Diapers, Dishes, and Dusting

October 2, 2009 | 25 comments
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Yesterday, a Mormon Times article began with this opener: “For Finnish music star Mervi Hiltunen-Multamäki, trading in exotic concert locales, a prime-time TV show and platinum records for diapers, dishes and dusting was an easy decision. Maybe that’s because following the prophet has never been hard for her.”

Not only did I have a knee-jerk reaction toward this comment, I have a more significant knee-jerk reaction to the culture that these sentences manifest. I would love to see the journalist receive constructive public and professional criticism, but even more I would like to see a cultural uprising that no longer allowed this to be an acceptable opener.

I think that any competent English speaker who reads these words understands something like the following: women who maintain their interest and involvement in pre-partum passions and social callings rather than choosing full-time confinement to the domestic, is failing to follow the prophet. Implicit is an assumption that the proper interpretation of prophetic statements such as “Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children” is that mothers need no longer be participants in life beyond the (sometimes) meaningful and (sometimes) menial chores of motherhood. What’s needed – and what our prophets explicitly call for – is a definitive and substantive commitment to our children and family, our first priority, not the eschewing of all outside involvement.

Similarly, any of us who are familiar with motherhood and our undeniably chauvinistic market (in structure and in its ability to take account of motherhood if not in mere opportunity) know the wrenchingly difficult decision that women have to make when they have children. And it’s not simply a decision of whether to keep one’s full-time job or not, but a decision concerning how much and in what way they will continue to pursue the sorts of things that to this point have constituted the majority of their life, a decision concerning how much and in what way they will continue to be a participant in the society to which they belong. The opening of this article states plainly that any women who have to confront these difficulties as difficulties (all of them?) are less worthy or somehow not following the prophet.

It’s a particular problem with this being the opening line, since most readers aren’t going to read down to some of the other important things in the article that help offset the nauseating opening (e.g., Mervi had no problem marrying her rockstar life with her Mormonism, though like all of us, she had to take certain stands; she continued to work, even as a mother, occasionally recording and performing; and the very last line implies an equally passionate devotion to both music and children – this might even be a bit radical). But there’s a reason why this type of article is so common, and why we rarely see alternative examples of faithful motherhood – why for instance, each new Mission President called is highlighted in the Church News with a blip about their callings and career, together with the callings and number of children of their wives, with never a mention of what else these women do with their lives.

And it has much more to do with an unhealthy culture than official prophetic statements – I find much more to the contrary in prophetic statements, encouragement for women to develop themselves as much as possible, and lauding them in all of the variants on the theme of committed motherhood that they faithfully pursue. I don’t see our culture producing very many articles or trite openers implicitly or explicitly criticizing the successful CEO who is also serving as Bishop/Stake President for not choosing a different path in life that would allow for more family time. What of the husbands who after a 50 hour work week (not including the commute) join a sports team, or golf on the weekends, or takes professional or academic classes to get ahead in the business world? I find a genuine disparity in the frequency and manner of our collective criticism. Do we have anything like a prevailing norm for good fatherhood in terms of time-spent-doing-what? It is an unhealthy cultural attitude that imparts to so many of our women the idea that they are sinning if they pursue interests beyond “diapers, dishes, and dusting,” while overlooking the husband’s obligation to ensure his wife has plentiful time and opportunity for her own extra-motherial flourishing; and it is an unhealthy cultural attitude that makes this type of article-opener less than what it really is: scandalous.

The culture manifest in this sort of line is one that gives life to and reinforces a host of unhealthy, chauvinistic assumptions that lead many women of our faith into 1. depression; 2. apostasy or community disconnect; or 3. a less flourishing life than they could otherwise have. Perhaps the most negative stereotype reinforced is a ridiculous and offensively false dichotomy: either a woman is at home with “diapers, dishes, and dusting” and consequently following the prophet, or else she continues to pursue her passions and so follows the seduction of Satan. The style and rhetoric of this sort of article, pulling in celebrity, mirrors the articles about our star athlete boys who put off sports to serve missions: either they get rid of the stardom (temporarily) and follow the prophet, or they don’t. There’s much less wiggle room with missions than with motherhood, and the parallel articles, even ones like this that acknowledge other things going on, reinforce the idea that these are similar choices. But if indeed, maintaining interests, passions, and the work that those passions (or spiritual direction) sometimes entail are following Satan, then we ought to adopt a page from Eve’s book and bite the forbidden in order to make a more glorious future for us and our posterity.

