On the last day of one graduate English class, we had to do a presentation on career goals or something. Somehow we had to stand up and proclaim to 50 people what we were going to do with our lives. One guy nattered about High German linguistics. Another talked about studying Michael Field, the pen name of an incestuous lesbian aunt and niece who penned odes to their Pekingese titled Whym Chow: Flame of Love. Other people talked about Emily Brontë or novels to be written. But not Nell.
Nell stood up and said she was done with all this crap. After this semester, she planned to drop out, have babies, and run an organic farm.
We were appalled. Nell was violating every tenet of feminism we’d ever been taught: use the talent you have, reach as high as you can, shatter glass ceilings when applicable. You’re only worth the work you produce, and that work you produce should be on par with a man’s. You can do whatever a man can do. And staying home with babies definitely did not fit into the picture.
Turns out I went the same way as Nell. I quit my Ph.D. program to stay home with my son. I continued to write, but I didn’t do it at the expense of my burgeoning family, which grew to three sons in four years. Instead of days spent teaching Foucault or Chomsky or general writing, I throw in loads of laundry. I homeschool; I teach small children to read and do science experiments with hoarded toilet paper rolls. I wear yoga pants and hippie dresses instead of short skirts and long jackets. I don’t organic garden, but I do cultivate a bog garden full of carnivorous plants and crochet my children hats.
Like the rest of the stay-at-home moms I know, feminism has left me behind. Feminism doesn’t see our child-rearing, much less all that goes with it, as valuable. There is no glory, no glass ceiling in poo-wiping, or mac and cheese cooking, or alphabet-teaching. There isn’t even value in breastfeeding, which you’d think would be vaunted in feminist circles for using the female body for something only women can do. Alas, it’s just a ball-and-chain, as Huffington Post says: “Breastfeeding has become the last legitimate ‘women’s work’ — the only argument remaining for a gendered division of labor that argues that women’s place is at home with the children.”
Caregiving isn’t valued. It’s the work of those in the shadows — maids, nurses, stay-at-home-moms — who need feminism to lift them up so they can find their real talents and their authentic selves. There is no sense that we can be happy in it. There’s an implication that we should be doing what we want to do, and what we want to do is not take care of someone else. How could we possibly want that? The idea of our happiness is absurd to mainstream feminism.
Moreover, feminism tells us we’re “wasted” in caregiving. Reading The Cat in the Hat, cooking grilled cheese, and then painting some arts and crafts is a waste of our time and talent. It’s certainly a waste of our education, if we have one — as if education comes with caveats, as if everyone doesn’t have a basic right to it, no matter what they choose to do afterwards. Moreover, a patriarchal society must have convinced us that being a SAHM was a good choice, that it was what we wanted. No one could possibly authentically want to do what we’re doing, which is to put our children before ourselves.
I am as appalling as Nell. And I’m perfectly happy with the choices I’ve made. No one pushed me into them; I made them of my own free will. Despite having made my own decisions to make a life I find fulfilling, I am wasting my time. Anyone can stay home and take care of kids, the thinking goes (they can’t). Anyone can manage to homeschool (again, they can’t). There’s a whiff of unskilled labor to what I do every day, and hence a sense of waste. If anyone can do what I’m doing, the thinking goes, why don’t I farm it out — daycare and school — and spend my time cultivating a life of the mind in myself and teaching it to others?
But I don’t want to farm this out. I like it. I’m not a 1950s housewife whose husband expects dinner on the table when he gets home. No one oppressed me into this role. I chose it. Because I chose this stay-at-home mom thing for my own self-actualization, and that of my children, it’s as feminist of a choice as any. I’m a breastfeeding activist. I spent years teaching women to babywear. I want to become a leader with Attachment Parenting International. I teach the occasional homeschool class to other kids. I have a life of the mind; I have a life of feminist activism. Just not the kind that counts. Telling new moms about milk/soy protein intolerance can change lives. Just not in the way traditional feminists envision.
I was a feminist in grad school. I’m a feminist now. I refuse to jettison the term just because others claim I don’t have the right to it. I claim it for myself. I claim it for all the other mothers who decided to stay home, who made a courageous, conscious decision to care for children in a society that devalues both caregiving and children.
If feminism means making your own choices, the chance to live a fully realized life without outside pressure to do or be something, we are feminists. And while some days may be difficult, while sometimes we may want to sell the children and run away to Vegas, we are happy in our choices. And in the end, that’s what feminism means.