Monday, July 11, 2011

Family Work

I've recently felt the unfairness of me, the mother, taking on the majority of the family/household responsibilities.  Aren't we a team?  Shouldn't we all be helping out?  Why are we adults trying to do all the work while the children watch t.v., then find ways after work is done to go out and entertain the children some more?  I've also wondered if I'm too prude in at least wanting my family to help out more when I see so many around me creating excessive ways to entertain their children and avoid work at home. My friend Jamie posted a link to Family Work by Kathleen Slaugh Bahr and Cheri A. Loveless, which very well addressed my concerns.  You might think this post is long, but the article is even longer!  I'll share my favorite excerpts -- or just go read it yourself!


. . .Caring for our large family [of 13 children] kept all of us busy most of the time. Mother was the overseer of the inside work, and Dad the outside, but I also remember seeing my father sweep floors, wash dishes, and cook meals when his help was needed. As children we often worked together, but not all at the same task. While we worked we talked, sang, quarreled, made good memories, and learned what it meant to be family members, good sons or daughters and fathers or mothers, good Americans, good Christians (emphasis added).

As a young child, I didn't know there was anything unusual about this life. . . . Working hard was what families did, what they always had done. Their work was "family work," the everyday, ordinary, hands-on labor of sustaining life that cannot be ignored--feeding one another, clothing one another, cleaning and beautifying ourselves and our surroundings. It included caring for the sick and tending to the tasks of daily life for those who could not do it for themselves. . . .


. . .When I went to graduate school, I learned that not everyone considered this pattern of family life ideal. At the university, much of what I read and heard belittled family work. . . .  One professor taught that assigning the tasks of nurturing children primarily to women was the root of women's oppression. I was told that women must be liberated from these onerous family tasks so that they might be free to work for money.

. . . Chief among these forces is the idea that because money is power, one's salary is the true indication of one's worth. Another is that the important work of the world is visible and takes place in the public sphere--in offices, factories, and government buildings. According to this ideology, if one wants to make a difference in the world, one must do it through participation in the world of paid work. . . .
Back to Eden

According to scripture, then, the Lord blessed Adam and Eve (and their descendants) with two kinds of labor that would, by the nature of the work itself, help guarantee their salvation. Both of these labors--tilling the earth for food and laboring to rear children (emphasis added)--are family work, work that sustains and nurtures members of a family from one day to the next. But there is more to consider. These labors literally could not be performed in Eden. These are the labors that ensure physical survival; thus, they became necessary only when mankind left a life-sustaining garden and entered a sphere where life was quickly overcome by death unless it was upheld by steady, continual, hard work. Undoubtedly the Lord knew that other activities associated with mortality--like study and learning or developing one's talents--would also be important. But His initial emphasis, in the form of a commandment, was on that which had the power to bring His children back into His presence, and that was family work (emphasis added).


. . .Their work was difficult, and it filled almost every day of their lives. But they recognized their family work as essential, and it was not without its compensations. It was social and was often carried out at a relaxed pace and in a playful spirit.

Yet, long before the close of the 19th century this picture of families working together was changing. People realized that early death was often related to the harshness of their daily routine. . . .

. . . [R]eforms eventually transformed work patterns throughout our culture, which in turn changed the roles of men, women, and children within the family unit.

By the turn of the century, many fathers began to earn a living away from the farm and the household. Thus, they no longer worked side by side with their children. Where a son once forged ties with his father as he was taught how to run the farm or the family business, now he could follow his father's example only by distancing himself from the daily work of the household, eventually leaving home to do his work. 

. . .Historian John Demos notes:  . . ."Now, being fully a father meant being separated from one's children for a considerable part of every working day."

By the 1950s fathers were gone such long hours they became guests in their own homes. The natural connection between fathers and their children was supposed to be preserved and strengthened by playing together. However, play, like work, also changed over the course of the century, becoming more structured, more costly, and less interactive.

Initially, the changing role of women in the family was more subtle because the kind of work they did remained the same. Yet how their tasks were carried out changed drastically over the 20th century, influenced by the modernization of America's factories and businesses. "Housewives" were encouraged to organize, sterilize, and modernize. Experts urged them to purchase machines to do their physical labor and told them that market-produced goods and services were superior because they freed women to do the supposedly more important work of the mind.

