In her outstanding essay published yesterday at Public Discourse, Ivana Greco argues that the federal government should do more to support homemakers.
She makes the case first on economic grounds, describing how and why the economic contributions made by homemakers—such as the care of children and the elderly—are so often uncounted in measures of financial growth. She then shifts to a cultural angle, pointing to the ways that homemakers create and support the intermediary institutions and social cohesion on which a healthy society depends. She concludes by exhorting conservatives, in particular, to prioritize well-crafted support for homemakers. Although she doesn’t get into policy details in this essay, Greco has argued elsewhere for changes to the structure of retirement and insurance benefits, for example, that would remove the governmental thumb on the scale that currently pushes families toward having two full-time working parents, whether they like it or not.
In this response, I’ll focus on the cultural side of Greco’s argument. In particular, I want to underscore Greco’s point about the ways in which homemakers build social cohesion. But I’d like to complicate the picture a little bit, urging couples to think creatively about the best way to structure their division of labor. It’s true that many women would leave the paid workforce and become stay-at-home moms if it were financially feasible for them to do so. But, in my view, that’s not the only—or the most likely—way to rebuild the networks of social connection that were once maintained by a nation of homemakers.
Rather, the key principle here is that of margin. On both a social and individual level, we should structure our work in ways that leave margin for relationships, allowing us the space to respond to the unpredictable needs and gifts of the people we encounter in our homes and communities.
Making Work Serve the Family
Efforts to create more margin for relationships should acknowledge that homemaking and caregiving come in many forms. Greco primarily focuses on parents who have left the paid workforce entirely, yet many mothers who act as their children’s primary caretakers still perform some paid work.
After having my second child, I completed a journalism fellowship focusing on the growing contingent of women who blend work and motherhood in unconventional ways. In particular, I focused on the identity shift that results from cutting back on paid work and focusing on childcare. In an autonomy-obsessed culture, the intimate connection between mother and child can be destabilizing. It disrupts carefully cultivated plans and pulls high-achieving women away from the types of work and accomplishment that earn both paychecks and accolades.
Part of the difficulty is that the most powerful and transformative parts of “care work” are, by nature, private. They are illegible in the language of power and uncountable in the ledger of economic growth. Spotting my nine-month-old as she holds onto the coffee table, giving her just the right amount of freedom as she unsteadily but stubbornly stands; unraveling and soothing the tangled feelings fueling my six-year-old’s emotional outburst; seeing that my seven-year-old needs not just a philosophical answer to the scary question of why God lets bad things happen, but also a tight, long hug: these little challenges and opportunities happen countless times every day, but they aren’t discrete tasks on a to-do list that can be checked off.
An excessive focus on productivity can make this kind of patient presence more difficult to cultivate. Still, that doesn’t mean that there can ultimately be “no happy harmony” between work and motherhood. In psychological literature, the framework of “work-family enrichment” analyzes under what circumstances and by what means work and family roles enrich one another, as opposed to conflicting. In particular, there is a wide variety of “resources that can be generated in a role: skills and perspectives, psychological and physical resources, social-capital resources, flexibility, and material resources.” The “resources developed or nurtured in one role can increase performance in another role.” In other words, under the right conditions, your work can make you a better parent, and being a parent can make you better at your work.
In my view, one of those necessary conditions is a well-ordered relationship with technology, particularly smartphones. In spite of their many benefits, the same tools that allows remote work to coexist with parenthood can also undercut the conditions that allow families to flourish. Technology is not neutral, and our phones are engineered to command our attention, to keep us scrolling on and on, always working more, buying more, wanting more. These habits of mind and heart conflict with the virtues called forth by parenting. It takes conscious and consistent effort to keep tools like smartphones in their place, serving the end of family life rather than subverting it.
These dangers are real, but so are the benefits that come with remote work. By setting limits on tech usage and focusing on the concept of margin, parents can structure their paid work in ways that allow them to prioritize responsiveness to both family and community. What’s more, the unique skills and insights that emerge from working parenthood suggest that we shouldn’t relegate homemaking only to those who have left the paid workforce entirely.
Embracing the Centrality of the Home
Creating margin for relationships necessarily requires us not to maximize our economic productivity. That’s one reason why, as Phil Jeffrey has explored, there’s an uneasy relationship between the family and the market. Greco’s description of the economic value of homemaking is certainly more nuanced than that of activists who call for wages for care work. Yet the urge to quantify the value of caregiving and homemaking in financial terms can only go so far. Taken to the extreme, this approach reduces the relationships of mutual dependence within families to sites for mere market exchange.
Succumbing to the intrusion of market logic corrodes the family. We’ve seen this play out over the latter half of the twentieth century: mainstream feminism’s corporate-friendly embrace of the male experience as normative—not only in terms of career advancement but also in terms of relationships, sex, marriage, and childbearing—has not served women or children well, even as it has left men foundering without solid social scripts. As Erika Bachiochi has argued, the solution is not to reject feminism wholesale. Rather, we should seek a solid grounding for both the equality of and differences between the sexes and return to a conception of domestic life as a school of virtue for men and women alike.
Our society’s undervaluation of the home is unsustainable. It’s easy to downplay the importance of homemaking, kin-keeping, and community-building when these things are being done widely and well. The effects of their breakdown—from skyrocketing rates of anxiety and depression among teenage girls, to rising suicide rates, to widespread loneliness and political polarization—are harder to ignore.
It’s time to embrace the centrality of motherhood and fatherhood to our identities as women and men, working to restore a cultural sense that home and hearth are important sources of both personal fulfillment and social flourishing. These are things that deserve our time, attention, and respect: not just caring for small children, but also maintaining an orderly home with a strong family culture; cultivating the habit of hospitality within our homes; investing in local institutions like churches and schools; maintaining a neighborhood network of ties beyond our immediate family; and perhaps even choosing to prioritize geographical proximity to extended family over maximal career advancement when choosing where to live.
Recentering life around the home isn’t easy. It can take a lot of creativity, intention, and financial sacrifice to structure a household so that one or both parents maintain sufficient margin, in the form of a substantial number of hours that are not devoted to paid work. That’s especially true if husband and wife discern that a set-up other than “full-time-working dad and full-time-stay-at-home mom” will best serve the good of their family. Some families will discern that the mother should be the family’s primary breadwinner, perhaps with the father as a stay-at-home parent. Government programs should allow this flexibility. Still, it’s simply a fact that motherhood is much more physically demanding than fatherhood, particularly in the early years. As a result, it is often most sustainable for the husband to have the lead career, at least for a time, and for the woman to pursue the type of flexible, serial career that Greco has advocated elsewhere.
Thankfully, the economic changes Greco advocates for the sake of homemakers would make it easier to maintain margin through a variety of parental work configurations. If health insurance and retirement benefits weren’t linked to full-time employment, for example, both father and mother could work part-time jobs.
These kinds of policy adjustments are an important first step in recovering margin in our lives. But a broader shift in thinking is needed, too. By shining a light on all the valuable, quiet, rewarding work it takes to make everyone in a family thrive, we can slowly make shifts in our culture that help to build a family-first culture: one that elevates the essential space of the home while also making space for both men and women to pursue their vocations both personally and professionally.