There seems to be what I see as the beginning of a substantial backlash against many things we have taken for granted in culture and society for the last five or six decades in the Western world, and particularly in America. One of these is the notion that motherhood and homemaking is an inferior, subordinate role that oppresses and demeans women, and that women should therefore eschew it, and join men in the workplace. The rise of the “TradWife” (traditional wife) movement is part of the kickback against this – and one with which, in large measure, I agree.
I was raised by a traditional wife and mother: Ma never worked outside the home during my lifetime, although she did work as an English teacher during the first few years of her marriage to Pa. But not long after my oldest brother was born, she left “outside” work, and returned to the home. And there is no question that I benefited – we all did – from her ability to devote her full time and attention to being a wife, mother, and homemaker. We had clean clothes, a clean house, healthy, delicious homemade meals, baked deserts, and much else, thanks to her not needing to squeeze such things around full-time (or even part-time) work.
I also have no doubt that I was saved from many opportunities to “sin and err” by the fact that I knew she (or if she had to be away, my grandmother) would be there waiting for me when I got home from school! And no matter how far I roamed, through the woods and fields near my house, I never seemed to be out of the range of her call (a resounding “Tooommmmmmmmmm!”), that echoed through the air, come supper time – to the awed amazement of my friends, who were shocked that such a small person (she was all of 5’3″ in height) could call so loudly.
I empathize with the nostalgia for the immediate post-WW II era. Although I was born in 1965, I was in many significant ways a “child of the 1950s”: Ma and Pa were married then, and both my brothers were born in the ’50s (I was a late-comer, and rather a surprise, at the time!). So I get it! My concern about the TradWife movement, however – despite my admiration for many of the women involved, and my agreement with the basic premise that both women and their families are benefited by them being at home with and for those families – is that many or most of them seem to take the 1950s as their template for what a “traditional” wife should be, and do.
While as I say, I sympathize with the urge, the reality is that that era was a rather exceptional – indeed unique – time, both historically and economically. We had just won a major war, World War Two. And we had done so in such a way that it put the United States (which alone of the major combatants suffered no invasion, a few Alaskan islands excepted, and little-to-no direct damage within the continental U.S.) at the top of the food chain, economically.
Our infrastructure was entirely intact, our factories still ramped up for wartime production, at a time when everyone else was suffering from the ravages of war. The technological development which we had accomplished during the War, coupled with that which we were able to appropriate from a defeated Germany, and the fact that we could continue to develop technologically, without needing to devote time, resources and energy to rebuilding, also contributed to the distinct edge over other nations which we enjoyed in the first few decades, post-WW II.
As a result, we were not only the “arsenal of democracy” in the Cold War, as we had been in WW II, but we were also, in a sense, the world’s factory – at least the Western world’s. And the alignment of the globe between the Communist Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact (coupled with its sometimes-ally, sometimes-rival Red China and its own satellites) on the one hand, and the U.S. and our NATO and ASEAN allies on the other, meant that the non-Communist world tended to automatically look to the military and economic powerhouse that was the U.S. for leadership. All of that put us in an extremely strong position, economically as well as geopolitically.
It was entirely possible for a man to have a nice house, a car for him and one for his wife, and support a family (including frequent vacations), all on a single paycheck – and still put away a decent amount for retirement, with a cushion for any other unexpected major expenses that might come up. I know, because my father did it! Granted, he was an excellent money manager. But he had a lot more, in constant dollars, to manage.
But that began to change, as the 1950s and early ’60s gave way to the 1970s, ’80s, and especially ’90s, and both the confidence and dominance we had experienced during the immediately post- WW II period began to erode under the impact of the Vietnam War, Arab oil embargo, and the rise of militant Islam, symbolized by the Iran hostage crisis.
On top of that, other nations began to challenge and eventually (as in the case of Japan, and later China) out-compete the United States in manufacturing and production of consumer goods, which they could make more cheaply due to lesser environmental safeguards, lower standards of pay and safety for workers, etc. (Japan, and Europe, benefited from being under the American defensive umbrella, too, which meant they could devote fewer resources to defense and more to economic growth.)