Women were told that applying methods of factory and business management to their homes would ease their burdens and raise the status of household work by "professionalizing" it. Surprisingly, these innovations did neither. Machines tended to replace tasks once performed by husbands and children, while mothers continued to carry out the same basic duties. Houses and wardrobes expanded, standards for cleanliness increased, and new appliances encouraged more elaborate meal preparation. More time was spent shopping and driving children to activities. With husbands at work and older children in school, care of the house and young children now fell almost exclusively to mothers, actually lengthening their work day.3 Moreover, much of a mother's work began to be done in isolation. Work that was once enjoyable because it was social became lonely, boring, and monotonous.

Even the purpose of family work was given a facelift. Once performed to nurture and care for one another, it was reduced to "housework" and was done to create "atmosphere." Since work in the home had "use value" instead of "exchange value," it remained outside the market economy and its worth became invisible. Being a mother now meant spending long hours at a type of work that society said mattered little and should be "managed" to take no time at all.

Prior to modernization, children shared much of the hard work, laboring alongside their fathers and mothers in the house and on the farm or in a family business. . .

With industrialization, children joined their families in factory work, but gradually employers split up families, often rejecting mothers and fathers in favor of the cheap labor provided by children. . . . The child labor movement was thus organized to protect the "thousands of boys and girls once employed in sweat shops and factories" from "the grasping greed of business."4 However, the actual changes were much more complex and the consequences more far-reaching.5 Child labor laws, designed to end the abuses, also ended child labor (emphasis added).

At the same time that expectations for children to work were diminishing, new fashions in child rearing dictated that children needed to have their own money and be trained to spend it wisely. Eventually, the relationship of children and work inside the family completely reversed itself: children went from economic asset to pampered consumer.

Thus, for each family member the contribution to the family became increasingly abstract and ever distant from the labor of Adam and Eve, until the work given as a blessing to the first couple had all but disappeared. Today a man feels "free" if he can avoid any kind of physical labor--actual work in the fields is left to migrant workers and illegal aliens. Meanwhile, a woman is considered "free" if she chooses a career over mothering at home, freer still if she elects not to bear children at all.

 For Our Sakes
. . .[I]t is the very things commonly disliked about family work that offer the greatest possibilities for nurturing close relationships and forging family ties. Some people dislike family work because, they say, it is mindless (emphasis added). . . .We can talk, sing, or tell stories as we work. Working side by side tends to dissolve feelings of hierarchy, making it easier for children to discuss topics of concern with their parents. Unlike play, which usually requires mental concentration as well as physical involvement, family work invites intimate conversation between parent and child.

We also tend to think of household work as menial (emphasis added), and much of it is. Yet, because it is menial, even the smallest child can make a meaningful contribution. Children can learn to fold laundry, wash windows, or sort silverware with sufficient skill to feel valued as part of the family. . . .


Another characteristic of ordinary family work that gives it such power is repetition (emphasis added). . . . However, each rendering of a task is a new invitation for all to enter the family circle.

Some people also insist that family work is demeaning (emphasis added) because it involves cleaning up after others in the most personal manner. Yet, in so doing, we observe their vulnerability and weaknesses in a way that forces us to admit that life is only possible day-to-day by the grace of God. We are also reminded of our own dependence on others who have done, and will do, such work for us. We are reminded that when we are fed, we could be hungry; when we are clean, we could be dirty; and when we are healthy and strong, we could be feeble and dependent. . . .


. . .This daily work of feeding and clothing and sheltering each other is perhaps the only opportunity all humanity has in common. Whatever the world takes from us, it cannot take away the daily maintenance needed for survival. . .  (emphasis added).

Family Work in Modern Times

. . .Families working harmoniously together at a relaxed pace is a wonderful ideal, but what about the realities of our day? Men do work away from home, and many feel out-of-step when it comes to family work. Children do go to school, and between homework and other activities do not welcome opportunities to work around the house. Whether mothers are employed outside the home or not, they often live in exhaustion, doing most of the family work without willing help. . . .

. . .Spencer W. Kimball was particularly insistent on the need to grow gardens. . . 

I hope that we understand that, while having a garden, for instance, is often useful in reducing food costs and making available delicious fresh fruits and vegetables, it does much more than this. Who can gauge the value of that special chat between daughter and Dad as they weed or water the garden? How do we evaluate the good that comes from the obvious lessons of planting, cultivating, and the eternal law of the harvest? And how do we measure the family togetherness and cooperating that must accompany successful canning? Yes, we are laying up resources in store, but perhaps the greater good is contained in the lessons of life we learn as we live providently and extend to our children their pioneer heritage. (Emphasis in original.) 

