Sunday, August 5, 2007

Desperate housewives?


I don’t think we “don’t want” the life we have as “new housewives” as the “expert” (who I am sure has not stayed home with HER children) asserts in the last paragraph of this article, but we would like to have some way to contribute outside the home for the purpose of helping out with the finances.

Many of us have higher degrees (I have a Ph.D. For example), and we find out that we love our life with our children (even though I could swear my brains would liquify and flow out my ears if I watched another episode of Teletubbies), but the financial constraints of this life are difficult at best. Our husbands work very hard to bring home income, but this world is based on the concept of a two-income family, and without the extra income, it’s hard to make ends meet.

It is also difficult to transition from someone who can make independent financial decisions to one who must beg her husband for money for the groceries. This puts a great strain on the relationship.

I can’t understand why, when there is this HUGE talent pool of well-educated homemakers, someone hasn’t found a way to tap into it through the internet. Most of the stay-at-home moms I know are former psychologists, attorneys, professors, teachers, and even physicians—tell me there isn’t SOMETHING we can’t do for a few hours a day to earn something and feel like we can contribute?

By Michal Palti

D. has a bachelor's degree in political science. If you ask her when she wanted to go back to work after her second son was born, she replies: "When he was three days old. I wanted the routine I had gotten used to, after you go back to sleeping through the night and finally manage to combine work and home life. When I understood that this was impossible, things changed."

Like many women, D. decided to stay home when her second maternity leave was over. She took a break that has lasted for more than a year, for a number of reasons. A nanny for the 15-month-old baby and nursery school for her 4-year-old son would together cost as much as her own salary. She could not find part-time work, and the stressful juggling of professional and domestic duties held little appeal for her. She became a reluctant homemaker - one who clearly reflects the spirit of the times: She surfs Internet forums that help relieve the loneliness and provide practical advice, stays up-to-date on consumer issues relating to her young children, tries to cook healthy food and gives support to a partner who, like many fathers in the local job market, must cope with a workday that has grown steadily longer.

D. belongs to a group of women who could be called "the new housewives" - women who choose to leave their jobs when they become mothers, either because they want to spend time with their children or because the costs of child care are roughly the same as their own wages. These women stay home for two or three years after their children are born, and afterward find it hard to get back into the job market. Have the intensive social and family demands placed on such women changed, or have they remained as they were 50 years ago?

According to figures provided by the Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2005 there were some 250,000 women in Israel with children under the age of o1. Forty-eight percent of them were not employed outside the home. Among women with children between 1 and 2 years of age, the rate of return to work is only slightly higher. For most women who have taken a prolonged maternity leave, going back to work is a struggle, which some of them ultimately find insurmountable. Remaining at home after the state-funded maternity leave (currently 14 weeks) seems sweet during the first month, but becomes tough a year or two later.

D. describes the daily routine of the new housewife: "The more time I have, the more tiring I find it. I look for shortcuts and don't have enough time to get anything done. I feel like the very old type of housewife. When I felt that I couldn't keep up with the housework, I hired help. I'm quite surprised when I manage to overcome the mountains of laundry, for example."

Her partner's long workdays, D. claims, are a palpable reality to her. "At least twice a week he comes home at 10 P.M.; sometimes he works on Saturday afternoons. These are days in which I am with the children from 8 A.M. till the end of the day, and it isn't easy."

D. stresses that she is looking for work, "and in my case it isn't easy, because I never specialized in any one area. I got my B.A., began working in a field that is related to public relations and production, and after the first maternity leave I started over somewhere else. Today I am in a bind, even though I am willing to work full time."

Meanwhile, until she finds a job, Internet forums provide information along with social ties. As in any other field, when it comes to parenting, such forums are a wellspring of useful knowledge. A lot of the information available concerns nutrition: There are collections of recipes for different ages; mothers report on easy-to-make meals that they have found to be successful; there are discussions about what children should or should not eat. You can even find tips for making sugar dough and sculpting cakes. Thus, ultimately, the housewife reflected in the online forums is remarkably similar to the old-fashioned suburban homemaker.

But the Internet forums are about more than just nutrition: They also encourage and develop consumer habits, whether voluntary or not. They promote sales of children's clothing, identify the trendiest brands of strollers, and make every parent a potential doctor.

'Bottomless pit'

The new housewife, then, is exposed to much more information that is relevant to her daily life than women used to be, "but knowledge and awareness about everything don't necessarily make it easier," says N., who ran a large law office before she had her first son, now almost four years old. "All this pursuit of 'enrichment' and competition is evident, and if the child has a medical problem, you go online and become even more worried. Every time my oldest hiccupped, I ran to the doctor."

