The tension I feel in writing about a topic such as this is that some people might be quick to be offended. They will think I am criticizing them and their life choices. Or they will think I don’t understand their situation and so they write off everything that is said rather than pondering whether there might be some truth that God would have them to glean and then act upon through the enabling of the Holy Spirit.
I know that some people won’t “get” this post and won’t even finish reading it. Some will read it more academically, out of curiosity. Some will start it but won’t finish because it will feel too threatening to think outside the cultural box they are (unhappily) comfortable in. And some people will “get” it. Those are the people whose hearts will be aching with longing by the end. I know this because this is what would happen to me early on when I would read things written by others who were walking the path to which I felt increasingly drawn.
As I mentioned last evening, Sharon’s piece resonated with me because the same evening I read it we were working on tweaking David’s resume and cover letter to send out in response to a job posting we saw. It is for a very good position for which he is well-qualified. It is also in an area where we have longed to live for many years. And so we have debated the trade-offs while thinking about the posting. There are positives on both sides of the argument. But I have to admit that when I read this, it made me step back and think about what we were planning to do in having him apply for that job.
We’ve had our home-based business for five and a half years. Our business was basically handed to us on a silver platter. Yes, we had worked hard in the years before and the groundwork had been laid for a number of years beforehand, but God clearly gave us this business. The timing and the success we’ve had can only be attributed to His intervention and blessing. We had prayed for “someday” and we got it much sooner than we expected with a much easier transition than we could have ever envisioned. Seeing the way everything came together gave us a great deal of confidence that this was indeed God’ gracious answer to our prayer.
Most of that time our business has been very profitable and we’ve actually had to do little work to bring in the kind of projects that we needed to do well financially. The past year and a half (going on two years) has been a different story. It has been very challenging. We’ve prayed and waited on God, trusting that He would bring in additional work and new clients. From a human perspective, He hasn’t answered those prayers and met our needs. It has been a spiritually perplexing time for us. We were completely debt-free except for our mortgage but that is no longer the case. Part of it was complicated by my pregnancy and inability to contribute in a meaningful way monetarily last year. But mostly it is due to the fact that we simply have not had enough work come in despite the fact that David has been faithful in looking for work and aggressively going after projects whenever possible.
Because things have been so slow with the business, we’ve asked ourselves if this is an indication from God that we should be moving in another direction. Was God telling David it was time to look for “regular” employment outside the home and that this season of working at home was over? Neither of us wanted this, but we do want to be in God’s will so we have tried to be open to how God might lead us in another direction. David has applied for positions (which are few and far between) and we’ve tried to look on the positive side of his taking regular employment if that is now what God has for him. But our hearts have continued to clearly be at home.
Our hearts continue to be at home because we’ve seen the positive results of having our own business and being at home together. Frankly, we love it. Does it have its moments? Of course. Nothing is perfect. We’ve been stiffed by clients who didn’t pay. We’ve suffered disappointments as clients have dropped us without any explanation. We’ve struggled to find the balance between home and work and how to best integrate them. But we love it. If God should choose to continue to bless this, we would be happy to work this way the rest of our lives.
Caroline’s arrival in September added a whole new dimension to this. Part of the reason we wanted a business at home was so we could both be home with our children (if God should choose to give us any). In His good providence He chose to (finally!) bless us with a daughter and we rejoice in that. It has been a great joy that we have both been able to be here daily for the first four and a half months of her life, sharing daily in her care and needs. Last month when I went to a women’s ministry event at church, a few of the women asked me if Caroline was with her daddy and I said yes. They asked if he was comfortable taking care of her the whole evening and I said yes (while laughing inwardly). Why? Because David takes care of Caroline as much as I do. He feeds her and changes her diaper as much as I do. He plays with her, holds her, reads to her, talks to her, and carts her around the house as much as I do. The only things I do pretty much exclusively where Caroline is concerned is all of the bottle washing and prepping and all of her laundry. Otherwise David takes care of her just as much as I do. And he can because he is here all day. We believe having David at home with Caroline is an incredible positive in her life as well as his.
There are times when we think it would be “easier” for David to have a “regular” job. In some ways it would. David could just show up at work, do what he is assigned to do, and collect a paycheck. He would receive benefits. He could come home and leave work at the office (hopefully). But a job is no guarantee even though it seems “safer” and “more secure”. It isn’t. We’ve lived through one corporate downsizing and we know that having a job guarantees nothing in this day and age. Our security does not come from the corporation. Our security comes from God. Whether God chooses to provide for our family via a corporation or He chooses to provide for our family via clients and contracts at home, God is our Provider. So we continue to wait on God to lead us. We keep doing the next thing and walk on the little bit of light on the path ahead of us.
