture and kill the Japanese Christians unless Rodrigues denies Christ and tramples on a picture of him. Rodrigues commits this terrible act, and then lives out the rest of his life as a prisoner in Japan, never again allowed to practice his Christian faith.

The book is currently being adapted as a film by Martin Scorsese. Although I loved the book, and although I generally love Scorsese, I’m dreading the upcoming movie (and not just because the source material is pretty depressing).

First, Scorsese’s remarks about the novel indicate a possible misinterpreation:

How do you tell the story of Christian faith? The difficulty, the crisis, of believing? How do you describe the struggle? … Shusaku Endo understood the conflict of faith, the necessity of belief fighting the voice of experience. The voice that always urges the faithful – the questioning faithful – to adapt their beliefs to the world they inhabit, their culture…That’s a paradox, and it can be an extremely painful one: on the face of it, believing and questioning are antithetical. Yet I believe that they go hand in hand. One nourishes the other. Questioning may lead to great loneliness, but if it co-exists with faith – true faith, abiding faith – it can end in the most joyful sense of communion. It’s this painful, paradoxical passage – from certainty to doubt to loneliness to communion – that Endo understands so well, and renders so clearly, carefully and beautifully in Silence.

I’m not entirely sure what Scorsese means by this comment, but he seems to take a positive view of Rodrigues’ apostasy–that it was all a part of “questioning one’s faith,” a necessary stage on the journey to maturity. Endo, however, clearly doesn’t portray apostasy favorably. Rodrigues’ decision to apostatize is based in a false mercy, the mercy of the Grand Inquisior, which holds bodily necessity to be so fundamental that it merits cooperation with evil. By denying the spiritual needs of man, this false mercy ultimately corrupts and destroys the humanity that it wishes to preserve. After denying Christ, Rodrigues knows that he carries “a deep wound” and he continues to cooperate with the evil government, even helping them apprehend more Christians. He finds himself on “a slope down which he kept slipping endlessly. To resist, to refuse–this was no longer possible” (279). Though he begs for mercy on behalf of those Christians, his pleas are to no avail: he has lost any moral authority that might have commanded respect, and the government ignores his pleas.

The situation is a powerful demonstration of Romans 3:8: “Why not say—as some slanderously claim that we say—’Let us do evil that good may result’? Their condemnation is just!” It is Garrpe’s choice, not Rodrigues’, which Endo admires–Garrpe, who will not apostatize even to save the other Christians, but who dies trying to save them himself.

The part of the novel that most seems to fit Scorsese’s interpretation is its final lines:

He loved him (God) now in a different way than before. Everything that had taken place until now had been necessary to bring him to this love. ‘Even now I am the last priest in this land. But Our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him.’ (286)

However, I think these lines, like any other passage in the novel, are most fully understood in the light of Scripture. To return to Romans 3:

What if some were unfaithful? Will their unfaithfulness nullify God’s faithfulness? Not at all! Let God be true, and every human being a liar. . . . But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.) Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world? Someone might argue, “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?”

Rodrigues’ apostasy dramatizes the gulf between himself and his Creator, and hence glorifies God by highlighting man’s utter dependance on him. Rodrigues had hoped to compensate for God’s inaction by rewriting moral law and taking action on his own; but his action utterly failed to have good effects, leaving him broken and humbled. Near the end of the novel, Rodrigues finds a newfound connection with Kichijiro, whom in his pride he had previously scorned, for he has realized that he himself is as weak as Kichijiro: “there are neither the strong nor the weak” (285). Even though sin corrupts the sinner and alienates him from God, it can, once committed, serve as a reminder of his weakness. God’s very absence amidst our brokenness testifies to our need for him–but only if we humble our pride and confess our weakness. I am not sure Scorsese’s film will reflect man’s need for God, since his interpretation seems to be the standard liberal one that doubt and even sin are normal, healthy processes.

Second, Scorsese’s talents simply aren’t suited to the novel. He’s a very good genre filmmaker, but when he strays outside the crime genre, the results range from the technically-accomplished-but-forgettable (Shutter Island, The Age of Innocence, Kundun, The Aviator) to the failures–often interesting failures, but failures nonetheless (Last Temptation of Christ, Bringing Out the Dead).

Unfortunately, I can’t think of any living filmmaker who would do a better job with the material. There are plenty of directors who could effectively portray the grotesque and despairing aspects of the novel (Lars von Triers, Takeshi Miike, Bela Tarr) but wouldn’t capture its spiritual depths. Although I often enjoy literary adaptations, I wish this particular novel would remain in the realm of the unfilmable.

