Virginia Woolf held that it was the woman writer’s job to kill the Angel in the House — that self-sacrificing creature who was submissive to her husband and a non-stop nurturer to her family: “She sacrificed herself daily,” Woolf wrote. “If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it.”
The Angel was there to safeguard the patriarchy, of course, as well as a household’s bourgeois credentials. It was crucial for a woman writer to kill her, wrote Woolf, since the Angel and all her works were road-blocks to women’s creativity and agency, preventing the full stretch of the female mind and spirit.
As a working mother, I find myself thinking lots about the Angel, and wondering whether she’s dead yet. It’s tempting to see the Angel as an anachronism, a holdover from Woolf’s Victorian childhood, but sadly, the creature’s still in rude health, her wings beating back justice just as efficiently as they did when Woolf wrote her essay in 1931. Like millions of mothers the world over, I wrestle with her most weeks, as I try to balance my own work and ambitions with raising my children. What’s more, I’ve only just begun to see just how cunning this Angel is. We’ve all known for a long time how well she has succeeded in holding back individual women. Think of the jobs not taken, the promotions demurred, the networking events missed—if not your own, then perhaps those of a friend. But of late, I’ve begun to wonder whether the Angel is sabotaging the American Dream itself, by helping to cement American class inequalities.
At first, it may seem rich—and perhaps even sexist—to blame growing socioeconomic inequalities in the United States on a Selfless Mommy cult. Globalization, automation, roll-backs on financial regulations, the Great Recession and its aftermath, a declining manufacuturing base—all these clearly deserve the bulk of the blame. But step back, and think about the rise of the intensive parenting style that’s swept the professional classes over the last generation—the one involving an uptick in supervised homework, sharp-elbowed involvement in admissions to schools and colleges, and endless driving to scheduled activities. (By the time a British kid is 20, his parents will have spent 197 days driving her around, according to a study by Goodyear.) In 2005, Alvin Rosenfeld, co-author of The Overscheduled Child, noted in a speech that childrens’ structured sports time had doubled in the last two decades, while their unstructured activities declined by 50 percent, along with family dinners (down by 33 percent) and family vacations, down by 28 percent. “Kids have become talent to be groomed,” he said. “Moms with masters and PhD’s have become chauffeurs.”
Angels, every last one of them. Whether you call this middle-class practice helicopter parenting, like the media, or ‘concerted cultivation,’ like the sociologist Annette Lavreau in her 2003 book Unequal Childhoods, it’s a hell of a lot of work. More labor intensive, in many ways, than in the past. A 2014 study found that the time mothers spent with children doubled between 1965 and 2012 in all but one of the 11 Western countries surveyed (the exception being France)—and the time fathers spent with children quadrupled. Wrote Jennifer Senior in All Joy and No Fun, her 2014 study of modern parenthood: “Our expectations of parents…seem to have increased as our attitudes towards women in the workplace have liberalized.”
It’s worrying enough that we’ve created a pincer squeeze on parents, and mothers in particular, who tend to be in charge of all these enrichment activities. More worrying still is that these middle-class Angels, while blameless as individuals, are as a class, helping to reduce social mobility. In Dream Hoarders, his much talked-about book of the summer, Richard Reeves, co-director of the Center on Children and the Family at the Brookings Institution, argues that the American upper-middle classes are working furiously hard to pass on their privilege to their children, building what he calls “a glass floor” under them. The statistics bear out the more general effect of this “glass floor” only too starkly. The academic achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is 30 percent to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than those born 25 years earlier. Out of school, too, affluent children are pulling away from the less privileged. A 2014 study out of Brown University showed that while upper- and middle-class students have become more active in school clubs and sports over the past four decades, their working-class peers “have become increasingly disengaged and disconnected,” particularly since their participation rates started plummeting in the ’90’s, reported The Atlantic.
It would be too simplistic to blame these ever-widening gaps solely on the Angel in the House. But watching the Angel make a come-back, now in the guise of the cult of the perfect, ever-attentive parent, I now have a new, macro reason to loathe her: she’s not just bad for women, but for all of us.