Human history has seen very few widespread, dramatic changes the likes of which occured with the Industrial Revolution. The most profound social effect of this is arguably the female influx into the labor force (precipitated, in the United States at least, by the two World Wars), and follow-on women’s liberation movement. Prior to the 1900s, most abrupt changes to the human situation involved physical disaster or nasty, fast-moving microbes. Thus having minimized much of the destructive natural-world forces via a “perfect storm” of industrialization, sanitation, automation, and mobilization, America could move up a rung on the Maslow Hierarchy and focus on productivity, fulfillment, and equality. And America’s women could start stepping up and carving out more options from society than housewife, mother, maid, or prostitute.
A child of the 70’s and 80’s, I grew up with Women’s Lib safely tucked in near-recent history and girls being able to grow up to be just about anything they darn near pleased, at least as far as I remember. Not that gender roles didn’t exist — they surely did, especially in Texas. Boys play football; girls are cheerleaders. I had lots of friends whose moms were homemakers. My mom, bless her soul, wouldn’t let me own a Barbie or watch MTV because of the “unrealistic image” both projected of women.
Probably my sharpest stinging personal memory of gender-role-infliction came in my High School Algebra II class when I was 14 (by this time I lived in Kentucky). The demon of last-name-alphabetization and higher-math-class-demographics had me not only as the only sophomore but also one of very few girls. I tended to constantly raise my hand in class — an annoying trait to be sure that will never win you the love of your high school peers, but it beat sitting there bored out of my skull when the teacher continually asked for an answer to a problem and then stared, painfully, into the classroom horizon’s sea of slack-jawed apathy. So I was a nerd and proffered the right answer a lot in my math class. After a particularly whiz-bang class period with lots of such participation, the jock-dickhead-popular-boy behind me asked witheringly, “Why do you even bother being smart? You are just going to be somebody’s housewife someday.”
Shocking as the statement was, as deserving of a “fuck you” as ever a comment deserved, I sat there mute. Navigating high school on a daily basis is taxing enough without having to defend your gender and whether or not you’re allowed to use the brains you happen to be born with. My defense blessedly came from another boy in class — sweet, friendly, not-very-good-at-math Jimmy Flanagan, looking as Irish as his name implies — who asserted I’d probably end up curing cancer. So in 1988 in Kentucky, I at least had the option of curing cancer or being a housewife.
Once out of Kentucky and out of high school, career-gender-limitations really did drop away — or at least you were supposed to act as though there truly were no differences or barriers. The politically correct 90s had definitely drummed out any explicit institutional barriers to females advancing in previously testosteronic fields. But for every academically brilliant girl I knew that was pursuing an advanced chemistry degree, there was one who didn’t know how to put gas in her car because “if she just stood there looking cute some man would come help her do it”. Actually, that was the same girl (true story). So while the institutions weren’t allowed to treat us differently, we XX’s were allowed to act differently when and if it suited us.
The 90s progressed and I checked off the boxes for “middle class white kid” on my scoresheet, finishing college and getting an entry-level job at a huge insurance company. I soon discovered I liked programming and got to be part of the tech boom in the 90s, hopping and salary-skipping up to a crappy consulting firm, then a big consulting firm. By the time the tech boom had withered, I’d still found a niche as a money-making independent mercenary contractor.
In this decade/century/millenium, I have settled nicely into working for a hosting firm where Engineerboy also works. I love my job — it’s challenging, tiring, and frazzling as hell but for some reason I can’t envision doing anything else with my professional life that doesn’t involve an unexpected windfall inheritance. Over the past couple years we’ve shifted to working from home 99.9% of the time, and even moved out into a small town about 90 minutes’ drive from the office. It’s a sweet situation when you can choose the right spot to live and you don’t have to worry too much about where your “office” is.
So my daily life now stands in sharp contrast to much of middle-class working America. I spend 22+ hours a day at home. I interact with my husband throughout the workday as well as in the evenings. Our conversations are an interwoven mix of shared work chatter, house & home chit-chat, and any other random topic (news/politics/celebrities) that occurs during the day. When our meeting schedules align to give us a mutual break midday, we share lunches as well — either a trip out to a local restaurant or a couple homemade sandwiches and maybe a half-hour break in the living room to watch South Park.
Over the years sharing this wonderful shared insular life working from home, I have realized that this is actually how the human unit is supposed to function. The Industrial Revolution which brought us the amazing advances in sanitation and mobility and economics also enacted profound changes on the family, and maybe not for the better. Although I’m certainly not waxing romantic about an epoch prior to the flush toilet, it does occur to me that back in the day when a family man’s options were farmer or merchant of his family-run store in a smallish town, his family probably spent more time together than they do now. That what we think of as “normal” now — where we spend 9+ hours a day away from the ones we love and provide for — maybe isn’t really that normal given the course of human history.
I can’t tell you the number of people who have looked at me askance when I say that my husband and I work for the same company and thus spend most of our time together. Many remark outright that they themselves couldn’t possibly do that. Which I find odd — I mean, if you liked your spouse enough to marry her, shouldn’t you be willing to be around her most of the time? Personally, I think that working with my spouse, at a common endeavor, sharing the same space, feels absolutely like what humans have evolved to do and how we should function if at all possible.
I’m glad the Industrial Age’s wheel has turned a full revolution and landed back where families have the ability to be home-based once again. And although my job may not be curing cancer, at least I can have a challenging, fullfilling career, and be a housewife. If you have the chance to do the same, I highly recommend it.