Why (I) Work? The Difference Between A House Wife and Being Unemployed By Sara Frykenberg

The following is a guest post written by Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D., independent scholar and graduate of theWomen Studies in Religion program at Claremont Graduate University.

Ever since I graduated I have been keenly aware of the fact that am no longer a student who is “not working right now,” but am in fact, unemployed.  I do not have a job and have accumulated countless hours, applications and my fair share of rejection letters to attest to this fact.  However, something else has changed in my life this year: I also became a wife and gained a husband… and in between my job searches, while I am cleaning the house, planning meals and working on a GARDEN (which is thriving by the way, despite my previous occupation as a serial plant-killer), I’ve found myself considering, “Am I unemployed or am I a housewife?”

I ask myself this question, as I water the money tree next to my desk: a graduation gift from a friend.  *Am I imagining things or did it slightly quiver when I thought about getting an (outside) job* 

Planti-cide aside, the more I have considered this question, the more of a spiritual issue and a feminist issue its has become for me.  How do I find a balance between my sincere belief that the choice to be a homemaker is a beautiful one, and the feelings of shame or worthlessness I sometimes struggle with because I have not found a “real job.”  I find myself listing all of the things I have accomplished in the house each day to my husband when he gets home, as though I have to justify my existence or earn the grocery money I no longer have in my own bank account.

I am reminded here of the question Cathy Dundas-Reyes asked on her blog last month, “What Feeds Your Soul?”  Where I am uncomfortable claiming that I am a housewife, I have to admit that some of my activities in this occupation are immensely soul-feeding.  I love having a clean house: it feels good.  I LOVE having a beautiful garden full of plants that are happy—its like I am cleansing my soul of the repression and neglect many of my previous plants have suffered.  On the other hand, there is nothing I find in the title “unemployed” that feeds my soul.  I really enjoy preparing new and interesting foods for my little family, but I do not love feeling like I need to ask for the money to pay for this food.

What I find myself avoiding in my self-definition of late is my particular relationship to independence and choice.  I don’t have the “choice” to not work at home, whether on the computer looking for jobs or maintaining my home, so I don’t always feel empowered by this work.  On the flip side, my own interpretation of what it means to be unemployed is strongly influenced by a kind of isolated sense of independence.  This kind of independence tells me that my humanity is contingent upon my ability to stand on my own, have a “power over” my circumstances and succeed through financial gain.

Its interesting to me to know that a part of my resistance to feeling good about my current house-wifery is actually my fear of a relationship, a relationship that for me is one of the most mutual, non-abusive, nurturing relationships I have ever known.  When I recognize that there is a part of me that would rather be beholden to my credit card company, an organization I know to be exploitative and designed to keep me in debt, rather than tell my ally, my husband that I need help…well, then I know I have to check myself.  My illusion of financial independence comes at too high a price, literally.

As a feminist theo/alogical scholar, I sometimes wish I could banish those parts of me that still buy into patriarchal, anti-relational and greed driven economic self-definitions.  But, as Katherine Keller reminds us, we can’t apocalyptically erase our uncomfortable connections without encouraging the same apocalyptic energy that erases relationships to being with.

I still want and need to get a job outside of the home… I celebrate that this type of employment is something I want, while recognizing that my family will actually need a greater income in not too long so that we can pay our bills.  This is another facet of the balance I spoke of above.

But for now, considering the question: what is the difference, for me, between being a housewife and being unemployed, I am challenged to be very grateful for the relationships I have….  Howbeit, a little restless and grateful.  I am also challenged by the privilege I have to even evoke the term “housewife:” my relationship to an individual who if need be, could possibly pay our rent, though not all of our bills, is an amazing gift… not one every unemployed person shares.

I would love to hear your thoughts of this issue; and about how other women and men are finding their balance.  Thank you for this space and for reading!

Categories: Feminism, Spirituality, Women and Work

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

5 replies

  1. You have a beautiful way of communicating and inviting others to join in what is going on with you. That is a gift that is not altogether common.

