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.
I recently went to a playgroup with some other stay-at-home moms, and the subject of having household help came up. One mom admitted that she had a housekeeper come do a deep clean once a month. Two other moms said they had babysitters come a few hours per week. All of them seemed kind of sheepish about their confessions, admitting to having help the way one might admit to smoking a little crack to get through a long day.
There’s this idea out there that it’s self-indulgent for a woman who stays home to have help. After all, the thinking goes, isn’t one of the big benefits of staying home that you don’t have to spend money on childcare? It’s also seen as yet another luxury of the modern era: Moms have been raising kids for thousands of years without babysitters and maids. Why can’t modern women buck up and do the same?
I don’t think it’s self-indulgent at all for stay-at-home moms to have help, especially those who have children who don’t go to school (e.g. homeschoolers or moms of babies and toddlers). In fact, I would say it’s closer to a necessity than a luxury.
When I studied anthropology in college, one of the things that stood out to me the most was the element of community: In pretty much every time and place outside of modern Western culture, people lived around family all their lives. The average person was surrounded by brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews. For women, the work of raising children was not done alone: Younger nieces and cousins would help with the little kids, the women would socialize as they gathered water or washed clothes, all the children playing together around them. This is the kind of life we were designed for.
In contrast, the average modern woman who is out of the workforce lives her life on a suburban desert island. The nearest family member lives miles (if not thousands of miles) away. She doesn’t know all the people on her street, and not many of them have kids anyway. If she’s like many Americans, she’s moved within the past few years, losing any sense of community she’d built in the last place she lived. Any opportunities for socializing with other women involve the herculean effort of packing up all the kids in the car to drive somewhere. She doesn’t even have the age-old mother’s release valve of banishing the kids outside and telling them to come back at mealtime, since safety concerns mean she has to keep them within sight at all times.
This is an incredibly unnatural way to live.
There are, of course, lots of advantages to modern life: We have washing machines and dishwashers to help us with household tasks, and medicine to keep our children healthy. Those things are great blessings that make life easier. But we shouldn’t discount the real challenges that come with living in isolation. For a woman who stays home to hire someone to act as an extra pair of hands around the house isn’t a selfish move that indicates that she’s not fully bought in to raising her kids, as it’s sometimes perceived; in fact, getting a little down time to recharge her own batteries is a necessary condition for being able to serve as well as possible. It’s worth noting that even the religious orders most dedicated to serving others have built-in daily time for breaks and refreshment (such as the Missionaries of Charity, whose daily schedule I once posted here). The Church has always understood that you need regular off-duty time in order to serve to the best of your ability.
I realize that it’s not possible for every woman to afford a babysitter or a maid, and I’m not suggesting that there’s absolutely no way to have a good life without them. But I am suggesting that stay-at-home moms and their husbands re-think where household help falls on the priority list, and bump it up toward the top. If there’s any room in your lifestyle to downgrade in order to free up some of the budget for housecleaning or babysitting, do so. Because while women may have been meant to raise kids, we weren’t meant to do so alone.