Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
Yesterday I looked up my house on Google Street View. I was curious to see how many stray tricycles and scooters would be strewn across our front porch in the image, and I had a lot of work to do and therefore wanted to procrastinate.
Not particularly eager to get back to my to-do list, I ended up clicking around to take a tour of my entire neighborhood. I virtually meandered in and out of familiar streets, turning around in cul de sacs, stopping to admire some of the beautifully manicured yards of my neighbors. I kept admonishing myself that this was a waste of time and I needed to go do something else, but something kept pulling me back -- and it wasn't just my desire to procrastinate. Seeing my neighborhood through my computer screen, in this odd format in which it was entirely the same yet entirely different than what I'm used to seeing in real life, gave me a new perspective on the place where I live. There was something about it, something disconcerting that I couldn't quite put my finger on. Then, as I turned down yet another long street and looked at the rows of houses that stretched before me, it clicked:
Where are all the people?
I spent a good 20 minutes wandering through my neighborhood on Google Street View. I went down well over a dozen streets, packed with houses occupied primarily by families with children. And in all that time I only saw three people captured by the Google camera; two were getting in their cars to go somewhere.
If our neighborhood were to be abandoned due to a nearby toxic waste spill, it would not look any different than it did in those images.
I could tell by various indicators that the weather was mild, and I know from having seen the Street View car roll down my street that they tend to come by in early afternoon, between noon and two o'clock. There's been talk of Google implementing technology that would remove people from its Street View images, but I don't think that that was employed here since some people are in the shots, and nearby urban areas show plenty of folks. I think that these images simply reflect the reality that suburban streets are a barren wasteland during daytime hours.
I believe that this is the main reason why many modern women don't feel happy staying home with their kids, and why, of those who do stay home, so many of them are itching to get back to work. I've never believed that the average mother is just dying to spend more time in the workforce. Of course there are exceptions, and some women have found careers that they're pursuing because they truly love the work. And then there are women who have to work to help support their families. But I believe that the biggest non-financial reason that women shun the stay-at-home lifestyle is simply that nobody wants to live in isolation.
Compare the Street View of a suburban neighborhood near you to a highly walkable neighborhood like the Mission District in San Francisco or Greenwich Village in New York, and you'll be startled by the difference. Even farm wives don't experience the same level of isolation as their suburban counterparts, since their husbands work on the land and there are often other workers coming in and out (not to mention the not-insignificant benefit of being able to let the kids roam outside). Some suburban neighborhoods do show more signs of life in the evenings, with folks sitting on porches or gathering to chat in driveways -- but if you're there during the day, most have about the same vibe as a ghost town.
The human mind revolts against isolation. Even those of us who are more introverted will eventually start to feel worn down by stepping out on the front porch to a silent, deserted street day after day. I think that there are a lot of women out there who would like to stay home with their kids, but find that they cannot seem to get comfortable doing so. Sometimes they even feel guilty, citing all the amazing amenities available to modern housewives, wondering why they can't seem to do what their great-grandmothers did, even with the benefits of dishwashers and vacuums and washing machines. And I think that most of the problem boils down to a lack of a geographically-based community.
There aren't a lot of quick-fix solutions, since moving next door to your parish church or buying a house in a walkable area is not an immediate option for most people. Getting involved with community groups or making regular plans with friends can help, though packing everyone into a car when you have young children is no small endeavor. However, I think this is a case where simply identifying the problem can help, even if there isn't a way to fix it in the short-term. A lot of moms feel unnecessarily guilty that they've felt restless since they left the workforce, and haven't been able to get comfortable staying at home. I think it would help women simply to consider that the problem is not a defect on their part, but simply the psychological challenges that are a natural result of living your life amidst rows of empty houses.