We should move beyond the industrial partition of household consumption and market labor
I heard a baby crying while I was working recently. It wasn’t my child, though over the past 20 years, my professional work—nearly always carried out at home and part-time—has been punctuated by such cries. Nor was it one of the young students at my children’s elementary school in which I now use a third-floor office. No, it was definitely a baby’s cry.
Curious, I left my desk in search of its origin. There, just across the hall, was indeed a baby, nursing at the covered breast of her mother, who was a new part-time administrator at the school. She explained that her daughter—a few months old—would accompany her to work for the next several weeks. The baby would nap in the third-floor office while her mother worked at her laptop two floors down, baby monitor close by. When the baby awoke, her mother would either bring her down to attend meetings or work upstairs beside her as she cooed and played. She hoped I would not mind.
The conflict between responsibilities at home and at work is largely the result of economic transitions to which we still—nearly a century after industrialization and 50 years into the modern feminist movement—have not adequately responded. Although we can be most grateful for the many technological advances the industrial era wrought, the concomitant cleavage that era caused between home and work—particularly care of children and productive labor—is the enduring cost of the period, one that has perhaps become most imposing in our time. Indeed, when seen properly, the first and second waves of the women’s movement represent distinct reactions to this industrializing rift, with the earlier 19th century movement seeking just responses to productive labor moving out of the home, only to have the 1970s version cede entirely to the new reality.
We leave each worker to resolve the disharmony, but polling consistently shows unrest in women’s satisfaction with their “work-family balance” and fathers increasingly report that they would like more time at home. The COVID-19 pandemic only amplified the discordance and intensified these parental yearnings: When lockdowns sent parents and children home to negotiate work, school, and play together, the pre-COVID workaday assumptions that shuffled everyone out of the home every morning were suddenly up for negotiation. If we are truly to help families flourish in the coming decades, we can no longer treat the industrial cleavage between home and work as a matter each family can manage on its own. A reconciliation must occur.
From Productive Homestead to Chief Consumer
Before the Industrial Revolution, mothers always worked with their young children alongside, underfoot, or, when small enough, strapped to their chests or backs. Whether growing or preparing food, sewing or mending clothing, or shepherding the fruit of their labors to barter or sale, women’s work was both economically essential to the family’s subsistence and carried out while tending their children. Most men also worked at or close to home, even as men’s superior physical strength and women’s capacity for childbearing and nursing fit each for distinctive labors in the agrarian homestead. Indeed, for most of human history, all work might be considered “domestic work,” done in and around the home. Productive, interdependent, and deeply collaborative, the household was society’s grandest sphere and the original locus of economics (oikonomia, or etymologically, household management). From a young age, children apprenticed with their mothers and fathers, respectively learning the gendered arts and crafts of the homestead in an age-appropriate fashion. The work was hard, but family subsistence required it—and character was shaped by it.
Industrialization changed everything. The power loom, to take but one example, moved a key component of the family’s productive labor from the home to the factory, where children could neither safely play underfoot nor learn to assist where they were able. In response to this monumental economic transition, the 19th-century women’s movement sought marital and contract rights as well as joint property ownership to justly recognize their economic contribution in the home. Charitable organizations like Jane Addams’ Hull House rose up to provide succor for poor children bereft of familial care as their mothers were forced into the industrial workplace. Court battles over state health, safety, and welfare measures, inspired and rigorously debated by women’s rights advocates, gave way eventually to the imperfect but stabilizing and humane regulatory structure of FDR’s New Deal. Despite the economic, legal, and political responses at the time and ever since, industrialization had divided home from work in a cleavage that remains with us to this day.
At the dawn of the 20th century and into the post-war period, more privileged families seemed to have found the perfect response to the vast economic transition that had beset the Western world: separate spheres for women and men. During this period, and in a still not insignificant number of households today, breadwinning husbands and homemaking wives operate in distinctive spheres of work and home that paralleled the distinctive kinds of work men and women did prior to industrialization in and around the homestead. But the new separate spheres transformed the once collaborative project of managing the agrarian homestead and rearing children together into a female-dominant affair, with public men expected to provide the resources for private women, who were now to focus predominantly on the care of children. While the cultural elevation of caregiving in the home provided an important corrective and essential buffer to the liberalizing impulse of industrialization, the economic transition strained the family and each member within it.
