Home Economics, Sustainability and the "Mommy Wars"

Sharon February 3rd, 2007

As I write this, I have a pair of blue jeans on my lap, and as I wait for pages to load on my slow dial up connection, I am cutting them to pieces. The jeans are past wearing – the holes are beyond my capacity to patch, and in spots that reveal things my husband would be better to leave covered. So I am turning them into a pile of material which has a diversity of uses. The large pieces of cloth are cut into squares to make denim and flannel patchwork quilts for my kids. The hem and seam pieces are cut out in long strips, and will be sewn together and braided to make a denim rug eventually. The buttons are snipped off and the zipper cut out for use in future clothing. The larger odd-shaped pieces, unsuitable for quilting are set aside for patching other jeans and extending their lives. Small scraps are added to a box of cloth scraps for the kids to practice sewing upon. Fine shreds could be used to stuff homemade toys, but I’m not that organized, and they end up on the compost pile. The work is a little tedious, but well suited to a time when I’m sitting about anyway and my hands aren’t always in use.

I do this in part because I am trying to reduce our waste stream, and in part because I worry that someday we will want more blankets because we have less heat or more people needing them, in part because I like to make things, but mostly because I do not want to spend money. I make the jean quilts so that I don’t have to buy blankets for the kids. I save the patch scraps to delay the day when I’ll have to buy new jeans for any of us. I braid the rugs because I need something to stand on at the kitchen sink, and I don’t want to purchase anything. I save the buttons because otherwise, the next time one pops off my jeans, I’ll have to buy them. They are cheap. Even jeans are cheap, of course. But the total savings, however small, is one piece of the puzzle that enables us to live on comparatively little money. Add to that our tendency to own older cars, and drive as little as possible, keep the heat down and eat little meat and garden – all of which we do from a combination of frugal and environmental motives, and we’re able to live quite cheaply.

Nominally, at least, I’m an at-home mother. That is, I don’t go to work, I don’t wear pantyhose, and one of us, often me but nearly as frequently my husband, is at home with the kids virtually all the time. What paid work I do, I do from home. We are fortunate in that our frugality, the way we bought our house (jointly with family members) and some good luck have also enabled my husband to do much of his work from home, so he is obliged to commute to work only 3 days a week. Because he is paid by the class, we try hard to need as little money as possible. The less we need, the less he has to work, and the more time we have together. And in order to do this, we are mostly at home. My choice not to try and work outside the home, and to be a full time parent comes with a particularly strong set of cultural assumptions and expectations, and often “At Home Mother” is shorthand for a set of political and cultural habits that don’t, in fact, fit me all that well.

Now those of you who are not parents probably don’t really know about the “Mommy Wars.” That’s the official name for a really, really stupid conflict, mostly played out between women who otherwise would be natural allies, over whether it is better to stay at home with your children or go to a job and work. This is an endless, cruel and inane conflict. Some wrking mothers level the charge at at-home mothers that they are dumb, or wasting themselves and their educations, implying that their own time is more valuable than that of women who do not go to a job, and in hundreds of ways otherwise demean women who are at home and the work they do. Many stay at home mothers assert that women who go to jobs are selfish, that they don’t care about their children, that most women don’t “need” to work and only do so for luxuries, and that they don’t raise their own children. People who rightly argue that children need their parents are set up against people who rightly argue that children need health insurance, and no one ever conceeds anything. Everyone swings around statistics about daycare, the number of children who become axe murderers under each system and how much any given bit of information matters. As could be expected, no resolution is ever achieved, people who could work together find that they can’t, and everyone gets their feelings hurt. I’ve managed to be on both ends of this – I’ve been told condescendingly by a neighboring attorney, “Oh, I couldn’t help out – I work you know.” And I’ve also been told that leaving my kids to go teach meant that I didn’t love them. Now not every family get stuck in this ugly dualism, but more do than don’t.

And, of course, the whole discussion not only makes everyone miserable, it misses the point – or several points. One of them is that neither party really has what they need. All the mothers I know who work agonize over leaving their children, often with people who do not love their children as much as the do. Most of them are also deeply ambivalent about how much they like working – that is, many of them (including me) when you push them feel a deep-seated sense that they *should* want to be home with their kids, even though they like their jobs, and particularly like the community and connections they find there. Many of the women I know who work full time are exhausted and frustrated with the things they can’t do, and they gain time by hiring out as many things as possible – they eat take out, have someone else clean their house and tend their yards. But they never feel that the things they pay others to do are done as well as they would do them. They often don’t spend much time with their spouses alone, and much of the time they do spend with their children is spent driving places. Everyone reports a great deal of stress, a desire for more time together and anger and frustration that this is not enabled by their jobs and their lives. For poor working women, there is often no choice, no job satisfaction and no ambivalence – many of them believe that feminism sold them a bill of goods, claiming to give them something positive and mostly doubled their workload. And they are not wholly wrong.

For stay at home mothers, there is a sense of isolation, the loss of of the community they often had at work. Because this is the less common choice, it is often difficult to find company. The economic pressure for a two-household economy is very high, and the choice to stay home for many poorer women means a loss of security – no insurance or poor insurance, no economic safety net if something happens to the working spouse. Many have little time with their husbands, because the husbands have to work long hours to compensate economically for having only one income. And the job is often boring for women – they secretly admit that they sometimes wonder if the accusations that there is something wrong with them because they are willing to do this dull work are true. This is not conducive to self-esteem. In short, both sets of mothers are, often, having a lousy time. I asked 40 women I knew what the best choice was, and virtually all of them said there were no good options, or that good options would only be forthcoming with government mandates of things like paid maternity leave and good daycare.

But I would argue that the question of whether women should work outside the home is the wrong question entirely. The right question is how much power we should give to the public economy, and its presumptions. At least as important as the question of what women with children should do, for example, is the far less commonly asked question, “should fathers work outside the home?” And almost no one asks, as Wendell Berry does, whether it is good for marriages that husbands and wives work apart, outside the home. The question becomes, then, “how much should we value the work we do outside the home, and how much should we value the work we do
in it?” That question, I suspect, might begin to get us somewhere that Mommy Wars cannot. Perhaps it might even take us to a good answer.

Berry answers this question in no uncertain terms in his essay, “Feminism, the Body and the Machine.” He says, in answer to critics who accused him of sexism for having a wife who worked in the home and typed his essays,

“I know that I am in dangerous territory, and so I had better be plain: what I have to say about marriage and household I mean to apply to men as much as to women. I do not believe that there is anything bettter to do than to make one’s marriage and household, whether one is a man or a woman. I do not believe that ‘employment outside the home’ is as valuable or important or satisfying as employment at home, for either
men or women. It is clear from my experience as a teacher, fo rexample, that children need an ordinary association with *both* parents. They need to see their parents at work, they need, at first, to play at the work they see their parents doing, and then they need to work with their parents….My intrest is not to quarrel with individuals, men or women, who work away from home, but rather to ask why we should consider this general working away from home to be a desirable state of things, either for people or for marriage, for our society or for our country….But for the sake of arguument, let us supposed that whatever work my wife does, as a member of our marriage and household, she does both as a full economic partner and as her own boss, and let us supposed that the economy we have is adequate to our needs. Why, granting that supposition, should anyone assume that my wife would increase her freedom or dignity or satisfaction by becoming the employee of a boss, who would be in turn also a corporate underling and in no sense a partner?” (Berry, 68-69)

Will you forgive me for saying that I think Berry’s is a damned good question? He goes on to observe that what is bad for his wife is also bad for her husband – that men do not receive a greater share of independence, dignity or happiness by working out of the home, away from their spouses and families. We are accustomed to debate whether the breakdown of the family stems from the habit of women going out to work. But if the family broke down thoroughly, it was around the time the baby boomer children were being born – the levels of alienation and misery, depression, anxiety and family disruption among boomers are radically higher than among the previous generation – and many of those families had stay at home mothers. So perhaps we need to look at the fathers and their role.

And all of this focus on the women in question, and the impact of whether women work misses the basic point that for most of human history, children spent much more time with both parents than they do now, and that many of the negatives we attribute to the seperation of children from their mothers might equally or more be said of the separation of children from their fathers.