There were so many good sections in Sharon’s post that I wanted to highlight. I know that not everyone will take the time to click over and read the whole post so I’m going to do some extensive quoting here and offer a few of my own observations about those quotes.
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.
This is such a good point. Unlike some people, David and I are not of the opinion that all men must work at home or they are sinning. We do think, however, that God would make a way for more men to work at home if they would ask Him for the opportunity instead of assuming it can’t be done. I’ll address the value of work inside the home vs. outside the home below.
“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 better 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, for example, 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 interest 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 argument, 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)
David and I have often talked about the fact that spending an hour doing the laundry is just as important as working a billable hour for a client. Both are critical to the functioning of our family economy. Feeding Caroline or doing the dishes or doing the grocery shopping are just as important as working a billable hour. David and I have decided together which things are important in our home economy. Some things bring in income and some don’t. But each part is vital to the proper functioning of our home economy. How it all gets done is decided each day. Lately David has had more paying work to do so he helps less with the”nonpaying” work. When I have had more “paying” work to do, David does more of the “nonpaying” work. We’ve decided as a couple what needs to be done around here and between the two of us we get it done. How it gets done and by who may vary from time to time. As long as we are happy with the way our home economy is functioning and it is doing so in a way that honors God, why would we want to choose something else? And why would either of us think we would gain more “freedom or dignity or satisfaction” by being in the employ of someone else as opposed to the opportunity to oversee our own home economy?
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 separation 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 traveled 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 reconvene for regular meals, and the family would spend all sabbaths and festivals together.
As the percentages of people living on farm sand 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.
I’m not going to comment on the sustainability and cheap energy issue since that isn’t my area of expertise nor is it one of the issues I am most concerned about. But there is a lot of good food for thought in these paragraphs.
Since becoming a mother I’ve thought a lot about the moms who are home alone all day. I’ve found the transition to motherhood challenging, especially physically. And I’ve had another adult around all day to help me! I’ve said to David on more than one occasion over the past four months — “ I know why new moms get depressed, are exhausted, and don’t have time to do anything else. I cannot imagine doing this alone.” And I don’t really think God intended for moms to do it alone! As Sharon has mentioned, it is only in recent generations that everyone has gone their own way all day. In the past, the family would have been home together with grandparents nearby. Now new moms are left alone almost immediately to recover physically from a birth and care for a needy and demanding new little person. And we wonder why new moms are depressed? Why moms of several little children are overwhelmed? Why many women would never choose to have more than one or two children? It isn’t supposed to be this way. And it hasn’t been for most of the time God has had people on the earth!
Now the division is not made by gender, but by age and work. Each parent goes off to their own separate 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 separate 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 separate 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.
There is nothing I can say in response to this except that the thought of living in a marriage and a family like this depresses me. My heart breaks for families that live like this.
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 separates 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 agree. We are happier and more content in our marriage now that we are together, working together and making a home and life together. But it doesn’t happen automatically. We’ve had to work at it. We have to make choices daily to be content with all aspects of this arrangement. It doesn’t just happen magically.
I’ve had people say to me that they couldn’t stand to have their spouse around all day and they couldn’t imagine working with him/her all day. Those comments make me profoundly sad. I don’t suppose for a minute that every woman is married to someone like David who is easygoing and fun to be with (most of the time — love ya, honey! But then I’m not always fun to be around either!) But I look at comments like these the way I look at comments about homeschooling. When people say they could never homeschool their children because they can’t keep them under control all day, I think to myself — “ then you have a much bigger problem than your choice of schooling options. When people say they couldn’t stand to be around their spouse all day, I also think to myself — “ then you have a much bigger problem and you need to hit the floor – on your knees and start praying.
…it seems not wholly coincidental that an enormous body of unhappiness arose in our society precisely as parents began to separate 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 separate 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.
When I read this, I immediately thought of the quotes I have here on here from the PBS series Frontier House. Here are a few of them that apply. You can click over to see the rest of them:
I feel like I’m growing up a lot here because like before like if I was in Temecula or California or wherever I used to live like I wouldn’t do anything. I would just sit on my butt and watch TV and I was just a lazy person. But like now that I’m actually doing work I feel like a better person. Like you know I’m actually doing something to help other people.
The following quotes are reflections made by the people about two months after they return to normal life.