After all, the intervening revolution had dramatically changed the nature of women’s work in the home—just as much as it had changed men’s. Ivan Illich compares the pre-industrial woman’s work with that of the modern housewife: “Both women prepared fried eggs, but only one uses a marketed commodity and highly capitalized production goods: car, elevator, electric appliances. … Whatever time [they] saved—let us say in cooking—they were expected to transfer to other tasks, primarily childcare.” Women’s traditionally productive work of the home was displaced by new technologies, designed and manufactured predominantly by men in the industrial workplace. As women’s work in the home became less quantifiable in economic terms, it also began to lose much of its cultural value.
As Christopher Lasch argued in his lovely book, Women and the Common Life, the single most important insight of Betty Friedan’s 1963 blockbuster The Feminine Mystique was her complaint that by the mid-century, America’s once skilled and productive housewives had begun to serve instead as the country’s “chief consumers.” The comfortable post-war suburbs boasted homes architecturally sensitive to family life, modern time-saving devices, and burgeoning shopping malls within driving distance, all advancing the standard and ease of living. But if ordinary women in Jane Addams’ time were overburdened with the double shift of harsh industrial work and still-difficult home labor, many middle-class women in Friedan’s time had become under-burdened and even “bored” by the employment of those very technological advances Addams’ era had wrought. The home was increasingly a sphere designed for leisure and consumption, just as the increased consumption in U.S. households was extolled as a force contributing vitally to the nation’s economic boom. Over time, for many families, the focus on consumption overtook true leisure entirely.
Middle class suburban women’s sense of identity suffered as a result, argued Friedan. Consumption, after all, was hardly a meaningful substitute for the great collaborative and economically essential work of previous generations of American women, even as increasing numbers of women and all children were spared the onerous working conditions of the previous eras. The consumptive act of purchasing clothing had not only replaced the creative and highly skilled work of making clothing oneself, for instance; this shift also put a new premium on wage-earning, placing women in the new (and exceedingly vulnerable) position of economic dependency they had not experienced in the interdependent agrarian household. As historian Alice Clark writes of the pre-industrial period, women could “hardly have been regarded as mere dependents on their husbands when the clothing for the whole family was spun by their hands.” Thus, as wage-earning men became more and more dependent upon industrial capitalists with the decline of agrarian self-sufficiency, caregiving women became more and more dependent upon the wages of men. Protecting oneself and one’s children from that new economic vulnerability—coupled with the enhanced education of women and the growth of the knowledge economy—explains the last century’s movement of women into the workplace as well as any individualistic feminist ideology does. As Dorothy Sayers already saw in 1938, “It is perfectly idiotic to take away women’s traditional occupations and then complain because she looks for new ones.”
Men’s identity and relationships were impacted by their new wage labor, too. Work for wages took them from their families and into growing cities, giving them access to—and, with often harsh work conditions, more reason to access—new temptations in both bar and brothel; and for professionals, the physical affections of their secretaries. As the artificial work environment, whether in factories or newly erected skyscrapers, aggravated the stresses of work that were newly alienating men from the land, their bodies, and their children, their new economic dependence upon other men introduced a new kind of class-based resentment, too. Exhausted and ill-tempered by the time they reached home, generations of men could do little but collapse in front of the television, drink in hand. Relationships with their wives and children, and in their communities in which they had been deeply integrated, became harder to sustain.
The upbringing of children changed just as dramatically. In the agrarian homestead, children were not only an important help to the household economy; they also spent a massive amount of time outdoors, play-acting adult scripts in earshot of the people who loved them the most, cementing bonds with their parents that forged their character and identity. Once productive work left the home, and fathers and then many mothers with it, young girls and boys were no longer brought alongside their mothers and fathers in the arduous work of self-sufficiency; they now learned implicitly that all productive work takes place outside of the home, while consumption takes place in it.
As the family’s focus shifted away from the productive work it did together, through which morals, manners and work ethic were taught, its turn to consumption was compounded in the middle and upper classes by preoccupation with children’s development itself. Clearly, the intellectual formation of the young is a great civilizational advance from days of illiterate children laboring in factories. But to develop morally, children must be brought into a project that is larger than themselves in which they can learn to play an essential part. They cannot be the project themselves, with highly educated mothers (or daycare providers) hovering at their beck and call—or a sense of self-centered entitlement will surely follow, as it ineluctably has.