Until 200 years ago, a vast majority of all children spent most of their lives with both parents every single day. In hunter-gatherer societies, the tribe often travelled together, and since hunting was generally a less common activity than gathering, male hunters often had considerable time to spend with their children. In most such societies in existence today, they do a considerable amount of parenting. Once agriculture came to predominate, again, children spent their days with their parents. Young, nursing children were often with their mother, but by the age of weaning (four or five in most traditional societies, unless a younger sibling pushed it ahead), children might work or play alongside their fathers for part of every day. Boys would join their fathers in traditionally male work, but even daughters would often help in the barn or around the farm. Everyone would recovene for regular meals, and the family would spend all sabbaths and festivals together. Many agricultural societies had much more free time than we do now – 11th century serfs worked only 178 days per year. Helena Norberg-Hodge has documented that the people of Ladakh, one of the harshest climates in the world, were able to feed themselves by working intensely only four months of the year, spending much of the winter in celebration and parties, and described the integration of children into the lives of both parents and grandparents as well.

As the percentages of people living on farms
and in small towns decreased, more separation arose, but it is worth noting that as recently as 1920 or 1930, more than half of the US population farmed, ran small local businesses or worked within a mile of their homes. All of which meant that children were involved in their parents’ daily lives in ways that are hard to imagine right now. A family that ran a shop would have children playing the back. By seven or eight, children would take turns assisting customers and stocking shelves. The family would often convene for meals (even children were allowed to walk home for lunch from school, hard as that is to imagine now), and children would join their parents in their work.

The level at which the family was integrated into one another’s lives is hard for most Americans to imagine now, and it is not an accident that this was a more sustainable, more environmentally sound way of life, as well as one that led to greater psychological happiness. Living at a scale that enables integration is almost always a better choice environmentally – but after decades of living apart, unsustainably, we have created a population of people who valorize apartness, and who fear closeness. Women say, “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I was trapped with my kids all day.” Men take their identity from their jobs, rather than their relationships. Children say, “I would never want to live that close to my family” and aging parents say, “I don’t want to depend on my children.” People don’t want their neighbors to drop by, or “know their business.”
We have created not only physical dependencies on cheap energy, but psychological ones, so that no matter how much harm our dependencies do, we now fear to live any other way.

In some senses, we have adopted a new theory of “seperate spheres” – it is different from the Victorian notion by the same name, but structurally very similar. The Victorians imagined this in terms of gender roles – one had the “angel in the house” and the man out at work (a division that described significantly less than half the population during the actual Victorian Era), and each was supposed to have their own role. Now the division is not made by gender, but by age and work. Each parent goes off to their own seperate jobs, away from their homes, and spends long hours there, or at best, one parent stays home and the other is parted from them for much of the week. The children routinely spend long hours at school and activities designed to educate them, usually provided by professionalized adults. The spheres are so seperate that they rarely overlap – friends of ours both with two important careers acknowledge that at times the only communication they have with one another is to list off the necessary information about the children, before one heads to bed, the other to childcare. The child, the parents, all are deemed to have important work to do, and it is almost never done together. Even their leisure time is rarely conjoined – on the weekends, everyone will have their seperate obligations and activities – one child has a birthday party to which his siblings are not invited, another has sports practice, mother runs errands, father shuttles the children about.

This is not, I think, a good way to run a railroad – or more accurately, a family. We tend to focus on the costs to children, but Berry’s emphasis that this is not good for marriages is important as well, given the nation’s appalling divorce rate. The divorce rate has an enormous cost for children as well, of course, and the two things cannot be separated
. No one has yet succeeded in finding a cure for the fact that we are bad at staying together. Is some of it perhaps the pernicious influence of the industrial economy that seperates us, and keeps us from creating the bonds that shared work and shared domestic interest create? Is it possible that marriages are better when husband and wife share whole and integrated life together? I can only speak from my own experience, but my marriage is happier when my husband and I are together than when we are apart. We both enjoy our work, but our preference is always for more time together with each other and our children.

I cannot say what impact millions of years of human beings living together and working with their children had upon our biology or our psychology or our instincts, but it seems not wholly coincidental that an enormous body of unhappiness arose in our society precisely as parents began to seperate from their children routinely, and childhood became a period enacted in isolation from family and without meaningful ways of contributing to he household, family and domestic economies. Children seek meaning. I can remember from my own adolescence a passionate desire to do things that would matter to adults, to enter the world of adult work in some useful way, more important than simply entering the cash economy. I wanted what I did as a teenager to matter, and very little of what was available to me seemed to. I noticed in my peers similar desires, and a willingness to engage in destructive meaning-making, if that was the only way into the adult world. Segregating children into their own seperate spheres of school, music lessons, sport and homework is, at the very least, an experiment on a couple of generations of children that violates everything that human history has taught us about what makes a strong and healthy family. And it represents a tremendous change in how much we value a strong and healthy family – that was once considered a central requirement for a happy life. Now, we are willing to sacrifice that in order to have other things.

The sphere we value least, of course, is the domestic one. We see it as a repository of our wealth – a house and a home is a place to decorate, but it is not a place to do good work in. It is not a place that makes us better able to live in the world, but the thing that keeps us running on the rat treadmill to pay the mortgage and keep the repairs up. And because “labor saving” devices have stripped much of what was valuable and interesting from domestic work, home labor is boring. We are no longer engaged in the absolutely urgent process of feeding and clothing ourselves, nurturing and loving and protecting others. That happens at work, where we make the money to buy food and provide security. Many of the labor saving devices have been proven not to save us much time or any at all if you count in the time to earn the money to run and maintain and service them. But what they did do is take the fun and excitement, the meaning and urgency out of the work done in domestic life, and make it seem valueless, something always to be relieved by technology.

Helena Norberg-Hodge documents the ways that this happened in Ladakh, where she witnessed the coming of the industrial economy and the “home/work” division in a society that had previously looked like the society from which we came too, at least in the sense that fathers and mothers both worked at home,

“Women…do not earn money for their work, so they are no longer seen as ‘productive.’ Their work is not recognized as part of the gross national product. In government statistics, the 10 percent or so of Ladakhis who work in the modern sector are listed according to their occumpations; the other 90 percent – housewives and traditional farmers – are lumped together as ‘non-workers.’ This influences people’s attitudes toward themselves and others, and the lack of recognition clearly has a deep psychological impact. Traditional farmers, as well as women are coming to be viewed as inferior, and they themselves are obviously developing feelings of insecurity and inadequacy….Despite their new dominant role, men also clearly suffer as a result of the breakdown of family and community ties. They are deprived of contact with chidlren. When they are young, the new macho images prevents them from showing affection, while in later life as fathers, their work keeps them away from home…In the traditional culture children benefitted not only from continuous contact with both mother and father, but also from a way of life in which different age groups constantly interacted. It was quite natural for older children to feel a sense of responsiblity for the younger ones. A younger child in turn looked up with respect and admiration, seeking to imitate the older ones. Growing up was a natural, non-competetive learning process….Now children are split into different age groups at school. This sort of levelling has a very destructive effect. By artificially creating social units in which eveyrone is the same age, the ability to help and learn from each other is greately reduced. Instead, conditions for competition are automatically created…Now there is a tendency to spend time exclusively with one’s peers. As a result, a mutual inolerance between young and old emerges. Young children nowadays have less and less contact with their grandparents who often remain behind in the village. (Norberg-Hodge, 126-7)

Norberg-Hodge does a marvellous job of documenting how profoundly perceptions of what is valuable affect us. We view domestic work as unimportant, and thus women who do it are demeaned. And since in most households, whether they work or not women do the work – either themselves, or by paying poorer women, the work itself is seen as demeaning. No wonder women who make different choices are so hostile to one another – one group attempts, against impossible odds to redeem something that the entire culture and economy attempts to dismiss, including dealing with her own created insecurities about it. Another woman has to choose both lousy options – working out and doing most of the housework, and cannot help but see the distinction between the things she gets paid for and rewarded for with cultural approval and those she does not. Everyone loses. I have spoken little about the losses of men, but there is no doubt that they lose out – on time with their children, time with their wives, in psychological pressure as providers. And, of course, children lose too.

