The masks have come off.
Thus ends, unofficially, the strangest year in American history this side of the century mark. True: 2001 saw the destruction of the twin towers and the birth of the “War on Terror,” and 2008 marked the beginning of a national economic meltdown – blandly titled the “Great Recession” – that produced a withered job market and wintry prospects for employment, but 2020 wins the cigar for the strangest year in memory.
Whispers of a mysterious sickness in China proved to be more than conjecture. The coronavirus slipped into the United States as silent as a ghost, determined to haunt the hills, plains and coastlands of our country. A good number of us panicked: Store aisles were cleaned out in hours, toilet paper became rare and precious, and blue surgical masks were kept under lock and key in pharmacies and hospitals. Then, in May, Officer Chauvin killed Mr. Floyd in Minneapolis and pockets of American cities erupted. Many churches organized, and civil rights activists, elected officials and clergy marched, prayed, and protested this killing within the bounds of the law. Overshadowing these demonstrations were the riots, as angry men and women smashed windows, burned squad cars and dumpsters, robbed their neighbors, and attacked police stations and courthouses with seeming impunity. Upheavals of this sort sprang up like mushrooms throughout the summer. A harshly-contested national election transpired in the fall, followed by an attack on the U.S Capitol in the winter. As of this writing, hundreds of thousands of American citizens lay dead and buried in the earth, with the virus claiming a billing in the death certificate.
Yet there is reason to believe that American life will return to normal. Vaccinations are available to many. State and local governments have relaxed restrictions. Those businesses that survived the shutdown have reopened; office buildings are repopulating, bars are buzzing, restaurants are packed and the beaches are full. The dark cloud of the pandemic is lifting and the bright rays of summer have begun to shine through.
In the light, it is often said, the rot is spotted best. Before we rush home to the comfort of the familiar, it would be worthwhile to pause and take a good, long look at the modern American life to which we are eager to return.
In particular, let’s look at the economy, which shapes our day-to-day life.
Specifically, Let’s do so while bearing in mind that God created man in his image, that every human life is precious, and that the economy ought to serve individual persons – especially the most foundational community, which is the family.
Naturally, this contradicts what is commonly assumed by government and business leaders: That man’s purpose is to serve the Economy. While we’re in the business of contradicting the standard narrative, we also need to reject canned descriptions of the family as the “building block” or “basic unit” of society, along with other similarly frigid terms evoking uniformity – “the family” as a sanitized product, safely encased in plastic wrap.
In reality, the family is not furniture to be assembled or dishes to be unpacked. It is much more akin to a garden, a place of beauty and life that requires nourishment, time, and – the least economical of words – love.
In distinctly Christian terms, love often means suffering for the good of another: A husband who works long hours in the office, only to come home and clean the kitchens and bathrooms, loves his family. A mother who foregoes sleep to change bottles, to nurse, to rock, hum, and sing, to have her breast bitten, strummed, or worse, ignored, loves her family. A brother who gives up his long-awaited turn in the game to his little sister loves her (and his parents). A God who gives his Son up to scorn, shame, and crucifixion loves the world, having joined our gnarled family tree in the person of Christ to redeem us through his death and resurrection.
It can be said then, that working in and around the home gives us a greater capacity to love family, which comes from being present with them throughout the day. Parenting proves this. Changing diapers, cleaning the kitchen, washing laundry, picking up the groceries, pushing the stroller, counting toes and noses, pruning the garden, feeding the babies, sweeping, reading and singing. These are acts of personal love in the context of the home. They are tender and warm, and they are right. They are also impossible to quantify economically.
Perhaps this is why, of all the stations, parenting – and motherhood especially – are viewed with the most suspicion by the political and economic class. It is not because Motherhood has no value, but because it is priceless.
And full-time motherhood is difficult, if not impossible, in the modern American economy.
As cost of living has risen and wages have stagnated, the need for two incomes has emerged. Throw in the ever-present pressure of a secularized, postmodern culture that exalts career as the chief means of individual expression and identity and things start to look pretty grim for the American homemaker.
