What does woman want? This was Freud’s big question, because Freud based all of the male’s needs on the fact that males had a penis (Freud was a proto-glittery hoo ha) and so he couldn’t imagine what women, not having a penis, had at the center of their needs. (If I had a time machine, I’d bring Freud forward and show him that the glittery hoohas do quite well with thinking with the innie, just as much as some guys do with the outie. No, more so, since they’re persistent and relentless. But then he would go back in time and in a minute, I’d find myself in a burka, locked somewhere in the house. No.)
So his entire idea was that not having a penis, women were mostly moved by that fact and suffered from penis envy. (Maybe I DID bring him forward and he read some of the GH’s blogs?) I will confess that I did suffer from penis envy round about six, but it had nothing to do with sex (and even then I thought having to deal with that thing hanging down inside your clothes all the time would be a pain) but with the fact that my – mostly male – play friends could pee standing up. I couldn’t, so I had to leave the rousing game and go inside to use the bathroom. Which meant by the time I came back they were doing it wrong! (If there had been a ban bossy campaign back then, pigtailed, glowering me would have been the poster girl. And btw, if I’d been taught to curb those tendencies at that time, it would have made high school MUCH easier.)
So what do women want?
I don’t know. I know what I want, and what my friends want.
I’ve been moved to write this by a few surveys recently, which claim that women are far happier being wives and mothers than being wives and mothers and working women. Combined with the fact our population (I suspect worldwide, but we can only prove it in developed countries) is dropping like a rock, and the inescapable conclusion is that women should be back in the kitchen and pregnant.
I don’t like inescapable conclusions. Not when it comes to humans. I’m not a “feminist’ who thinks women should be a sort of ersatz male and views pregnancy as a violation. (Yes, I know that’s not what they say they think, but if you read them, you end up getting that very clear picture.)
In fact from a certain point of view, if you squint, I took a very traditional path. We got married and I worked a little until the kids came when I stayed home with them. If you stop squinting, it’s not so traditional. For one, we made the decision based not on who had the outie and who had the innie, but who was bringing in the real money. Given my job which was like writing and required me to establish myself, etc, I was making almost nothing. And then there was the fact I wanted to write, which made staying at home and looking after the kids perfect. (In execution it was more fraught, which is why progress was so slow. There were years I could only write in a two hour window, while the kids were sleeping.)
But then there’s the other side of the coin.
I grew up in a village.
My path was the most common one. Every mother I knew was a working mother, usually while totting behind/around them a vast number of children. (Okay, not so vast. Three or four was many, but that’s also because so many died in childhood, infancy.)
The myth of the stay at home mom who eats bonbons and watches soaps exists only in the heads of people. I don’t think it was ever that way, save for a very small, very wealthy or very devil may care minority.
I mean if you squint and look sideways my mom was a stay at home mom. Only she wasn’t. I mean, she worked at home, and for the first fifteen years of her career she worked from a three room shotgun apartment, where the kitchen table got cleared and used for her work table. If she couldn’t clear it or was on deadline, she might send us next door to grandma for supper, but that happened rarely as the two had a “competent mother” competition going.
Grandma too, if you squint and look sideways was a stay at home mom and for most of her life a single one, as granddad was in various countries, making money. But if you stop squinting, she brought up four children while running her own business, tending the … backyard farm (it’s hard to explain how this works. We had a relatively small space in the backyard. Like your average suburban backyard, say, but none of it was lawn and all of it was fruit trees/vegetables/vines and the place for the potatoes (the open center, which got enough sun) except for about a fifth of it which was “put to” flowers because grandma considered flowers an essential part of housekeeping. (And in a way it was, since doing the flowers in the cemetery was the woman’s duty every weekend, on all the graves of the departed family, and if you didn’t do it people would consider you bad or neglectful. This might very well be a roman custom for all I know.)
But then there were also properties we had “a right to.” These were either still or originally owned by the family and either sold or rented out, with reservation of the “right to”: the right to wine (i.e. the vines growing on the land were still ours), the right to till (i.e. to plant and harvest what we wanted in parts of the property) and so on. I suspect all together it amounted to d*mn near a small family farm. We surely didn’t buy anything but exotics (grandma’s attempts to get the hazelnut tree to fruit never worked) and meat/fish. And grandma ran all of that (up to the time she died, pretty much, when she was paying for someone to come do the actual work, but still running it and distributing the produce.) I understand before I was born, ie before grandma’s mom died, and she had to face killing things she’d raised, we also grew a lot of the meat up to and including a small calf. (When I was a kid the chickens were mostly layers and a lot of them became pets and were given “retirement.”)
So, woman in the kitchen with her children about her is rather a wrong idea.
But never minding that”: were most women in the village happy “just being wives and mothers” Well, most of them weren’t. At the very least they were housekeepers in time and place where this involved sometimes carrying clothes to the public washing through (built by Trajan. The inscription said so. The weird thing is that it was called “the river” though it wasn’t, but a stone square with the water diverted to flow through it and down into the drainage ditch. BUT before it was built women washed in the river and linguistic habit is an odd thing.) then beating the living daylights out of them, after soaping them with soap you might or might not have made, then carrying the sodden mass back home in a huge basket, to hang in your own property. (We didn’t have to do that because we had our own “tank” which was more like the “river” than like washing tanks you’ve seen. Family lore says my brother went head first into it at three, but they fished him out in time to revive him. I wasn’t allowed near it till I was tall enough to stand in the water.)
Still let’s call these women “just wives and mothers” since most of them had no career in the modern sense.
Were they happy?
What do you mean by happy? I mean, seriously. Sometimes I think happy is a modern invention. Very modern. Acquired through radio, television, books.
What is “Happy”? Does anyone go around in a flutter of blue birds and singing Disney princess songs, all the time? Or do you call “being generally contented with life” “happy”?
