When a high school teacher found out she was pregnant with her third child, she did what she had always wanted to do: she quit her job to stay home with her kids. Armed with an idea of what life as a traditional housewife looked like, she “expected to have a spotless house, nutritional, home-cooked meals, happy, pleasant children…” Instead, she found herself with “laundry coming out [her] ears, a never-ending supply of dishes in the sink, and children who alternated from happily playing to yelling at each other every few minutes.”

“What am I doing wrong?” she asked.

Many women dream of managing a household, but the reality of juggling responsibilities inside and outside of the home leaves some feeling burnt out or used up. Women with full-time jobs often do another 10 or more hours of housekeeping a week, and many women who choose to stay at home with children find the task unexpectedly overwhelming. “This once big-time routine-oriented mama is now struggling to get up out of bed,” one mommy-blogger wrote. Her post inspired more than one hundred sympathetic comments from women with similar feelings.

Has taking care of their homes always left women feeling so overwhelmed?

The 1950s Housewife Myth

What most women think of as traditional women’s work—managing their own homes in the suburbs—only goes back to the 1950s.

Those who grew up in the often-crowded, multi-generational homes of the Depression learned to associate cities with poverty. After World War II, many fled to the perceived peace and affluence of the suburbs, sometimes far away from their families and childhood communities. Instead of dividing the tasks like cooking, cleaning, and caregiving amongst an informal network of women with different talents and preferences, the woman in this new, nuclear household was suddenly expected to perform all of these tasks herself—and to perform them perfectly.

Unable to keep up with all that was expected of her, the 1950s housewife turned to processed foods, convenience products, and mass-manufactured goods. In effect, she gave up the crafts at which she could develop a clear and demonstrable proficiency so she could fit all of her new responsibilities into her day. As more women entered the workforce in later decades, many added hours of unfulfilling, paid work before they came home to tackle their housekeeping responsibilities. These women “had it all,” but many of them secretly felt they’d just had enough.

Toward a Saner Norm for Women

For women to find rewarding ways to balance home and work, society must look back to a tradition that lasted not one generation, but hundreds. In that older tradition, society was built not around individuals or families, but around communities. Within those communities women spun, dyed, wove, brewed, cured, pickled, ran estates for much of the year, and often served as the most experienced medics in town. No one woman was responsible for all of these tasks; what she couldn’t or didn’t like to do, she could barter from a friend or neighbor. Women made the best of those tedious tasks that no one enjoyed doing alone by organizing community events like sewing circles or cornhusking bees.

Many women have already found creative ways to bring this older tradition into the 21st century.

Elaine considers herself a full-time mom, but she is also a full-time volunteer administrator at her daughters’ school. Elaine’s real talent is community-building: she helps students with everything from first aid to informal counseling and gets other parents involved in the school. She leaves the tasks she can’t do well to other people. “I will never sew my children’s Halloween costumes. I know what my faults are,” she says.

Through her creative and unconventional career track, Elaine has stumbled on three important facts about this all-but-lost tradition women must recover before they can begin to regain joy and pride in their work.

First, women feel good about themselves when they have a craft. Women who have a skill they develop and improve have a tangible result at the end of each day—one that they can take pride in. Elaine’s skill is community-building. Other women cook, knit, write, start home-based businesses, or do fulfilling work outside of the home. There are as many possibilities as there are women, as long as the craft is a skill a woman enjoys that produces something she can see and that she can hone over time.

Second, happy women find and sustain communities. Supportive, intergenerational communities often grow around churches, schools, recreation centers, and historic neighborhoods. (Elaine and her husband chose to move into an already close-knit group centered around their daughters’ school when he left the military.) The investment of time and money into local communities really pays off—supportive friends and neighbors are an important factor for preventing depression, among many other benefits.

And finally, like Elaine, no one can do it all. When a woman in a community has some task she really enjoys, she ought to be able to exchange services with a woman who has different talents and preferences. With a craft of her own and a supportive community, she can take pride in what she does well—not feel like a failure for what she does not.

It is in doing the work for which we are fit within a caring community that women—and all human beings—find their sense of self-worth and contribute something of real value to society as a whole.


Photo credit: http://pinterest.com/pin/276197389617648469/