Not for Sissies

Katrina Onstad’s article about Kate Middleton is more snide than is customary for her.  I go straight to her column, now in the Style section of The Globe & Mail, every Saturday morning.  I’m looking for intelligence, wit and an uncanny ability to capture a trend or a moment in history with simple but precise gestures.  She usually delivers.

This column was a bit techy.  Why pick on Kate and William for not wanting to clean their toilets?  Surely that makes them more like us, no?

As for the whole princess in waiting game, it’s not for sissies.  It would be my worst nightmare to be in Kate’s shoes, cameras constantly trained on her every move, the tragedy of Diana’s life in the spotlight hanging over her.

However, as much as I take issue with her tone, and as much as I am certain that Kate Middleton has never an idle moment, I agree with Onstad’s premise: it is important for women not to opt out of the work force.

Putting that argument in the context of the mommy wars is specious; Kate does not (yet) have children, so she is not opting out of the work force in order to be at home with children.  It was a mistake to put her decision in the context of so loaded, and in many ways, so fabricated a battle.  Mommy wars make good headlines, but it’s an argument whose battle lines I dont’ find fruitful.   Being at home with children is damn hard work, and it serves nobody’s purpose to denigrate that work by calling it an opt-out.

The fact that Kate Middleton is not a mother, however, is why it is even more important to stress the impact of her opting out of paid employment.  She has the time to devote to a career or a calling beyond being the woman on the arm of the future king.

Even though I don’t think this discussion belonged in the context of the mommy wars, the argument that Onstad cites resonates deeply with me:

Philosopher Linda Hirshman took [stay-at-home, opt-out mothers] on in her 2006 “manifesto” Get to Work. Her argument was only partially about how work can provide “human flourishing” or personal fulfillment (the usual reasons mothers work or don’t, after finances). Her real assertion was that a culture where women aren’t working sets back women as a group, reinforcing a dangerous social imbalance. Women remain financial dependents and unpaid labourers, while men earn cash and respect. Hirshman scorned “choice feminism” as a watery cop-out: Women unquestioningly supporting each other’s choices isn’t feminism; women working together for better social conditions for all women is.

I have three children, and I felt Onstad’s cry of “Get a job!” hit home with me.  One of the biggest shocks of motherhood for me was how crippling the sense of isolation and worthlessness can be.  I got to the end of one day last winter, and I miserably noted that my biggest challenge of the day, in fact of the entire week, was the simple logistics of getting three kids through snow to and from school.  I so desperately wanted a pile of papers to mark, lectures to prepare, an article to write: the kind of work I trained to do, the kind of work that feeds my soul and gives me an abiding sense of worth.   A pile of laundry, dinner to prepare and three kids to wrestle into pajamas was not the meal my soul needed.  Being at work is what I need to feel whole, and I am a better mother and citizen for it.

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As it happens, the work I do now is neither at the university nor being home full-time with the kids.  I am writing, working towards a book of essays on motherhood, and waging a daily battle with myself to keep at it because it pays exactly nothing.  (“Get a job!”)  And when I get into the depths of despair about not earning, I remember this post from Carrie Snyder, about the woes of the writer:

I continue to long for a practical profession. The friends I met up with last night are women close to me in age, whose children are now off to school, and who have chosen such interesting and practical directions for their post-intense-mothering lives. Midwife. Nurse. Youth counsellor. Hands on, directly affecting the lives of others in need, being physically and emotionally present, interacting, connecting, empathizing. With real people. In real time. In my work, I do an enormous amount of emotional empathizing, but with makebelieve characters. Gah! I am laughing and shaking my head as I write that. It seems like such a bizarre way to connect with other humans.

Kevin’s response to my morning whine of “I should be doing something practical!” was “strongly disagree.” He suggested I should take my attitude and join Stephen Harper’s conservatives and stop funding the arts and go live in a world where everyone wears grey overalls and does nothing but work work work. You can see why I married him.

I am equally moved by Onstad’s cry to get off my ass and get a job (you will note that she does not keep a blog and gets paid for all the words she writes) as I am by Carrie’s angst about a practical profession and by Kevin’s point that paid work work work is not all that makes a person valuable or a society livable.  I don’t want to wear grey overalls, but I do want the perks of the workplace: full citizenship in adult society, a paycheque, work that is all mine.  The kind of work that feeds my soul, whether it is teaching for money or writing for nothing, is a privilege, and I think it is every woman’s duty to give herself the gift of meaningful work.  For some that is being at home with children.  For others, it is participating in the work force.  For others still, it is unpaid or underpaid creative work.  But it really, really shouldn’t be to appear on the arm of a man.

3 thoughts

  1. Why can’t we all just stop telling each other what we should or shouldn’t do? I may decide to work because I need or want to, but that certainly doesn’t give me the right to tell someone else what to do.

    And you aren’t really suggesting that Michelle Obama has “opted out” and that her only contribution is on the “arm” of her husband? Would it be better for her to clerk for some appellate-court judge somewhere while her children are in daycare?

    If you want to work, by all means, get off your ass and get a job. But don’t tell me, or anyone else, what’s right for us. And if I decide that my best, most important, creative, or meaningful, work is on the arm of my husband, that’s for me to decide.

  2. I continue to struggle with this: what is meaningful work? Maybe I always will.
    Keep working on those essays! I’d be interested in reading them, if you need an early reader.

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