You’re a man or a woman working hard in the twenty-first century and your kids don’t know what it is that you do. It’s seamless. They’re isolated from it. And that’s sad– I realized that more so than ever since I’ve been back. But in five months in 1883 I got more satisfaction, more accomplishment, more appreciation than I did my entire career beforehand.
I think the year 2001 is kind of boring. Every day I always say I’m bored and my parents get mad at me for it. But there’s nothing to do. There’s just nothing to do here. You get kind of tired of going to the mall every day. And you get kind of tired of doing nothing all day.
The twenty-first century you’re bored because there’s so many things. It’s like you have so much stuff that you’re just bored of all of it. In 1883 you have such little stuff that it was like special to you when your mom would buy you stuff and things just for you.
I have so often wondered what happened to these families and especially the children after they returned to normal life. I’ve wondered what kind of long-term impact their experience in Frontier House might have on their life choices and goals. Or did it simply depress them to get a glimpse of a more meaningful (albeit much harsher) life and then not be able to find any way to experience that meaningfulness back in their real lives?
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.
I find this is one area that I struggle with. By nature I am a very efficient person. I favor expediency. And so I like time-saving devices. I like being able to do several things at the same time. But I also see that in some ways it robs me of the pleasure of accomplishing things because they are meaningful to my family’s well-being as opposed to them being one more thing to cross of the list. I don’t wish to give up many of the time-saving devices I frankly take for granted, but sometimes I do wish that the things I accomplished in my home made more of a difference on a deeper level. I’m still thinking through this aspect of how I invest my time and energy around home.
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.
So true. How much of children’s lives is filled with things that really don’t matter, don’t nourish their body or their soul, and leave them just as empty of meaning afterwards?
“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)
See the earlier quotes from Frontier House. They apply here as well.
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.
We have made a great start in these areas, but there is so much more we could do. Both of the books Sharon mentions are favorites of mine and have had a profound impact on my own thinking. David and I have chosen to go without many things that a lot of Americans take for granted. We drive much older cars, we live in a smaller house in a less desirable neighborhood than our education and upbringing would suggest, we have forgone vacations and trips in recent years, etc. Sometimes I do wish we could have “more”. I’m not going to pretend that I never wish for a new car or a bigger house or more traveling. I do. But whenever I want those things I remind myself that I can have them. All I have to do is make some profound changes to my life. David and I can both work full-time away from home and put Caroline in daycare. We could have those things. David could look for a position with a highflying agency and work eighty hours a week and we could have those things. I could get back into teaching and be exhausted and stressed and we could have those things. Reminding myself that we can have those things and choose not to always makes it so much easier to accept the choices we have made.
Many of us work for health insurance – but for an increasingly large number, such is not available at any price.
Health insurance is such a factor for us as small business owners. I know some people choose to go without it, but we are not inclined to live that way. And yet it is such a drain on a small business. I don’t think a lot of people realize what their health insurance costs because they only pay in a small amount each week or month. Our health insurance alone in premiums, deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses costs us over $13,000 a year. This does not include copays and our share of prescriptions. If you add life insurance premiums to that, we spend over $15,000 a year on insurance. It is insane. How can small businesses prosper and grown when they have to make over $1250 a month just to pay for insurance? At times we have talked about wishing we could bring other people on board in our business and provide the opportunity for other men to stay home with their families. But the cost of bringing even one more fulltime employee on board is just absolutely prohibitive. I do not think universal health care is the answer, but something will have to be done because the costs of health insurance are just ridiculous. I can see why so many people work just to provide insurance to their families. We have often discussed whether it will get to the point where one of us will have to work outside the home in order to have insurance. And yet more and more employers are doing away with health insurance benefits or they are making their employees contribute more and more each week/month with deductibles that continue to increase. I do not know where or how this will end. But I do know that for any family who longs to have both mother and father at home, health insurance is usually going to be the biggest hindrance.
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.
I feel as though I’ve barely done any of these topics justice, but I hope that what has been written here will challenge, encourage and/or bless the right people. Thinking through these things afresh has been a challenge and encouragement for me and David. We spent time last evening and again today discussing these topics. For a long time they were theory. Then they were real life. Now they are real life with a new twist — Caroline. Each time we approach these topics we come at them with a new perspective. We have experiences to factor in. We know things now we didn’t know nine years ago or seven years ago or five years ago — or even a year ago.
So we continue to take one day at a time, thankful that God has allowed us to live the way we do. We count it a great blessing and act of grace. We know many people would give a great deal to be in our place, working at home. I hope the things I’ve written here will encourage them to see that God can and does move to make things like this possible and that even after they are possible, it is still a learning and growing experience to know how to continue to walk in that path.