Of course, over the last half century, some families have intentionally bucked the consumptive trend, with homesteading, homeschooling, and family farms and businesses fostering productive and character-forming homes. Larger families or those of limited means resist the home-as-chief-consumer model out of sheer necessity; poor families, in particular, lack the economic security to sort parents into separate spheres or allow mothers to focus exclusively on the care of children. But a society structured around market work for the purpose of consumption, rather than the family’s work of ensuring the flourishing of each member, has made the home’s culturally essential work—upon which every other good rests—far more difficult, rent by individualism, and lacking of greater purpose.
For the Sake of the Family, Reconcile Work and Home
In its original Statement of Purpose, Friedan’s brainchild, the National Organization for Women, recognized how economic and technological transformations had changed the nature of work—while also noting that women’s enhanced longevity meant they would no longer spend their entire lives bearing and rearing children. Putting an organizational finger on the problem, the 1966 statement called for the United States to “innovate new social institutions which will enable women to enjoy the true equality of opportunity and responsibility in society, without conflict with their responsibilities as mothers and homemakers” (emphasis added). The statement pined for a “true partnership between the sexes” and for societal recognition of the “economic and social value of homemaking and childcare.” Urging the creation of a national fleet of childcare centers, Friedan’s group also recommended a GI Bill–type program that would retrain mothers who had cared for their children on a full-time basis should they wish to enter the workplace once their caregiving responsibilities had waned.
In the decades that followed, NOW continued to fight for childcare, but that priority was no longer coupled with its original respect for “the social and economic value of homemaking” or women’s “responsibilities as mothers.” Instead, anti-discrimination law and reproductive politics took center stage for NOW and much of the modern-day women’s movement.
The antidiscrimination gains of the last half century have been an unmitigated boon to women who are not mothers, and for those privileged mothers whose professional or family situations allow them to engage outside help and the flexibility to juggle family and work on their own terms. But 50 years later, most American mothers, and increasingly fathers, still find it difficult to fulfill well their responsibilities to both their children (and other loved ones) and their jobs. Anti-discrimination law alone cannot fix the problem and, pushed to its (strict equality) limit, can make the problem worse. The left’s technocratic responses tend to deepen the home-work cleavage: perfect fertility management to ensure childbearing is arranged around the demands of wage labor; parental leave specifically advanced to keep women in the workforce and thereby boost economic growth; government-subsidized, around-the-clock institutional day care to relieve parents of caregiving duties so they can remain at their stations.
On the right, and in direct response to NOW’s focus on aligning the creation and care of children with the market’s needs, Phyllis Schlafly championed the breadwinner-homemaker model, even as she defied it in her own life. Though Schlafly’s campaign against the ERA deserves much praise, the modern conservative movement she helped to found tends to underestimate the way in which industrial-era economic transitions and dislocations affect men, women, and children. Following Schlafly, some of the most conservative adherents instead place the blame squarely on feminism for the family’s predicament. The truth, as the foregoing has demonstrated, is far more complicated.
For decades, we’ve been stuck at an impasse in which the right assumes the separate spheres model in which all workers have someone at home to care for young children and the left pushes institutional childcare so parents can be free of caregiving and both can work. These long-standing solutions on right and left surely speak to those constituencies whose experiences mirror the breadwinner-caregiver or breadwinner-breadwinner archetypes. But for the majority of families, especially among the poor and working classes, neither solution quite fits their circumstances or needs. Both left and right tend to work from models that prize individual preference and economic efficiency above all. They each in their own way believe their model is what people really want and that enabling individuals to pursue it will optimize welfare, properly defined. Meanwhile, today’s parents are overworked and stressed, and fertility rates are dropping.
An alternative may finally be within our reach. Both the pandemic and the ongoing technological revolution has allowed much professional work that once took place exclusively in distant office buildings to come home. Enhanced online meeting capabilities and a tight labor market—both dividends of the pandemic—have empowered employees of all types to demand more flexible accommodations that facilitate this re-integration of home and work. There is some evidence that blue-collar workers, many of whom have seen real wages stagnate or even decline in recent decades, are seeking to transition into jobs that likewise offer these gains in flexibility. And much blue-collar work is neither as geographically fixed as it was in the heyday of the factory, nor as inappropriate an environment for children.
The future will not be pre-industrial or cleavage-free, nor is that the goal. But looking beyond the daily struggles within each home, and in the broader culture, one can begin to discern the outlines of options beyond just the mid-20th-century breadwinner-homemaker formulation and the late-20th-century two-income trap. Reaching them will require creativity from policymakers, employers, and of course families themselves.
