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?