Book Review: The School of the Family

Chantal Howard’s The School of the Family makes a much-needed attempt to apply theological treatises on family spirituality—such as Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Families and Fulton Sheen’s Three to Get Married—to the often murky, often maddening, reality of everyday family life. For instance, it’s all well and good for Pope John Paul II to praise marriage as a “total gift of self,” but what does that really mean when we’re married to a nonbeliever (as her grandmother was), or we’re healing from a broken past (as her parents were), or we’ve got multiple kids pawing at us and whining just as we wanted to sneak out the door for adoration? Mrs. Howard’s book is full of charming anecdotes that show us just what we can do in such situations. For instance, Mrs. Howard’s father taught her the Jesus Prayer when he was fed up with her six-year-old’s prattle and wanted to encourage her to be quiet. Her grandmother used to jot down thoughts about Imitation of Christ on the back of her grocery lists. Mrs. Howard has created a “rule” for her own family—the details of which you can read in the book–to keep them spiritually centered even when life gets chaotic.

Unfortunately, the book’s greatest strength can at times be a weakness. I found the story of Mrs. Howard’s family to be highly instructive whenever it resonated with something in my own life—but then, there were parts I found less compelling (such as her life as a teenage athlete), simply because I couldn’t identify them with any of the struggles I myself experience. I think that the book’s appeal may vary based on the reader’s own experiences.

Another downside to the book—which I think is a more serious one—is that, while its approach to spiritual formation is mostly sound, it urges a haphazard approach to academic education. The book criticizes public education and advocates homeschooling—a noble cause, though her silence on the subject of Catholic schools and her simplified public-school-versus-homeschool dichotomy is a disservice to the reader. Moreover, her vision of homeschooling seems to lack academic content. Howard, who was homeschooled, admits that “there were certainly areas of my education that fell through the cracks” because her mother was too busy running a business to pay much attention to her schoolwork (55). Now a homeschooling mother herself, she seems to have little interest in attending college. She breezily dismisses the idea that parents should first learn the subjects that they want to teach their own children: “we don’t know the classics, let alone how to pronounce many of the names of the great minds into which we wish our children to delve” (64). As a former college instructor (now housewife), I can attest to the fact that such a method would never have worked for me. I didn’t feel ready to teach my own field until I had studied it for years. Some may argue that teacher and pupil can learn together—that both teacher and student can ask questions and research the answers as a team. However, without a base level of knowledge, the teacher probably won’t know the best resources to answer those questions—or even know the right questions to ask. The easiest way to attain this base level of knowledge is through earning a postsecondary degree. Cognitive psychologists have shown that people retain information best when they are tested on it, when they discuss it with others, and when they put it into their own words—which is exactly what people do in the college classroom (take exams, engage in class discussions, and write papers). It is difficult to replicate this experience simply by reading books on one’s own, without direction and community.

Of course, not everybody is in a position to obtain a quality college education. Many universities nowadays are woefully inadequate—or even actively hostile—to the task of transmitting the Western heritage. But there are still some genuine opportunities for learning. Some Catholic colleges such as Franciscan University pride themselves on actually teaching students instead of indoctrinating them into moral relativism and intellectual mediocrity. If a person cannot obtain scholarships to these colleges, he or she may still be able to get a debt-free degree at a community college. I took community college classes in high school, and I think they’re a fine alternative to universities. In some ways, they are less rigorous—I certainly didn’t write any 15-page research papers in community college—but, in other ways, they are more rigorous. Take a look at many universities’ humanities courses, and you’ll see a lot of fluff: Literature and the Occult, Deconstructing the Comic Book, etc. In contrast, my community college offered two “upper-level” humanities courses: Western Humanities I and Western Humanities II. In those classes, we learned only the basics; but many university students won’t learn even that.

This is not to say that a person can’t homeschool effectively without a college degree—only that it will be more difficult. We should find ways to support homeschooling mothers who need to attend college, not actively discourage them or belittle their concern for academic rigor.

I may seem to have gone off on a tangent, but since the book is called The School of the Family, I had high expectations for its educational philosophy. (Its title is pretty hard to forget, since the editors have annoyingly bolded the phrase “the school of the family” wherever it appears in the text.)

Ultimately, The School of the Family excels at its most important task: offering spiritual guidance to families through telling of one family’s example. While I object to some of its statements on academic formation, I think its teachings on spiritual formation are definitely sound.

More Evidence of Impending Pedophilia . . .

Schools are about to start distributing condoms to twelve-year-olds.  There’s a way for parents to opt out–but, of course, that doesn’t help parents who aren’t informed about the new policy.

Supporters of the policy probably say that the condoms are meant only for children having sex with each other, not with adults.  But, under the liberal worldview, what’s the moral difference between the two situations?