Prioritizing the Family Claim over the Social Claim
An important first step to repairing the cleavage between home and work is to ask why it ought to be healed, or at least why it is of public concern. The aim is not national prosperity, economic efficiency, or equality of the sexes as measured by the market. We have pursued all of these goals in turn for decades and left families raw. Rather, our starting point must be the natural and laudable undertaking of adult human beings to become parents.
Becoming a responsible parent has been the signature mark of adulthood since time immemorial. As parents have responsibilities to care for, nurture, and educate their children, a just and humane economy and politics ought to help parents carry out those duties of care. Such maternal and paternal responsibilities are not easily or willingly contracted out; they are fulfilled in the daily, concrete, intangible relations of give and take in each family, rooted in the family home. But to enjoy the home as something other than a “joyless shant[y] for bolding down food or snatching a little sleep,” as one author described industrial-era homes (or, today, a space where individuals might sit aside one another consuming electronics), parents and their children need abundant time in their homes, free of responsibilities of market work, to cook and eat meals together, to share labors and build traditions, to laugh and know and love one another. What Jane Addams said of the industrial era is true of our time, too: The culture must prioritize the “family claim” over the “social claim.”
Neither the state nor the workplace can grant families a smooth path, nor can they compel parents themselves to prioritize one claim over the other. Still, these institutions, alongside those of civil society, can work to renew once more our nation’s hospitability to family life. The bipartisan Communitarian movement put it well in their still relevant position paper on the family in 1993: “A responsive community must act to smooth the path for parents so that joys of family life might be more easily felt and its burdens more fairly borne.”
Much ink has been spilt—and for good reason—on the need for the United States to provide paid parental leave and generous tax credits (or allowances) for families raising children. Mothers and fathers should not be economically disadvantaged by their efforts to raise the next generation. For the working and middle classes especially, a sense of stagnation, coupled with the rise of labor practices like “just-in-time scheduling” and gig work, have compounded the pressures of providing both resources and time to one’s children, scarce as each has become. Families often feel like they need two full-time incomes just to make ends meet, leaving little time or energy at home to nurture the necessary bonds with children or spouse. Childcare is surely a need for many families—and facilitating that care is a must—but we ought to prioritize measures that enable infants to be cared for by their mothers (or fathers or other close relatives), and all parents to nurture deep and lifelong bonds with their young children and teenagers.
Flexibility is the watchword for parents who engage in market work, whether they are professionals drawing salaries or employees earning an hourly wage. Children in the Netherlands enjoy the highest subjective measure of life satisfaction among all OECD countries. Perhaps one reason is that their mothers are also among the most likely to work part-time. In Nordic countries, where generous leave and childcare options enable mothers to return to work full-time in high numbers, most women still regard part-time work as preferable for mothers of young children. Mothers in the United States feel just as their European peers do: A Pew study showed that a majority of mothers who work full-time would prefer either to work part-time or not work for pay at all; meanwhile, a majority of mothers who work part-time believe part-time work is ideal, and among stay-at-home mothers, a plurality would enjoy part-time work. Occasionally, it is the father who prioritizes care for young children in the home, or who works part-time. With nearly a quarter of children in the U.S. raised by single parents—a rate higher than any other country in the world—the burdens of both breadwinning and caregiving fall on one person, making home-work reconciliation even more pressing.
Employees should be judged and promoted on their own merits and their capacity to fulfill the requirements of the job, not on the false assumption that being a parent (or reducing one’s time at work to engage in caregiving) makes them a less competent or committed employee. To this end, policymakers should work to ensure employers cannot discriminate on the basis of “caregiving responsibilities,” and this should include requests for a flexible schedule or part-time work. More urgent still, the Pregnant Worker Fairness Act, which amends the Pregnancy Discrimination Act by requiring employers to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant employees, should be passed by Congress as soon as possible.
In most industries, flexibility is far more available for those in the upper ranks, whose greater pay already allows them privileges in parenting unknown to wage-earning parents; if we truly seek to prioritize the family claim for all families, this will not do. Workplaces that promote flexible work options—with schedules released well in advance and adjusted to the worker’s (rather than the employer’s) needs—are especially good environments for mothers and fathers to work; to this end, employee-directed flexibility should be incentivized while employer-directed just-in-time scheduling should be outlawed. Unsurprisingly, flexible workplaces with work from home options tend to boost workplace morale substantially. Post-pandemic, a not insubstantial number of employees are rejecting offers for employment that is not from home. Government can assist by working to ensure broadband access is available and stable in poor and rural communities, much like the state-funded railways in the industrial era.
