Life Health & Wellbeing

Saturday 18 August 2018

Home-making and stereotyping

emer O'Kelly
emer O'Kelly

Patricia Casey

I have been a full-time working-outside-the-home doctor and a mother all my life. I am the also he proud daughter of a full-time working-outside-the home mother. For a time, I even thought that working exclusively in the home deprived the wider society of talents and strengths that would have been wasted by being 'just' as housewife. I no longer hold that view and I always considered the views of many feminists on this to be disparaging, gratuitously insulting and on the outermost boundary of fanaticism.

Examples include Simone de Beauvoir's description of the housewife as, "a parasite sucking out the living strength of another organism…the [housewife's] labor does not even tend toward the creation of anything durable…. [W]oman's work within the home [is] not directly useful to society, produces nothing."

Betty Friedan said: "Housewives are mindless and thing-hungry… housework is peculiarly suited to the capabilities of feeble-minded girls; it can hardly use the abilities of a woman of average or normal human intelligence."

In this country, Jackie Jones, a columnist with the Irish Times, recently expressed amazement that women are equally divided on whether we should delete from the Constitution the section (Article 41.2) which says that women should not be forced out of the home by economic necessity. Indeed, it seems self-evident that no woman should be forced to work outside the home by reason of income, although many are. Others choose to do so, and if 'choice' is the mantra of feminists, as it in the area of reproduction, then why does it not equally apply to decisions about work and how that is optimally combined with motherhood and parenting so that children and women flourish?

Emer O'Kelly, columnist with the Sunday Independent, in 2005 wrote a piece with the headline 'Halt the dishonest campaign for the right to be a kept woman' in reference to the work of "full-time home-makers", and, in 2008, regarding maternity leave, "there's also the small fact of ethics: you owe it to an employer to put your back into your job rather than schmoozing your way through, spending as much time working out how to buck the system as you spend actually on the job".

But what if both men and women had equal opportunities to earn and contribute significantly to the family income?

The ideal of the sexual revolution, was, among other things, to remove gender stereotypes. Applied to women, it was believed that their economic freedom would empower them and ultimately impact positively on their mental health - women even now are more prone to depressive disorders than men.

A study from the University of Illinois provides an interesting insight into whether reversing the gender stereotyping of men-as-breadwinners/women-as-home-makers does have beneficial effects on either as envisaged by the feminist activists. The researchers, Karen Kramer and Sunjin Pak, examined data on nearly 1,500 men and 1,800 women, aged between 52 and 60, who had participated in the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth. They hoped to measure whether partners gained satisfaction reversing the age-old breadwinning stereotypes by measuring depressive symptoms.

They found that couples who go against the traditional norms are at a higher risk of damaging their psychological well-being, ie when a mother takes on the role of the breadwinner for her family and the father opts to be the home-maker, both are more likely to suffer mentally and feel deeply dissatisfied in life. The researchers said: "The results supported the overarching hypothesis: well-being was lower for mothers and fathers who violated gendered expectations about the division of paid labour, and higher for parents who conformed to these expectations."

What about those couples who believed in equal sharing of home-making and earning? They found that women who believed they and their partners should be dually involved in breadwinning and childcare had improved mental health, but only when their wages more closely approximated that of their partner - but for men, their depressive symptom scores were increased.

So the gender norms that have prevailed until recently may have had some basis in reality, even if they don't apply to everybody and in all circumstances. Let's hope more studies follow from this to add more flesh to what may become an acrimonious debate.

I wonder though if the radical feminists of yesteryear or today would be interested in the nuance that studies such as this contribute to a discussion close to every mother's heart.

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