Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Rant: Professional Identity: Homemaker

Warning:  This is a rant.  This is not a measured, spiritual, uplifting piece.  This post is written in anger and is therefore somewhat self-pitying and abrasive.  It is probably also offensive.  You have been warned.


What is my profession?  I am a homemaker and a homeschooling mother.  I am also a college professor, but this is my second job.  I do it only because my debt requires a second income.  I would stop teaching in a New York minute if my financial obligations were mitigated.

When people ask me what I do, I assess their ability to damage me and then I answer accordingly.  If they are not in a position to bully me or my children, I tell them that I am a homemaker and that I also teach.  If they are in a position to bully me or my children, I tell them that I am a college professor.  People who hear that I am a college professor are doctors, nurses, school officials, and others who may use their professions as excuses to become very busily and judgmentally involved in others' lives.

I have found that when I first mention that I am a homemaker, I get a variety of negative responses.

Response #1:  Condescension.  "Isn't that nice!  I wish I could stay home with my children, but I just couldn't afford it.  It must be so nice to be home with them all day.  You must have your hands full!"

Related to this response is their tendency to then treat me like I'm a half-wit.  I notice this particularly in doctor's offices.  When they see me as a homemaker, they are inattentive, rude, and bossy.  As soon as they see on my charts that I also have a doctorate and teach in a college, they adjust their tone and vocabulary to indicate that they now respect my intelligence and my ability to make informed decisions.

Response #2:  Judgment:  "You have betrayed the feminist movement and/or are wasting your education."

Sometimes the reaction really has been that blatant and nasty.  Most of the time, however, it is more subtle.  People give me a great deal of advice on how to get a job teaching in a university.  They encourage me to network, apply myself, and become more assertive. 

Of course, the two responses often come together.  People tell me how "nice" it must be to stay home with the kids and then give me advice to help me escape that unfortunate situation.  They tell me that they are so impressed with my ability to (my goodness!) write, teach, and look after children.  My, my!  So busy!  They must think I'm a complete innocent if they think I believe they're actually praising me for staying at home in an unpaid job. 

I study the history of domesticity.  I know that it doesn't make me somehow "special."  I'm not unaware of its changing status, and I'm not likely to believe that somehow my choice to be a homemaker makes me unusually patient and self-sacrificing.  The job undertaken by most women until the most recent generations is certainly challenging, but to gush about it as if it is unusual and soooo nice, is a bit much.  I know that tone.  It is the same tone people used to speak to me when I was a child.  "Well, good for you!  You know how to write your own name.  What a smart girl!"

So here's the point of this post, fair readers:  If you happen to speak to a homemaker, try not to be condescending and judgmental.  It is a real job, a real calling, and it takes real time and energy.  I am not lazy or unskilled.  I am not doing this because I can't make it in the "real world."  I actually mean to be where I am.  I  also do not need ego-stroking.  I'm not ashamed of being a homemaker and don't need your praise or pity. 

Don't tell me that you would do if you had the money.  That's especially insulting to a person in a low-income family.  Relatively speaking, while I am more privileged than many people living in poverty, I am very likely far less privileged than you are.  My spouse is a blue-collar worker and we have lived from hand to mouth our entire marriage.  It takes some doing, let me tell you, to stay home.  If you are going to tell me that you would stay home but you just don't have the money, you'd sure as hell better hide your vehicle (or your clothes, or vacations, furnishings, jewelry, etc.) that cost more than my entire household.  It isn't nice to tempt Quakers to violence. 

The thing is that I respect and admire people who work outside the home.  I see that choice as challenging, interesting, and important.   It would be nice if such people felt the same way about my choice, but if they don't, I much prefer that they keep their mouths closed than respond to me by bullying me, judging me, or by gushing saccharine insincerities in my direction.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Put On Your Listening Ears, Friends

This will be a short post, but I hope it leans more toward simple than simplistic.  I've been watching, and reading, and listening to Friends' worries about our ability to communicate with each other.  Christians, and theists, and non-theists, oh my!  And God help us (if you accept the word "God"), but what about the Buddhists?  And what do we mean by "Christ" and "conservative" and "humanist" and "convergent?"  Oh, what a muddle! 

Yes, it is rather. But you'll pardon me if I say that I hardly think it matters.  Because whatever you believe or don't believe in terms of theology or thealogy or humanist philosophy doesn't really tell me what you believe at all.  Not really.  If I spent many hours with a Friend hearing about their beliefs all nicely-packaged and well-thought-out, and pretty-and-polished, I wouldn't get much more out of it (if I got anything at all) as a half an hour spent listening to that same person telling me stories about their life.

Stories about being little.  Stories about their children.  Stories about getting old.  Stories about regret.  Funny stories.  Angry stories.  Lively stories.  Embarrassing stories.  Goofy stories.  Sad stories. 

People tell you who they are and what they really, truly believe in their stories.  Sometimes without even meaning to.  Most of the time they don't even know they are doing it.  But listen to them.  Really listen to them.  Watch their faces and their bodies move in the telling.  Watch the lights and shadows of their souls move across the surface of their words.  This business of stories is so very human (and so very divine).

Learn to read between the lines.  Learn to watch for pain beneath bravado, for fear beneath contempt, for injury beneath humor.  Learn also to see little bits of courage, and passion, and love, and joy peeking out where you don't expect it.  A twinkle in the eye.  A wry smile.  A shrug.  A tear.  A pause.  These little things are majestic.  You can find the very heart of humanity in a sigh.

