Woman’s Work and Home Affairs

*A version of this piece appeared in Arzu Ozkal and Nanette Yannuzzi’s show “Home Affairs.” It opened on Mother’s Day. For more of their images, go here.

As mothers in the West, we enter a fractured cultural worldview which insists that our raising children is the most important and valuable work yet simultaneously punishes us for the time we take for this work with decreases in income, time we cannot claim towards a career path, and a general opinion that women who spend part or all of their time at home with children are lazy and somehow taking advantage of others who are doing “real-world” work. Despite the general consensus that children are our most valuable commodity, those who spend time developing this commodity are looked at as outside meaningful work. As Ann Crittenden indicates, the societal “reward for such vital work should not be professional marginalization, a loss of status, and an increased risk of poverty.” However, in the decade since she wrote The Price of Motherhood, not much has changed in how mothers are treated in the workplace and domestic sphere. We are taught in subtle and not so subtle ways that “the only ‘good’ mother is the self-sacrificing, saintly figure who performs the moral, caring work of society at the expense of her own equality and aspirations” yet to be a “good mother” leaves us outside of society, a failure in achieving our potential as a human. I don’t see how this suicide of creative and individual identity can be “good” for the mother as well as her children exposed to her example.

One of the ways mothers combat this fracture worldview is to put the domestic sphere into business value terms: “I am the CEO of the Smith household,” or “I am a full-time mom.” In placing our mothering working in business terms, we admit to an underlying apology for our women’s work. The implied message is that full-time mom can’t hack it in a “real-world” workplace; thus she must remain in the domestic sphere and pretend that it has the same value as the workplace. Crittenden claims that despite some success “after fighting hard to win respect in the workplace, women ha[ve] yet to win respect for their work at home.” However, these statements also contain a subtle accusation: the only alternative to a full-time mom is a part-time mom; and if a mother chooses to work outside the home, then in no way can she be a full-time mother or a good manager of her domestic sphere. As far as I know, every mom with full custody of her children is a full-time mom. The part-time option doesn’t exist.

We’ve worked so hard to get women out of the domestic sphere that it is no longer a place that we can view as something valuable even though once a woman becomes a mother the domestic sphere fully becomes a space where she does some of her most important work. This fractured worldview poses a particular problem for mothers, both those who fully immerse in the domestic sphere and those who also participate in the workplace. We need to find a way that forms an identity of self that encompasses our work as mothers as well as our work as creative individuals. The art of Arzu Ozkal and Nanette Yannuzzi investigates this identity and how mothers are valued and create value. We cannot let our identities become subsumed in a fractured system of patriarchal desires: we must claim our women’s work.

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