Exemplifying the Attitudes We Want Our Children to Have

. . .Until we feel about family work the way we want our children to feel about it, we will teach them nothing. If we dislike this work, they will know it. If we do not really consider it our work, they will know it. If we wish to hurry and get it out of the way or if we wish we were doing it alone so it could better meet our standards, they will know it. . . .

Refusing Technology That Interferes With Togetherness

. . . Before we accept a scientific "improvement," we should ask ourselves what we are giving up for what we will gain. . . .


Insisting Gently That Children Help


A frequent temptation in our busy lives today is to do the necessary family work by ourselves. A mother, tired from a long day of work in the office, may find it easier to do the work herself than to add the extra job of getting a family member to help. A related temptation is to make each child responsible only for his own mess, to put away his own toys, to clean his own room, to do his own laundry, and then to consider this enough family work to require of a child. When we structure work this way, we may shortchange ourselves by minimizing the potential for growing together that comes from doing the work for and with each other.

Canadian scholars Joan Grusec and Lorenzo Cohen, along with Australian Jacqueline Goodnow, compared children who did "self-care tasks" such as cleaning up their own rooms or doing their own laundry, with children who participated in "family-care tasks" such as setting the table or cleaning up a space that is shared with others. They found that it is the work one does "for others" that leads to the development of concern for others, while "work that focuses on what is one's 'own,'" does not. Other studies have also reported a positive link between household work and observed actions of helpfulness toward others. In one international study, African children who did "predominantly family-care tasks [such as] fetching wood or water, looking after siblings, running errands for parents" showed a high degree of helpfulness while "children in the Northeast United States, whose primary task in the household was to clean their own room, were the least helpful of all the children in the six cultures that were studied" (emphasis added).


Avoiding a Business Mentality at Home

. . .[F]amily work should be directed with the wisdom of a mentor who knows intimately both the task and the student, who appreciates both the limits and the possibilities of any given moment. A common error is to try to make the work "fun" with a game or contest, yet to chastise children when they become naturally playful ("off task," to our thinking). Fond family memories often center around spontaneous fun while working, like pretending to be maids, drawing pictures in spilled flour, and wrapping up in towels to scrub the floor. Another error is to reward children monetarily for their efforts. According to financial writer Grace Weinstein, "Unless you want your children to think of you as an employer and of themselves not as family members but as employees, you should think long and hard about introducing money as a motivational force. Money distorts family feeling and weakens the members' mutual support."

Working Side by Side With Our Children

I am still in awe of the power of shared participation in the simple, everyday work of sustaining life. Helping one another nurture children, care for the land, prepare food, and clean homes can bind lives together. This is the power of family work, and it is this power, available in every home, no matter how troubled, that can end the turmoil of the family, begin to change the world, and bring again Zion.

So, I think I came away with some really good things (in addition to all the quotes).

How can I make work enjoyable?  Make it social by working side by side, talking, singing, and telling stories.

I also really enjoyed the Spencer W. Kimball quote about having a garden.  It seems like the stereotypical culture in Mormondom is to have a garden, bake bread, sew cute things, have a neat house, etc., and we expect the mother to do all those things, so she ends up doing them frazzled in isolation.  But really, the primary purpose is not for the mother to learn and do those tasks, but for her to connect with her family through them.  To me then, it almost seems pointless in doing those things if there is no connection made and no one is learning.

My husband pointed out that when we work together as a family doing family tasks we teach interdependence, not independence.  Independence can be a good thing, but it can take us away from connecting with and caring or others; interdependence brings us closer together.


Related Posts:


Father Come Home
The Art of Manliness
Teaching the Doctrine on the Family

2 comments:

michelle said...

" But really, the primary purpose is not for the mother to learn and do those tasks, but for her to connect with her family through them."

This to me is the key to homemaking. Sister Beck's Mothers Who Know talk (or maybe it was the other motherhood/homemaking talk) transformed the way I look at homemaking because of this one idea.

We are also training our children for their futures. If we do all the work, they aren't learning how to work and aren't learning practical skills necessary for life.

Emily said...

http://lessonnumberone.wordpress.com/2011/03/17/family-work-2/#comment-89