    The things that feed my soul is what defines my identity and maintains my self-worth. Having a job (a title/position) that lends itself to independence (financial/otherwise) may make me socially acceptable and add social status, but all that is rather tenuous, is it not? Ironically, the people who need me to have a social status/title/position are people who I find to be rather irritating to be around in an extended period of time.

    In 2009, I chose to step back from the daily grind of title/position and accept not working. Actually, circumstances dictated that I do that. The freedom of not working that has afforded my soul (and my body) far outweighs financial and social standing I may have otherwise held.

    A timely quote that I heard only last night, “We should not have anything as our foundation that can be taken away from us.”


  2. Debbie,
    While I was putting my former husband through med school by working several jobs, I ended up pregnant during his last year of school. After having our daughter I returned to work until the end of his first year of residency. He was making enough money to support us without my income so I made the decision to go to school. The day I quit my job, even though I lacked the language and maybe even theory to articulate my unease, I knew I was relinquishing a bit of my own freedom and independence. I found it interesting that when you compare your financial need to either a credit card company or your husband, you use the language of “beholden.” Why is this? I’m sure your marriage is health enough not to suffer from the power relationship that money can bring, particularly when one is not bringing in the money, which is usually the woman, but when one stays home I feel it comes at a price.

    Your day sounds sacramental in many ways and I understand the joy and pleasure that comes from tending the home fires, but for me the price was simply too much. I needed, even with three children to raise, more than what the role of housewife could offer. While I was a stay-at-home mother/wife, I recognized the danger of making this my fortress. I can look back with pride at how I raised my children, but also with the way I mirrored my separateness from them.


    • Dear Cynthie,
      I really appreciate your comments. I think the one thing I didn’t express well above, is that I really want to work outside of the home and I honor this desire. I feel fed by my work in the home, but not “full” so to speak… ( though recognizing that I am “eating” is important for me!)

      I definitely believe that the choice to work outside the home is just as meaningful as the choice to work within it…. though I found a disconnect between my theory and my practice. Living somewhere in-between being a homemaker and being unemployed, I found that I was not valuing my own work in the home the way I might value another woman’s homemaking…. or even another individual’s “part time” employment or “second job” as a homemaker.
      My blog was inspired by my desire to understand the “why” of my feelings and what I could do to honor my whole self a little better, hence my exploration of the tension that I feel in this in-between space.

      To answer your question, the word choice “beholden” is specifically meant to describe my financial relationship to my credit card– whereas, “telling my husband I need help” is something I consider a more mutual act in non-abusive relationships. That said, your comment made me think about how hard it is to ask for help sometimes, and about how much harder it is for me to ask for help with some things than with others… particularly financial things ;) I will definitely think about that now! Thank you!


  3. Sara, you raise great questions.

    As someone who has been largely supported by my husband for the last 4 years, I understand the ambivalent feelings. I know I contribute to some degree to our family — we have two little kids and I am the primary caretaker of them. But not having my own paycheck is a knife in my heart in some ways. I feel this overwhelming sense of vulnerability, as I watch my work resume become more and more obsolete. I think I must buy into typical western notions of feminism in that I can’t help but feeling that independence and autonomy (symbolized by a paycheck) are important. But I love your perspective that it’s important to look beyond that mindframe and also appreciate relationality and the important work we do in that sphere.


  4. Sara~

    I’m just now reading this, and maybe it’s more timely this way. I am facing the same problem of feeling a lack of financial independence as I discern going back to school for an MDiv, and relying on my partner who is fully employed. He’s more than supportive, and is happy where he works (so the issue of changing his scenery won’t enter the picture for a while). I still can’t get over feeling like I wouldn’t be a partner financially, even though rationally I know being a partner involves far more than finances (although in this economy, it’s easy to forget that).

    What has helped me (besides the many heart to hearts with my partner) involves evaluating what I want to focus on in being a partner. Do my aspirations hold my partner back in any way? What are his concerns? I think I also have a particularly tough time with it because I grew up with my mother as the breadwinner; our dad stayed home with us. I have a model of a financially independent woman, that I’m seemingly not following.

    Ultimately, I will have to swallow the pill I am given after July (when my temporary position ends), and remind myself that my worth as a person is not connected with if/how I bring income into the home. I hope you take solace in knowing you’re not alone :)


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