Monday, September 8, 2008

Feminism and Families

I just spent several days in bed resting my back. On the second day, I finished volume three of Proust, and I didn't have volume four in the house. My spirits needed a little light reading, so I ended up with a series of comic novels, including David Lodge's Nice Work and Alison Lurie's The War Between the Tates.

One thing these books both have in common is that they feature "housewives."

In Lodge's book, a businessman and a woman professor are thrown together; part of the story turns on the businessman's relationship with his family; the wife in the family is a stay-at-home mom and the kids are obnoxious, entitled, teenage assholes.

In Lurie's book, Mrs. Tate herself is a stay-at-home mom; and the kids are obnoxious, entitled, teenage assholes.

It's easy to forget how fast things have changed, but they really have, because family life as depicted in these books barely exists any more. These days, even when moms stay home, they have lots of things they do outside the family, the father is expected to function as a parent, and when the kids are teens, the moms are often back out in the world, doing stuff.

Not many American moms send their 15 year-olds off to school then spend the day mopping the kitchen floor.

And I gotta say, reading those books make you feel, Thank God For That.

It's awful. The men are bored with their wives, because their wives are boring. Because they don't do anything. The men regard their children as interlopers, ruined by their mothers' spoiling them, external to their own provenance and care in life. The women, of course, are at the mercy of the men, because they're home all day and not making any money.

When you think about it, it's amazing that model worked as well as it did.

Isn't what we have better? I mean, I know it's kind of too bad that women often "have to" work now, economically. But you know, because a standard of living is a relative thing, the reason this is true is that, well, most women work. And that just seems so much better than the earlier alternative.

Fathers these days, even when they're really busy at work, tend to regard their kids upbringing as partly their responsibility. Mothers these days, even when they're earning less and doing more child- and house-care, regard their own autonomous lives as really important. It's a big improvement.

And you know, even teenagers don't seem as crazy as they used to -- or at least, not in the same way. Maybe I'm naive. But the stereotype these days is of the kid who can't get off the phone with his parents, who talks to them all the time, who is pretty comfortable being part of the family, who isn't spending every minute longing for escape.

I started to wonder if this was maybe related to the feminism business. You know, if your mom picks up your room, washes your gym clothes, then flies off the handle about your taste in music, that's like a recipe for disaffection.

But if your mom, like your dad, is out working for the money to buy you stuff, and asks you to help with the dinner dishes because she's busy, and is too tired to complain about your taste in music, well, that's like a recipe for family involvement.

This is one way I believe feminism has been good for families.

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