This is important, because it has a bearing on the conclusion of whether women should stay home with children to be happier.
I think if you’d asked most of these women if they were contented with their lot, they’d have said yes, even though a significant number of them were really tight on money and a lot of them got beat at least once a week.
But see, here’s the thing: this is what they’d been taught to expect. They’d grown up expecting this sort of married life and looking forward to its consolations: children, a home of their own, an old age surrounded by grandchildren who respected them. Hankering for a life where they weren’t beat, or a life where they had a “career” in the modern sense would never occur to them, and no it wasn’t oppression necessarily. Well, being beat was, but not not having a career. Most of them would have said “but I don’t want that. Don’t I have enough to do with the kids?” And the idea of not getting married at all would have made them very unhappy because, being normal women, most of them liked men.
So if you took a survey of their contentment, most of them would be pretty high.
On the other hand, if you took a survey of women like my mom and grandma – women of the striving class – you’d get a much lower level of contentment. But if you thought it was because they (and my grandmother’s grandmother before her, etc, world without end) didn’t like working, you’d have it backwards. Women in my family worked because they weren’t contented with “just” being wives and mothers. They expected more and had ambitions, so their level of contentment was always lower, as they wanted to get further ahead/do more. Stopping working wouldn’t make them happy. It would make them more neurotic. (My mom had to stop working for health reasons when I was twelve. We’ll draw a veil of decency over about five years, until she discovered investing and jumped into that, leaving me – thank heavens – in peace and no longer micro-managed.)
So, would sending all women back to the kitchen and children make them happier? I don’t know.
Look, most women, like most men don’t want a “career.” They work because they have to, because our system of taxes makes a one-working-parent family nearly impossible (trust me I have reason to know. I didn’t start making any money at all from writing till Robert was about six.) Some percentage of the women also work because they’ve been shamed into it. (At the lowest level, the cost of daycare, work clothes, transport, outweighs the money they bring in. Not to say her job is useless. Just having resilience during layoffs which are a feature of our time, is worth it.) But a large percentage of men and women have no lofty ambitions and are never going to set the world on fire in a career.
Staying home with kids might make these women (and men) happier. But then you have to wonder if they’d be a material addition to the household, if they hadn’t learned to make and scrape. But that’s something else.
Part of the problem with the “everyone would be better for a career” movement is that it comes from people with a career, people who always wanted to have one and who learned and studied and who would work even if they became millionaires tomorrow.
Cast your mind back to high school. Remember the vast mass of your classmates? They were there because they had to be there. For all they learned and all the pleasure they derived from it, they might as well have quit in second or third grade. (Even if this were when schools still taught.) Why would you think this changes with adulthood? Why do you think women (or men) want to devote eight hours of their lives to some random activity they get paid for?
The essence of humanity is to do just enough to get by. People like me who are compelled to work at something are broken. There’s something wrong inside us. (The fact that hobbies are much higher and taken more seriously – like mini-careers — among Americans than anywhere else in the world makes me wonder if we have a higher percentage of people born broken in that peculiar way. It would explain much.)
There is something else to consider which those who were never mothers might or might not know. I was not ever a particularly good mother. I like kids, but they’re not the center of my existence. However, when I had to work when the kids were little, like when Dan was unemployed and I took a job while he was looking for one, I missed them constantly. Even when my work was doing better, and we hired someone to look after the kids so I could write more, it only lasted a year, because I realized no, this was NOT the part I wanted to subcontract. House cleaning, sure. My kids, no.
There was a very strong sense of ownership and also the ah… sense of responsibility for them. But there was also an instinctive-level attachment which I think would have been painful to break. I wondered what they were doing, ALL the time.
As for “we’d have more children if women just stayed home,” it’s probably right, but it misses a factor. It would greatly help if men either stayed home or had more flexible schedules. With all the will in the world, there were long periods of time that Dan came home, collapsed into bed for four hours, shaved and went back to work. You can’t – ahem – rouse the dead. And this was normal scheduling for programmers in that day and age. Which means our kids are that far apart because he was establishing himself in his work.
If having kids is a priority – and I think it will be, and soon enough. We might limp another fifty years with trick statistics, but sooner or later we’re going to “get” it and panic – then the best system for it would be work from home which I suspect is the way we’re going anyway. For men and women.
As for happiness… meh.
I suspect most of the women who are happier staying home with the kids would have been happier doing it even if they had a work at home job. It’s all in what you expect.
The women with “careers” who are impelled to it to “show” the men and who never married because of their feminist faith, etc. they’re the other side of the coin. I don’t think they’d have been happy ever, at any time and with anything.
And then there’s people like me. What does woman want?
Impossible to say. Freud, like Marx, is dead. There are some basic things all women want including food and shelter and food and shelter for their kids, and possibly someone/something to love.
After that needs vary. This particular woman– and most women she knows– wants all that, plus she wants her kids to be successful and happy, she wants her husband to be happy, she wants to continue working at her craft since she feels compelled to, and she wants to make a decent living out of it. Most of all, she wants the chattering heads to shut up. She would have been just as unhappy in a corporate career as she would have been in “just” motherhood. Both would have bored her to tears.
In the current state, despite the fact she has nine kids less than she wanted and all the uncertainties and upheavals of this stellar economy, she’s pretty happy. I mean, not right after she reads politics, but pretty happy. And she wouldn’t trade all of this for queenship over the known universe and the fawning of courtiers.
So I guess this woman has got what she wants*.
Let women be individuals just like men are individuals and stop pushing them this way and that. Let them find their own happiness.
*And since she’s lapsed into talking of herself in the third person again, it might be wise to give her an evil-villains lair stat before she decides what she wants are some minions in the piranha tank.