Updated: Feb 25, 2020
I’ve been on this neighborhood restoration gig for a while. This Razing piece is a combination of pieces published from 2014-1207 in which I explained how we got to this place where life, parenthood in particular, seems so daunting and so lonely and how to start fixing it. I’m reworking it for this life admin site because understanding the origins of problems makes them easier to fix. Plus without understanding of the past we are more likely to create new, bigger problems with our fixes.
You have probably heard parents, usually moms, utter the following: what ever happened to the village? There’s an angrier version, too. “Where’s my damn village?!” (Actually, it’s not usually “damn” but I’m trying to keep things clean around here.) Anger or not, these are cries of frustration and a call for help because modern parenting has become as lonely and as overwhelming as it ever was, even in the dark days of domesticity past.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Modern conveniences, modern practices, modern medicine — all of the advances since the 60’s were supposed to make life, and parenting in particular, easier. So what happened?
It takes a village.
"It takes a village to raise a child" is an African proverb, which became popular in the 1990’s when Hillary Clinton published a book by that title. She meant the village as a proxy for state intervention in childrearing. As often happens when the left refers to a traditional phenomenon, they appropriate the label for its archetypal value and discard the substance, which is invariably and inconveniently conservative.
But because archetypes often win contests of meaning, the ”village" got absorbed in our popular consciousness as a statement about voluntary associations of those with shared bonds of family and community helping out in childrearing, that is, it became the modern terminology for the old Burkian notion of “little platoons,” as in, the community.
Beyond the lamentations about missing villages, however, it often gets dismissed out of hand, as if it is an unobtainable fantasy, one that is impossible to separate from the domestic past few want back. But the missing villages have proven too consequential in the modern era. Fear of the past can no longer justify our refusal to look back and see what went wrong or how we might fix things today. And so…
Our tale begins back in the early 60’s when the feminist Second Wave was new. Leading feminists trashed domesticity in an effort to jolt women out of homes. They assumed that the post-war advances in technology that had made housewifery a less consuming job wouldn’t prove motivating enough. Women would be too complacent about professional life unless the second wavers equated housewifery with something horrible, like slavery.
This would be neither the last time feminists demeaned extreme suffering by equating the plight of educated white women to atrocities, nor the last time they took such a condescending view of their own. Betty Friedan opened with calling housewifery a “comfortable concentration camp”, and childbirth became like “shitting pumpkins” (Kate Millett), and wives became “parasites” (Gloria Steinem).
These women were probably wrong, too, about the need to jolt women out of the house and into the world. Women in the 60’s did have “a strange stirring,” a “problem with no name.” (I’m pulling from The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan’s book widely credited with launching the Second Wave of Feminism.) Post-war advances in technology and medicine had given women new options outside of childbearing and domesticity, but the idea of women en masse, in peacetime, outside the domestic sphere was so new that society wasn’t set up for it, and in some ways didn’t want to be set up for it. The community structure that reigned in the 50’s was a reminder — a reassurance — that the World Wars were over. Things were peaceful. And that produced quite a bit of cultural inertia.
So an evolution about how we thought about women’s lives was undeniably necessary. But denigrating the old roles wasn’t because the reevaluation of women’s roles was accompanied by the expansion of federal higher education grants that made college expansions instantly attractive to female students and university administrations alike.
Nevertheless, bolstered by those higher ed trends, the defamation gambit made very quick work of housewifery. Women surged back to school and took to professional life with vigor.
But — and this must seem so much more obvious in hindsight — domestic stuff still needed to get done. The original Second Wavers, of course, could use their mothers, aunts, older children, and older housewives not caught up in the movement as their village to care for their children and homes. And since this was the end of the Baby Boom, there were many teen siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins hanging around. Our modern problem of the missing village didn’t present until those villagers were gone, which took about a generation, roughly 15 years.
Women of the 80’s became the first to attempt work-life balance without a village. Empowered and confident, they tried to be the Do-It-All Enjolie power woman. Enjolie was a perfume with a catchy and cheesy commercial, in which a woman changed from business suit to apron to sexy nightgown while crooning, "I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never, ever let you forget you're a man." The actress in the commercial looked well rested. The actual women who attempted this stunt at home were not. (And I note that the concept has made a return to favor. I heard it pop up in an Ed Sheeran song, of all places. Anyway…)
Dissatisfaction grew. No less than Betty Friedan herself had started noticing by the late 70’s. She wrote a book about the doubts and need for new plans and goals for the feminist movement. Alas, that book, The Second Stage, got trashed and then fell down the memory hole.
The new mystique became set. Out with the the “feminine mystique,” that old assumption that a woman must fulfill wife and mother duties before all else, and in with the “career mystique,” the assumption that women must establish careers before all else.
By 1990, this was the advice that greeted the college bound women of Generation X, me and my cohort: we could still have it all, just not all at once — and the new mystique set the order: career then family. Deviants from this order were at least pitied, often mocked, and almost always discouraged and left to their own devices with their "bad" choices.
