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The grass was greener yesterday when I had to mow it with scissors

August 30th, 2004 · No Comments

The other day Don Boudreaux critiqued this interview described by NPR:

Innovations like the washing machine may have made housework easier — but by raising standards of cleanliness, they also created more work. NPR’s Susan Stamberg concludes her series on leisure by exploring the history of housework with historian Susan Strasser.

In my aggregator I went straight from the Cafe Hayek feed to NPR’s Morning Edition feed and listened to the piece myself.

Like Don Boudreaux, I felt frustrated. Hearing the words awful drudgery repeated with a condescending tone irritated me. Through their dialogue, the two seemed to blame modern technology for increased isolation. For example, owning a refrigerator, Strasser said, meant that women no longer have to go to the store each day. But I see that as a naive assumption: plenty of people still shop for food multiple times a week. Especially as a woman living in a more remote region of the West, where neighbors (farmers) might not see each other when hanging laundry on a line, I think that machines probably allow for more social interaction rather than less. These technologies have allowed women to be away from the home for the day, working, volunteering, studying, meeting other people.

Stamberg and Strasser commented that the new technology made child care into an explicit issue. Instead of finding more leisure time, women had more work to do with the family. But perhaps that was due to the fact that the awful drudgery was often done as a family, together with the children. If we can put the dishes and clothes in machines, then we have more time to spend investing in our children. Technology has perhaps contributed to the intense expectations of middle-class American childhood: who would have time or energy to cart kids to cartwheel classes or piano lessons if she were still scrubbing clothes in a wash basin and beating the carpet to clean it? It is as if children now require intense intentional investment from parents, all so that they can go to college and be able to afford their own washer and dryer.

On the one hand, I can see the dark lining the women were critiquing, as Don Boudreaux called it. The invention of washing machines and the elimination of awful drudgery have not transformed our society into utopia. As a family we disagree with the current trends in lifestyles and we are trying to do what we can to combat the stress and isolation.

But I’m not giving away my dishwasher or my dryer. I like my appliances. I don’t see American families abandoning their washing machines and vacuum cleaners in favor of basins and brooms. Isolation can happen even when one owns technology.

Isolation is a matter of the mind and what one chooses to do. And drudgery depends on the eye of the beholder. Calling what women have done for hundreds of years awful drudgery insults their lifework. Some people still enjoy darning socks and sewing handiwork. I like scrubbing the floor by hand. Yet sometimes I find unloading the dishwasher to be a task I dread.

And Stamberg and Strosser seem to be of two minds about machinery, calling it both drudgery yet saying that repetitive tasks nourish us, center us in a way.

It’s a bittersweet conversation. The past does seem better at times. And I’ve written about yearning for rose-colored-retro-glasses.

Boudreaux’s critique convicted me of my own attitudes:

This interview is evidence that bright people can find the downside of any piece of good fortune – but that the same bright people do not necessarily possess the wisdom to weigh the downside properly against the upside. It’s as if a very ill child was completely cured by a talented physician, and the parents of the child, admittedly grateful, focused their discussion on the fact that now their little one will grow into adulthood and have to pay bills, suffer heartbreak in love, find a job, and encounter the many trials and tribulations that every adult endures. These are downsides, to be sure, but they hardly count against the blessing of seeing your child saved from death.

There are downsides to greater convenience and greater household cleanliness. But how weighty are they?

Perhaps the emphasis on awful drudgery in the conversation was justification for retaining these machines. After all if a washing machine, dryer and refrigerator make a woman so miserable, then throw them out! I don’t see millions of families discarding appliances by the dozens. Through our homeschooling and parenting research, I have some across families who are self-sustaining and live on farms, off of the grid. It is possible.

Bu are machines to be blamed for our faults? Or is it our human nature? Are we perpetual victims, longing for another life where all goes well?! No era is perfect.

If women have a hard time finding leisure instead of labor, then perhaps it is women who need to work on saying no to work. And perhaps we need to change our attitude towards the drudgery in our lives. A fresh perspective and a bit of gratitude might help us find refreshment even as we unload the dishwasher or fold clothes from the dryer.

I wouldn’t want to be washing clothes by hand. Or my dishes. I like having food in my refrigerator. I don’t think these technologies are isolating. I also though enjoy sewing and scrubbing the floor on my hands and knees. There are places for both technology and tradition in the home.

Children are labor; no doubt about that. But in this day of disposable diapers , canned baby food and laundry machines, do kids cost us that much? And they are probably healthier as a result of applicances. We have it easy compared to other eras. I don’t think of myself as someone providing child care but as a mother spending her life with her children.

Perhaps parts of the past were better than the present. But we can’t get there or go there. Unless you want to throw out your washing machine and move to Montana, spending life with a washboard.

It is the modern malaise that we are unhappy where we are. We yearn for yesterday when the grass was greener. Our society seems both insatiable and bitter.

Is it machines that are making us miserable? Or is it our attitude towards them? Can we learn to be content where we are and grateful for what we’ve got?

Tags: family