But the reality is, the dichotomy doesn’t exist – either practically or in what the prophets say over the pulpit (at least in nothing like the rigid, binary form this assumption often takes in our culture and that leads to the problems mentioned above). Particularly later in his term, President Hinckley made over-the-pulpit acknowledgment of a much broader spectrum of possibility. And how could he do otherwise? There is a broad and diverse array of possibilities (and often necessities) that this sort of simplistic binary categorization problematically ignores.

Something that deserves an entire post to itself (and I nominate Kylie to write it, who has previously articulated the complexities inherent) is the question of what it means be a primary nurturer, and what exactly a “stay at home mother” is. Does one need always to be within the walls of her home? Does one need to cancel out all other obligations and interests? Does it mean that if one works, one should only work within the home? Part-time? Not at all if possible? Is there something inherently superior in shopping, eating out with friends, and blogging on Times & Seasons while children are at school instead of working as a local librarian? (And thank heavens for a prosperous society that allows some stay at home mothers to do these sorts of things rather than succumbing to the loneliness and alienation of our nuclear society.) Can a woman be involved in local government? PTA? Political campaigns? Activist activities? Is it healthier for our children to see inactive mothers than mothers who in addition to a primary commitment to their children, likewise embody a commitment to improving society? Is this really an either/or choice? Are women so frail as to be incapable of more than one thing in their lives? And if so, when exactly did this unfortunate change take place?  One doesn’t have to go back very far in our own Mormon heritage to find women who, in addition to giving their full-time commitment to raising up children in righteousness, worked far more than 40 hours per week to make their frontier households and communities operate, and to ensure that their children could afford an education. Nor does one have to search in-depth to find statements like this one from our prophets:

We believe that women are useful, not only to sweep houses, wash dishes, make beds, and raise babies, but that they should stand behind the counter, study law or physics [i.e., medicine], or become good bookkeepers and be able to do the business in any counting house, and all this to enlarge their sphere of usefulness for the benefit of society at large. In following these things they but answer the design of their creation. (Brigham Young, JD 13:61)

Another topic worthy of its own post (and this time I nominate Kaimi who has expressed this quite well), is the fact that stay at home mothers (whatever definition we settle on for that term) do need to be recognized and honored. We all know that none of the public, social prestige or awards inherent in a career within the “market economy” accrue to motherhood. From our lack of public-sphere attention to the lack of either laws or a culture requiring substantive and realistic maternity leave, the United States (one of only two developed nations that lack such laws) proves it’s lack of concern for truly supporting mothers – particularly those who stay at home. The last thing I want to do is make any form of stay at home mother feel more guilt or more need to compare herself with others. We need to give stay at home mothers all the credit that they deserve. But we can surely do this without denigrating or accusing those faithfully living in alternative situations. And we can surely do this without appealing to humanity’s base desire to feel superior for the decisions one has made. The article-opener above invites and strengthens unhealthy comparison.

An obvious objection is that I’m reading way more into these two sentences than are really there. Overall, the article isn’t nearly as bad as others I’ve seen recently. But its opening line is. The problem is not simply the propositions (which I find repugnant enough in themselves), but the entire framework of meaning and normative significance – that is, the entire worldview – that surrounds them and gives force to the propositions. Consequently, it’s not a matter of reading between the lines what’s really not there, but absolutely insisting that we not pretend there is nothing between the lines, or pretending that if we merely narrow in on de-contextualized propositions everything is really ok. Logical value or inference may suffice for philosophers and linguists, but this is not the way language and communication work. Propositions are never themselves without context; all statements are pregnant. Words find their life and raison d’etre in our present culture – as poets, marketers, journalists and competent language users have always realized. This also means that authorial intent is not an excuse (however much politicians and students receiving bad grades on their papers wish it were) – someone unable to realize the normative force and cultural significance of their statements, and not simply their “technical” meaning, should not be congratulated on their precision and accuracy, but noted as being communicatively incompetent.

The reality is that there’s nothing apostate in following one’s passions and spiritual direction outside the home as a woman, anymore than there is as a man, so long as the husband and wife (woman and man) maintain an equal and primary devotion to the family and specifically the children that are raised. Likewise, there’s absolutely nothing glorious or ennobling about “daipers, dishes, and dusting;” it’s necessary, and can perhaps build us in the same way that trials and sacrifice can generally. But we perpetuate dysfunctionality when we pretend like there’s something more in it than that.