That emptiness of meaning and segregation has meant that the industrial economy has leaped to fill the void we manifestly experience. They have filled it with processed foods, video games, television, educational toys that sing to your child and teach her the alphabet, so that parents do not have to. We have filled it with sports and other things that don’t matter very much that keep our children active by replacing meaningful labor with meaningless exercise, and what should be pleasurable athletic activity with intense competition. In effect, we have turned childhood over to corporations, and meaning-making over to advertising. And the kind of children that creates are ones that are disconnected – instead of their imaginary lives being connected to imitating their parents and integrating into their family life, their imaginations are shaped by shopping and the economy from a very young age.

As David Orr has observed in his essay, “Loving Children: a Design Problem” we endlessly repeat the claim that we love our children, but we do not live our lives that way, or enable our children to feel loved in the ways that time has shown are successful. Orr notes,

“In an ecologically and esthetically impoverished landscape, it is harder for children and adolescents to find a larger meaning and purpose for their lives. Consequently, many children grow up feeling useless. In landscapes organized for convenience, commerce, and crime, and subsidized by cheap oil, we have little good work for them to do. Since we really do not need them to do
real work, they learn few practical skills and little about responsibility. Their contacts with adults are frequently unsatisfactory. When they do work, it is all too often within a larger pattern of design failure. Flipping artery clogging burgers made from chemically saturated feedlot cows, for example, is not good work and neither is most of the other hourly work available to them. Over and over we profess our love for our children, but the evidence says otherwise. Rarely do we work with them. Rarely do we mentor them. We teach them few practical skills. At an early age they are deposited in front of mind-numbing television and later in front of computers. And we are astonished to learn that in large numbers they neither respect adults nor are they equipped with the basic skills and aptitudes necessary to live responsible and productive lives. Increasingly, they imitate the values they perceive in us with characteristic juvenile exaggeration” (Orr, http://www.designshare.com/Research/Orr/Loving_Children.htm)

How do we create a society in which we actually act like we love our children? How do we get women and men out of the ugly set of choices they have – working too much in isolation from children and one another, or one parent, isolated at home with children in an environment that has been degraded and stripped of its importance and meaning?

My suggestion, then, is not that mothers should stay home, but that everyone should. Recognizing, however, that in many cases complete escape from the industrial economy is not possible, how should we, as Orr puts it, “reconnect living with livelihood?” The first solution would be to need as little as possible. Everyone who is asked believes they need the income they have, or a little more, but would that actually be true if we treated our homes and households as places that produce what we need, rather than suck up our income? If the costs of a car payment, new clothing, much of one’s food and other items could be eliminated from the budget, along with daycare, would one person in the family be able to cut back on their work, or quit altogether? Could both cut back? Could one person take a job making less that would require fewer hours, less commuting?

Are you doing work that improves the world, or work that harms it? Because we need to make a living, many of us exclude our jobs from our environmental and social consciousness, assuming that our work creating paper on some irrelevancy is not a negotiable issue. But that is a lie – we have to do good work, and model good work for our children, so that they will want to join us in it. Could you create a small home business? Start a farm or market garden? Work from home? Work less? Involve your older children in your work? Take a baby or toddler with you one day a week? Homeschool? Many of these things may not be feasible for most people, but have you seriously considered them?

Could you move, live somewhere cheaper, or closer to family? Could you live with family, and enable your parents, for example to retire and help care for their grandchildren, or a sibling to stay home with her child and yours? Could you choose a new way of life, where some work that could be done with your children around was part of your income? Could you both work part-time? Could you find work that husband and wife could do together? Could you combine several of these options with increased frugality and self-sufficiency, and get by on only one part time income? There is a great deal of information out there on frugality – I strongly recommend others begin with Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez’s _Your Money or Your Life_ and Amy Dacyzyn’s _Tightwad Gazette_ books. It is quite possible for people to cut back enormously on their needs, simply by focusing on two things – making their home economically productive (either by producing income or needing less), and also by staying home – on cutting back on the things that cost us so much out in the world and tempt us to consume more.

Many of us work for health insurance – but for an increasingly large number, such is not available at any price. It is true that being less of a participant in the industrial economy makes us less secure in that regard, if more secure in others. Ideally, we will find ways at the national or state level of ensuring that everyone can have equal access to medical care. If not, perhaps we could do as the Amish do, and form mutual aid societies that cover medical bills for a group. Most states have insurance for children, and some have it available for those who have home businesses, and this might be a starting place.

As for saving for retirement, I do not wish to presume too much about what my children will think of and want for me, but in much of the world, and through much of human history, one’s family was one’s security, not money. We all should know the danger of a lost pension fund, a stock market crash, a currency crisis – money is often less secure than we would imagine. But it is absolutely necessary if we continue to live our lives, as Orr notes, as though we do not truly love our children. If we continue to live in the world in ways that degrade it and deprive children of family connection, we will have children who do not want to help us in our last years. Despite our cultural nostalgia for the 1950s, we should note that the children of the 1950s, who remember it so fondly, were the first generation to overwhelmingly stick their parents in assisted living and nursing homes. The mothers that were at home baking cookies weren’t much valued in their old age.

None of us likes the idea of dependency, but we will be dependent, no matter what – some day, unable to work we will either be dependent on a collection of machines, the industrial economy and professional people doing a lousy job for minimum wage, or we will be dependent on the children we loved and raised and the grandchildren we adore. Which is better? I know which one I would choose.

My five year old is making a blanket for his stuffed animals out of scraps of the denim. My three year old is playing peek-a-boo with the baby, hiding beneath a half-cut up denim jean leg, and my six year old spins a long strip for braiding around and around. Simon, my five year old, takes a turn at the scissors. The baby chews my knee. My husband does dishes at the sink while I cut up these jeans. I am reminded of those mastercard commercials – “Some things are priceless. For everything else there’s mastercard.” The implication is that buying things enables you to have those priceless experiences. But this contradicts my experience. The most precious moments of my life are the ones in which there is nothing at all to buy. The most priceless moments are not rare constructs of purchase, or occasional special events, expensive to create, but moments whose value is only increased by their ubiquity, by the fact that we are together *as we usually are* in our accustomed ways, enjoying accustomed pleasures. The moments are precious in that sense because they are apart from the economy, not despite it – or rather, because they are fully integrated into the most essential of all economies, the home economy.


34 Responses to “Home Economics, Sustainability and the "Mommy Wars"”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hello – happened upon your blog after googling peak oil/women. Cross jumped to this from an older post of yours. Just wanted to let you know that someone out there (me) read and enjoyed this thoughtful post. I’m not interested at all in children or domesticity, but found your remarks on the modern mode of ‘child-rearing’ quite timely – the endless tv, lack of meaning, etc – although I would say, as a child of the fifties, that we ‘stick our parents in nursing homes’ becxuase we are the first generation of women who work outside the home – and no one has helped us. We made a huge mistake bu not insisting on significant social and domestic change when we joined the workforce – and are now reaping the whirlwind; receiving all the blame for something that should have been a joint effort with husbands, emplyers, etc. – but we were so thrilled to be working, and didn’t want t orock the boat too much, one assumes – and now we are paying for it, becuase no one can work all day, run a house, rear kids, take care of ailing parents, etc., ALONE…which is what women have tried to do. We should have made a much more all-inclusive social revolution, instead of just ‘going to work’ – now it looks like everything is the fault of us working, rather than the fault of an uneven, infantile society, non-cooperative corporate workplaces, insane ideas about what life is, and men who didn’t or don’t do their share because we allowed them not to. I agree with you about what can be done to improve one’s position – my daughter is 33, no college, worked and computer self-trained her way into a design job – she makes 50K a year, has fab benefits, is single now, and has a three-year old and a one year old, a new car, and owns two houses. She accomplished all this by being smart, working hard, training herself in computer-aided esign, being proactive, working her way up from a floor machine-attendant job to the office, then learning design skills – and living in Kansas, where one can get a decent house at a decent price. Too many young people (and older people) aren’t willing to sacrifice anything, which is absurd – if some of the kids still living with their folks swallowed a bit of pride and moved somewhere cheaper, they would find that their moaings about not being able to afford to live are bosh, and only true for the expensive coasts and large cities. My daughter and I currently live in KC, and her kids are happy, well-fed, and loved dearly….even though she works all day; eventually she will even be able to do a lot of work from home, in this new job, and I’m so sick of listening to people whine about how rough everything is, when they aren’t even willing to be realistic or mae any sacrifices. Frankly, I thin kPO will be a great boon to humanity – it and global warming may be the only things ‘serious’ enough to make us really look at what we have become, and how empty and sad our lives are. In other words, I think humans, once they become spoiled and complacent, tend to need disasters to wake up and smell the benzene.

