Isn’t it curious how often the policy disaster that is posited as the thing that will never happen takes place within minutes? Thus, no sooner had New York Mayor Giuliani insisted that welfare mothers in homeless shelters work or be evicted and lose their children to foster care than Jason Turner, who directs the city’s welfare-to-work program, pooh-poohed its possibility. What mother (that is, what mother who deserved to keep her children) would refuse to work when faced with such a threat? Fortunately, the policy was enjoined by the courts before it could be implemented, leaving the Mayor to console himself by having a buildingful of artists evicted just before Christmas.
But by that time, the thing that was never going to happen was already all over the news. In Suffolk County, Long Island, which had implemented the very rules blocked in New York City, young Eve Engesser had her two sons taken into foster care when she lost her shelter place because of a missed workfare appointment–her third minor run-in with the byzantine welfare regulations (one due to a sick child, the other a bureaucratic error). God himself could not have arranged a better poster child for the evils of the policy of requiring work for shelter: Ms. Engesser was white, sober, by all accounts a good and loving mother–not the unruly black addict whom welfare reformers obsess about; her parents were solid working-class people who, priced out of Long Island’s tight housing market, also became homeless; her defender was a local Presbyterian minister. None of this prevented the county from removing her sons, whereupon they became understandably upset and withdrawn; the 8-year-old apparently was not sent to school. If it were not for the generosity of a nonprofit agency that came forward with housing and job offers, who knows what would have happened to those kids–not to mention their mother?
To all this John Tierney, the conservative “Big City” columnist for the New York Times, was cheerfully oblivious. Why on earth, he wondered, do people object to the work-for-shelter rule? After all, it’s working so well to restore the self-respect of the ex-addicts and former convicts now sweeping city streets for the Doe Fund, a private charity that helps them back on their feet in return for low-wage work. “Why would anyone want to protect someone’s right to lie around a shelter doing nothing?” as the head of the Doe Fund told Tierney. It’s worth noting that Doe Funders volunteer for the program, but in any case, women with children are not like single men with no ties: They are already working, taking care of their kids and maybe other family members also. One can only equate homeless mothers with addicts and criminals if one has already decided that, for them, domestic labor is not real–their kids can go to foster care because they are not the sort of mother any child would really miss. At the bottom of the social scale family life is invisible; all that matters is paid work, never mind if slogging long hours for low pay means your kids suffer.
At the top, though, domesticity is making a big comeback, at least on paper. There’s Martha Stewart, a cross between an arts-and-crafts counselor and Marie Antoinette in shepherdess mode (make envelopes out of birch bark! ice your child’s birthday cake with molten gold!). And now there’s Cheryl Mendelson, with her wildly successful 884-page guide to housework, Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House. Larded with tributes to housekeeping as the source of order, beauty, pleasure and happiness, Mendelson’s book provides unbelievably detailed instructions on everything from how to dry a wine glass to how to hang wash on a line (yes, there is a right way and a wrong way). Beneath her portrayal of domesticity as a satisfying and enjoyable pastime is what one amazon.com reader calls “a relentless paean to obsessive practices.” Mendelson wants us to sanitize our sponges and disinfect our dish towels after every use, change the kitty litter every other day, put on fresh pillowcases twice a week, vacuum our mattress pads whenever we change the sheets and unplug and wash the refrigerator once a week!
Taken seriously, this is domesticity as paranoia–oh, no, a germ! Taken in small doses, it’s housekeeping as a hobby for busy professionals, like gourmet cooking, or (more likely) a fantasy: one more self-improvement project that lasts a week and makes you feel guilty forever. Naturally, antifeminists such as faux stay-at-home mom Danielle Crittenden have been chatting it up as proof that working women are wasting their lives. Vacuuming can be fun! Somehow I doubt that Crittenden, who has plenty of hired help and works like a stevedore producing antifeminist drivel, is spending much time sanitizing sponges. As for elegant Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, whose blurb for Home Comforts rhapsodizes that “she helps to restore dignity, value and craft to the work that creates and sustains the private space that nourishes our humanity,” I can’t imagine a woman less likely to wash the kitchen floor on hands and knees, as Mendelson recommends.
Put Eve Engesser’s story together with Cheryl Mendelson, and what you have is domesticity and motherhood as class privileges. For poor women, do a “job” or lose your shelter and your kids. For the well-off, running the house becomes a holy task, than which nothing of which the human spirit is capable could possibly be more important.
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For the past three years, Nation readers have responded enthusiastically to appeals in this space on behalf of the Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt (BIF), a German human rights group that sends material aid to the now-forgotten refugees from Eastern Bosnia and runs a summer camp for Bosnian children of all ethnicities. Since l995 it has also helped organize and fund Prijateljice (Friendship House), where Bosnian Serb and Muslim women, mostly destitute widows who live with their children in single rooms, can meet and where their kids can play. The contract under which the BIF had the house for free is about to expire. If you would like to help it buy Prijateljice and provide a permanent place of respite, send checks made out to the Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt to me c/o The Nation, and I’ll forward them. A kind reader who wishes to remain anonymous has offered $10,000 in matching funds. Happy New Year!