On a discussion board I frequent, there is currently a largely civilized debate about the value of what used to be called "women's work". Since nowadays, either partner can choose to be a stay at home spouse, that phrase has gone by the wayside. But the reality of the situation is that this work, that of the "homemaker" is largely devalued by society. Some people have put forth that a person with no children, or children old enough to be in school have no business even staying at home, and that such people are not paying their own way in life.
This has been going around and around in my brain all day, and even though it doesn't really apply to me (homeschooling/unschooling is more than a full-time job!), it got me thinking of not just the economic value of such work (replacing everything I do would probably cost a fortune, even if one could find someone with the diverse skills of chicken midwifery, robotics coach, and violin tutor, LOL), but of the environmental value and impact of this work.
Now before I say another word, I want to make it absolutely clear that I am in no way advocating for some return to the June Cleaverism of yesteryear. I don't think a societally enforced imprisonment of women in the household with an apron and a copy of Betty Crocker is the answer. And I fully understand that for many families in this era of haves and have-nots, having both parents work is a financial necessity (and that of course is a whole 'nother topic, on the Walmartization of the workforce where so many people are not paid a living wage). But I do think it's imperative that we look at the true value of this work, and the repercussions that abound when homemaking is farmed out to the likes of McDonalds, Eggo Waffles, and Swiffer.
I was shifting some stuff around in the freezer today, and looking at the neat packages of frozen blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, and cherries that fill half of the shelves. They stand next to the meat I picked up from the butcher (a local 1/3 pasture-raised organic beef), and the baggies of pancakes and waffles that I make up ahead of time so the kids can have healthy easy breakfast on days when we have little time. This is one small microcosm of the environmental value of a homemaker.
If I hadn't taken the kids to the berry patches and roadside fields and fruit stands this summer to get local organic foods to fill our freezer, we'd be buying more fruits trucked to a plant, packaged, and trucked to our local supermarket. If my husband or I didn't have the time to find and build a relationship with the local people who supply our raw milk and organic meat, pick it up when needed, and then thaw and prepare nutritious meals for the family, we'd be driving through a McDonald's like so many Americans on the go. I did that once last year, when we were on vacation and I was completely staggered by the sheer amount of waste products generated by one fast-food meal. And that doesn't count all the trucking and non-sustainable agriculture that went into producing that meal. Likewise, if I wasn't cooking nutritious sprouted whole-grain wafffles and pancakes with our own organic eggs and raw milk, I might be opening a pack of Eggos for the kids before we rushed out the door to get to our respective jobs and school. I won't bother typing in the ingredient list, but suffice it to say that they barely resemble food and I can't even imagine the environmental impact (let alone the healthcare and economic impact) of so many of the nation's food choices being such pre-packaged dreck.
Of course, we shouldn't ignore transportation. Although I'd like to think that most two-income families go merrily carpooling out the door, this isn't the case for most in America. Our old neighbors were a prime example - both parents and the teenage child left the house in three separate cars each morning, bound for three separate places, all less than five miles from each other. But their hectic schedules were too overwhelming to coordinate, so three cars it was. And for two-working parent families, it might be completely necessary for either parent to have to drive kids to after-school activities or daycare.
There are many more incidental environmental impacts. As the hours spent on the job by members of the workforce creep up steadily, less and less time is available for simple household tasks. Thus something like the time it takes to wring out and clean a mop becomes so stupendously valuable that products like Swiffer hit the marketplace with a bang. It seems there is nothing out there that can't be made disposable. Diapers have been around for a long time, but now you can simply throw your baby's bibs away without having to take the time to wash them. Facial washcloths - who knew that they made them disposable? After all, taking the time to throw in four or five more washcloths to your laundry could be the straw that broke the overworked camel's back. And not only fast-food meals are served on disposable dinnerware. People are sometimes so time-crunched that paper plates and plastic forks are used for regular family dinners to save time on washing dishes.
All of these seemingly disparate things don't cause us to blink our eyes when taken one at a time. These things you might look at separately and say "what's the big deal, if someone wants to use a Swiffer instead of cleaning a mop?" but when you take them together, when you take them on a national scale, it's clear that the environmental impact of the absence of homemakers in so many families becomes huge. And there's no easy answer or quick turnaround (though the rising prices of fuel in a post-peak economy may turn around the Swiffers, multiple cars, fast food and such all on its own). As such things no longer seem "cheap and easy", the work of a homemaker becoms much more apparently valuable in a monetary sense.
So what can be done to jump-start this change? For one thing, think about the homemakers you know and make sure that when you talk to them you do not disparage their role, even inadvertantly. They are valuable, not just to their families, but to our society and to the earth itself. They play perhaps the most important job on the planet. If you hear someone else act dismissively to someone with a homemaking role, bring the issue to discussion. It's often a very quiet discrimination against people who are "just" housewives or homemakers or "just a stay-at-home mom". It seems that official job titles working out of the home carry so much more prestige and importance, and anything we can do to reverse this trend will be better for our communities, our society, and our environment.