Deconstructing Housework Priorities

One of the hardest things about living with other people, especially other people whom you are romantically involved, is negotiating differing standards of cleanliness, different understandings about the priorities involved with keeping house, and managing your home together. This is harder when you’re the type of person, like I am, who is aware of the symbolism of everyday acts, how things like cooking and cleaning and doing laundry, beyond their basic utility, are imbued with the expectations of society.

There is nothing remarkable about the fact that I do the majority of the meal planning and grocery list making, and cooking in my household. However, there seems to be something remarkable and praiseworthy of the fact that Tim volunteered to do all of those chores in November 2009, so that I could concentrate on writing a novel. The voluntarism shown by Tim in this example is an exception — when I don’t complete the menu related chores, and I don’t specifically ask Tim to do it, it doesn’t get done.

It isn’t that Tim doesn’t realize that the act of planning a menu is something that keeps our lives low-stress. And it isn’t that he can’t do it, and it isn’t that he thinks it’s unimportant. It is just that chores like menu planning are just something he doesn’t think about.

Why don’t they care? Why do we?

I’ve spoken with a number of other twenty-something women who are in long term and committed heterosexual relationships, and they all express similar frustrations: they care about the state of their homes, and think about home management, but their partner doesn’t think about it nearly as much as they do, doesn’t seem to care.

I can’t deconstruct why men don’t care about housework, but I can deconstruct why women care about housework — or at least why I care about housework. (After all, I am a white, cis gendered, heterosexual, upper-middle class woman. I can’t speak to the experiences of women growing up in poverty, or women of color. I want to recognize that there could be other intersections of oppression that could change this perception of the world.)

I grew up as the oldest child and oldest girl in a family with a stay-at-home mom and a bread-winning dad. I have two younger siblings, a sister and a brother. My mom subscribed to Good Housekeeping and Parenting, and at a young precocious age indeterminate, I began flipping through them and reading them too.

My little brother was born when I was 9. I was, of course, Mama’s little helper — carrying and fetching, and also picking up little chores, like folding laundry. By the time I was 10, I was responsible for doing the dishes as my family chore. I have distinct memories of cooking dinner, with some supervision — an adult put dinner in and out of the oven. One summer, when I was in high school, and my mom’s business was in full swing (out of our dining room), she paid me in books to keep the house clean, including wiping down the kitchen every day.

My mom was one who cleaned up everything — including vacuuming the draperies and washing the windows — when there would be an extended family party. There, I was pressed into service too, and when I complained, it was explained to me that while our normal state of cleanliness was okay for our immediate family, extended families and guests would judge us (and more importantly my mother) for the state of our home.

I grew up thinking that housework, that caring for a family, that cooking and cleaning — all of these things were part of what it meant to be a grown-up woman. Somewhere along the line, I came to expect that I should be embarrassed by clutter. At some point, I came to expect that I would be caring for others — at least a husband, probably kids — as an adult. And I was taught through the example of my mothers and my aunts, through the media that I consumed that all of this was to be woman, and that a woman’s self-worth and identity are somehow tied into housework.

I am not saying that my entire identity is housework, and I’m not saying that even that any woman’s identity is entirely formed around housework. I’m saying that on some level, housework factors into the calculus of my self-esteem and self-worth.

This is also not to say that I don’t have a choice in the matter. I’m exploring what got me to this crossroads of thought.

I think this the first in a series. Next week, I want to look at the current state of things in our apartment, and how Tim and I share the work of having a home. Until then, my tiny parcel of readers — how do you view housework? It is something you feel guilty about? Is it something that you see as a necessary evil, or something just evil? Or do you enjoy it?

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6 thoughts on “Deconstructing Housework Priorities

  1. My roommate is a 20 yr old male and I am a 19 yr old female. We are not involved in any way beyond working in close quarters and sharing an apartment. We have two cats that I didn’t really want, and we very rarely socialize after working hours. For the most part, I come home, I go to my room, I read a book or browse facebook for a while, maybe update my own blog, text my boyfriend, etc. When I get hungry, I go out and make myself dinner. As a college student, this dinner is usually an interesting collection of things in my pantry, fridge, and freezer. For example, I had a meal last week that consisted of frozen mini egg rolls, a hamburger, and about half a can of sweet corn. I then wash all of my dishes and put them away.