    Anyway, I enjoyed your writing, and wish you much success with your book project. I will stop in again; in hopes of seeing more posts about PO and associated topics. [email protected] – Cynthia

  2. Anonymous says:

    Oh, by the way – my daughter bought all she owns with her own money – she didn’t get anything through divorce, etc. She earned and saved every dime, and is entirely responsible for everything she has.

  3. Anonymous says:

    What a lovely, lovely post. Thank you so much. I kept shaking my head in recognition as I read your essay; these are issues most of my friends struggle with. In my experience, the image of the stay-at-home/working mom catfight is largely a product of the media’s wishful thinking. The mommy is usually at war with herself. Most women I know work for health insurance or to make ends meet, which, as has been well-documented, is becoming increasingly difficult. I work for a few hours, three evenings a week, primarily to provide health insurance for our family. My oldest boy has asthma, so it really isn’t a choice (our state provides health insurance for children, however, I’ve heard the horror stories…). I work a minimum of hours, though, and I can see how much happier our family is because of this (and doubly happy when Daddy is home!) So many of our friends see their children for about an hour a day (a quick dinner, then bedtime) and it doesn’t take a psychologist to see the negative long-term effects taking root. The stay at home moms in my area could have easily fallen into the self-esteem zapping downward spiral of hostess twinkies and too much Oprah, however, the ladies in my area are smart cookies; they quickly learned the value of forming alliances to combat the sense of isolation that comes from a society that places no value on true community. Anyway, thanks again, your post communicates valuable insights. I’ll pass it along.

  4. elitrope says:

    Thanks for a great post, well delivered that I wish all American men and women would/ could read. As a very young, single mom, I felt these things to be instinctually true, children should be with their families not dropped in daycare. It just infuriates me to see acquaintances now that have two new cars and a nice new home declare that they can’t “afford” to stay home with the baby. I ask, “how can you afford not to?” So sad. I did whatever I could to keep my child out of daycare, which meant looking for work at night so she could stay with a family member or finding jobs where I could bring her with me. Eventually, I chose and figured out a way to work from home. It meant now having a new car, or new clothes and we ate a lot of beans and rice, but we survived and created lasting memories in the process. Not to mention the fact that people always comment on how polite, thoughtful, smart and what a dear my daughter is. I was even able to homeschool her for a few years, which meant I often stayed up late and worked then. No matter that I didn’t sleep much, I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. People thought I must be getting a nice fat child support check, when in fact we lived off an extremely modest single sporadic income, our extremely frugal means and creative resources. It can be done, unfortunately, I believe so many individuals are programmed otherwise. Also, I’ve found that when I tell my story, it’s simply discounted as something that is simply not true, it’s an impossibility.

    I hope that your voice is heard far and wide because I believe you have the ability to greatly influence a new generation of men and women.

  5. Malva says:

    Wow Sharon! What a great essay! I hope a lot of people read it. Food for thought indeed.

  6. TRUFFULA TUFT says:

    Thanks for this. I am so loving reading your posts. I discovered you via the groovy green “Slow Clothing” article and I see your name all over the place now. You recommended “A 1000 years over a hot stove” on Rob Hopkins’ Transition Culture blog and I got it at the library a couple of weeks ago. I actually read the part about the shift from family based economies to the separate spheres world, mentioned here, out loud to my husband.
    Your writing helps me integrate the various spheres of my life conceptually and I am grateful.

  7. thriftwizard says:

    Aha! Thank you. Now I know what to do with the seams of all our old jeans! I’ve been using them as plant ties, but I only have a little garden and the chickens have eaten most of my plants…
    Why can’t people see what’s being done to them in the name of “having it all?” I’m speaking as someone who opted out of the rat race 19 years ago to raise my own children, to everyone’s shock & horror; I was made to feel very guilty at the “waste” of my talents and training, then doubly so when I removed my very-distressed youngest child from our state school system to educate her myself, as all she was learning there was rebellion and confrontation. I do work part-time now, from economic necessity, but I’d far rather be investing my time & energy in helping to create a real future for the next generation to inherit, based in the magnificent abundance that we have already been given (provided we don’t destroy it completely) not the limited, meanspirited future we’re being sold by the accountants, advertising executives & politicians…

  8. Jana says:

    Excellent post. Your present ideas to strive toward. Too often all I hear about is what is wrong, but not how to fix it or alternative ways of being.

  9. Anonymous says:

    hi sharon, i found your blog a while ago through homesteading today…love your writting and think you are great, but this article….wow…..you NEED to publish it…..it NEEDS to be read…..if oprah had you on that horrid show on women vs women and the mommy wars i might not have turned off the tv and been in a horrid mood all day….

    thank you , i printed it to read, so i could highlight and make notes., its been sent to work with dh who is anxious to read it as well…..

    anyhow…you need to submit this somewhere….even to….yikes…mainstream parenting magazines…….

    Celina in Canada

  10. keeta says:

    This is a really amazing post – I agree with the pp that it should be published somwhere (Brain, Child perhaps?)

    My husband and I have been thinking about a lot of these issues lately as we try to escape from the Midwest to be closer to our family on the West Coast. For a while it was hard to think about leaving the money behind (as he’ll take about a 50% reduction in pay to move back) but we’ve come to realize that we can’t not do it. And I don’t have to go back to work, I can stay home with our baby and we will make it work somehow. It’s so hard to combat all of the insanity that is our culture’s obsession with (over)consumption. It’s posts like these that remind me, no, we’re not crazy to give up money for a better way of life for our family.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Well, I think almost everything you write is great! But, I agree that this is an essay that many many people should read. I humbly suggest submitting it to “Mothering” magazine. I found your blog a couple months ago through a discussion on the mothering.com website.

    We’ve found your comments (and Wendell Berry’s!) so compelling, that we are in the midst of major changes. We just signed a contract to buy 25 acres – our future homestead – within biking distance of my husband’s work. We plan to sell our house and build a house and small farm debt-free. My retiring dad will be moving onto the property with us, and my husband’s parents will be co-owners and could decide to do the same.

    Thanks so very much for the inspiration!

    Amy in NC

  12. Anonymous says:

    Grandmotherbear here. So glad to see something I was talking about a few years ago (the problems with rearing children started not really when mothers left the home to work, actually started when fathers left the home to work) developed and explained so very, very well.(far better than my feeble efforts) Please try to publish this in print media.I think instinctively some of us have felt this way but not been able to expound it so well. Again- PLEASE try to get this into print media. This is something the world needs to read!!!

  13. Anonymous says:

    Finally, somebody is saying it! And I thought I was just nuts for wanting to raise my children and take care of my family.

    I have been thinking the very thoughts you wrote about since my first child was born six years ago. I am also a college-educated woman, bred to takeover the corporate world, as was expected of me. Thanks to the willingness and strong heart of my husband, I have been at home with our children since our second baby several years ago.

    We face regular scrutiny from people in our family on our choices. I have had to listen to a mom-in-law bark at me about needing to return to a day job (this is coming from a woman who stayed at home with kids ’til the youngest was out of high school). She tells me I need to think about my retirement and that every other mother out there puts her children in daycare. OK, so let’s jump off a cliff because everone else is doing it . . .

    I have watched a sister-in-law go through six homes in fifteen years. The latest is a monster smack in the middle of suburbia. Her kids have always had to go to daycare so she could work to earn all the nice things they have. I have seen them trade in vehicles every year or two. They buy recreational things, only to turn around and sell them a year later, disappointed with their purchases. I don’t think this family is so happy living that American Dream. She looks so polished on the outside, but when you scratch the surface you find that she’s dealing with an anxiety disorder and depression. Her children aren’t even teenagers yet and they have to have everything name-brand. I have personally heard these children make fun of other children for being poor or stupid, right in front of us parents (without any parental correction). I see this family model duplicated over and over in many American households. Why is this happening??

    In the meantime, I am attemping to secure an old farmstead my great grandparents settled in the late 1800s. My parents have mentioned the possibility of this as a gift to my family. I am exhilarated about the whole thing. We have wanted land for so long, but property values in our area have skyrocketed while wages have not.

