A delightful comment on my post about sewing on buttons spawned a rather, uh, interesting facebook debate the other night. It began with an observation about this seeming trend for younger, millennial moms to act as though the domestic arts are an unattainable fantasy, yet at the same time unworthy of our brain power. Instead of attempting to learn them, we do things like blog about hiding in the bathroom and checking facebook while our kids destroy the house around us.
“But the way it comes across… to those of us who are more naturally gifted at the domestic arts, those who have taken the time to educate themselves on the skills that they lacked to help their day to day domestic lives run smoother, or those who had the benefit of someone teaching them when they were younger, those of us who can sew AND blog, it seems like you really are laughing at us and the importance we place on developing those skills. You take the time to educate yourself about the goings on of the world so that you can expound on it (and sometimes even get paid to do it) but you won’t Google “how to sew a button on” because why?”
In an attempt to answer the question fairly and with some detachment, instead of burning down my facebook page and retreating to Twitter forever, I spent most of yesterday thinking about what was asked.
Yes, the attitude described does exist to varying degrees among (particularly young) mothers. I’ve got some of it myself. But understanding it is a complicated thing, and requires looking at the evolution of motherhood in our culture.
Understanding the domestic arts as, well, art, has almost totally disappeared from our cultural landscape. Technology (and the corresponding rise in collective wealth that allows most of the US to own it) has rendered many time-honored skills — traditionally passed from mother to daughter — superfluous. Sewing is one of them. Hand-washing clothes and hanging them on a line to dry is another. Grinding our own wheat, making our own bread, making our own stock, making our own everything was largely shifted from the realm of the necessary to the realm of the optional by the late 50’s. Suddenly, skills that were highly prized and highly necessary for women to have — skills that required years of practice to master — could suddenly be accomplished in a factory in one-tenth the time and purchased at a store at absurdly low costs. What’s more, the culture hailed these advancements as superior to the work women used to spend hours doing. Wonderbread was eminently preferable to hand-ground, homemade wheat bread. Making your own food and sewing your own clothes were considered a sign of poverty, not a sign of accomplishment. As a direct result, the housewives of the 50’s and 60’s, by and large, did not pass these skills on to their daughters. They wanted them to have a better life, to reach the American Dream, to be the women who bought their bread and their clothes, the women advertisers insisted were the feminine ideal.
It’s no surprise that the sexual revolution followed swiftly on the heels of these massive changes in daily life. Women no longer needed to learn the domestic arts. They were liberated. With the advent of the contraception coinciding with this massive cultural shift, women had enormous amounts of time and freedom they didn’t have before — freedom to pursue whatever interests they had.
The daughters of the 50’s housewives made incredible strides to advance women’s access to higher education and professional opportunities. The work they did to promote the dignity of women and their inherent value to the professional and political spheres was extraordinary, and opened up a whole new world for the generations of both women and men that have followed. But like all good things, it came with a price.
That price was the cultural denigration of domesticity. Regardless of the personal mores of our individual families, the broader culture my generation was raised in place little, if any, value on stay-at-home mothers.
The most familiar pop-culture image of a stay-at-home mom in the late 80’s and early 90’s was Peggy Bundy, who “refuses to cook or clean the house, and prefers looking for new clothes to washing them. She does not even consider getting a job and instead prefers to watch daytime talk shows all day while sitting on the beloved family couch and eating nothing but tons of Bonbons” (via wikia). I wasn’t allowed to watch Married…with Children, and I was raised by a loving, attentive mother who stayed home until I was in high school. But culture is pervasive. Kids learn it through osmosis, and unless you lock them in a fortress, they’re gonna pick up on it. “Stay-at-home-mom” had a negative connotation for me from the time I began hearing “mom” qualified as such. Women who wanted to be “just moms” were baffling to me — I literally couldn’t understand why anyone would voluntarily chose a life of snot-and-vomit-filled drudgery.
Yet like so many young millennial moms, I’ve spent the majority of my adult life as a stay-at-home mom. I didn’t always know it was a choice — often it seemed to me that I sort of fell into this life through cockupery and circumstance. But I didn’t actively choose to work, either, and I could have.
