Monday, September 17, 2007

The Family at Home? (Part Two)

In the previous post, I discussed, and approved, Allan Carlson's goals to create a pro-family culture, in which young people aspire to have big families. We agree that devotion to family is necessary to a healthy republic. But Carlson believes that an important way of promoting families is to promote telecommuting, so that fathers can be at home with their families. In the last post I briefly indicated why I generally oppose efforts to engineer particular social results through government action. In this post, I will explain why I also oppose the particular goal that Carlson is trying to engineer.

Carlson argues -- and I've heard this also from "traditionalist"-type Catholics -- that the great destroyer of marriage was the industrial revolution, because it caused fathers to work outside of the home. The theory goes that before the industrial revolution, you basically had Paul-Revere city dwellers and Charles-Ingalls farmers. (They don't use the examples, but I think examples bring things into focus. Charles Ingalls was the father of Laura Ingalls Wilder.) Paul Revere worked in his silversmithy downstairs, Charles Ingalls worked on the family farm, and both of them were always around to put their arm around their daughters, share meals with their wives, work side-by-side with their cute little boy, etc. It was all so idyllic and family-centered. Why not go back?

(Ironically, Carlson's way back is telecommuting, so Dad can work on the computer in the basement. I'll address the problem with the romantic vision of Ingalls and Revere, though I think there may be further problems with assuming that manual labor and computer labor are equally interactive.)

My criticism of the Ingalls and Revere vision is that it totally conflicts with my personal experience. As a full-time student and a dorm director, I have worked at home on and off ever since my first child was born, almost three years ago. My wife and I have found that it does not work for us, either as individuals or as a couple. (My wife was recently talking with another mother, a few years ahead of her, who said something to the effect of, "oh, having my husband at home sounds terrible. I have enough trouble doing my own work as it is!)

The trouble is that we spend too much time together. I know pro-family people aren't supposed to say that, but this is our experience. To be fulfilled, we need to work. (That, at least, is both Catholic and traditionalist!) I need to make progress on my studies, both so I can make money and support my family, but even more so I can develop as a person. My wife needs to clean the house, and cook, and take care of the children, again, both because those tasks need to get done for practical reasons, but even more because that is her vocation, and she feels dead when she is not fulfilling it, not doing the work she has been given. When I am home, we tend to sit around and talk all day, or even just to distract one another, both kind of wasting time because we see the other one wasting time.

We have found two ways to address this problem. (Just trying harder, it turns out, is not a very good solution. Perhaps before the industrial revolution people were just more virtuous . . . but I doubt it.) One solution is for me to leave. We have found, and have had to learn over and over again over the course of our marriage, that we are each happier as individuals and stronger as a couple when I go to the library all day. It's hard work, much more tiring than wiling away the hours at home, and harder to organize -- but it's so much more fulfilling for each of us, because each of us can be what we are, engaging our vocations, and moving forward, "wing to wing, oar to oar."

The other solution is like the first: I can just lock myself in my office. This tends to be less effective, because I don't stay in there. But in effect, it works out the same. We are each happier because we are not interacting all day. We are each pursuing our own tasks.

I suspect that Charles Ingalls and Paul Revere had the same experience. Revere could work in the smithy downstairs because he closed his door. It's nice to imagine the kids hanging out with him, but I suspect that a silversmithy wasn't a great place for kids, and that Revere wouldn't have gotten anything done if they had been there. Similar for Charles Ingalls. Whatever happened, I imagine he got work done by not interacting. Perhaps the kids helped out sometimes. But I don't think there were a lot of heart-to-heart chit-chats, or playing games, or whatever else. (Laura Ingalls Wilder may make it sound like they interacted a lot. But that is probably because the few times they did interact, it left a memory, not because they interacted all the time.) In short, pre-Industrial Revolution, fathers may have "worked at home" in some sense, but I suspect it wasn't very interactive, and thus not "family-centered" the way traditionalists would like to believe it was.

My wife suggests that the traditionalists may be looking for something else. They may be looking, first of all, for shorter commutes. Work itself is fulfilling (if not, the problem is the work, not the place), but an hour of traffic each way is awful. That, says my wife, is probably why so many fathers need a cocktail before they can interact. (She remembers her grandfather, who used to drive from Rhode Island to downtown Boston every day, and be unable to interact when he returned until he had a Manhattan. I have no problem with the liquor -- but I agree that the commute was probably not very humanizing.) So we should seek ways to cut down on commutes, and to make commutes more pleasant, rather than just trying to get fathers to work at home. And that would be more like Ingalls and Revere, who weren't interacting with the family all day, but could just walk back from the fields, or upstairs, when they were done.

The other thing my wife points out under the heading "Blackberries." A friend of hers just went on vacation, and her husband, a Congressional chief-of-staff, had to check his email every fifteen minutes. I'd broaden this category to just "too much work." Incidentally, I suspect that farm labor, despite our Tolstoy-esque Romanticism, was probably pretty deadening, and purchased many an absent, spent father for those romantic little farm children. In any case, the goal should, again, not be to get father to work at home, but to get him to work less. The method here, I think, is two-fold: prosperity plus less consumerism. If fathers make more real dollars per hour and spend less per year, they should be able to work less. In my opinion -- we'll have to flesh this out elsewhere -- what this really means is getting bizarre government incentives out of the market and letting the market do its job: find more efficient ways to get people what they want. A prosperous society, where families are not bowed down under taxes and pushed by perverse government incentives to work in ways that benefit no one, is a society where fathers can spend more time with their families.

I know it feels less satisfying, but that means the real "pro-family" tax code is the simple, minimal one, not the one with tries to force everyone to work from home and to promote the "right" kind of mothering.

(How to fight consumerism, which eats up earnings and requires parents to work more, is of course another issue. I'm not going to try to address it here, but I do think treating people like adults and letting them make their own decisions is more effective at promoting wise decision-making than is pervasive government interference.)

Finally, let me point out (as an intellectual historian) that before the Industrial Revolution, all the great theorists, from Plato and Aristotle to Augustine and Thomas, agreed that people like Ingalls and Revere, with their Romantic labor, were less than human, because they were engaging stuff instead of people. Add the third pre-industrial type: St. Thomas More, who did not work from home, and was often away on business, in the City for the day or even at Court for a week. In the view of the Tradition, the most humanizing tasks were the ones that got Dad out of the house -- and that humanization overflowed to his family. There is something perverse about a "traditionalism" obsessed with obtaining what the "Tradition" found abhorrent.

So I'm looking for work to get me engaged with the broader world, and I think my family will thrive more if I'm around a little less.