    Great post Sharon. I will keep reading.

  14. Jeffery Goss Jr. says:

    Interestingly enough, I have also thought about the effect on marriages when husbands and wives work separately away from home. In fact I am writing a treatise about the decline of family farming in America and its effect on the family–mostly negative, although a few things positive (e.g. that farm life has the habit of encouraging couples to crank out way too many kids; this problem is alleviated when families leave the farm).
    I wonder what country it was in which 11th century serfs worked 178 days a year. I know that Scottish peasants in the 17th century worked 311 days a year–they only got off Sundays, New Year’s Day, and sometimes Lammas or Handsel Monday.
    I have thought many of the same things as you have mentioned in your essay. Would it be all right if I quoted (and properly attributed, of course) a short section of this essay in my treatise on “The State of the Family, The State of the Farm”?

  15. Anonymous says:

    I agree with the majority of what you said, and in a perfect world, it would be an ideal situation. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for most of us women. First off, you need to find a spouse who is willing to carry half the load and be involved with his family. Good luck finding that in today’s society where everyone is taught that outer beauty is the only thing that matters and life is all about oneself. I’ve been through 2 husbands and haven’t found one yet who’s willing to put any effort into the marriage or the children. I also feel the family is what you make it. I see many couples who both work outside the home who have a fulfilling family life with their children. It just takes a little more effort on everyone’s part. And I’ve seen stay-at-home mom’s who shouldn’t spend so much time with their children because they are just not interested in being a parent and end up driving their kids nuts. So, for me, I think the bottomline is no matter what your circumstances, working mom or stay-at-home, your family is what you make it and and a by product of the effort you are willing to put into it.

  16. jewishfarmer says:

    Jeff, feel free to quote me. I’d be curious to see/hear more about your project as well.

    I think I clearly do underestimate how fortunate I am to have a fully equal partner. But I’m not sure that obviates the argument – isn’t the problem with finding men who are committed to creating a truly family-friendly culture part of the structural problem – the dis-integration of family in part creates men who aren’t equal partners (and women who aren’t – I know just as many bad wives as bad husbands).


  17. Dhan says:

    A link from Carolyn Baker brought me over here. I highly enjoyed reading your writing Sharon, and I am also very haooy (my keyboard had a stroke and the right side doesnt work so well. the letter after o doesnt work on my keyboard olease substitute]to read that so many oeoole agree with you. I also thought that I was a voice crying in the wilderness. I am trying to do what I can to make this a reality not just for myself but for many others as well. Currently also writing a book, mine is on the subject matter of soiritual economics with the title Demonstrations of Love > Creating a Culture of Satisfaction to Heal the World.
    can I also borrow some quotes from you as well, if you are willing!
    I will be reading more here. Thanks for your insights!
    [email protected]

  18. Anonymous says:

    Sharon Astyk argues that everyone should be more integrated into the home economy, and should seek to disengage from the public economy. I would counter that the so-called “home economy” IS a public economy. Every purchase, from the home itself, to the supermarket food, even the jeans that she lovingly recycles, is a manufactured item that keeps the wheels of industry churning. In fact, it is this “home economy” that is– just barely– keeping the US afloat. And now the frenzied housing market, spurred by reckless speculation and corruption, is tanking out. Its collapse will also take down the “housing accessory” market (furniture, appliances, electronics) and also the infrastructure building projects. The public economy absolutely depends on us doing exactly what Sharon is doing: living in mortgaged homes and having babies.

    What if we understand home economy as the actual work, not the inevitable purchases, that go into maintaining a household? Does the stay-at-home parent transform into the vanguard of the sustainable revolution? Not at all. The housework and diaper-changing will get done, whether by paid service professionals, exhausted women with day-jobs, or by happy women who stay home. The work itself is irrelevant to the industrial economy, for it does not feed the corporate bottom line. No one gets rich doing it. Doing housework and raising children– even happy, well adjusted ones– may be laudable, but it is not an act of resistance against an unsustainable consumer culture. Despite the growing voices of dissent, we are embedded in this culture. We are all complicit.

    Only the very priviledged can even attempt to extract themselves. People who are rich, have rich parents, have a stable, egalitarian marriage, who are white, educated, and on which ideas about sustainability have somehow stuck– these are the ones who can live on the homestead, grow their own food, telecommute to a non-corporate job, make quilts, and build a mutually supportive community. The poor, black. urban, single mother hasn’t got a chance.

    Sharon Astyk looks fondly on the historical fiction of a “sustainable” past, although it is unclear whether she means pre-industrial, or pre-agricultural. Pre-industrial human societies were far from sustainable– they wiped out every forest and indigenous people in their path. Pre-agricultural societies– the so-called hunter-gatherers– did live more sustainably, if you ignore the fact that their hunting habits drove every large mammal they encountered to near-extinction. Humans have always been a greedy and rapaceous species, even when our numbers were relatively small and our tools crude. Humans may be capable of limiting our growth and living in harmony with other species, but we haven’t managed it yet and we won’t do it voluntarily. But that’s another tangent.

    There are two ways to truly undermine the industrial economy that is devouring the planet. The first is to buy nothing. If everyone stopped gorging at the trough, industry would collapse and the people who survive could possibly live sustainably in the ruins, provided there is enough air, water, and diversity in the biota that remains. But of course, we won’t give up the good life, or the dream of it. We are the consumer culture. We live it, create it, crave it. We love it the way we love our cars, and we won’t give it up. We will shop ’till we drop.

    The other way to undermine the industrial economy is to simply refrain from breeding. Why is it that people who fret the most about the future of the world are the ones who persist in bringing new little consumers into it? People who truly understand the magnitude of the problem will not inflict the next century on children and grandchildren. We are not simply leaving them a mess to “clean up”– we are far beyond the stage of the technological fix– we are leaving them to witness and endure the ruin of a once-thriving planet. Will the “good” kids, well-raised by stay-at-home parents, relish the task so generously left to them? Of course not. They will continue to retreat to the numbing comfort of the mall, the MP3 player, and the TV. And they’ll hate us for the fossil-fueled party we started and wouldn’t leave, even though we knew it was way past midnight.

    Let us not confound the issues of sustainability with good parenting. Good parenting will produce, we hope, a new crop of youngsters who are both willing to continue to fight those who destroy the planet, and able to create something sustainable out of the ruins. Sustainability goes far beyond attempting to opt out of the dominant culture. I’m not suggesting that we stop trying, I just hate to see the debate get sidetracked by “mommy wars”. The problem is not about whether it would be better for the planet if everyone stayed home and did meaningful work within integrated families and communities. The problem is that we haven’t figured out how to limit the growth of those communities and families. We haven’t devised a new paragdigm to replace the one that tells us the world was made for us, and that we are the epitome of all living things.

  19. jewishfarmer says:

    You know if you aren’t James Kunstler, you do a damned good impression of him. May I congratulate you on your mastery of his idiom? And if you are him (these things are hell on grammar), I’m flattered to have drawn your fire – you are among the non-dead writers I most enjoy reading.

    I don’t wholly disagree with your critique, actually, and I’m pleased you bothered with my humble piece. But let me start with a couple of clarifications. First of all, I can’t argue with the baby making accusation, but I don’t have a mortgage. That is one of the several side benefits of cutting up jeans and that sort of thing. Being cheap means that you can put all your spare cash to things like paying off your house. It is also a by-product of staying home – that is, because my husband’s grandparents were able to live with us and we cared for them at the end of their lives, they were able to transfer the equity from their house, bought in the 1940s by Grandma’s parents, into our house, rather than an assisted living facility. But if I am not feeding the existing economy in that regard, it is because I stayed home. It may not be the most radical activity of the world, but it has its virtues.

    I don’t buy new jeans – I remake old ones, which were used to begin with – and that’s because I’m able to stay home. I don’t buy much supermarket food – I grow it, because I stay home. The quilts aren’t cutesy projects, but the blankets we sleep under in our unheated bedrooms. The form of resistence of not buying things is in many ways much more accessible to people who don’t have to spend all their time working in the public economy.

    The home, as you describe it, is a place of consumption. The home as place of production isn’t just a luxury of the rich – in fact, historically speaking it is a luxury of the landed poor – of the subsistence economy. And it is in many parts of the world, the difference between “sucks a little poor” and “sucks big green donkey dicks poor.” I don’t think you have to be rich and white, for example, to transfer accumulated value from generation to generation (although anyone who wants to probably had better do it quick), or to grow food or salvage things in the interest of improving your personal economy. The people I know near me who do these things are overwhelmingly not rich.

