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Rebel kitchen

Saturday morning I was baking cinnamon rolls. While baking I enjoyed a can of beer and let my thoughts drift freely, like this;

When I was kid, our mother stayed at home, taking care of the household, cooking food, cleaning, washing and tidying. Our father's salary kept the family warm and fed. But I never quite understood why our mother didn't go to work, as at those times in Finland most of the women did. So there shouldn't have been social pressure to maintain 50's style gender roles. Also, it kind of a felt that our mother wasn't so happy about her role; she was constantly over exhausted and complaining about everything. Still, almost every saturady she baked cinnamon rolls, and they tasted good.

Later on, when my own son was a little kid, I decided to stay at home taking care of him. I felt that fatherhood is the greatest thing in my life, and that I really want to live it fully. At the age of three our son spent a year in kindergarten. I was studying at the university, but if felt pretty pointless to sit listening to a lecture about educational sciences, while my own son was at daycare... I mean, instead of studying theories about raising childer, I wanted to spend more time with my son - he grows up only once, and that can't be postponed, whereas the university will be there for years to come. So I arranged my studies so that I could spend most of my days at home, still advancing my studies. At that time we were living in a city, and there were a handful of other families with mothers staying at home with the kids. Kids spent a lot of time playing together, and we parents were friends too. Some of the mothers said that they had encountered social pressure to take the kids to daycare and go working - but they didn't want to. They preffered to be with the kids while they are small, and only go working when the kids get bit older. Myself I felt that I'm anyway breaking all the social categories; I was ten years younger than the other parents, I was a man who could have purseued an academic career but I preffered to be a father at home. So, I felt that our little group of "parents staying at home" was a group of adults who don't go by the social pressure but make their own decisions according to their own inner values.

These gender roles are a funny thing. A year ago I read an article, where a right-wing thinker was arguing against ideology of down-shifting. One of his arguments was that down-shifting would lead to strengthening of old gender roles. Let's imagine a family with both parents working, kids at daycare and old grandparents living nearby already getting so old that they need help in their daily routines. If our imaginary family would decide to do some down-shifting, they would most likely decide that the mother spends less time working and more time taking care of gradnparents, kids and the househols - just because usually men have higher salaries. Well, I find this argument pretty silly. First of all; if a woman, out of her free will, decides to spend less time working and more time taking care of her loved ones, who does that count as strenghtening of the old gender stereotypes? It would be a different thing if there was a strong social pressure forcing the mother to stay at home against her own ambitions. Well, it seemed that the author of that article was afraid that if 20% of women decide to down-shift, that would lead to a social norm - people would begin to think that "because so many other women are down-shifting, I should do the same. Maybe I'm not a good mother if I'm not doing the same I see more and more of other mothers doing." Uh oh - I was somehow hoping that in the 21st century we are not anymore supposed to be doing the same what the others do. I'd like to see a society where people are more free to decide themselves, to find and maintain their own lifestyle and their own ways of contributing for the whole society. I thought that we have already left behind the era of simple gender roles for everybody. But, it bit kind of a seems that the current role model is that "a modern mother should take her kids to daycare and create a succesfull career or at least bring income and thus be equal to her husband." Ah, I see nothing wrong with that model. I'm only worried about imposing that model for everybody. I feel that there are many different ways of being a good father, a good mother, a good woman / man / other, fill in the blank _________________

Sometimes people react to my current life-style as if I thought that I'm better than "the mainstream". That I think that the ordinary people are doing it wrong, and I'm showing the right way... But oh hey do come on - just because I do some things differently, doesn't mean that I imagine myself to be better than anyone other. I believe that there are many good ways of living, and I only want to engourage everybody to find their own way, to be true to their own inner values.

cinnamon rolls in the making
cinnamon rolls in the making
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Comments

(1) It's not only that one right-wing ideologue who argues that way. Also some feminists do, and I can actually see their point very well. I've streamlined this into an argument that I call The Wrong Outcome -argument. It goes something like this:

Let's imagine that we are leftist, green and feminist in our politics. We would prefer to have a society that is generally much more equal in distribution of wealth, positions and power than current society is. It should also be generally less materialistic.

Let's imagine that we recommend voluntary downshifting, voluntary simplicity or something like that as a means to achieve this society. Now I'm perfectly aware that this might seem tempting from individual point of view. The problem is that rather than bringing about more equal and less materialistic society, it just reinstates the old one.

Who are the individuals who would be likely to downshift, out of their dear free will? They would mostly not be the people who value competition, hierarchy and wealth. So these voluntary measures would do nothing to change the manifest unequality. All power would still be in the wrong hands.

This is The Wrong Outcome Argument. Given our leftist, green and feminist preferences, we are recommending something that frustrates any such goals. Leftist diagnosis of this situation in totally clear. We don't need downshifting, that weakens the weak, we need to cut down profits and privileges of the powerfull.

I think that the broadly countercultural ideas such as downshifting signal that the left has lost it's nerve, and many progressives have lost their faith in collective political mobilisation. Many of us feel that we are "better than the mainstream", but this also means that we have decided to pursue our own life-projects rather than egalitarian politics. Maybe this is where we are, but let's be honest and call it a defeat.

(2) A somewhat shorter comment. I don't think one should make too much out of one's own freely chosen preferences vs. societal pressure. First of all, elementary game theory and common sense shows that the outcome of my individual choices depends in part on the choices others are making.

So maybe it "makes sense" for women to stay home. Those choices are as free as can be, there's no coercion involved, but the global outcome is that traditional gender roles persist. Same goes for Bangladeshi textile workers, who are after all free to quit their jobs and starve. The liberal model that only concentrates on the absence of outright coercion doesn't bring about social justice.

This is obviously not a criticism of your (or my) nonmainstream choices, it's a criticism of the idea that all is well when people have formal freedom of choice (I don't attribute that view to you, but it's a kind of individualistic assumption that seems to common ground between many countercultural thinkers and neoliberals).

Well, yes =)

That is one of the reasons why I'm not advocating a model of "more people should work and consume less - we should have voluntary down-shifting as a mass movement to bring a refrom in the society!". But what I'm asking for is a society which gives people more social, psychological and economical freedom to find their own ways of living. On level of legislation, something like "basic income guarantee" might be a good way to provide people more freedom to combine studying, part-time working, voluntary work, NGO activism, parenting and what not. To make it more frexible to sometimes work more and sometimes work less, to sometimes pay more taxes and sometimes contribute in other ways, like doing voluntary work. Actually, I don't see the basic income guarantee as a way to promote down-shifting - I believe on the contrary that it might engourage people to work more, as it would be easier to accept part-time jobs, or to have variable working hours.

(for our non-Finnish readers; in Finland we have a rather complicated social security system, where benefits are granted differently depending on if the person is completely unemployed, or doing part-time work, or studying, or staying at home taking care of children. That leads to situations like if an unemployed person accepts a part-time job with a small salary, he or she might have to wait for couple of months to get an adjusted sum of unemployement benefit. With basic income guarantee we could get rid of all the hassle. People just would get the basic income no matter what, choose their working hours without any extra bureaucracy.)

That being said, I admit that I don't really know if The Wrong Outcome -argument applies also to the basic income guarantee model - wouldn't that just lead to worsening of salaries, and to more unpredictable and unstable working hours, so that more and more workers could keep themselves barely fed, without enough economical stability to buy a home or so; while the rich would just keep on getting richer and richer?

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