    Randel lives a little differently. His computer is in the dining room on the table with a stack of his own magazines. Honestly, he feeds the cats, takes care of the litter, and vacuums the rugs most weeks. When he cooks, he dirties a lot of dishes and leaves everything in the sink until it is full, then piles it all in the dishwasher and runs it. If I want a dish he has used earlier in the week, I either wash it myself, or unload the dishwasher. In some respects, he takes care of the house, but in others, I feel like I am the one doing things as a habit. It seems that he waits until he HAS to take care of things. I do it right away.

    I feel that I don’t have the most normal traditional “female” view of how to take care of a house. I don’t care about the cats and the mess they are making because I don’t feel they are my problem. I think I am probably just lazy. So I do things right away instead of saving them to become a big job later.

    • I don’t think you’re lazy, I think you’re doing exactly the same thing I would do in the same situation — you don’t feel responsible to your roommate, so you don’t do any chores that are his. However, I think you have a very similar attitude to chores that I do — do them right away, so they don’t become a big job later, or so you don’t run out of energy to do them. That’s definitely something I was socialized to — it drives me crazy when Tim doesn’t do the dishes right after dinner, but I try to let go and let him do his chores at his own pace.

  2. It was worse last term. Last term, he would do his dishes at the end of the week in the most annoyingly self-righteous way. He would glare at me like I never do anything.

    I make a point to live only in my room and never do more than walk through the living room or dining room to look out the window. I cook in the kitchen, clean up, then take my food back to my room, usually on a paper plate. I do all of the cleaning of the bathroom, which we both use equally. In fact, he might use it more than I do. I clean the sink, toilet, mirror, and tub, empty the trash, and mop the floor in there. I sweep the stairs and the main foyer. But I never touch the other rooms of the house and make a point not to have any of my things there. I brought all the furniture, dishes, and silverware for the apartment, but I don’t use them.

  3. “It is something you feel guilty about? Is it something that you see as a necessary evil, or something just evil? Or do you enjoy it?”

    Yes, yes, yes, and yes. 🙂

    My house is cluttered. Of course, there are four of us contributing to it: myself, my wife, and our two children. It doesn’t help that there are more people creating disorder than order, of course … but that’s part of child raising.

    I feel guilty about it. I would like to have a better ordered life. But I don’t have the time to do everything I need to do, and neither does my wife. And so clutter develops.

    Years ago, we resorted to hiring a maid service to come in every two weeks to clean. The main effect is that we have to declutter every two weeks so that they can clean behind the clutter. (It’s a bit ironic that we have to clean before the people come to clean the house.) I feel guilty that I have to pay someone to clean my house rather than do it myself. But at this particular moment in my life, I have more money than time.

    But when I do clean, it is satisfying. There are few things in life more satisfying than tackling a large pile of dirty pots and pans and turning them into clean ones. It is a task that can be finished, as opposed to many of the numerous other tasks in my life. To be sure, one has to tackle the task again in a few days. But it can still be satisfying.

  4. Pingback: How to Talk About Chores «

  5. Being a homemaker (I shudder at the implications of that word, but, that is what I am, in a purely technical sense), I feel like your mom did, that my home is a reflection of me. But, not in some 50s Donna Reed sense. Not exactly, anyway. I am an overacheiver by nature. I expect to be the best, and when I’m not immediately the best, I either quit, or wallow in self pity and then buckle down and strive to be the best.
    So, since my “job” is no longer defined by paychecks, promotions, or awards, my success is only visibly evident in the state of my housekeeping.
    I am not a Good Housekeeper. And since I am the lead adult in this household, it’s not like I can quit. So, after wallowing in a jumble of baby toys and disposable diapers scattered all over the place, I had to suck it up and strive. Still striving… Add two kids to the mix and there’s a whole other set of expectations.
    But most days, I consider it a job well done if the toys are put away, the couch throws folded, the sink clear of dishes, and the kitchen & bathroom surfaces wiped down. Just don’t look too closely at the floors or behind the shower curtain. Thanks.

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