The Mother’s Gauntlet
Homemaking is a daily battle for self-governance in an increasingly hostile world.
“Of course, this is the reason women went into the workforce in the first place.” My mom, a working mother herself, explained this to me as I was fretting on the phone to her about how difficult my day at home with my first-born son had been. It was early 2008 in L.A., before the crash but not before the little cracks and sputters that presaged it. I had given birth to my first son; I was living the trad wife dream of staying home and the academic’s dream of having my bills and livelihood provided by someone else. And I was unhappy.
The misery of comfortable women is a great paradox. Why should someone who is provided for, who is set up with a middle-class lifestyle in order to simply take care of her own children all day long, be unhappy? Why do so many women run from it? The difficulty women face in staying home and raising their own children is the subject of countless books and articles, the launcher of a thousand Twitter threads. The majority of people are tired of hearing about it, and I don’t blame them. It reeks of coddled selfishness and lack of perspective.
But of course, at the same time we do expect conservative women of means to stay home and care for their own children. The political Right prescribes it outright—rearing small children in their own home produces vastly superior outcomes. It is understood, and lamented, that many couples cannot afford for one parent to stay home. Thus, the political discourse turns to economic policies to help remove the financial barriers.
Yet, as my own mother admitted to me on the phone 15 years ago, perhaps women are hesitant to stay home with their children for reasons more fundamental than finance. If conservatives really want to defeat girlboss culture, they will have to reckon seriously with this possibility. Perhaps women enter the workforce en masse because it is more immediately rewarding than staying home with small children. Perhaps both society at large and husbands in particular are more appreciative of the working mother. Perhaps work outside the home is easier?
Men will affirm and repeat on command that staying home and rearing children is the hardest and most honorable job a woman could have. Do they actually believe that? I wonder if most of them quietly think their coddled wives have it easy. As a child of a working mother, I confess I held that view until I knew better.
A Terrifying Freedom
The American homemaker is virtually alone in her enjoyment of no immediate superior, no managers, no HR, no boss. She is the boss. Her job description is to make decent people out of the kids she gives birth to, using the resources provided for her by her husband and American society at large. What a dream job! Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to enjoy that kind of freedom? It is something similar to the self-employed entrepreneur, except even the financing is provided.
That total freedom is in some ways the source of the dissatisfaction. The lack of supervisors and peers, the absence of enforced schedules, and the loss of systems and productivity boosters which all working Americans enjoy makes job performance a little problematic, to say the least. Most of the time, no one is watching. No one is cheering. No one is there to keep you honest; and worst of all, no one is there to tell you what ought to be done now vs. later that day vs. next week vs. never. What this means is that there is no system to prevent you from slipping into your worst habits day in, day out.
And your habits are the crux of the issue.
Life at home with small children requires self-governance. One must be free of slavery to lower passions, lower pursuits, character weakness, and laziness in order to do it really well. And almost no one notices when you do it poorly, particularly in the early years. You could slip into depression and watch soap operas all day while your kid languishes in his crib, and no one would know. You could fail to interact with your child at all—only accomplishing the bare minimum washing and feeding—and most people would shrug and say well, you’re doing your best.
Only your child’s behavior will eventually tattle on you, but even then society is equipped with a million reasons as to why children turn out uncivilized. Your best friends, your husband, even your parents will offer excuses as to why you have failed to make your own children likable, governable, socialized. Everyone understands. These things happen and some children are just very difficult.
But you’ll know if you fail.
One might object to the idea that homemaking requires an almost superhuman amount of self-governance. After all, isn’t it mostly about keeping the kids alive, fed, and your home kind of running on a basic level? That can’t be that hard. Yet it is precisely because the standards imposed externally are so low that the job can be so unsatisfying. The stay-at-home mom unconsciously applies her own standard, above and outside of the rest of society. Despite any protestations to the contrary, she knows her job demands more than subsistence. Her household has set aside the life of an entire adult, and all the income and aspirations she could have chased, so that she can raise the children. That sacrifice demands a thriving family, not a family that simply survives. The stakes are unbelievably high.
Yet for all that, my days as a new mother consisted in waiting around for my infant son to need something tangible—a nursing, a diaper change, comfort—and otherwise wondering what on earth I was supposed to do with my time. What do you do with one kid all day? You end up making your own cloth wipes, switching to cloth diapers, and making breastfeeding into something approaching a Nobel-prize worthy endeavor, just to fill the time. Maybe you take up homesteading or you try to source all your own food, just to make it harder than it is. Just to feel proud of what you are accomplishing.
Then once the early years give way to life with multiple toddlers and babies, you find yourself so busy that you have no patience for your bougie wipes and weird diets and mom-life-as-art anymore. There are now a million things that should be done but few things that really must be done. Empty time abounds, but no free time or spare attention to pursue anything else with diligence.