The nature of some occupations makes working from home nearly impossible, however. So, if work cannot go home, might that most essential work of the home—caring for infants—take place at work? Diverse kinds of organizations around the world have invited their employees to bring their infants to work with them, once maternity leave ends. From secretaries and cashiers to lawyers, teachers, and bank tellers, Parenting in the Workplace was founded to provide resources and mentoring to such companies. (Since the pandemic, the organization no longer offers mentoring, but resources on their site abound.) Companies testify that inviting babies to work not only makes for loyal employees, but that “everyone had felt happier with the babies around.” To quote the title of an article by a once-skeptical business owner: “Babies at work: It’s weird that it’s weird.” Indeed, far weirder to separate infants from their mothers all day and put them in the care of strangers.
On-site childcare—with ample break and lunch time for parent-child visits—is also a solution for hospitals, schools, and other companies that make babies at work impossible, or to care for older babies and toddlers. The state should continue to encourage on-site childcare through greater tax credits to employers, and employers should take responsibility for offering such options whenever possible.
Mothers (and fathers, too) are increasingly cognizant of a reality that employers should better acknowledge: Time away from market work may decrease some skills but it grows others, and these latter (“softer”) skills are needed more than ever in the workplace today. Rather than incur a “care penalty” for the care work they do with their children, workplaces should better recognize the transferability of the skills—and virtues—they acquire, and the “care advantage” they bring. Instead of docking a potential employee for a gap in a resume due to dedicated care work, corporate practice should encourage interviewees to articulate how that time of their life prepared them for the job for which they apply. Interviewers may be surprised by what they learn.
Some companies have begun to offer “returnships”—short-term paid opportunities for people who have left the workforce (generally for caregiving)—assisting parents in overcoming the obstacles to re-entry that generally exist. Sixty years after Friedan’s NOW suggested a GI Bill to help mothers re-enter the paid workforce, companies in need of their skills are finally coming around to the idea.
Civil society can play a vital role in supporting, accelerating, and, when necessary, forcing these kinds of reforms. What is required is recognizing them as a priority.
Corporations proclaim loudly their “social responsibility,” but this seems largely to consist of purchasing “carbon offsets” and festooning logos with various colors to denote commitment to various causes. Human Resources departments relentlessly promote “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI), though parents do not count as a group that contributes to the first or should be afforded the second or third. A rising generation of investors demands focus on “Environmental, Social, and Governance” (ESG) considerations, though this sometimes awards points for manufacturing weapons but not electric vehicles. In the days after the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, corporations promised to pay for employees’ abortions, which corporate consultants tout as “providing high-impact benefits with low-cost investment.” One does not need to be cynical to see the benefit of unencumbered workers to the bottom line.
Conspicuously missing from all of this corporate “social responsibility” is any responsibility for the health of that most fundamental social institution: the child-rearing family. Human beings, after all, need not only healthy natural environments to flourish; we depend, for our flourishing, upon our social ecology too, and thriving families are the most essential part. To this end, measurable standards and metrics for family-friendliness should be developed and corporations scrutinized, assessed, scored, and certified by the wider community and investors alike for how they respect the family obligations of their employees.
There will be costs in terms of efficiency; taking seriously parents’ primary duties of care will not be easy, or cheap. A society in which prime-age adults give first priority to their own children will not be as “productive” as one in which their children are warehoused elsewhere so that every adult can make the morning meeting. GDP will undoubtedly suffer. Yet prioritizing the family claim over the social claim will make us a happier people, and in this way, a more prosperous one. If it leads to a larger and better-nurtured next generation, GDP may do all right as well.
On the last day of school this year, the baby who came to work was strapped to her mother’s chest, facing outward and smiling, as mom waved goodbye to students and their families. It was a joy to witness this integration of home and work – one that should not be limited to the good sense of a beneficent employer here and there. We cannot return to a nation of relatively self-sufficient agrarian households in which mothers and daughters worked with young children underfoot and sons labored in the fields with their fathers. But we can begin intentionally to heal the vast cleavage that the industrial era wrought. For the good of each member of the family—and the whole community, which vitally depends upon the goods of family life—let us work to prioritize the family claim over the social claim, as my children’s school has tried to do. Future generations of children, and their mothers and fathers, will be grateful we did.