When will people stop looking to women as “keepers of the hearth”?
I will start this tale with a confession: I have never liked housework. My husband would rather read or write than dust, too, but for some reason that isn’t confession material. I started my marriage with a commitment to fairness. I would do no more housework than he did. We went weeks without cleaning the bathroom, or mopping the kitchen. Yes, I would have liked it cleaner, but my principles drove me. We had a rotating schedule for doing the dishes, which we adhered to, and everything else went to pot.
We began to discuss cleaning after our son was born. We now had a family member around who spent a lot of time close to the floor; our choices affected him, not just us. Exchanges went like this:
“I do too sweep the floor!”/”When was the last time?” or even: “No one cares about a clean floor!”/*silent wrath & ire*
Sometimes we negotiated but it would never really last. I had no idea why.
I think, now, that things got muddled around the term Stay At Home Mom (which I became), because part of my job description is to clean the house. Marion Cunningham said so (a la Happy Days). Well, I sort of bought that for a while (I grew up watching Happy Days, after all), but my job was hard enough as it was, just being responsible for the well-being of a child, and my own well-being. Boring, repetitive tasks that used two brain cells wore on me, and the underlying societal assumption that I was uniquely qualified for such tasks diluted my self-esteem.
Finally one day, during one of those discussions, I said (to myself mostly), “My JOB is taking care of our son!” (my husband had never actually said my job was also to clean). That was when it crystallized for me; I was not unpaid house labor no matter what my title implied.
The author of Lazy Husbands: How to Get Men to Do More Parenting and Housework by Joshua Coleman, Ph.D., notes that our confusion on this issue comes from comparing ourselves to other women and men. Women look at other women, including our mothers (think 1950s), and if we are doing less than they are, we figure we should do more. Men compare themselves to other men, like their own fathers, and find themselves looking quite good.
And it’s absolutely true of my husband that he shines bright. From day one, he has prioritized our son: diapering, stroller-ing, feeding, reading books, he has done it all. He uses his handyperson skills as needed and teaches them to me as well. He does occasional jobs I don’t like, such as taking the pets to the vet. He grocery-shops regularly and bakes pies. And when he tackles the dishes, he tackles them—not a single pot is left in the sink (whereas I say “let them soak”).
Consequently, he looks great, and I’m the one not doing enough. It’s easy to buy into those comparisons and not really try for equality.
For me, I finally realized defensive discussions were never going to get us anywhere. What I needed was better boundaries. The reason I felt so uncomfortable when people would come to the house and there were dust bunnies running under foot was that, as Dr. Coleman points out, people still look to the woman as “Keeper of the Hearth.” If people are going to judge at all, then they judge me for a messy house even though other people live here, too. And if all I do is stay at home, why aren’t I cleaning the house? Lazy Wife Syndrome, they must suppose. She watches soap operas (we don’t have cable). She is spending all her time eating Godiva chocolates and reading novels (sounds good, but no). She is depressed (no because I take fish oil and exercise). Dr. Coleman is the first person I have read who shines a light on the judgment placed on Women-Who-Don’t–Clean-The-House-Well-Enough. It was so freeing to realize it’s real. I am not imagining it. My shame is societally induced.
And so, though I can’t completely get rid of that shame, I can see it for what it is. I can choose to live as though it doesn’t exist. I now prioritize my writing over housework. For me, that is “showing up for life,” as author Anne Lamott encouraged in one of her recent Facebook posts. Portland author Ariel Gore (How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead) says she puts in no more than one hour of cleaning a day. So, inspired by them, I have to actively let the house accumulate dirt some days. Other days, I delegate. Other people in the house choose their priorities, too, though.
As I write, the kitchen floor needs mopping and there are dishes in the sink. But you know what? This same week, I wrote an essay that was immediately accepted for publication in a magazine I respect. That’s two in one month. So, I can live with our current standards. Just don’t come by the house without calling first.
Susan McLeod-Harrison blogs on gender at susanmcleodharrison.wordpress.