Movie Review: Valmont

*This review contains major spoilers of both the book and movie.*

Even though I wouldn’t call it a great book, it’s no mystery why the eighteenth-century French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liasions) remains popular. It’s a prurient tale of seduction and intrigue–but since it ends unhappily, the reader can convince himself that he read it for didactic purposes (either to see the promiscuous punished, as its eighteenth-century readers doubtless wanted, or to see the French aristocrats punished, as contemporary readers probably want). Best of all, its film adaptions allow directors to dress their actors in period costumes of corsets and breeches, which transform even the most trifling of films into Serious Oscar Bait. (A few film adaptions–most egregiously, Cruel Intentions–set the story in modern times, but the story resists successful modernization because it hinges on the assumption that seducing a virgin is really bad and will ruin her life, which nobody believes nowadays).

The novel is so popular that in the 1980s, not one but two film adaptations were released–Dangerous Liasions (1988), directed by Stephen Frears, and Valmont (1989), directed by Milos Forman. Dangerous Liasions was the one that successfully sold itself as Serious Oscar Bait, while Valmont languished under mediocre reviews and less-impressive box office earnings.

There are a few reasons why Valmont may have garnered less attention than Dangerous Liasions. It has its flaws–for instance, both Valmont’s love for Madame de Tourvel, and the nature of his relationship with Madame de Merteuil, remain ambiguous, thus leaving many of his actions unexplained. (In Dangerous Liasions, he accepts a duel because he has lost the love of his life, Madame de Tourvel, and therefore has no reason to live. In Valmont, the viewer is given little reason for why Valmont courts death in a senseless duel, since his love for Madame de Tourvel is never openly stated).

Despite its faults, I think Valmont has been unfairly overlooked. Its cast is superior to that of Dangerous Liasions. Colin Firth and Annette Benning, playing Valmont and Madame de Merteuil, are pleasantly seductive, unlike the grim and less attractive John Malkovich and Glenn Close. Cecile and Danceny are convincing as naive youths. The locations and soundtrack are also superb.

The ending is where Valmont truly exceeds Dangerous Liasions. Where Dangerous Liasions is merely a faithful adaptation of a melodrama, Valmont carries the novel’s themes to a higher level of sophistication by altering its events. Dangerous Liasions (both the book and the movie) ends with each character publicly punished for his misdeeds: Valmont dies; Madame de Tourvel dies; Cecile’s pregnancy causes her fiance to reject her; Madame de Merteuil’s evil ways are unmasked. In Valmont, however, the punishments are mostly internal (except for Valmont’s, who still dies). Cecile marries a fiance she doesn’t love, with the intention of cuckolding him with many men. Danceny, once sincerely in love with Cecile, now indifferently cavorts with other women. Madame de Tourvel reconciles with a husband she no longer loves. Madame de Merteuil has succeeded in her revenge, but her life still lacks genuine love or fulfillment. Instead of punishing its characters through deus ex machina devices such as disease, the movie shows how their corruption coarsens them, leaving them jaded and bored. Perhaps, then, Valmont was less popular because it showed the consequences of promiscuity to be more horrifying–and believable–than did Dangerous Liasions.


But Cookie Cutter Weddings Taste So Good

I got married fairly recently (baby was born 9 months after the wedding, and she’s not yet a year old) so the wedding-planning experience is still fresh in my mind. One irksome tendency among women posting on message boards like The Knot is the denigration of traditional weddings as “cookie cutter weddings.” If you didn’t choose a unique “theme” for your wedding (like “boats” or “King Kong”), if you held it in a normal venue (i.e., a church), if you wore a white dress from David’s Bridal, then the implication is that you accepted empty forms instead of expressing your own authentic individuality. Worst of all are the couples who don’t write their own vows; their very affections have been defined for them by others.

But I think writing your own vows is, in many cases, less sincere than using the ones from the Book of Common Prayer (though there are circumstances in which writing your own may be warranted: for instance, if it is expected in your culture, or if you are a non-Christian for whom the traditional vows would be dishonest). During emotionally powerful experiences, it is common for people to lament the indequacy of language: “words fail me,” “I cannot express how much . . . ” It is for moments like this that liturgy and ritual are given to us. Ritual becomes a kind of “structured silence” in which our own mental chatter ceases, instead allowing a greater power to speak through us. To refuse ritual, to insist that you are still perfectly articulate and self-sufficient, is to deny the sublimity of the experience and thus to be less “true” to what is really going on.

Of course, the institution of marriage is not defined by the individual wills of those who enter it. That’s one reason to retain the traditional vows. But I also think that the inner experience of love demands rituals commensurate with its true power.