    You are of course right that the urban, black, poor single mother can’t stay home with her kids, but I’m not sure I find that a compelling argument that no one should. There is a certain degree of privelege, or at least married-ness required here, I agree. But that merely makes my claims somewhat irrelevant to the single moms – not irrelevant in general to everyone. And for the preson who can’t afford to stay home or buy new jeans, knowing how to make the used ones last has a particular utility, no?

    Interestingly, I know quite a lot of people who are disconnecting themselves intentionally from the main of the economy. They are for the most part (and unlike us) not over-educated folk, but blue (and pink) collar families who find that the second salary at Wallyworld isn’t enough to cover the car payments, the uniform and the daycare. They are my furnace guy, who takes his four year old daughter with him into people’s basements, and homeschools her in the van on the days his wife has to work. Or our neighbor and his wife, who run a handyperson business together, with her two teenage daughters working with them on weekends. A quick look around me at who homeschools, who lives on the edge of the public economy and who lives over that edge, or under the table, notes that most of them are not rich, some are not white and many are doing this from a combination of necessity and conviction that what the industrial economy (they wouldn’t call it that, but they describe it that way) is not what is good for them and their families. Many do it for religious convictions – but those convictions operate as a philosophical form of anti-modernism not totally dissimilar from my own.

    Most of them grow gardens, and have their whole lives. Many of them live on land or in houses that came from family or were bought together with other family members. Grant you, my furnace guy is a socialist, but he’s the exception. Generally speaking, they really aren’t that invested in sustainability – they are, however, living surprisingly sustainably, given that lack of investment. It might be worth asking why that is, and why we might want to pay attention.

    I am, admittedly, rich (by world standards – is 35K for a family of 6 rich by US standards? I don’t know – we’re certainly comfortable enough), white (or at least enough to cover up the parts that aren’t), educated, and blessed with a stable (second) marriage. My parents sure as heck aren’t rich – I grew up on government cheese, in a house with intermittent plumbing, and I went to fancy college by being poor enough to rate a scholarship (that’s how the parents got to college too). But I also come from a family that modelled doing things for yourself – renovating houses, growing food, fixing things, smelting bullets, taking care of elderly family members, etc… And that, as much as being rich and white and having a stable marriage affect my capacity to own a house outright before I’m 35 and stay home with my kids. I can’t deny the former, but I think you underestimate the degree to which living with the practice of competence makes a difference – and can make a difference to children who are going to need these skills rather desperately. In my home, people with little money did these things from necessity and desire to have beauty as well as function – I don’t think there’s anything particularly elitist about either necessity or a desire for beauty.

    Another correction – I didn’t say ancient societies were sustainable, whether agrarian or not – I said that children spent more time with their families in those societies. I think you have over-interpellated a bit, because it isn’t a claim I would make. I certainly did say that the pre-war integration of families into one another’s lives was part of a more sustainable society than the one we live in now, and I’ll stand by that – but I made no claims about human nature. I think we just had less practice at rape and pillage on the scale we are presently able to accomplish it at. But I think in your enthusiasm to critique me, you’ve gotten a bit ahead of yourself.

    As for my children – mea culpa. I certainly don’t claim my four kids are sustainable, and I’m not suggesting anyone else go out and have four. They are, however, here, just like you are, and people who are here are pretty much non-negotiable. I suppose that’s a fairly weak argument, but what can you expect from someone who fails to grasp the perfectly obvious notion that the best route to sustainability is to forego reproduction and let an aging population attempt to grow food with their canes.

    Or, I suppose we could put my kids on the table. Now none of them consume much – my family consumes considerably less than most families of four, and two of my children are still nursing, plus there is the garden and the things we put up from it, so they don’t even consume much food from industrial society. On the other hand, if we’re going to put people who are here on the table, I suggest we put the baby boomers on too. They are the largest generation in history, an enormous population, they’ve consumed more per person than anyone on earth ever has, and they are pretty much past their best years. The next few decades will be a long slouch towards drooling incontinence, while clinging with their bare hands to everything they think is theirs by right. My kids, by contrast, will almost certainly never have the opportunity to have 1/10 of the things you er…they have had, or to consume much in the way of resources.

    Plus, reproductive limitation is so slow at lowering population. Why not just euthanize the boomers? Resolves much of that pesky overshoot problem in the short term, too. Thi
    s is, of course, not a serious suggestion, since I am quite fond of my parents and other aging boomers as well. And since I’m good at repairing things, I’ll be able to pass my kids’ cloth diapers on to any boomers who might need them.

    I will have to disagree with you that it doesn’t matter who wipes the baby’s (or grandpa’s) bottom. I think it rather does – not just to the baby, but to the big old corporate economy. Because, as you say, not buying things is a way to undermine the system – and one of the things you can not buy is poorer people to do your unpleasant jobs. I think there’s a logical problem in saying that buying labor with your industrial bucks doesn’t matter – but not buying stuff does. There’s a relationship there, as I’m sure you know. Because that money I pay someone through daycare doesn’t stay in the daycare provider’s pocket – it goes back out for more stuff and feeds the tapeworm a bit more.

    One of the useful distinctions of the public and domestic economies is that so far, no one has come up with a way to tax money I don’t need, don’t make, and don’t spend. They are supposed to be able to tax my barter income, but I don’t tell, and I hope you won’t. What I don’t spend doesn’t get sent to Iraq to bomb the crap out of Iraqi children. Of course, it also doesn’t go to poverty support programs, but so little of it does that I am fortunate enough to simply make those jeans last another year, and make a nice donation of cash and food that is worth more than the eensy percentage of my taxes that might have gone to something remotely useful.

    Ultimately, I must confess how flattered I am that you believe my essay, written with fairly limited parameters, was intended to address the whole of the right human response to peak oil and the future, and that it could side-track the debate the big important guy things of peak oil by just mentioning the Mommy Wars. I only wish I could be so powerful. Honestly, I wasn’t trying to fix peak oil in this message, and was quite surprised that Energy Bulletin and such wanted it. I figured that like architecture criticism, sometimes there is virtue in doing other things, even if it doesn’t save the world. I think making happier marriages and better educated and happier kids has its virtues as well. But I’m truly pleased you thought my impact was potentially so great.

    Nice to meet you!


  20. jewishfarmer says:

    Ok, correction – the prior poster is definitely not James Kunstler – Ulum kindly contacted Kunstler, who said he’d never leave an anonymous comment.

    Well, you fooled me (not that hard), my co-author, and editor friend of mine who knows Kunstler’s work well, my husband and a couple of other people. I doubt the previous poster was doing it intentionally, but I really am impressed that the idiom was so spot on. And to Jim Kunstler, my apologies.


  21. Jeff says:

    Thank you, and I mean THANK YOU! To even utter the phrase ‘children need parents’ to a girlfriend scares the living b’Jesus out of me. The fear of coarse is the reaction in the form of the question, “Oh, so you think a woman’s place is in the house?”

    I’ve boiled it down to this. Fix the family and 90% of the worlds problems go away. It’s always refreshing to read a post as elegant and insightful as this.

  22. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for the lengthy response. I, too, am flattered. I’m not James Kunstler, although I’m a fan of his. My name is Joan Wagley and I live in a small hamlet in Southwestern Ontario, Canada. Funny how I couldn’t be bothered to sign up for an identity on your blog but I could spend an hour writing a response. I just wanted to get it posted before I ran out of steam.

    How can you say your parameters are “limited”? In your essay title, after “Mommy wWrs” comes “Sustainability” — an (the?) overarching problem of human existence. Sharon, you are not simply expressing your views on “making happier marriages and better educated and happier kids”. In this article, at least, you make claims about how people should live. That was the main point of your essay– to persuade people to disengage from paid work and do the truly meaningful work of homemaking and childrearing.

    The stay-at-home mom is just as likely to have miserable, stupid children as the one who who works for money. Perhaps more likely, especially if she really wants a job in the public economy and can’t get one. Not everyone has transcended the dominant cultural message that money is everything. For women still languishing in the material world, being trapped at home with the kids is a jail sentence. But you’ve heard this argument before, from your opponents in the “mommy wars”.