25 Responses to Diapers, Dishes, and Dusting

  1. Jane on October 2, 2009 at 11:57 pm

    Very thought-provoking. I struggle with these kinds of worries all the time (as a sahm).

    This week on the tv show Bones, there was an Amish teenager who was a piano prodigy, but chose the church over his music. I remember thinking “how could God expect or want someone to waste the talent He gave them? How could THAT be God’s plan?”

    I think if someone is blessed with a passion or talent for any beautiful thing, it would be a sin to not pursue it, whatever other callings also come into her life.

  2. E on October 3, 2009 at 12:37 am

    Love your commentary on this topic. Thanks for the articulate way you show what I agree is the problem with the opening paragraph of the article.

  3. jeans on October 3, 2009 at 7:19 am

    AMEN!!!

  4. Julie M. Smith on October 3, 2009 at 7:35 am

    As much as I agree with your post in general, I have to say that this phrase:

    “choosing full-time confinement to the domestic”

    got my knee jerking. Confinement? Why not liberation? Or even just commitment?

    This sentence grumped me out, too:

    “Are women so frail as to be incapable of more than one thing in their lives?”

    I know your intentions are good here, but there’s nothing that piles on the guilt like the suggestion that you are frail if you are incapable of doing something else while raising your children at the same time.

    Next landmine:

    “the lack of either laws or a culture requiring substantive and realistic maternity leave”

    If said maternity leave is funded via tax dollars, it means less money for people who make the choice *not* to be employed and therefore use maternity leave. If said maternity leave is funded by corporations, it means the same thing. I find it interesting how often “more maternity leave” comes up as part of the “solution” to the problems of motherhood, yet you almost never hear proposals for a subsidy for mothers who choose to be home permanently. More maternity leave financially privileges working mothers at the expense of SAHMs. (And it is also true that a subsidy for SAHMs would privilege SAHMs at the expense of working mothers.)

    Moral: This topic cannot be discussed without offending someone.

    I have two other objections to that statement, in addition to the ones you raised:

    (1) It equates motherhood with diapers, dishes, and dusting. I explored my rage over that practice in this post:

    http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2005/05/an-open-letter-to-the-graphics-director-of-the-ensign/

    (2) I suppose you did mention this, but I need to put it in starker terms: I do not know a single woman who doesn’t occasionally agonize over the choices that she has made. (There probably are women who don’t agonize, but I’ve never met them. I seriously doubt they are a majority.) The phrasing of this sentence turns those women–even the ones who have made enormous sacrifices to be home with their children–into doubters of the prophets. That felt like an enormous slap in the face.

  5. kew on October 3, 2009 at 8:49 am

    Wow, that is a stunning opening line. It reminds me of Barbara Thompson in the RS meeting last week having to assert that her life still has meaning even though she does not have a husband or children. I do agree that there are serious cultural problems, and I enjoyed the analysis.

  6. Ben on October 3, 2009 at 9:01 am

    Good pushback Julie. One of my problems, whether in reading an article or GD class, is if I hear something that wrankles me, I spend the next 15 minutes seething and trying to figure out how to make a constructive comment instead of looking past the offending intent to see what *else* is said.

  7. James Olsen on October 3, 2009 at 9:56 am

    Indeed, good pushback Julie. Another example wherein authorial intent doesn’t matter as much as how the community understands what has been said. As to the landmines themselves:

    With the first two lines you take issue with, my intent was not to claim that this is what takes place; this was not meant to be an accurate description of the reality of the scenario, but a description of how the false dichotomy inaccurately categorizes things. Choosing any level of stay at home motherhood involves more than just the domestic, much more than diapers, dishes, and dusting, just as you note. It is always doing more than one thing. Regardless, you give me another opportunity to emphasize what I said above, and genuinely mean:

    The last thing I want to do is make any form of stay at home mother feel more guilt or more need to compare herself with others.

    I think your moral is clearly right.

    As to taxes, I disagree with your basic premise that taxing means “less” for those who choose not to be employed. Different countries handle differently those who choose not to participate in the overall market economy. But regardless, even if in an individualized case it means less money for an individual, I think there’s a parallel b/w taking money for maternity leave from everyone and taking money for public education or interstate highways from everyone: it is a way of improving society as a whole and making a societal commitment to mothers’ bonding with and having crucial time with their children. I’m not an economist, but I know that there is good, rigorous debate among economists about whether it is legitimate to ignore the economic impact of good motherhood, and how and in what way to quantificationally bring this aspect of our lives into our economic measurements.

