This post reviews Jennifer Lois, “The Temporal Emotion Work of Motherhood: Homeschoolers’ Strategies for Managing Time Shortage” in Gender and Society, 24, no. 4 (August 2010): 421-446.
Lois, about whom I’ve written before (in one of my most popular posts since it contains the provocative heading “deviant homeschooling moms“) here gives us another fascinating look at some of the struggles homeschooling mothers go through.
This time she’s looking at how homeschooling mothers deal with the frustrations they feel due to the lack of free time they have. She begins with Sharon Hays’ famous and powerful description of how the standards for being a “good mother” went up and up over the course of the 20th century, resulting in the “ideology of intensive mothering” that is so central to many homeschooling mothers’ self-image.
The amazing amounts of self-sacrifice that is required of these mothers leads to a severe lack of “me-time,” as these mothers often put it. One way mothers often rationalize this self sacrifice is to think of it as just a season in their lives–eventually they’ll have free time again, just not now, a process Lois (following others) calls “sequencing.” But sequencing alone doesn’t get rid of the emotions of guilt, resentment, and selfishness that haunt maternal psyches.
Lois’ study of homeschooling mothers (if you want the details of her sample and methodology, see my review of her earlier study) found that many of them had little to no discretionary time, which led them to experience “problematic emotions” they tried to manage through time-use strategies. They’d try to get their husbands to help out, but the men were either uninterested or incompetent (though lots of them liked the idea of homeschooling). Mothers tried to have their kids’ experiences be their own as well (say, taking piano lessons with the kids or using ethnic cooking as geography class), or redefined “me time” to include running errands like grocery shopping or even doing the dishes alone in the kitchen. But these were deceptions that weren’t really satisfying to the women. When such strategies inevitably failed, mothers had to manipulate their subjective experience of time in a process Lois calls “temporal emotion work.”
Temporal emotion work comes in two varieties. When a mom feels resentful toward her husband and children because of the relentless self-sacrifice she’s making, and then feels guilty for having these feelings, she has to do something about it. The first thing she does is the sequencing thing I mentioned above. The mother says to herself, “this is just a time in my life…eventually I’ll have time again to pursue my own interests.” Homeschooling mothers draw on “nostalgia” and “regret” to buttress sequencing, reminding themselves of the good times they had when their child was a baby and then imagining that they would likely eventually look back on these current days with the same nostalgia. They told themselves that they would hate to look back and regret the time they failed to spend with their children while they were still children. Sequencing in effect is a form of emotional banking–the mom is putting in the memories now, and she tells herself that she’ll be able to look back with fondness on these days in the future. Homeschooling mothers love hearing stories from movement veterans whose children are now grown and who say over and over, “enjoy it while you can, for soon they’ll be gone.” They also love recounting how working women often say that they wish in hindsight that they had spent more time with their children when they were young.
The second strategy mothers used to handle their negative emotions was “savoring.” Whereas sequencing leads mothers to think ahead to the future, savoring calls them to to dwell deliberately, to meditate on the present in all of its richness and complexity, to “live in the moment” as we say. Homeschooling mothers dwelt on the parts of the day they liked best, usually snuggling with the child on the couch in pajamas reading a good book or some other informal, unscripted interaction. By savoring such positive experiences, the rest of the day became more manageable.
I always enjoy reading Lois’ work. There’s an underlying subtext that is, I think, sort of critical of all of this self-sacrifice, but she never says anything like that. She seems to truly love and understand these women with whom she spent so much time in her research, and she gets them right as she describes the complicated emotions with which they struggle. But I sort of think she wishes women in general wouldn’t be so masochistic. Maybe I’m just reading that into her work, I don’t know. Regardless, she’s one of the only researchers studying homeschooling who looks at the impact of the practice on the adults who do it, and she does it with thoughtfulness and rhetorical elegance.