Dutiful daughters, most of us did as instructed. We embarked on fabulous careers, which were plentiful and relatively well paid in the late 90's and early 2000's. And since the career building single doesn’t need a village that much, we never replaced the old one, nor did we maintain the lingering ones we may have still had. We didn’t miss the village until we started a families.
But it was gone.
Simply reconnecting with extended family wasn’t a reliable solution. We had often moved away from family in pursuit of the career mystique. Extended family was scattered about the US, or further. Plus, we had delayed childbearing and many of our parents had grown too old to keep up with our toddlers anyway. That old domestic drudgery libel came back to haunt us, too. Among the available villagers, some refused to participate in childcare. More than a few of my friends’ parents declared that they had “done their time” in the family trenches and had better things to do than any sort of regular child-minding. Neighborhood teenagers — if we knew them — had resumes to build for getting into colleges to achieve the careers they would need to establish before marriage and family.
(Babysitting wasn’t, and still isn’t, praised entrepreneurial activity. Although, it can be very lucrative. So few teens babysit these days that the willing and experienced can command a high price.)
Individual mothers quickly became too occupied with their own specific life-balancing problems to help each other out. Fathers might have done more than their grandfathers did, but it wasn’t nearly enough to replace everyone else. Out of options and frustrated, mothers often held the fathers in contempt for their failure to achieve precise domestic parity. We routinely exiled this final member of our village by micromanagement and/or mockery, assuming it was easier to do it all ourselves.
It was not.
So why do we keep trying to do it? We spent our early adulthood dedicated to our professional life. It was our identity. That’s what Friedan told our mothers and they in turn told us. We would find value only in work society valued, which meant work attached to a paycheck. Of course, Freidan was writing as a woman and mother, someone who was looking for identity in addition to the mother identity she had already established. Her history tempered that “only.”
We, however, established our identity as the Second Wavers counseled, though paid employment. Later, when we entered into motherhood, we were completely unprepared for its emotional force. And then, often isolated from friends and family, either because we were too far or too embarrassed, to ask for help — then, mid-career and postpartum, we started questioning all our assumptions and the career plans we built upon them.
This pattern has been surprising women for thirty years. Which means it isn’t —or shouldn’t be — a surprise. It is either a failure to tell or a failure to listen, or more likely, both.
Modern mothers get caught short in the middle. If we decide to give up, or in the current idiom "lean back" from, our careers then we not only must justify “wasting” our education and losing our paychecks but also we need to forge a new identity. Motherhood has to worthy of our sacrifices and capable of being an identity. Therefore, motherhood must be hard, complex, consuming, and essential for us to do it.
We made it so.
Just like having only a hammer makes every problem look like a nail, trained as professionals, we hit the books and managed the heck out of motherhood. We turned it into a proper job to be done by us or a credentialed nanny under our direction.
The non-professionals, the lingering cohort of housewives of the old style, perpetually feeling inadequate thanks to the original libel in the 60’s, they countered the motherhood-as-a-proper-job development with a Martha Stewart offensive of militant domesticity, out-crafting and out-cooking the accountants and nannies and touting all the things that only the actual mother could do, like breastfeeding.
The all-consuming Attachment, Tiger, and Helicopter styles of parenting were born. And so were the “Mommy Wars,” a term coined by Child magazine in the mid-80s for the contest between working moms and at-home moms on whose kids would turn out alright.
A short explainer about the Mommy Wars
When Helen Gurly Brown of Cosmopolitan magazine, published her 1982 book, Having It All, which assured women that they could, well, have it all, a great social experiment was born. Some women went for having it all. Other women were skeptical. They stayed, or went back, home.
The motherhood rat race was on.
But waiting two and a half decades to figure out which set of mothers had raised the happiest and most productive citizens, would take far too long, and these were our kids we were talking about. Too much was at stake to wait. We needed shorter, visible measures. And so, mothers competed over visible achievements, such as number of languages spoken, instruments played, months and then years breastfed, drugs during childbirth, drugs during childhood, hours spent volunteering at school, school admissions, and many, many more. About 5 years after Brown published her book, Child magazine coined the term, Mommy Wars.
They still rage, in part, because those visible measures keep changing and the experts who told us one thing 15 years ago now often tell us something else. (See, for example, peanuts and allergies, screen time, sleep habits.) Alone with our piles of expert reading material and the sinking feeling that we won't know if we are doing things right for years, we look for the next best, or really the next available thing: what are the other mommies doing? Not what they are saying, mind. That doesn’t matter much as moms train each other to cushion everything they say with an admission that her choice is particular to her details and you should do what works for you. No, to assure ourselves that we are doing the right thing, we want to see other moms doing what we are doing.
It’s motherhood-by-majority-rule, and that is how mothers vote.
