Homemaking: The Ugly

In my previous two posts, I pointed out the advantages (an orderly house, fresh food, simple living) to the homemaking ideal sold by evangelical-fundamentalist organizations like Vision Forum, Above Rubies, and individuals like Mary Pride. I also demonstrated some of the ways the inflexibility of that ideal leads to pain, frustration, a sense of persistent failure and a restricted life for women and men. This time, I want to talk about the elephant in the room: social class.

The conservative Christian ideal that lies behind every invocation of “family values” is and always has been unachievable for the majority of people. It presumes, quite simply, that a single person (a father) can financially support his wife and all the children their marital bed can produce. Not only is he responsible for their food, clothing, and daily necessities, he is the one who must purchase a house and at least one car. He is the one who must foot all bills in emergencies. He must never take time off, lose his job, get stuck in a low-paying career or middle management, and he really had better not get sick, injured or permanently disabled.

This brings me to another point: the only men who deserve to have families are those who can support them on their own. A man who expects his wife to work is less than a man. A man who receives disability assistance is not a man. A man with cancer better have a generous sum put away (somehow) to support him and his family, no matter what the outcome. If a man struggling to support his family on anything less than an upper-middle class income contracts diabetes from eating cheap, sugary food because the family budget is already strained to the max, he can expect precious little sympathy from the “family values” crowd if he ends up hospitalized, in debt, and in foreclosure.

Not to mention the thousands put out of their jobs and homes in the past five years.

The homemaking ideal can turn very ugly, even when practiced with the utmost faithfulness: some of the costs of the quiverfull lifestyle are outlined here, particularly in relation to the “debt-free” ideal that accompanies homemaking and large families in the conservative Christian mindspace. The archived blog Under $1000 Per Month outlines a two-week menu of cheap dinners with nary a vegetable in sight. Nancy Campbell’s daughter Serene wrote an article for a 2010 issue of Above Rubies in which she describes living in a house without running water, heated by a wood stove that belched smoke so that her children had to wear goggles to protect their eyes. All of this preceded a flood so severe that destroyed the floor on the lower level of their home, forcing the entire family to live upstairs: a situation that Nancy Campbell infamously described as “hilarious”:

Serene and Sam didn’t fare so well. Sam had put in beautiful wooden floors in their home. Their down stairs living area is now the funniest site you could ever see! You walk in to see waves of the sea, some three feet high as the floor has buckled! They came down a couple of days after the flood to find all their furniture upside down and falling over because the floor had grown into waves! It is hilarious. They have now had to move upstairs to live.

Egregious home disasters aside, there is also the (statistically probable) chance of a quiverfull family having a special needs child. I have already told a story about the enormous strain placed on a family in a faith-healing church to maintain an image of perfect faith that God would intervene medically on behalf of their terminally ill child. In less extreme cases, children with developmental or mental disorders may be abused or neglected out of the belief that such disorders don’t actually exist (such as autism) or are the result of a family’s unbelief or an attack by Satan. Since the solution to both of those things is to dig in your heels and pray more, “consult a professional” doesn’t make the short list.

There is an underlying theme here that deserves the spotlight for a moment: the ideal of debt-free, off-grid, independent living. Without this independence and the financial solvency it requires, homemakers begin to cross the perilous line between the sainted wife-and-mother, goddess of the hearth and the shiftless welfare queen who expects everyone else to bail her out. Poor families attend church less frequently, because they have to work an extra shift or they all get sick or the car breaks down or the pipes burst in their apartments. They thus slip to the bottom of the social priority list. Wealthier church members will sometimes pitch in with cheerful hearts the first time a poor family faces a Christmas without heat, but by the third or fourth crisis they’re usually shouldering the burden in shamed silence. Every sermon about debt being slavery and God’s people “not begging for bread” adds a generous dollop of guilt to their shame sundae. And if Mom has to go to work… well, we don’t talk about that.

This is where the political beliefs of the Christian patriarchy movement start to eat their own tail. If you’re poor, you can’t live a godly lifestyle. You’re fed lines about special “grace” and God’s understanding, but you are always aware that you’re not the kind your church wants. Not really. Never is it acknowledged that living debt-free takes a stable foundation, one that usually doesn’t begin with a high-school education and a promise not to use birth control. Nowhere does this become more obvious than on the face of the pastor when you ask for help for the sixth time because your car has broken down again and you have no way to get to work. Ironically, you can even be part of a non-prosperity gospel church (mine hated Joel Osteen) and be hit with the subtle accusation that if you just prayed harder and trusted God more and worked yourself a little bit thinner, God would “bless” you “abundantly” such that you would want for nothing. Like running water. Or health insurance.

