When I was a kid, there was a woman in nearly every house. Their children ran together in packs, laughing and getting bruised. We played baseball, football, cops and robbers, cowboys and indians and “Who Dies the Best,” an East Coast version of hide and seek. We rode our bikes and skateboards without helmets, climbed trees and jumped off roofs. When someone got hurt, we ran to the nearest house and brought back an adult.
Today’s landscape looks a lot different. The middle class has all but vanished and the majority of households have become two-income families. The kids stay after school, enrolled in supervised activities or come home to play video games, do homework or watch television while their parents are at work.
Nowadays, there are few women at home and the sound of laughter on the street is an anomaly. Helmet-less children are regarded as victims of neglect. Baseball happens under the watchful eyes of a coach. It’s rare to see a kid in a tree. A new phenomenon called Play Dates has replaced the pack dynamic.
The Chinese symbol for “an” meaning “peaceful, tranquil, quiet” is represented by the combined symbol for woman and house. The woman is in the house, representing security and peace. I realize this sounds sexist and old-fashioned, but we need more women in the house. Were the economic barriers lifted, I believe many women would choose to stay at home to be the center of their families.
My sister-in-law lost her job about a year ago and has become invaluable. She takes care of my mother, her mother and is there for her children and nine grandchildren. Likewise, a long time friend, recently unemployed finds herself running her father-in-law to the doctors several times a week and picking up her two grandsons after school with little time left over for gainful employment.
Both women feel financial pressure to return to the work force. Neither feels they can afford to stay at home and yet, with so many depending on them, the family cannot afford to see them go back to work.
When people ask me what I was doing in Ghana, I blush. “Oh, I just cooked, cleaned, gardened and shopped” I say. Their response is invariably an awkward pause before I jump in with vivid descriptions of a typical National Geographic day in Sub-Saharan Africa. Both of us slightly embarrassed as I talk about markets and menus, wishing I had said I were working on a degree, managing a nonprofit, starting up an export company or something equally compelling.
When it came time to fill our our exit forms, I hesitated to print “housewife” in the box marked “profession.” The word looked so lame on paper. Even “Tourist” would have looked better.
Yet we all knew my contribution to the household was of value. The shared evening meal, counters laden with fresh fruit, clean floors and windows, trim lawn and gardens all brought continuity, comfort and cohesiveness to the house. Everyone was grateful and visitors commented on the nourishing ambiance we were able to provide them.
And now our dear daughter Amy finds herself playing the same, time-honored role of Woman in the House. Between jobs, she has been called on to care for her family because her sisters are too entrenched in their jobs to switch gears. At twenty-four, she is young to accept the caretaking mantle and yet she realizes it is her duty.
We are grateful to Amy for her quiet strength, her sacrifice, her willingness to act as family caretaker. She has joined the undervalued legion of capable women who are there for us. Women who one day discover they are worth more to society as a non-wage earner, knowing full well that their contributions will be marginalized in today’s culture.