  8. cchrissyy on October 3, 2009 at 9:59 am

    like Julie’s final point, I was struck by the writer saying it was “an easy decision” because “following the prophet has never been hard for her”.

    Is that a good thing? Is her story richer or more noteworthy, are we supposed to be more admiring, because somebody did what came easily to them?

    In my experience, things are always more complex than that, and if that was the case for this woman, I don’t think we’re doing her any favors to oversimplify her story and take away the richness of her struggles, even assuming that we all agreed her final decision was the ‘right’ one.

  9. James Olsen on October 3, 2009 at 10:22 am

    cchrissy: I can’t help but wonder what Sister Hiltunen-Multamaki herself thought of this opening. Did she get to preview the article?

  10. Mark B. on October 3, 2009 at 10:47 am

    There is a rather delicious irony in this sentence from the original post:

    I think that any competent English speaker who reads these words understands something like the following: women who maintain their interest and involvement in pre-partum passions and social callings rather than choosing full-time confinement to the domestic, is [sic] failing to follow the prophet.

  11. Peter LLC on October 3, 2009 at 10:57 am

    you almost never hear proposals for a subsidy for mothers who choose to be home permanently

    Well, come to Austria where subsidies for all pregnant mothers (eight weeks before birth) and all parents (until child becomes independent or reaches 27 years, whichever comes first), whether working or not, are a fait accompli.

  12. Ziff on October 3, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    I know this is in some sense tangential to your major point (which I also appreciated) but I really like this point you made:

    Propositions are never themselves without context; all statements are pregnant. Words find their life and raison d’etre in our present culture – as poets, marketers, journalists and competent language users have always realized. This also means that authorial intent is not an excuse (however much politicians and students receiving bad grades on their papers wish it were) – someone unable to realize the normative force and cultural significance of their statements, and not simply their “technical” meaning, should not be congratulated on their precision and accuracy, but noted as being communicatively incompetent.

    I feel like I’ve had a fair number of arguments that boiled down to someone saying to me “no GA ever said that” and me saying “but he clearly implied it” and the other person responding “if he didn’t say it outright, he didn’t mean it; it’s your own personal interpretation.” Your explanation here makes the point well that I always wished to make but was never quite articulate and clear-thinking enough to get to. So thank you.

  13. Kylie on October 3, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    I like how you bring it back around to parenthood at the end. I was sitting here wondering if there would ever be an opening line about a father put in anywhere close to the same context–ie, For Dr. Tom Jones, trading an office visit with one last patient for diapers, dishes and dusting is an easy decision Maybe that’s because following the prophet’s advice to put his family first has never been hard for him.” I have not ever heard such a statement. Is it because we do not equate fatherhood with household chores? Maybe because, while men are consistently told to put their families first, we rarely celebrate that in concrete terms with real people? Interesting.

  14. James Olsen on October 3, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    Mark B: Made me laugh. Would you like to replace my current editor?

    Ziff: the non-propositional content in language is something I think is crucial and often overlooked. Using it trying to make your point, the way I do here, and the way you mention in some of your own discussions, however, can be just as dangerous as its opposite. It too can be used as a way of ignoring what is said.

  15. ESO on October 3, 2009 at 7:04 pm

    Hang on, I’m confused:

    Julie said
    “If said maternity leave is funded via tax dollars, it means less money for people who make the choice *not* to be employed”

    How can there be less than zero money? It is women who make the choice NOT to be employed that are choosing zero money, right?

    FWIW I would be happy to enlarge maternity benefits almost no matter what the cost. But I’m that kind of gal: I love to pay taxes and I love funding the social services. Like someone said, it is the cost to individual vs cost to society thing–society trumps the individual in my world.

    And also, I had to take sick leave for my maternity leave (and when that ran out after 3 weeks, was simply unpaid for two months). Giving birth is not an illness.

  16. Julie M. Smith on October 3, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    ESO, if our taxes go up by X dollars per year because of increased maternity leave paid by the gov, and I don’t see any of that benefit because I’m a SAHM, then that policy is a financial penalty for SAHMs, inasmuch as it means less money in their husbands’ paychecks.

