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Talking points

How we talk about home and work, and why it matters

By Karen Oakes

My two-year old son is busy acquiring language with the same ferocity with which he does everything else, which is to say that he doesn't, won't, can't stop talking, not even when he sleeps (and certainly not when we wish he would just sleep). It's amazing to witness this process, as it gives us such incredible insight into his train of thought, a train that lurches along the stream of consciousness, often racing, always curious, sometimes with enough force to practically knock him over. The words are just rushing out.

And I love him more with each of these new linguistic accomplishments. Some are heart-meltingly sweet like this one from last week: "Avery drink Mommy's nurse. Mmm. I love it!" Some are uproariously funny, like when he hangs out the car window pretending that he's at a drive-thru: "Get it Avery coffee. Milk, sugar, please, miss." And some of them really get me thinking, like when I noticed lately that he refers to all houses according to their female residents. We go to Grandma's house. He waves every time we drive down the road past Aunt Christa's house. He begs to go to Aunt Peggy's house or to run next door to Melissa's house. When he gets tired during our walk around town, he wants to "go Mommy's house." All of these houses, mind you, have male and female occupants, but to him, the house is apparently feminine.

The feminist me, naturally, finds this a bit uncomfortable. Am I modeling this for him? Is this how I refer to people's homes? Or is this the logical effect of his careful observations? After all, Grandpa is outside puttering as much as he is ever in, and Uncle Bob works odd, long hours, so it's much more likely that Christa is the one home whenever he's there. Maybe it's just the way he's assembling the scraps of information his mind takes in -- the women are home, the men often not; the houses must belong to the women.

But it's not merely coincidence, nor is it unique to his little universe. The historian in me can trace the etymology rather objectively. A mere two hundred years ago, houses (like all real and personal property) belonged to men, legally and rhetorically. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the creep of the domestic, home-as-haven ideal meant that the house was assigned to woman's sphere, while men increasingly spent their working hours elsewhere. By the Cold War era, houses were theoretically designed for the convenience of their female mistresses, the presumption being that men would only periodically return for the services home and women offered, but would spend the bulk of their waking hours elsewhere. The history is as revealing as it is fascinating -- to assign the house to woman is to designate the practical responsibilities (not to mention the confining four walls) of it to her as well.

But this isn't just some distant, objective history lesson. This is the world in which my son will grow and learn. What his language reveals he is learning is that most men work outside of the home and most homes have women in them. Now, he knows plenty of women who work, including myself, though he sees women largely in home spaces, not work spaces, by virtue of his rather limited toddler exposure. Sometimes he even goes to work with Mommy, where he sees mostly other women (the gender ghetto of writing instruction being what it is). The deficiency is not with his observations or with his range of experiences, but rather with the language that we have to describe the world we're introducing him to. A sort of gendered division of place has snuck into his world view. In our vernacular, home and work are antitheses.

In the contemporary United States, "work" is most commonly something that you go somewhere to do. It is also, for us adult-types who get the concept of money, something you likely get paid to do. "Work," then, doesn't really describe what happens in the home (though I dare anyone who has spent a morning picking up the detritus of toddler play; keeping an industrious explorer in the house, out of the toilet, and off the counters; and scrubbing the remnants of yesterday's syrupy waffle off the vinyl tablecloth and three (?!) dining chairs to tell me that doesn't qualify as work). The work that happens in the home is seldom bound by business hours or tangibly tied to income, rendering it effectively invisible and consequently culturally insignificant. By our prevailing standards, most of what I do with my day isn't work because my work, both professional and personal, academic and domestic, happens largely in my house. And that's a place apart from work

This is a problem, and not just because it makes it difficult for me to excuse myself and sneak away to my little home office to do some work. (Work being a place one goes to, Avery's already at the door at the slightest mention of the word, trying to put his shoes on so he can go to work with Mommy…) It's a problem because it's hard to explain to a toddler (as well as to any number of other folks) that despite whatever empirical evidence they may think they have to the contrary and despite certain stubborn trends (like the fact that 80 percent of domestic chores even in dual-earner households are still done by women), work isn't masculine and it isn't the opposite of "home." The cultural baggage we've loaded onto the term makes it seem that way, but that's not intrinsically the case. It is a problem because in our culture, work is a source of pride, identity, satisfaction; to gender it is to shut off that possibility to half of us. As the 1970s bumper sticker proclaims, "Every Mother Is A Working Mother," and as cultural critics since the mid-19th century have pointed out, there is real labor involved in caring for a home and its occupants, labor that deserves both recognition and remuneration. To posit home as diametrically opposed to work is to deny all this.

And so we need some new terminology. We need to divorce "work" from gender, somehow unmoor it from its masculine, anti-domestic underpinnings or else come up with something new entirely, some terms that allow us to talk about the work that happens inside the home (caregiving, domestic chores, even part-time or telecommuting professional or educational labor -- i.e. that most commonly, though not exclusively, done by women) while ascribing it equitable significance with what happens outside the home (i.e. that traditionally, though again not exclusively, done by men).

We need terms that we can all agree upon and understand. In attempting to explain the very real existence and the stubborn persistence of sexism in America to college students intent on believing otherwise, I keep coming back to this linguistic shortcoming. It takes some time, but each semester (I think, I hope…) I manage to convince at least some of my students that because our mature cognition is rooted in language, that language shapes attitudes, and attitudes shape behavior. Thus, when we lack adequate language, we have a difficult time forming, let alone disseminating new ideas. If we can't say it, we can't realize it. It's why as a society we're only just beginning to come to terms with the complexities of sexual identity (because we're just inventing and popularizing the language); it's why we haven't yet shed our vestiges of discrimination (we've still got all those words very handy, just at the back of our tongues). It's why we can't quite get over our peskily pervasive sexism -- it's still Mommy's house, we willfully insist, and it's not a workplace.

MMO : june 2007

Karen Oakes lives with her husband and son in Oswego County, New York. She happily lives the frantic life of an adjunct -- teaching writing at Syracuse University and history and women's studies at SUNY Oswego, and writing a dissertation in her spare (ha!) time.

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