    The “little ‘ol me writing about being a mommy” is a bit disingenuous. You are regularly picked up by Energy Bulletin. Everywhere I see links to your “100 Things” article. You are a professional writer, obviously, and what you say has influence, whether you admit it or not. Not earth-shattering, but influential. And looking back on your typical themes, I see that home-and-hearth tops your list of what’s important in life. That’s okay. I usually find that kind of stuff boring, but you’ve made some interesting connections beyond the usual guilt-ridden justifications by conscientious people who, for puzzling reasons, persist in breeding.

    I’ll grant you the point about purchased vs. non-purchased home-related labour. Not buying it, as you mention, does help to starve the industrial economy.

    But I think in your enthusiasm to defend yourself, you’ve gotten a bit ahead of me, especially in your Modest Proposals. I do not, as you suggest, claim that being child-free will help save the planet from overpopulation. I only stated that we have inflicted a bleak future on our children. That they will consume few resources–through necessity, not choice–does not mitigate my point.

    Your chosen form of resistance is laudable. But I, too, grow my own food, make quilts, sew duvet covers, mend and recycle clothing, sleep in an unheated bedroom, and generally keep a small ecological footprint. My husband and I weren’t lucky enough to escape a mortgage– we thank the public economy for providing us with a down payment. We run one small car, and I bike pretty much everywhere when it isn’t snowing outside. Perhaps if I had chosen to have children I, like you, would be an eloquent advocate of better parenting. Instead I advocate for ways to cope with energy descent and climate change.

    And I get upset when people confuse frugality with sustainability. Or try to conscript either concept into the Mommy Wars.

  23. jewishfarmer says:

    Hi Joan – Thanks for letting me know who I’m talking to. Maybe it shouldn’t matter, but I find I blur different anonymous responses together.

    In response to your comments – I don’t know if I’m a professional writer or not. I’ve never been paid for it – not once. I have some hope of being paid in the future, but I started this out the way almost everyone in the peak oil movement starts out – just commenting on things that were of interest to me. Other people picked up my stuff, and so I started writing more of it. I’ve been published in quite a few places, but I tend to think of “professional” as “making some of your living from it” – and in that sense, so far, I’m not a professional. I hope to sell the book, in which case I would be, but I think my amateur status is still intact, and so too is my right to write *as* an amateur – that is, to sometimes just write about what my life is like, and about what I think about it. I appreciate your assumption that I’m lying about this, but honestly, it isn’t true. I don’t claim to be speaking all the truth that ever was.

    I genuinely appreciate the seriousness with which you are taking me, and I’m pleased that you’ve run into my material. I’ve given Adam and Bart over at energy bulletin a free hand with my stuff, but I never thought they’d pick this essay up, any more than I thought they’d pick up “Jenny Put the Kettle On” or my review of “The Aristocrats,” or my stuff on knitting. This blog’s title is intentional – I reserve the right to synthesize anything that interests me, even if I’m not making a direct link to peak oil, or a major one.

    It is true that “sustainability” is in the title, but again, I think you are giving me too much credit – I didn’t claim this was the all and only route to sustainability, just that working out, with all its economic implications is connected to both our family life and our sustainability as a society. I still think that’s the case. You say I’m making claims about how people should live – no, I’m making claims about how parents should live if they want a particular kind of parenting. Again, I think you are reading more into my essay than is there – and I do appreciate that you think its impact is so powerful, but I did not say quite what you claim I say.

    I don’t think I’m confusing frugality with sustainability – frugality is usually (not always, but certainly in the examples I gave) an element of sustainability – because frugality of a certain sort gets you out of buying things, and as you yourself admitted, that’s one of the big steps in sustainability.

    My “Modest Proposal” as you call it was a joke, in part because I really did think this was Kunstler writing ;-) . I’m not suggesting the euthanization of the boomers. I believe strongly, for example that James Merkel’s analysis is right – we can all live slightly above the level of consumption of your average Keralan quite sustainably. So I don’t see any such need.

    Population reduction has the benefit of offering people a higher standard of life, but I don’t think Keralan life is a bad one. In fact, I don’t think such a life – with high levels of education, good life spans, enough food, relatives peace, music, art and family – is unattainable to us at this point. I believe very strongly that we could accomplish such a society if we chose. Will we choose? I’m more optimistic than many people are – I believe in the possibility, if not, perhaps, the likelihood. So I don’t accept as an assumption that the lives of future generations are inevitably going to be miserable and hellish, so much so that they would rather not exist. I think it is certainly possible that will happen, but then, the chances are excellent that it will happen to me, and I’m still glad I’m here. I think my kids will be too – I may be wrong about that, of course, but I find myself somewhat suspicious of other people who know exactly what my kids are going to feel about their lives. I think the basic reality of peak oil will be deep, grinding poverty – and I spent a lot of time in my youth working in the third world with very, very poor people, and most of them, while disliking their circumstances, were grateful for life. I don’t know that will be an inevitable result, but I don’t think you know either.

    I certainly don’t disagree with you that a lot less bellying up to the trough is a good thing. My post was an attempt to enable that – because generally speaking not going out to work both cuts back on our needs (vehicles, clothing, trips on public transport, electrically lighted office building, etc… I think that is pretty much true for most people) and gives us the time to do other work as well. You may be able to do all those things and have both of you work full time – other single parents have emailed me that *they* do those things and work full time. I think that’s great. But it doesn’t change the fact that all those exercises in frugality do take some time. I don’t know that *I* could do all those things and work full time. I admire those of you who can, but I don’t think I could.

    For example, I could not have cared for Eric’s grandparents at the end of their lives and worked fulltime – they simply needed help more often than that. I could probably grow our food and work full time, but I certainly couldn’t enough to barter with our neighbors – and again, it would come out of the time for other things.

    The average Keralan doesn’t have even 1 car (don’t think I’m attacking you – we’ve still got one too), and mostly stays at home and engages in a local economy, largely domestic. That’s not an accident. I don’t buy the argument that we can seperate out our jobs and our livelihoods from the project of sustainbility – that our work out feeding the industrial economy doesn’t “count.” Not only can we not buy things, but we can not help large corporations make profits, and not help our governments wage war.

    Now I have no doubt that it is necessary for all of us to make some money – no one takes property tax payments in zucchini – and that the degree to which we can disengage is limited for all of us by all sorts of circumstances – what we have to do to get homes, our dependents, adult and child, our physical abilities and energy levels, our family structure – some can do more, some can do less, but none completely free. But every dime we don’t earn cuts down on our buying (unless you have a scarier relationship with credit than I choose), and every bit of profit you don’t earn for some company is money that doesn’t feed the economy. And if your accusation that I was mostly talking about rich, white people with two stable careers and kids – well, aren’t they the worst offenders in terms of consumption and waste? I think getting some of them (and some of everyone else) to stop working, stop helping their companies make profits, stop buying things and stop putting their kids in industrial profit sources like daycare and schools is ultimately beneficial to the larger project of sustainability – and that wasn’t even my major point.

    I emphasize the domestic, in part because that’s where I work, in part because I think it is heavily underestimated, and in part because I think not going places is pretty much the only good option out there (and what we’re going to end up doing anyway), so you might as well like home and make it productive. What alternative would you suggest to focusing on the domestic? I don’t expect most jobs to be there, I don’t expect most forms of transport to be there. So what else will people do?

    You seem to think I’m on the “At Home Mom” side of the Mommy Wars, rather than the “everyone should disengage as much as possible for the sake of the kids.” I don’t think that’s true. On the other hand, I think any parent of either sex who doesn’t like being at home with their kids should get the heck over it and figure out a way to learn to like it, or when the economy crashes, they’ll be very, very unhappy. I don’t buy the argument that there’s anything inherently u
    npleasant about raising children that you love and chose to have or adopt, and I do think we can choose what we like to a large degree. So why be unhappy? Why not learn to like caring for your kids – when your job disappears, you’ll be doing it anyway, and we ought to stop feeding the industrial economy – daycare and adult care are big business.

    I think the “Mommy Wars” *are* related to sustainability – the industrial economy that supports women and men going out to work while other people take care of their kids, make formula for their babies so they don’t have nurse, sells them their special, giant, super-safe cars, lights their offices, etc… is the thing we’re resisting. And I don’t think you disagree, from what you’ve said in your own posts.

