If you are a fan of author P.G. Wodehouse, or have seen the droll PBS adaptations of his stories, you will remember the feckless Bertie Wooster--whose inherited money permits him to live a life devoted solely to his own amusement--and his tireless, resourceful, and formidably clever butler, Jeeves.
Like most of the women (and one man) I know who currently are homemakers, I have always, when asked about my life, stressed its Jeeves side--the crises deftly handled, the appointments made and kept, the chauffeuring, the tutoring, the cooking, the cleaning, the volunteering at school, scouts, church and soccer. After all, we Americans never feel happier or more virtuous than when we are complaining about how overworked we are, and I like to get in on the fun.
Of late, however, it has occurred to me that those friends and relatives whose eyebrows raise upon learning that I still have not secured gainful employment and the status of a real job are absolutely right. I am not simply an underachiever but an out and out ne'er-do-well, and it is time that I admit it. I am as much Bertie Wooster as I am Jeeves.
My secret is that I know I'm getting away with something. Having spent my twenties in libraries and then offices, the move from fluorescent lights to sunlight was exquisite. I love being my own boss. I love having time to read the paper. I love to eat good food--and the smell of a fresh, well-cooked meal at day's end is just as delicious if you've done the cooking yourself as it is to come home to.
I've commuted by car, train, and bus, and I find that I don't miss it. I've found, too, that I don't require a title or a paycheck to be productive.
I don't even envy dual career families their cleaning help. Well, not much. I keep a volume of poetry open in whatever room I am cleaning and memorize new verses while I scrub or vacuum. By the weekend, the household chores and errands are done and my family and I can spend time in one another's company. It is a life of luxury.
It's this luxuriousness, this indulgence in what has been called inconspicuous consumption--the consumption of time and the pleasures that require time, rather than of expensive goods--that seems to annoy many people.
Whereas homemakers of the '60s and '70s were often pitied as unwilling drudges, today's at-home parents are more likely to be looked on as slackers. Our lack of ambition is vaguely embarrassing, and no amount of household labor or civic works seems to make up for our rejection of paid work.
We are frequently and sourly, although quite justly, reminded that we are lucky to be able to make such a choice. I can only agree. Like most blessings, this one comes undeserved and unasked for.
Of course, I believe in the value of my work. Of unhurried parenting. When I spend time of an afternoon digging in the compost pile with my younger son and we laugh over the size of the worms or chat about how the heat we can feel in the rotting leaves and grass is an example of the release of energy that occurs when matter changes form, I believe that it is time well spent.
I am even arrogant enough to believe that I offer him something that cannot easily be found elsewhere. Not simply because I can reinforce his science lessons, but because I can offer him the pleasures of shared endeavor and easy companionship, of attention that, for the moment, doesn't have to be shared and of conversation that doesn't have to be rushed.
But I know very well that there are good after-school programs with happy children who will grow up to be fine citizens. The real reason I place so high a value on these moments with my children is that they are such a deep delight to me. Looking on the faces of my sons, giving or receiving an unexpected hug, playing duets with my 10-year-old, listening to rock-and-roll with my 13-year-old--these are luxuries that I'm simply too selfish to give up.
And, unlike some pleasures, they can't be tasted later if I forgo them today. Their season is now.
The Jeeves in me wants my friends and acquaintances to recognize that I haven't been entirely idle, or even wholly engaged in housework and child-rearing, over the past 13 years. I've worked in a children's bookstore; I've taught English classes at a community college; I've done freelance editing and proofreading. As a volunteer I've helped first- and second-graders learn to read, coached third-graders in the writing and production of a class newspaper, led numerous classroom discussions of art, and cooked meals for the homeless. But the Bertie Wooster in me shamelessly confesses that not one of these activities has taken so much time or earned so much money that it could be considered work. I've really just been pleasing myself all along.