The truly frightening thing about the evangelical-fundamentalist homemaking ideal is that it is the type of family that the Religious Right takes for granted as its standard unit. A perfect, polished, prim young family with an up-and-coming executive husband and a stair-step of pink-cheeked children. No one in this ideal is disabled, or sick, or injured, or out of work. No one lives in a bad neighborhood or eats bad food or has to go without heat in the winter. This ideal is not reality. Every family has problems. (Except maybe yours. If so, congratulations! You still need to get off that soapbox.) Evangelical-fundamentalists can’t admit that, and neither can the people they send to Congress. That’s why the ceaseless strain of “take some personal responsibility and pay for it yourself” falls flat for me whenever a new proposal is raised to give families an easier time meeting their basic needs: health care, social security, birth control. For some people, they are and always will be non-issues. The trouble is, when you start with a premise that those people are everybody, what you get is a pile of shipwrecked families, dutifully having baby after baby because the Church says birth control is evil and surviving off beans and tacos because Mom needs to fulfill her highest calling as a homemaker.

  • http://www.wagnerpt.com Amy

    Great article! The hand wringing about women “choosing” to work outside the home really is an upper middle class issue. I also don’t see how the patriarchy ideal of home schooling 10 + children who then don’t go to college can sustain itself. How do the males earn enough to keep the system going, i.e. support a wife and 10 more kids on a high school education? Even with connections and graduate education, it is difficult to sustain an upper middle class income. “The feminine mistake” rightly points out that women have a 50% or more chance of the five D’s in marriage: divorce, death, disability, depression (of husband), drugs/alcohol, etc. There are few safety nets in this system. All the fall back plans recommended by the “right” such as the woman’s education (useless if out of the job market for many years), home based businesses (multilevel marketing is a scam, making clothes on ETSY is not profitable) although profitable for some, would not realistically support the millions of homemakers in this economy, 6 months salary saved up doesn’t cut it for longer term job losses, unforeseen medical expenses, etc. The church doesn’t take care of single moms; they can barely take care of their pastors. I personally refuse to live in poverty. It’s not hilarious. It’s demoralizing. The worst part of all is the line you mentioned about, “the only men who *deserve* to have families are those that can support them on their own.” It is seen in the phrase, “don’t have children if you’re not going to raise them” meaning raise them at home by a homemaker. This is eugenics, “good birth” which states that only the superior should be reproducing. What if only property owning, debt free males reproduced? This would eliminate huge social classes and races from existence, which is the goal of the eugenicists. Elitists tend to want to control reproduction of those deemed inferior. They can’t sterilize like in prior eugenics programs, so they put social pressure on through shame. It really is elitism, modes day eugenics, class wars.

    • http://nonprophetmessage.wordpress.com Sierra

      The funny thing about this particular kind of eugenics is that, when there aren’t enough low-wage workers propping up the elite, guess whose life becomes precarious and who ultimately ends up becoming the underclass?

  • smrnda

    I tend to find that most conservative Christians live in complete denial of the entire field of economics – it’s a realm of magical thinking where even in the midst of a bad economy and high unemployment, some high school grads with the right type of faith can feed a family of 20. It’s pure nonsense being pushed by people getting wealthy promoting an unattainable ideal. In fact, Christian patriarchy to me seems like a pyramid scheme – you get in, and make money promoting a lifestyle that can’t support itself. I mean, take someone like Bill Gothard – does the guy know what WORK is really like? Not only is he not married, has no kids, but I don’t think he does any work aside from promote a bunch of propaganda.

  • Red

    What I find hilarious about all this homemaking stuff–absoluately hilarious–is that one of the idols they hold up is the Proverbs 31 woman—who, if you look at the cultural context of the activities she is doing, spends an awful lot of time working outside the home and contributing financially.

    Just saying.

    • Tsu Dho Nimh

      Yes, that Proverbs woman is dealing in real estate, supervising farming, and a small house-based manufacturing business.

      And she has staff!

      She’s upper management, not a scullery maid, nanny, cook and concubineall in one.