The upshot is that the U.S., while remaining economically powerful, ceased to be economically dominant; manufacturing was increasingly outsourced and off-shored, and the purchasing power of an American paycheck began to slip.
By the time my father – a member, with my mother, of the “Greatest Generation,” and a combat veteran of World War Two – passed in 1999, the days when a single-earner household could be financially viable for most families was already slipping into the past, although I would not realize that until later on. And by the time Ma followed him in 2007 – shortly before the housing bubble burst, sparking the Great Recession – we had long since ceased to be manufacturing powerhouse.
The American economy had moved to a service (and has moved increasingly to a “gig”) economy, a trend which continues to this day. It may be that the lessons to be found in the coronavirus pandemic, including the dangers of global supply chains, the fragility and vulnerability of “just-in-time” inventory and delivery, and the hazards of outsourcing one’s essential supplies and critical infrastructure to countries that are economic rivals at best, and geopolitical adversaries at worst (looking at you, China!), may – hopefully, if we learn them – begin to swing the pendulum back a bit.
But the naively utopian idea that we can simply return to a 1950s economy, and a 1950s mode of household management, merely by trimming a few luxuries (or the man somehow mystically “getting a better job,” given the economic realities I have described above), is optimistic at best, for most families and households; and for many, it is simply impossible to realize.
Yet it is also true that the pattern we have fallen into in the more recent past – where both parents work outside the home, children are shipped off to daycare, school, and after-care, where eating out or carryout are the norm, and where electronic babysitters (from TV to video-games to internet and smart-phones) keep the kids occupied while parents scurry to squeeze domestic chores in around their work schedules – is also proving itself non-viable, in the long term.
Families are breaking down; both the physical and the psycho-emotional health of our kids (of everyone, really) is failing; anti-social behaviors and even suicides are on the rise; and people of all ages are feeling increasingly frustrated, depressed (especially young people, sadly and tellingly), and unfulfilled. Somehow, we have got to find better solutions. Getting mothers back into the home is an important step, but it’s not sufficient (and it’s often not financially viable, given our present economy).
Getting both parents back into the home would be a better one, and could be economically viable, if we can figure out how to actually accomplish it. But it would involve turning away from a commuting-based, to a more home-based, economy.
Back in August of 2018, the Facebook page Holy Motherhood posted this:
“Remember motherhood was God’s plan for women, not men. We all forget that motherhood is the norm and a career is abnormal. Some are compromising and urging our good high school girls to colleges and careers. Mother Teresa’s words are so enduring to our times when she said that, ‘God calls us to be faithful, not successful.’ Anyone who wishes to debate Mother’s words should pray to God for grace and insight to understand these words of wisdom. These words are especially true for the mothers of our day and time. Many mothers are so wrapped up in the ‘media success’ of these times that they see nothing wrong with going out to work. Very few mothers ‘have’ to work outside the home and it is to the detriment of family life.” – Rosie Gill
In response, I wrote,
“I agree, to a point, but I also think we sometimes forget that it was God’s plan for fathers to be at or near home most of the time, too (except if they were on a journey for the benefit of the family, or fighting to protect it).
“Throughout most of the millennia of humankind, whether farmers (as were the majority of people until quite recently in human history), tradesmen, or merchants (the latter two of which usually had their shops or offices downstairs, with the family residence upstairs; craftsmen and artisans generally had their workshop either in, or located quite near, the home), most men spent most of their time in relatively close proximity to, and often / usually working together with, the rest of their family, up until the Industrial Revolution.
“I know this is about Holy Motherhood, and I’m not trying to hijack or distract from that! Just pointing out that I believe God’s original plan was for families to be organic, integrated units of relationship, with all members working together for the common good, and supporting one another in daily living – not mom and kids at home, and dad working somewhere else, a long commute away, and only seeing them in the evening and on weekends.
“We have fallen a long way from the original plan, imho, in many respects!”
I continue to agree with that perspective. The trick, as I say, is how to actually make that work. I don’t have anything even remotely approaching a complete or definitive solution to the problem, alas; if I did, I’d be making a tour of the talk-shows, video-blogs, and podcasts! And probably also be making enough money to support a stay-at-home wife and mother. But I do have some thoughts. These include:
• Buy local. The “crunchy” types – which includes myself, on the side of what Rod Dreher called a “crunchy Conservative” – have been saying this for years, but it needs to go mainstream. Support local farms and local artisans, and there will be more of them. Both because it will become more economically viable to grow local food and generate local cottage industries, encouraging more people to take up the role, and because if we do choose to rely less on foreign sources of supply, it will become increasingly necessary to support the demand here at home… again, encouraging growth.