“Changing diapers, cleaning the kitchen, washing laundry, picking up the groceries, pushing the stroller, counting toes and noses, pruning the garden, feeding the babies, sweeping, reading and singing are impossible to quantify economically.”
Consider: For many mothers who do work outside the home, childcare gobbles up their income, while their career swallows up their time. The result is the daily, ritual dissection of the American family by the demands of the modern economy. The father leaves home for work in the office, the mother goes to her own job in the other part of town, with the two children dropped off at daycare on the way. What ought to be one close-knit family has been converted into two individual workers plus two assets for the childcare industry.
Parents do not have much say in this matter, by the way.
The family, which was for centuries the heart of the nation’s economic body, has been excised, and wet straw has been stuffed in its place. The modern economy in the United States, lauded by technical experts for its size and dollar valuation, is currently dominated by the twin ogres of massive, monoculturizing corporations and a creaking, self-inflating federal government. These titans are not opposed to each other, mind you, though the former thrives on insider capitalism and the latter creeps towards socialism through growing regulation and may potentially deliver, if unchecked, the economic and cultural grave of communism. Rather than quarrel, large companies and federal departments sit happily together on the wagon of “progress,” an able partnership that cracks the reins on their two beasts of burden: The weary husband and hampered wife who are forcibly yoked to the desire for greater GDP and greater worker productivity.
Practically forbidden in this regime is the time needed to cultivate the beauty and loveliness of marriage, the blessing of raising children, the building up of the church community, the sweetness of labor done for neighbors you can name and love – practically all of the lovely things that are outside the lens of economics.
Yet, this is arrangement is not typically decried by voices from either the left or the right as non-sensical or brutish or loveless or even simply regrettable. It is all of these things, of course, but the proposed bipartisan solution from those helming our national policy is to simply double down and subsidize childcare, which will only further press the fat thumb of the Federal Treasury to the base of the blade poised to sever the fraying bonds of the American family.
It should not come as a surprise that the political class would misdiagnose the problem and choose such an inane solution: They delight in statistics and expert analysis and view growth in the GDP and the unemployment rate as the bearings for a “prosperous” society with a high “quality of life.” The dominant worldview among American policymakers does not quantify what truly makes a life. Rationalism and economism ignore the spiritual things of God, such as love and joy and kindness. These gifts grow well – first in the home and then in society – but only if given the time.
The political class may snort at this and say “Well of course those are not accounted for; that’s not the purpose of economics!” That’s true, which beckons a very obvious question: Who put the economists in charge in the first place?
Perhaps now, in the wake of the pandemic, we might consider returning the family to the center of American life, rather than allowing Business and Government to maintain their squatting rights. What policies this entails, I cannot tell you, but I can say with confidence that time for family life and presence in the home of both parents is essential for an ordered society and human flourishing. Because the modern economy functionally prohibits both time and presence for many families, it imperils our future.
That means that we should go in the opposite direction of experts and political class-ers who have shrugged at the fragmentation of the American family and ignored the consequences of it – or, cleverly, blamed the consequences entirely on “lack of economic opportunity”).
We should retreat even further than our previous encampment when the pandemic first struck. We ought not to put up with an economy that pressures mothers to work outside the home and assumes the father’s absence for much of the day, that ignores the weakness of children and their great need for familial love.
A larger national GDP and a higher stock market are both well and good, insofar as they benefit families and the communities in which they live. Still, their growth and valuation ought not to be the principal objective of federal economic policy. Even an ever-decreasing unemployment rate should not be the main goal, though it is critical and certainly true that work is a gift from God and perhaps the major channel through which He cares for the world and families themselves.
Instead, the economy ought to honor the family, trespassing not on its time nor prying at its togetherness, but serving its needs and respecting its boundaries. Only then will we see a nation that is truly prosperous.
Tom Wattle is a husband and father who lives and works in the finest Commonwealth in the United States. When not in his study reading or writing, he can be found tending his garden or searching for his keys.
James G Hanink
Tom, many thanks for this incisive piece! I hope to see more of your work soon. Godspeed, Jim Hanink