Thursday, February 18, 2010

More on the thorny Megan Basham argument

In response to Frances's comment on my previous post (and thank you everyone for your thoughts)...

I think it is all too easy to equate an argument against the ideas of someone like Megan Basham with devaluing motherhood.

It is exactly because I am concerned about the kind of society that I want my daughter — and my son — to inherit that Basham's ideas concern me.

It is not her assertion of the worth of being at home and involved with family that is at issue here. It is the emphasis and attitude of the argument that I find disturbing: the idea of women (and she only ever refers to women in this role) putting their energy and focus into supporting their husband’s career so he is free to earn more.

I strongly believe in a woman’s right to choose to be at home, or to have flexible working arrangements — and, just as importantly, men’s right to work-life balance and to be involved with their families.

It is the tenor of her argument that bothers me. To me, it seems this kind of theory has lost rather than gained perspective on what’s important, as the ultimate goal seems to be money, as opposed to finding ways to live well and stay connected to each other and your children. It buys into an economic system that is inherently unfriendly to work-life balance for both men and women (excuse the over-used term).

In terms of role-modelling, I want my kids to see both me and my partner focused on the things that are meaningful to us not only as parents, but as individuals — which includes loving and nurturing them, as well as nurturing ourselves and each other.

In a sense, I am the kind of woman Basham is speaking to — my partner works full-time and I work part-time. I work for money but also because I get personal satisfaction from it. I work part time because I want to be with my kids and because I can’t imagine how to keep the household running and retain some sanity otherwise.

Of course those of us who stay at home full or part time already support our families in all sorts of ways. By default, I do more washing/shopping/hands-on caring than my partner — though when he's around, he does these things too.

Every family chooses what they need to do to keep themselves functional and financially afloat.

But there are limits to this supporting role — I do not want it to take over my life, or my psyche. I don’t want to set up a dynamic that turns me into my partner’s devoted backer/servant, freeing him up to go out and conquer the world and gather more pots of gold.

After having my babies, I stayed out of the workforce as long as my family could afford for me to, and wish that could have been longer. And since then, I have been privileged enough to only need to work part-time. I breastfed both of my babies until they were 2.

I don’t think any of what I’m saying is an argument against the value of these things. I think parenting is one of the most important and complex roles any of us can have — that is exactly why I write about it so much.

In answer to your question, Damon, my ideal would be for both my partner and I to work part time, so both of us could have more time with the kids and more time to spend on our creative interests — and paid work could take its place as one, but only one, of the necessary and fulfilling aspects of our lives.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Modern Marriages of Convenience

We are in the middle of major renovations at my house right now. Unfortunately nothing fancy — more like a getting back to zero scenario (sealed walls, doors that close, upgrading the 70s mushroom brown paint, though that won’t stop me downing a few glasses of serious bubbly when it’s done).

As a result, we currently have no internet access at home. We have been spending our nights, once the kids are asleep (on the loungeroom floor), listening to the radio and painting walls. It has been strangely cosy and kind of a relief to be barred from the computer for a while.

The only downside is that I keep hearing things on the radio I’d like to comment on without the time, or easy means, to post something.

One subject I seem to keep hearing (and thinking) about is the issue of mothers judging other mothers. I am flagging that up as something I want to write about.

But more urgently—despite being about six months late on this one—I recently listened to the repeat of Megan Basham talking on RN’s Life Matters about her book, Beside Every Successful Man.

It could be seen as one of a spate of post-feminist books coming out of the US over the past decade about “modern marriages”.

You can read an article I wrote for Arena Magazine back in 2004 on this subject here.

Also, definitely listen to Monica Dux's great follow-up comments.

Basham is arguing that, since most mothers are choosing not to work full time, they may as well shift their focus on to supporting their husband’s career, as this makes economic sense all round.

Hers is the kind of conservatism that can dress itself up as pure “reasonable-ness”.

She seems flabbergasted that anyone would feel troubled by what she sees as a simple idea: the idea that you help your husband’s career so that more money is flowing in for the whole family.

We all know that statistics show most mothers of young children choose to stay at home, at least part time. This in itself is not in itself a controversial notion (though the basis for that choice can be very complex).

It is Basham’s leap to the idea of exploiting the “marriage premium”, as it’s called, that is so disturbing.

Her “supporting your husband” idea is based on “personal experience” (ie. as a woman surrounded by other women married to men with high earning capacities) and economic data that shows the presence of a “wife” at home has a positive impact on a man’s professional success and income.

The economic argument is a no-brainer. This is the division of labour that has traditionally characterised the neo-liberal economy. But at whose expense?

Hasn’t she watched Mad Men lately?

Basham quotes data that shows a man with wife at home will make 20–60% more than single man with the same job/credentials. The more hours a wife works, the smaller that marriage premium, or “advantage” becomes, she says.

She calls this teamwork.

This is surely the most expedient notion of teamwork I have ever encountered. Instead of a partnership being about individual growth and development, it’s about privileged couples milking the current system to suit their economic ends — no matter the impact on women generally.

She says women who do want to work full time and get to the highest levels should be able to, without a glass ceiling preventing her — but she doesn’t acknowledge that her argument is one of the very ideas that creates such ceilings.

It is all about encouraging an economic system that sees people get ahead by working long hours, unimpeded by family responsibilities — the very thing feminists have been trying to transform for three decades.

It is this deeper, underlying conservatism that poses the real danger for women. Along with the whole tone of the argument: men and women reverting to their most traditional roles; leading separate, if mutually serviceable, lives.

Personally I don’t want to be at home all day alone with the kids from 7am till 9pm and a husband we only see on weekends, sacrificing my own interests to his career purely so that he can make us some more money.

Is that really what life is all about? Is that the life my mother fought for me to have?

After all that, you better hope he won’t leave you for a younger model…