Then, instead of analyzing the story, instead of judging the storyteller, participate in that grave and beautiful humanity.  Participate in that divinity.  Hear people into voice.  Be curious about them.  Care about them.  Rejoice in them. 

So that's my advice.  I think such a thing can grow out of our history.  We are a listening people.  If we can spend an hour listening for the Sacred in the silence of a meeting house, we certainly can spend a minute listening for the sacred in each other.  Maybe I'm naive or even a bit silly, but it seems to me that if ever we are to be a people gathered, we have to trust in each other's worth, trust in each other's calling, trust in each other's stories.  What if, as the spiritual says, God is trying to tell you something?  Put on your listening ears, Friends.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Meeting for Worship with Atttention to Bats

Our last meeting for worship was a bit peculiar.  Our family represented five sixths of the worshiping presence.  That was not the strange thing.  We're a wee tiny little meeting and in the summer months, people are often busy with other obligations.  What was strange about the meeting was the bat that draped itself over the exit sign.

My youngest son and I usually go out of the meeting after half an hour.  When the big bell in the tower chimes ten o'clock, we slip out together and find a place to sit in one of the hallways of the large academic building or else we wander outside.  On that day, he wanted to sit on the couch in a lounge and talk.  As we sat on the couch and began our conversation in hushed tones, I happened to look up at the exit sign above the door to the stairwell.  On it was a little brown bat (a common American little brown bat my knowledgeable children later told me) which had positioned itself quite neatly over the X.  (Here's a Wikipedia article about these bats:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_brown_bat)

Very much like a bat, my eyes are not very good even with my glasses and I had not seen such a creature "in the wild" before.  I was not sure that I was indeed seeing a bat.  Maybe it was just a bit of brown-colored insulation.  Maybe some zany college student had placed a toy on the sign as a joke.  Perhaps it was a real bat, but was dead.  Why would a real, live bat be hanging out in the building so close to where all the action was?

My little guy couldn't wait to go into meeting.  He was miserable to have to sit for a few minutes in silence, then wait while we stood silently together holding hands as is our meeting custom and then, finally, when a Friend, perhaps seeing his barely contained excitement, gently asked if anyone had anything they'd like to share, his spirit nearly leaped out of his body as he burst out, "Yes!"

From there the meeting activities seemed to have a great deal to do with bat speculation, bat observation, and bat capture.  My husband, concerned that the college staff would kill the bat if they caught it, insisted upon capturing it himself.  Using a box and a shirt, he spent about an hour on bat safari.  I checked in on him at one point to find him standing in the hallway while the bat swooped and swirled around him.  Eventually, he was successful and the bat was released outside.

Earlier this summer, my gentle husband heard the high-pitched sounds of a fly trying to escape from a spider's web.  As he often does, he took the fly out of the web then carefully unwrapped the silk from its body so it could fly away.  I reminded him that now the spider would have no food.  He responded that when spiders start to scream in distress, then he would certainly rescue them too.  In fact, I'm the spider-rescuer in the family.  They are safe with me as I carefully clean around their webs and carefully rescue them from sinks.  Indeed, it is a family rule that no creature, large or small, should suffer death or injury at our hands if we can help it.

Sometimes, however, an animal's death cannot be avoided.  On one occasion, we were driving along when the car in front of us struck a woodchuck.  The driver in the other car stopped and so did we.  My husband checked to see how the driver was doing.  She had exited her car to see the woodchuck and was quite upset by the experience.  The woodchuck was still alive.  My husband told her very gently that she was not to worry about it and that he would take care of it.  She continued on and he retrieved some gloves and a cardboard box out of our trunk and placed the injured animal in the box.  I held the box on my lap as we drove to the veterinarian.  We had very little money in those days, but he was willing to go into debt to try to save the life of this old, bloodied, beat-up woodchuck.  And I was willing to let him.  Perhaps fortunately, the poor thing died just as we pulled into the vet's parking lot. 

I was sympathetic to that impulse because I once spent my entire savings from my first job as a teenager on euthanizing a strange cat that had been struck down the street from my house.  It was clear that it was dying, and the neighbors were going to fetch a shovel to kill it.  My cousin and I insisted that they give us the cat and we took it to the vet to be put down humanely.  There went my savings, but I felt it was money well spent.

It was wonderful that in the case of our meeting for worship bat, the animal survived and went on to live another day.  A happy ending.  We left our meeting for worship with attention to bats in good spirits because it felt like time well spent.  We are trying to teach the children to offer love to the little things.  We want them to believe that it is worth spending an hour of your time ducking and lunging like a fool to capture a bat that might otherwise be killed.  We want them to know that there is nothing unmanly (or unwomanly) about allowing your heartstrings to be tugged by the plight of an insect.  We want our children to be moved by the suffering of others, especially if the creatures are feared and avoided by others, and to feel that as far as possible, we are called to alleviate that suffering.

I see this part of their education as the intersection between our Pagan and Quaker understanding of the world.  It is important to me that they apply the principles of love and compassion not only to human beings, but to our animal brothers and sisters as well.  It seems to me that if they, like God, keep their eye upon the sparrow, their measure of Light will shine more brightly.

I want us to remember to behave in a manner befitting Friends.  One of my favorite songs of childhood included the words, "They will know we are Christians by our love."  I don't much care if folks identify my children as Christians, Pagans, or atheists as long as the name they make for themselves is grounded in love.  I want them to let their lives speak. 

May they always remember that gentleness, especially to the most vulnerable creatures, is a mark of their love of the Divine in all Life. "I expect to pass through life but once," said William Penn. " If therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again."