Alone in a “Don’t cry, that’s dehydrating” crucible, we complain about husbands not doing anything right, a state of affairs we might have avoided if we actually let them help. We might beg grandparents to babysit, but then saddle them with so many rules Hollywood made a star power comedy about the habit.
Then we have the structural difficulties. Delaying motherhood limited our fertility window, which has led us to the practice of “baby bunching”, having babies less than 2 years apart. It is more work intensive in the early years. Piling on, fertility treatments — often we delay motherhood long enough to require intensive medical assistance to achieve pregnancy — have brought a rise in the incidence of multiples, also more work intensive. (Mother of 4 within 5 years here, including a set of twins. I can personally vouch for the work intensity of the early years.) If all of that weren’t enough, delayed childbearing is more likely to collide with our parents’ decline. Toddlerdom is a heck’ve a time to enter the sandwich zone. (The Sandwich Generation is a term for people with ailing parents and children still at home, between two generations in need of work intensive care.)
We have come full circle, right back to insisting that motherhood be the primary definer of women. Working moms exist in a state of guilt for whatever it is they aren’t doing at any given moment. Stay-at-home moms pour themselves into their children to justify the worldly accolades they gave up. Mothers are isolated and spent. Children are over-managed and smothered. Fathers are an afterthought. They aren’t typically mentioned outside of demands for more domestic help.
Unlike the old days when motherhood defined women, however, we are now completely alone in the endeavor.
Some Cassandras saw this circle coming (and not only about motherhood.) Most notable among them is probably Camille Paglia, an iconic feminist provocateur. In a debate at American University a few years back, she opened with a speech about sticky gender norms, offering some of her rogue common sense that so infuriates the feminist intelligentsia:
I consider it completely irresponsible that public schools offer sex education but no systematic guidance to adolescent girls, who should be thinking about how they want to structure their future lives: do they want children, and if so, when that should be scheduled, with the advantages and disadvantages of each option laid out. Because of the stubborn biologic burden of pregnancy and childbirth, these are issues that will always affect women more profoundly than men. Starting a family early has its price for an ambitious young woman, a career hiatus that may be difficult to overcome. On the other hand, the reward of being with one’s children in their formative years, instead of farming out that fleeting and irreplaceable experience to daycare centers or nannies, has an inherent emotional and perhaps spiritual value that has been lamentably ignored by second-wave feminism.
We need to see motherhood as the valid choice it is, not a burden to be managed. We need new advice, a new plan.
Ironically, Friedan offered a decent overview 50 years ago. She may have trashed domesticity in the body of The Feminine Mystique, but the Epilogue, A New Life Plan for Women, is more sober. She warned against "one thing at a time compromises” which were not compatible with women's lives. She advised education first and early long-range planning.
We don’t remember this, I suppose, because few seem to have read The Feminine Mystique after its original publishing run. (Honestly, the 50th Anniversary reflections were eye opening.) Feminists internalized Friedan’s domestic slavery rhetoric and took over NOW, but then ignored her caution not to ape the paths of men and confidently swapped motherhood-first for career-first. After a few decades of following this edict, we have leveled the one organic institution that could sustain the professional success we have achieved to this point.
There are two additional insults to injury of note. First, the women hampered most by the loss of the village are the women without law degrees or a shot at the corner office.. The elite woman’s strategy of hiring a village or quitting work is not available to her administrative assistant or housekeeper, who can neither keep pace with the motherhood rat race, nor rely upon the nannies or stay at home moms whose time is consumed with the rat race.
Second, the advice that razed the village was originally doled out by women who already had families and lived in the village, then by women who had more plentiful careers and could pay to replace the village. Millennial women will have no such advantages.
My peers, the women of Gen X, have the most to answer for. At least when our mothers first gave us the Career Mystique advice around 1990, it was untested. But now we have over 20 years of data and anecdotes. We have learned much, or at least should have. Yet we continue to peddle the old advice and tell young women not to worry about relationships at all but to engage in what by most accounts is bad sex so as to not get tied down while establishing careers that no longer exist. (warning: vulgarity in last link)
This absurd advice betrays a lack of courage. In one of the many and varied twists of feminism, we women of Gen X, the most independent and privileged generation of women in history, are oddly susceptible to mother guilt. They made our career success possible, and if we subvert that success to anything else, then they think we have thanklessly tossed away hard won freedoms they gave to us. As they see it, we owe them. And the payment they seek is that we never question the Career Mystique.
I am not a feminist, at least not as the label is commonly understood. My mother isn’t either. Despite the many sacrifices she made for me, she has a very different answer to whom I owe anything. I once asked if I could pay her for babysitting. She said no. She told me that I would pay her back when I freely babysat my own grandchildren.
That is the essence of the village. If we want it back, we need to find it where it still lives. In my experience that’s in large families, expat communities, and congregations. We need to find the village and use it. But more that that, we need to be it.
Then, maybe, by the time our grandchildren come along, our sons and daughters will have a village they can rely on.