The difficulty I faced as a 25-year-old grad student is something almost every new mother must confront. It is fundamentally a problem of self-governance. Can you make yourself do things you’d rather not do? Do you have the prudence to decide what should be done now and what can wait until later? Are you able to direct yourself and use your time well when no one is supervising you? Can you define success and failure for yourself? As your kids grow older, can you build a thriving community around them to help launch them into the adult world?
What happens when life suddenly requires decades of unseen work that is not celebrated? What happens when you remove yourself from a system and go rogue? All of the supervision, all of the motivation, all of the structure must then come from you. You must become precisely the type of thing America no longer produces: quietly self-directed, self-governing, and self-motivated.
The Self-Governed Child
As difficult as self-governance is, producing kids who are capable of governing themselves is infinitely harder. Raising kids who require no supervision and no oversight, who will eventually do what they ought to do when no one is watching, is a far-away dream, approaching fantasy, for the young mother. But this is precisely what the Right asks of young conservative families. We tell them to pull their children from public school and educate them at home, shield the kids from popular culture, and create communities and households that foster virtue, disconnected from and therefore immune to the progressive Leviathan. Who knows how to do any of that?
Homeschooling is only possible if you’ve set up your household to produce a certain type of kid: The kind of kid you can assign some unpalatable math work or science problems to at 8 a.m. and be confident they will go off by themselves and complete that difficult task faithfully by 4 p.m. when you’re ready to look it over. There is no other way—and ideally, the household that produces a self-governing child will begin to walk down that path in the first years of the child’s life. Public and private schools run on models—systems—designed for kids who do not necessarily have the ability to make themselves do unpleasant tasks with minimal supervision. The home school cannot do this. There simply aren’t the supervisory and management hours to allow it.
When young mothers look for help with either raising children or educating them, they are met with a thousand and one solutions tailored to address the what of the job, and almost nothing to illuminate the how. The most difficult part of homeschooling children is not the educating part. It is the discipline and training part. The most difficult part of staying home with small children is not the cooking, cleaning, and caring. It is in the long, slow process of disciplining and training yourself so that you will faithfully do all of those things well, and endeavor to raise children who will also be self-governing.
Again, none of this is mandatory. But women instinctively understand that removing themselves and their children from the systems and institutions designed to help modern working parents to raise their children, as many on the Right prescribe, will produce two absolutely terrifying outcomes. One, a total dearth of structure and incentives. And two, the loss of a convenient and soul-soothing place to lay the blame if the kids don’t turn out. Women understand that they will be completely exposed. When both parents work and institutions raise the kids, both parents are somewhat on the hook if the kids turn out poorly. A stay-at-home mom, however, cannot scapegoat her spouse, the education system, or the childcare industry.
The Freedom of Self-Governance
The reason most women flee the home is because homemaking actually is the most difficult job in the world. It is the job of making oneself and one’s children self-governing.
Because of this, it is also potentially the most rewarding. If one is self-governing, one is free. If you want to succeed and thrive, and particularly if you want to rise above the most basic slavish jobs and low-expectation relationships, you must learn to make yourself do things you don’t want to do. Self-governance is the reason we can have nice things. It allows us to live outside of constant supervision and conformity. People who can manage and motivate themselves are capable of reaching the heights of financial, educational, and personal achievement.
Of course, self-governing men and women exist in all sectors of the economy, and the successful stay-at-home mother is not unique in her achievement of liberating herself from the need to be supervised and motivated by someone else. But our American political system, our culture, and our educational system are now unmistakably tailored to the service of those currently incapable of self-governance. This development has far-reaching consequences. Insofar as we can no longer trust ourselves to police our behavior internally, then society must build more external controls to ensure compliance and order.
A self-governing people is free and therefore capable of maintaining a republican form of government. It is no coincidence that Americans increasingly feel a loss of freedom as we have lost interest in teaching ourselves and our children to be self-governing. As institutions grow to accommodate the demands of modern American life, the necessity of ubiquitous supervision, of managing behavior and funneling humans through something resembling an education system, but moving inexorably toward a form of imprisonment, grows.
Staying home with your children and homeschooling them is entirely optional. Removing oneself and one’s family from decaying institutions is not necessary. But increasingly, it is recommended.
If we are going to ask women to stay home and raise children, if we are going to tell them to pull their kids from schools and homeschool them, we should know what it is that we are asking. The stay-at-home mom cannot escape into a system and hide from her own ungovernability. Not only will she tell on herself, but her children, her life’s greatest work, will eventually tell on her, too. It is a monumental task, calling forth resolution and self-possession on a scale that most of us have never practiced. For that very reason, it is ennobling. But it is also a severe and demanding road bereft of honors and outside encouragement. Our advertisements for homemaking should include that fact—this is a spiritual battle, not a cakewalk. Expectations need to be set at that level.
Otherwise, as my mother said, women will flee into the workplace.
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