Reflections on Roles
by Erin Chianese
Last week I attended a mandatory parentsí meeting at my daughterís ballet school for their upcoming production of "The Nutcracker." I knew we were expected to volunteer for the many jobs it takes to put on a big production. What I was not prepared for was the attitude presented in the opening statement by the mom who was the volunteer coordinator. "Last year there were three of us who did the bulk of the work. We did . . . AND we all have full-time jobs." Hmm, was this last sentence directed at those of us (95% were mothers in attendance) without full-time jobs? Here was a judgment on a fellow womanís choice to stay at home with her kids rather than work all day long away from them. Was this a statement of self-worth or her priorities? I could only sit there stunned at the sad state of our cultureís disrespect and misconstrued values.
Roles were originally defined biologically or anthropologically and they are not far off that mark today. Women are still caretakers and keepers of the hearth. Men are still providers and protectors. The unpleasantness of the volunteer coordinatorís statement was in its denial of the honorability of the traditional role. Her view was in direct opposition to someone who chose this role and to whom she assumed she was addressing in the meeting. She used it for guilt effect. What struck me was that it was acceptable. No one batted an eye.
Ironing is definitely my least favorite chore. Pushing the steam iron over my husbandís work shirts, I often think of my own mother ironing my dadís shirts in the corner of the family room week after week, year after year. Neither my mother nor I ever donned a pinched-waist dress or tottered in high heels while standing at the board, but ironing does epitomize for me the role of housewife. I have been reluctant to teach my daughters to iron and I have finally figured out why. I have been reluctant to pass on my chosen role. How do I prepare my children for roles that their generation may define as very different from the ones in our little family? Obviously the volunteer coordinator, of my own generation, has different ideas already.
Many homeschooling families, like ours, have chosen very traditional roles of the man as breadwinner and the woman as stay-at-home mom and homemaker. How do we reconcile modeling and thus teaching our chosen roles with what other children are taught in our culture? Most children have parents who both work full-time or they live with a single working parent. I wonder what these children, as potential partners to my children, will expect in the way of roles. Will roles be revived, dreaded, denied or defied? Will they be broken down into jobs that will be hired out?
As a homeschooling parent I have concentrated on giving my children enough eclectic stimulation for them to find their own interests to pursue further. Happily, my girls have each found their passions. But now the role question is nagging me. Will they be confused by my choice to put aside my career to provide education for them to pursue their careers? Will they have to sacrifice their passion in choosing roles? Will their glossy careers be put on hold while they raise children of their own? Can they do both? Will the Superwoman image still be alive then?
I only have daughters, so I have been especially worried about this choice facing women. But men sacrifice too when they choose to be the sole breadwinner in a family. The entire monetary burden is very stressful. When I think how expensive the cost of living is right now, I fear it will continue to be. Many men sacrifice their time and health by spending long hours at the workplace rather than at home with their family. In our household, Dad also plays the role of spider-eliminator, handyman, and Mr. Muscles. These duties take his time away from us even when he is home.
Role choices are a sacrifice for both a father and a mother. Nonetheless, roles are necessary to maintain a successful marriage and family. Jobs have to be done and partners have to trust the other person to do theirs. Roles can be shared and they can even be reversed. I used to know a stay-at-home dad. His wife made more money than he did so they decided she would be the sole breadwinner. It was important to them to have one parent home with their sons.
Teaching chores to our children has been somewhat politically correct, I have noticed. My brother used to take out the trash while I did the dishes. Both are chores for either sex now. This is good. We all need to know how to do these things. Cooking and cleaning skills are invaluable for any college student or working person. My husband occasionally helps me with the dishes or with vacuuming. But we have chosen our specific jobs and roles so that our family life runs smoothly and there is enough time and energy to get everything done and most importantly, to have time to spend together.
Maybe the whole issue boils down to priorities in making choices. I worked after I had my first daughter and by the time I had my second I could no longer keep it up any longer. The heartache of not being with them and caring for them was too much for me. I did not feel I had as much input with their discipline and how they spent their time when I was at work. I remember feeling cultural pressure to work at my career while I had a family. This meant my kids would grow up in daycare. Because I did not enjoy my job the choice to stay home was easy for me. I am assuming that homeschooled kids will be in careers that are enjoyable and fulfilling to them personally, so that this choice would be much more difficult.
Money is surely the biggest argument for a two-income family. A blessing of our modern culture is the diversity of viable jobs and workplaces. This offers flexibility in making choices. I know a few homeschooling families that have home businesses. Computers make it possible for many people to work at home. Artists, writers, and musicians can spend much of their working time at home. Some jobs even allow mothers with small children to bring them to the office. Flexible hours allow for juggling of time. I know another family in which both parents work part-time so that one is home with the kids.
On the flip side of money, frugality also offers flexibility. I see many homeschooling families learning, dressing, eating and entertaining themselves simply and on a budget. Buying a newer model car vs. having money for special classes for our children is not a difficult choice for us. The vast majority of middle-class kids have a lot more material lives. When my teenager went to a month-long summer program, she was astonished by the abundance of personal lap tops, cell phones, ipods, clothes, junk food, and pocket money that the other kids brought. Living on the fringe as homeschoolers, our kids have not had to compete with each other in this way.
Being in roles ourselves, we cannot help but model these roles to our children. Obviously the couple mentioned earlier with the reversed roles had good models that they took their information from. Any couple has to work out details to get everything accomplished. Roles have certain tasks and attentions. Knowing them makes it easier to divvy them up. I knew another couple who both worked and they daily decided who would cook, clean, bathe children, or help with homework that needed to be done that night. Perhaps all these households in which both parents work will pass on creative ways to organize tasks.
My hope is to raise my girls to be strong enough to be comfortable with whatever role choices they make: wife, mother, entrepreneur, or employee. I asked my sixteen-year-old about role choices. She said she is happy now to feel accomplished at her chosen passion. She will look for that same happiness and sense of accomplishment in whatever choices she will make as a mom or careerperson or both.
Maybe the answer to my worries is simpler than I expected. When I chose to homeschool my children I did not worry about how they would acclimate to the greater culture. I knew they would be fine in our society when they ventured out -- and they are. It is likely the same with the roles issue. They will work it out in whatever way it needs to be worked out for their particular situation. Given their independence, creativity, self-esteem, and ethical base, they will choose wisely.
My job is to model as best I can. I suppose a little worry thrown in has only led to awareness and dialogue. In conclusion, I am going to get a lot of help with ironing from now on. E.C.
Erin Chianese and her husband homeschool their two teenage daughters in a suburb of Los Angeles.
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