    There are social programs that I would (and do) support even though they are a net drain on our household income, because I feel that they benefit society. I don’t think increased maternity leave would be one of them, unless there was also a similar benefit for SAHMs because I don’t think we should privilege one form of motherhood at the expense of another.

    (However, I’ve long thought that parents should be able to claim social security benefits to stay home and parent in exchange for a later retirement.)

  17. ESO on October 3, 2009 at 7:52 pm

    Oh–interesting idea about SS.

    When we lived in UK, my mom (SAHM) got some money every month–a certain amount for each kid. I don’t really know how much it was, and I am sure it was modest (as in, it would not enable someone to stay home rather than work if there was a need). But I wonder how you might feel about that sort of a thing. Each kid under a certain age is worth x amount to the government, so the parents get it regardless of their income/lack of. It may be enough to get some moms to stay home, but for others, it might be a nice cushion for child care, etc.

    Anyway, this is a complex issue, but I am not satisfied in saying that we (the US) should accept the status quo. In many ways, I think America is rather child-unfriendly, and having so little support for parents of new babies is only one reason.

  18. Julie M. Smith on October 3, 2009 at 8:13 pm

    ESO, that kind of program is something I would support, assuming it was enacted to be deficit neutral (i.e., with an accompanying spending cut or tax increase).

  19. Starfoxy on October 3, 2009 at 8:35 pm

    I feel compelled to ask that we make a distinction between unpaid maternity leave (as in the FMLA, where you don’t get paid, but you don’t lose your job either) and paid maternity leave.

    I don’t see how government mandated unpaid maternity (and paternity) leave would hurt a SAHP at all. I can see why some businesses may be averse to it, but I think the social benefits would outweigh the costs.

    I would *love* to see a set up where there is a year’s worth of leave and it is up to the parents how they will spend it (both at home for 6 mo. One at home for the first 6 the other the next 6 etc). There is good reason to believe that fathers spending that kind of time with children early on increases their sense of duty to the child- regardless of the relationship to the mother.

  20. queuno on October 4, 2009 at 11:50 pm

    Not sure how well maternity leave programs really work in industries with clearly defined ABC compensation (“Activity-Based Compensation”) models.

    I.e., you get paid based on your activities at work — not a set salary year, etc.

  21. James Olsen on October 5, 2009 at 7:21 am

    Again, not being an economist, I’ve little to say on the specifics of maternity/parent leave/subsidy possibilities, beyond to say there are many working models in the developed world to examine and choose/modify from. But I think the question is bigger than this, and my claim is that our lack of anything at all is another symptom of our lack of societal support for mothers specifically and the family generally.

    Does anyone have suggestions as to ways in which we might, as a society, take a greater stand to support mothers (and fathers) raising children?

  22. Frank McIntyre on October 5, 2009 at 10:03 am

    “Again, not being an economist, I’ve little to say”

    Well I saw this in the sidebar and it occurred to me that, since I was an economist perhaps I would have something to say.

    “I don’t see how government mandated unpaid maternity (and paternity) leave would hurt a SAHP at all. I can see why some businesses may be averse to it”

    Your comment answers itself. If businesses are averse to it, then the best guess is that there is a cost to the firm. Competitive markets will then pass those costs to the workers who incur the cost, in the form of lower wages or hiring preferences.

    I know of at least a couple papers that look at this issue empirically and find that women’s wages fall relative to men’s when maternity leave regulations are put in place. One paper uses U.S. state laws, the other uses European countries. Neither is perfect, but they are perhaps the best available evidence.

  23. Cameron on October 5, 2009 at 11:02 am

    @ #8, Saying something is easy doesn’t help much, but I think there was a good conference talk yesterday about how we can take steps that permit the Lord to make things easy for us.

  24. Cameron on October 5, 2009 at 11:13 am

    Sorry for the double post, but I re-read the OP and thank you for those points. I agree that the problem is usually when we read into inspired counsel from either extreme, when in reality there is no conflict, although there are sacrifices to be made.

  25. Kate on October 6, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    Interesting thoughts, James. Of course, you know that I would agree with you almost entirely–I thought the most thought provoking was the following sentences:

    Do we have anything like a prevailing norm for good fatherhood in terms of time-spent-doing-what? It is an unhealthy cultural attitude that imparts to so many of our women the idea that they are sinning if they pursue interests beyond “diapers, dishes, and dusting,” while overlooking the husband’s obligation to ensure his wife has plentiful time and opportunity for her own extra-motherial flourishing;