N. and her partner decided that she would stay home after her maternity leave, for as long as possible, "because I wanted to give my son some kind of foundation," she explains. She spent two years at home with her oldest, until he entered nursery school, and when her daughter was born, she remained home to care for her, too; she has thus been at home for four years, and is now looking for a job outside.

"It's funny to be asked about my sense of self, because I've felt like I've had no time to breathe," N. says. "I was in charge of the children all the time, they were the center of things, and it's a very strange experience. I've felt the external pressures very clearly: what to buy and where, how important it is to make organic food and pay a bundle for it. And then there are the hours of enrichment activity for the children. If women who stayed home were once expected to 'keep everything in order,' today they are also supposed to develop the child's cognitive abilities, do puzzles with him, make him a 'developed' child because he is at home."

But according to Prof. Haya Stier, an associate professor of sociology and labor studies at Tel Aviv University, the contemporary focus on "nurturing," including home-schooling and the exchange of information over the Internet, is actually a throwback to theories and conventions from the 1950s, which saw women as responsible for education while men worked outside the home.

"So if the child did not turn out to be a 'success,' it was the mother's fault, because she did not make enough of an effort," Stier explains. "What is very obvious in Israel right now is that the workday is becoming longer, so that once again the husband is working outside the home, while the woman is in charge inside the home."

"I used to manage other people's time, and suddenly I couldn't manage my own," says A., the mother of four-year-old twins, whose spouse works long hours. "I discovered that being at home is a bottomless pit, and all I wanted to do was to stare quietly into space by myself."

Before she had children, A. worked in production, "in a series of demanding jobs, and it was clear to me that I could not go back to my work," she says. "I read a lot about raising children, but all the theories of the time kind of passed by me, because I am fairly critical. I've been at home for two and a half years, and it's a confusing time: Each day seems endless, and then a month or two pass by. There weren't too many things that I discovered I was able to do around the house. I discovered that I can sit and do nothing. Is this good? I don't know. I see that there are quite a few women like me, whose partners work a great deal and are not home much in the afternoons, and I say, maybe women are more independent today, so that they make this possible? It used to be that only the wives of career army officers lived this way."

According to Prof. Stier, many women want to go back to work and look for a way to change things, but "there has always been discrimination against young mothers. I just finished a study about entering and exiting the job market, and despite all of the alleged support networks, the greater importance women place on their education, the larger number of day-care facilities and nannies - there is nothing new under the sun."

Moreover, Stier claims that the media now romanticize their coverage of women who wish to drop out of the professional rat race: "Senior female executives who leave it all behind get a lot of coverage, and this is certainly a trend. But it is not right for everyone. There are women in good financial situations who allow themselves to be home, but they are a misleading minority."

Trapped in a cycle

Talia Livni, who chairs the Na'amat women's organization, says that Israeli women have become trapped in a hard-to-escape cycle: The cost of child care is equivalent to their salaries or even exceeds them. According to Na'amat's data, in 2004, 20 percent of women turned down an opportunity for promotion at work because of their children, whereas only 8.9 percent of men did the same for family-related reasons.

"It's very easy to be tempted to stay home, but you should not do this, because it has an adverse effect on your standing in the job market," Livni stresses. "Once you leave that market, it is much harder to get back inside it."

Na'amat, she says, has initiated legislation ensuring provision of day care from the age of six months, "and at good day-care facilities, which will not put mothers off." A preliminary proposal along these lines has now been submitted to the Knesset. "Later we need to lengthen maternity leave to six months, and then women will be able to fit easily back into the job market," notes Livni. In the meantime, of course, this is only a dream.

Countless efforts have also been made to make child-care costs a tax-deductible expense; a bill to that effect passed a preliminary vote in the Knesset a few months ago, but there is still a long way to go. Another bill, submitted to the Knesset a year ago, stipulates that the state will reward employers who hire mothers of children under the age of 3, as well as women aged 45 and above, and women whose wages are higher than the market average.

But Israel is Israel, and as always, there is the danger that the well-intentioned efforts to heighten women's involvement in the workplace will make mothers no more than the female analogues of fathers - working around the clock. Isn't the solution actually to reduce the number of hours people work?

Livni: "Those are the next steps. At the moment there are many activities that exclude women from the workplace and discriminate against them. Women, for example, are taking work home, often about 10 hours a week, to preserve their position while spending time with their children, and most of them are not compensated for it. If they were paid for these hours, the gap between men's and women's salaries would be greatly diminished, and it might even disappear. Steps need to be taken to keep women from being pushed into the position of the 'new housewife.' Most women do not want it."

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