• Leverage technology. Not just the internet; there are limits to what can be done “virtually.” But the new 3D printers actually provide encouragement that even some relatively high-tech manufacture / production could be done in a local, small-scale, and reasonably environmentally-friendly manner (and that is important: we all live on this one small planet, and have a responsibility to our own and future generations to take care of it).
• Bring manufacturing home. There are far too many “American” companies that have outsourced / off-shored far too much of their production. Require them to bring it home, if they want to enjoy the benefits of being an American company. Provide incentives, sure! But make certain there’s a stick to go along with the carrot. They can’t have it both ways.
• Did I mention cottage industries? Also, lets reopen the scores, hundreds, thousands of small-to-medium-sized (and some large) factories and workshops that we closed as we became comfortable with off-shore production and global supply lines. If we’re not bringing everything in from elsewhere – which we shouldn’t be, for economic, national security, and public health reasons – we’re going to have to make up the shortfall in production somehow. And the way to do it is local, local, local!
• To reiterate, let’s make sure that what we do, we do in an environmentally-friendly manner. It won’t help us if we bring manufacturing back, only to make our health and living conditions suffer, or to make this a starker and less pleasant world for future generations. We certainly don’t want to go back to the era – within my lifetime! – that the air was choking with smog, and rivers were so polluted that they sometimes caught on fire.
That doesn’t mean nationalizing businesses, or imposing draconian regulations that stifle growth. It does mean providing incentives (and disincentives), both on the government level (likely through taxes, giving tax breaks to companies and corporations who behave in an environmentally-sensitive manner) and on the consumer level (by voting with our dollars, to support companies that do it right, and penalizing those that do not).
• And for businesses for which telecommuting makes sense, it should be encouraged, not merely tolerated. The benefits are myriad, ranging from decreased levels of fuel consumption and pollution, to less chance of disease spreading within the workplace, to increased worker satisfaction (which, in turn, will likely lead to increased loyalty and productivity). Similarly, businesses, companies, corporations, etc., should be encouraged to think of the well-being of their employees and their families as part of their “bottom line,” and not a competing value (open to suggestions on how!).
And of course, although women throughout history took the major role in raising young children (with tasks being increasingly distinguished by male/female roles as they grew, so that girls followed their mothers around, learning the skills they would need to use and pass down in their turn, while boys followed their fathers) and managing the household, they also tended to have some sort of income-generating skills, as well.
Perhaps they spun thread or yarn and wove/knitted cloth for sale, or did “piece work” (sewing); perhaps they raised more chickens, cows, etc., than the family needed for sustenance and sold the excess eggs, butter, cheese, etc. (even in my youth, “milk and eggs money” was still a saying, left over from that time); perhaps they were midwives or herbalists. You get the idea.
Some of these could be done again, particularly as we switch to a more local economy; while the internet and other forms of technology, as mentioned above, also expand the scope of what might be possible. Some are doing this already – “Pampered Chef” or “Young Living Oils,” anyone…? In any case, the truly “traditional” wife is, perhaps, better exemplified by Proverbs 31:10-31 than by the historically and economically exceptional 1950s, and the #tradwives who take that era as their model (for more on this, see “Why tradwives aren’t trad enough,” in UnHerd).
Again, as I said above: I believe God’s original plan was for families to be organic, integrated units of relationship, with all members working together for the common good, and supporting one another in daily living – not mom and kids at home, and dad working somewhere else, a long commute away, and only seeing them in the evening and on weekends. Families should, as much as possible, be together.
The more we can manage to return to that ideal, the better off we will all be, I believe: individuals, families, and society as a whole! I have no studies to back this up, but I am confident that if we behave wisely, productivity will not suffer, and may even increase; while violence and other antisocial behaviors and psycho-emotional issues should decrease, and overall satisfaction and quality of life should benefit.