I’ve come to understand that the domestic arts really are an art, that it takes skill and virtue and mental acuity to be a good wife and mother. I’ve also come to understand that I’m woefully unprepared for this life that I once thought fit only for those women who couldn’t (or didn’t want to) make something of themselves.
Turns out, it’s a whole lot harder than anyone ever said.
A lot of young mothers are in this situation. They are overwhelmed by a life they couldn’t imagine, much less comprehend, before it hit them like a Mac truck. On top of which, they find themselves struggling to learn basic household skills that they weren’t taught because they have no cultural value (seriously, when was the last time anyone heard of a home ec class?), and facing an unprecedented amount of seemingly life-or-death parenting choices.
Should we learn how to sew or how to cook gluten-free? Should we unschool the kids or socialize them? Should we cosleep or Ferberize? And for the love, what the hell with vaccines?!
These are the questions we’re trying to answer while wiping a bottom, nursing a newborn, and fishing a cheerio out of a toddler’s nostril (and yes, we do all three at once in flagrant disregard for basic human hygiene, because the screaming). Oh, and don’t forget that we’re living in unprecedented isolation, in a time and place where we can’t even send our older children outside to play without getting arrested. Meanwhile, science keeps reminding us that we’d be so much happier if we’d just embrace daycare and go to work.
So yeah, sometimes we do hide in the bathroom and check facebook while our kids destroy the house. And sometimes we laugh about how terrible we are as wives. Because why?
Because we’re young mothers in the trenches, and we very often feel like we are drowning in plain sight. Because we find ourselves unequal to a vocation that is too vital to fail at, but too vast to succeed at.
Because if we don’t laugh, we will despair.
You mothers who entered into your marriage knowing how to sew, cook, and clean, who learned the virtues of patience and fortitude, who grew up being trained in the domestic arts — you are truly blessed. The vast majority of my blog has been a chronicle of the tension between realizing that my vocation is true and vital but having no idea where to start learning it, and feeling that I’m truly failing in the meantime. I’m not laughing at you, and there’s no need to prove to me that you are superior.
The truth is, motherhood in the 21st century is an unprecedented kind of hard , for all of us. All these technological advancements that make the life of the modern housewife easier also come with a price — they can make us all feel superfluous. For those of us who weren’t brought up cooking and sewing, modern conveniences make any attempt to learn those skills seem like an exercise in futility. Why learn to sew when the first few years will be filled with disproportional dresses that we don’t let our daughters wear because the seams look like they were stitched while we were schnockered? Why learn to cook when we’ll spend the first few years burning pasta and making garlic-coated steak bites of blasphemy? We know it’s worth it in the long-term, but the short term is a different story.
Trying to learn the domestic arts with a young family is like building an airplane while you’re learning to fly it. You’re pretty sure the whole thing is about to fall apart and come crashing down, but you can’t let it, because it’s holding aloft everything that matters.
I can’t sew, not even a button. But I did spend the first seven years of marriage learning to be a pretty awesome cook. Maybe in a few years I’ll feel up to the task of learning to sew — but maybe I won’t. Maybe Sienna will teach me to sew on a button the way I taught my mom to make stock, and we’ll re-learn the domestic arts together, across the generations.
I don’t think my lack of sewing prowess makes me pathetic. I’m a little afraid it does actually, but I can’t let that derail me from doing those things I can. I spend my days loving my family and trying to improve incrementally. I’m no angel of the hearth — I don’t have the education for that. I’m trying to create a family, a domestic life, from scratch. My kids will never learn to sew at my knee, but they’ll learn that any crap day can be saved by Vanilla Ice. They’ll learn to knead bread from me, and that reading a cookbook cover-to-cover is a legit form of entertainment, but they won’t learn to scrub baseboards or plant gardens. And yeah, they’ll learn from the Ogre how to sew on a button while I teach them how to strip screws. What can I say?
I’m working with what I have here, and trying to pick up more along the way. It’s not ideal, but it’s good.
And if that answer’s not good enough, nothing I can say will be.