Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Necessity, Mothers, Invention, and Materialism

Not long ago my slow-cooker broke. Actually, just the stoneware pot broke; the heating element worked fine. But it would have cost nearly as much to buy a new pot as to replace the whole thing, and considering that it was about a dozen years old it seemed smarter to buy a new one.

It 'made' dinner today. I really appreciated it, especially after being without one for a short while. I find that slow-cooker cooking is very helpful to a homeschooling mom, since I can have dinner prepared and cooking in the earlier, less hectic part of the day instead of squeezing it in between the last gasp of math homework and the first frantic grab at the laundry basket.

But the speed with which I replaced it, and the assumption both my husband and I made that of course we'd go get a new one, caused me to reflect. Is it just too easy in America today for a Catholic to be caught up in materialism?

After all, I replaced my washing machine, when it 'died' shortly after Christmas. I replaced the dryer last spring when it stopped working (and when it caught fire briefly when my DH was taking it apart to see if it could be fixed). And last year we raced to a local big box store to buy a new oven on December 23 because the one that came with our house went out in a literal blaze of glory; I'd never seen a heating element in an electric oven catch fire before, and burn up slowly from one end to the other, like some hideously unseasonal sparkler.

All of this could be a reflection on the shoddy nature of goods manufactured mainly overseas by huge multinational corporations that will cut corners in any way they can to boost the stockholders' value, but instead, it's a simple question. When did all of these machines become necessities?

I suppose an argument could be made in favor of the oven; even pioneer women had stoves to cook on, and though the power source has changed drastically the principles involved seem to be essentially the same. It would be pretty hard to go back to hearthside cooking in a modern house with a wholly ornamental fireplace.

Lots of moms would probably argue in favor of the washer and dryer, too. Modern fabrics won't stand up to the washtub and clothesline method of washing and drying clothes. Clotheslines are prohibited by plenty of homeowners' associations, too, so chances are without your own washer and dryer your only real option is the laundromat, a costly alternative for a family.

But when it comes to the slow cooker, I know I've purchased a luxury. There's no way I can even pretend this machine is a necessity; it's just something I like having, something I find useful. If I had to get along without it, I could. True, I can justify the purchase in all sorts of ways: it cost very little, it saves me both time and money, it's an efficient way to make the soups and stews my family enjoys, and so on. But just because I can justify buying something doesn't mean that it's not materialistic of me to want it.

I wonder if there were women in the past who felt that way about electric ovens and washing machines.

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