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Recently, I was asked to identify my occupation. I responded with a long description of my educational credentials and my prior work experience. My description ended with, “but since moving here to India I haven’t held an official, full-time paid position.” In response, the man on the other end of the line said, “You are currently a homemaker, then?” In frustration, I said, “Well, if that’s what you want to call it. I guess, you can say that.”
The truth is I don’t see myself as a homemaker and I doubt I ever will, regardless of my circumstances. I don't quite understand what it means to be a homemaker. I am certainly aware of the basic meaning, “a person who manages the household of his or her own family, especially as a principal occupation” (dictionary.com). Yet, this definition is not sufficient, especially when one considers the standard definition of an occupation, “a person’s usual or principal work or business, especially as a means of earning a living; a vocation” (dictionary.com). Doing what I do is not my occupation. I don’t get paid or any extrinsic benefits really-no sick or vacation time, no retirement, no medals or trophies, etc. Overall, I feel that my efforts are rarely appreciated. However, intrinsically I realize the rewards of being at home, especially when it comes to my children. Yet, raising my children doesn’t make me a homemaker, it makes me a Mom. I care for and nurture my family because I love them, not because it’s my job.
My disdain for the term-homemaker-may stem from my personal view of what it means to be one. Personally, I can’t look beyond the 1950s stereotypical version of the American homemaker. You know, the wife/mother with the perfect hair and makeup who wears a long skirt and button-down blouse with a white apron. She cooks all day long and gives her children homemade cakes and cookies each day after school. Her only focus is the house and her family. She is both content and happy and never questions her place in the family or society. Of course, I realize that this version of the typical homemaker is not real and particularly not relevant today in America or India. Yet, when someone calls me a homemaker, my paranoid self wants to scream, “I am not this lady!” Of course, I am not suggesting that any and all of these characteristics are bad. It’s just that this is not me or who I aspire to be.
My personal insecurities may also help explain why I reject being called a homemaker. I want to be recognized for my previous work and efforts. I am smart and I worked hard to obtain an advanced degree, but these traits are not often not captured by the homemaker designation. Recently, I was told that I have too much education to stay at home and that I should be in the workforce. If you’re a homemaker, it’s often assumed your ambitious are limited to your spouse and your children. You became educated to help find yourself a husband and not to build a career for yourself. If you worked, you worked primarily to fill time until you had children rather than working for your own personal goals. Generally, you are assumed to be sheltered and pampered because you’re taken care of, although you do the taking care of. This is not my reality and I’m sure it’s not your reality either. It’s this type of view that is harmful, even marginalizing, to the spirit of many women who are not gainfully employed, either out of choice or necessity. Such stereotypical notions subjugate women to a great extent.
It may be the case that I don’t really understand how most homemakers view themselves. This North American term peaked in the 1990s. It’s less common now than before, although it is more politically correct than the term housewife. Maybe if I had a clearer sense of what the term meant to other woman, I could identify with it more. Homemakers typically feel under-appreciated, but do you also feel pride in this label and/or see it as a means to unite with other women? When someone labels themselves as a doctor, lawyer, or by any other professional occupation, we generally have a sense of what that means, e.g., the credentials, the work, the rewards, and such. However, not the same can be said for a homemaker, it’s the exact opposite actually. The term is used to capture an array of people, nearly always women, who are not officially compensated for their work, but who engage in a substantial amount of work. Women in the official workforce engage in similar work, if the not the same, but since they are employed outside the home, they are not homemakers.
The homemaker box carries too much negative baggage for me. Why do we need a label at all? Men who don’t work typically call themselves unemployed. Maybe because it’s still not OK for men to want to care for their children not have paid work. In the US, this is slowly changing, but dads generally call themselves stay-at-home dads rather than homemakers. If a category is mandatory for all women, I want to pick my own category rather than having someone pick one for me. Why, for example, can’t I say I am a writer? It’s what I do when my children are in school and each night after they fall asleep. Some women I know could definitely call themselves athletes given how much time they spend on their physical health and other women friends could be photographers and artists rather than homemakers. Yet, all these women would be classified as homemakers given that they are responsible for the children and do not necessarily earn much money, if any. Some women call themselves “self-employed” instead of homemakers even though they are not fully employed. Maybe I will start identifying myself as “self-employed,” given that I can relate to that much more than homemaker.
What I am trying to suggest is that there are a million labels we can call ourselves, so why does this term homemaker persist? Every homemaker is more than her children and home. She is her past, present, and future. We shouldn’t let our work, no matter our profession or occupation, define us. We also shouldn’t measure ourselves by the standards of others and the prevailing stereotypes. Yet, we also can’t control the views of others. The man who recently classified me as a homemaker was not being malicious or unkind, he was simply giving me the title he thought fit best. If you happily identify yourself as a homemaker, I applaud you. I really do! You have a peace that I don’t have, but I wish I did.
I cannot be content with being called a homemaker. It just doesn’t feel right. It just doesn’t fit me. It may be me or it may be the label, most likely both, although I am not certain. All I am certain of is that when this label is applied to me, I don’t feel empowered, rather it makes me feel powerless.