    The thing about sustainability is that getting there means changing everything, no? And that includes the kind of children we raise, the way we raise them, the places we go, the things we do – the whole damned tapeworm.


  24. Anonymous says:

    If you don’t love every moment of being with your child (or can’t, as I was unable to, force yourself to — when I’d slept about 4 hours over 4 night, and thought if C. bit me one one more time, or tried to attack her sister, I’d go stark raving mad) I was delighted to turn over over to someone else so I could sleep or spent some time with the other child — you can switch off with someone else. There is, IMO, a big difference between doing everything thing yourself because that is what a good mother does, and having a friends children’s over for a few hours so he or she can do something that isn’t easy to do with chidlren around or just to have a few minutes to breath and send your children off them later.

    What’s the point of having a community if it doesn’t include children and child raising.

    I am constantly amazed at what Sharon and other posters accomplish with children around. I just don’t work like that. I better mother might have brought C. along faster. Right now, I’m thrilled she no longer puts *everything* in her mouth, but if I worked harder, perhaps I could use sissors around her with out her trying to put her hand between the blades.

    I think on of the biggest failures of US American life was when we all went into our houses to raise our children in isolation. I’ve gained so much by having friends and family help me, and I like to think that I have helped them in return.


  25. Life in Fitzville says:

    That was some great reading! And Wendell Berry is my all-time favorite author! As a SAHM to 7, thanks for this. My husband is a teacher who works several other side jobs to keep us afloat. Because he makes this effort, I also make the effort to take 7 kids off to visit him at his other jobs often. I can’t imagine my kids gorwing up any other way. I have so many people comment on how “Lucky” we are for me to ‘be able’ to stay home. It’s not luck. It’s a huge effort, but it is worth everything we sacrifice. Our summer is spent working at summer camps, so we can be together as a family. A rare dinner out is at the buffet where you pay by the kids’ ages. Salvation Army is my kids’ favorite store. I know I could go back to work, and we could take trips, and eat out at nicer places, but for what? I wouldn’t miss these moments in my kids’ lives for anything.

  26. Kathy says:

    Refreshingly thought-provoking. I’ve been looking – for over 2 years now – for an alternative to the mommy wars – isn’t there a way we can each have the fulfillment we want? And isn’t there an alternative to conundrum of work life v. family life. What’s the right balance? This is a great place to start and to really sort through the questions you put forward.

  27. Carrien says:

    I have been speculating along the same lines as this post for quite some time now, without any data to support it, just observations.

    Thank-you for putting it so well. I will be linking to this soon.

  28. Chelee says:

    What a powerful essay! Thanks so much for putting to words my feelings on the subject.

  29. Anonymous says:

    I agree somewhat with your post…but not completely. My husband comes from a farming family, and all of the kids have grown up and moved far apart. There is this odd sense of “family togetherness” that isn’t there physically. However, many people I know who grew up on farms also deal with the fact that living on a farm has it’s own form of isolation and certainly doesn’t facilitate intellectual or other forms of growth.

    In fact, a good deal of what you write about might be viewed as contradictory to those who grew up in rural environments.

    I have the problem that the field I am interested in is very technical. I’m lucky that my husband and I often work together because of our similar background. However, there is just no way I would want to stay home (I did for a while) because child rearing was very dull for me. (I do homeschool part-time, but it’s a very odd arrangement. I do like helping my children learn and spending time with them…but I know that I would never be happy doing it full-time.) Cottage industries and that sort of economy are not what I feel compelled to do. I do think a lot of women could take that route (and men, too!). I agree that being separate as a society is not a good thing…and all the -isms that come from locking people away from each other in groups. I don’t see that women who stay at home are “dumb”…in fact, I think most of them are wonderfully patient and I think their kids don’t know how lucky they are that their mom or dad has made that choice to be with them. But realistically, not everyone can do that. I would never feel fulfilled in taking care of my family when I know that I could have gone on to some great intellectual pursuit. It’s hard to reconcile that with wanting to be with my kids…and I try to make time to be with them more than a lot of people I know…but it would be impossible for me to really pursue my dreams with the sort of solution you’re proposing.

    I enjoyed reading it, though…and I’m glad people are putting thought into these sorts of issues beyond blaming women who have made different choices than we have made ourselves.

  30. Ethel says:

    Great article!

    I’m a working mother. My husband will be quitting his job next month, once we get through a financially rough period due to moving. We chose this because we get more than enough money just by having me working, but with my husband working we wouldn’t be able to afford health care.

    I have had people tell me that my husband should be allowing me to stay home. That he should work two jobs to support me. Or that I should work part-time. This article explains why I do not: it is how we maximize our time as a family.

    We do not need a father who is never home. We do not need a father working an inflexible schedule and a mother also balancing home and work. For us, a stay-at-home dad and a mother with a flexible, well-paid job works well. We have weekends together, and since my job is flexible I can start work at 5 or 6 and be home by 3 or 4 in the afternoon, leaving hours to cook, clean, play, and *live* together each afternoon. We are also lucky to have my husband’s mother be very involved in our lives, so the children benefit from the last generation’s wisdom in a way I think many children never can these days.

    Because I have a BS in Computer Science, I can earn a good income *and* still get more flexible hours, better maternity options, and a greater understanding of my work / life balance needs than my husband who works in tech support, as well as many women. I am fortunate, and will not waste that good fortune. I hope that climbing the career path will bring many benefits. I hope that gaining skill and knowledge will give me negotiating power to demand the option of working from home, to seek part-time work that meets our expenses, and to generally provide that skill and expertise to others with less impact on our family life.

    Thank you for explaining to my head what I already knew in my heart: that the goal is neither to have the mother stay home nor to have a large income, but to have our family remain an active, cooperative, involved family. And especially, thank you for the historical context that gives us a kind and meaningful way to answer those who think differently.

  31. Anonymous says:


    I want to change our lifestyle, right now we are a SAHM/disabled and FT working dad and I would rather be “poorer” and have my partner around as he misses so much that goes around here with our two kids. In the years before I met my partner and had kids I worked in child care, both as center staff and nanny in individual households. You touch on something in your essay that few if any ever do and that is the necessity of paying lower income women to do the childcare (and other tasks too I suppose). Were I paid as a child care staff anything near what the parents who dropped their kids off every day were paid, there would be no purpose for them to go to work. So I and my co-workers had to be paid much much less in order for working parents to profit enough to make the job worthwhile. No one talks about this, a lot has been said about WalMart and how they maintain their low prices by keeping an underclass of people who will never get ahead as employees but the same could be said, in my experience anyway, for the people doing the childcare. The highest wage I made was 7.15 and hour, and some of us relied on subsidized health care and food stamps. There is a high turnover in daycare for a reason, but I don’t think the amswer is more government subsidy as unpopular an opinion that is for me to hold. I don’t know what the answer is, but when both parents work out of the home someone poorer than them has to take up the job and is this not classism? What is the solution? I see a lot written about “well we just need more *quality* day care” but what does that mean? I won’t ask the forbidden question, you know the one, about what might be best for children or what they themselves might want.

    Anyway back to the piece you wrote. I am going to start making some changes around here. The first step is to utilize whatever help might be available (soft second mortgage, HUD, etc) to get us our own place with enough land to grow a little bit and maybe sell at the local farmer market. What a task. Then I want to get my partner at home with me by any means possible. A home office so he can telecommute? There is a tax benefit to that as well. We are going to do it. From where I sit now I feel we have to.


  32. Monique Attinger says:

    What a thought-provoking and well-written post. As someone who has been working from home, but is now getting involved in a start-up company, your post has me thinking about how that company — workplace and “job” — should be structured in order to foster children and sane adults! I am a homeschooling parent, and another person in the start-up operation is a homeschooling parent, and that alone will make our workplace a very different place… We’ll be having our children with us at work; they will be schooled by us and people we choose to hire to help us with that. It will be a multi-age group. Our children will see us work. I think this could be an innovation that other companies might want to look at and emulate. As your post points out, perhaps this is the right way and the best way for all of us to be — in community with our families and friends, at home and at work.

  33. marybeth says:

    This is brilliant. Inspiring. Brilliant. I am so thankful you said it all…and are actually doing it.


  34. Poker says:

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