Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Politics of Housework

The men in my house don't look anything like the FDR types pictured here.  But despite my best efforts to cajole, bribe, instruct, and plead, they still exhibit this mentality.  Housework is something they "help out" with, at best.  And housework is something that gets in the way of the work I consider mine.

This week's focus goal is 
to make my home that of a happier woman.  So I can be.
This means that I am once again struggling with the politics of housework. 

I am dismayed, when I allow myself to think about it, that my life has taken a shape my younger feminist self would have found inconceivable. Its neo-traditionalist contours are not so very different from the domestic imprisonment that hobbled my highly intelligent, college-educated mother in the '60s and '70s. To be sure, the language and understandings of my marital partnership are more "evolved," reflecting an acceptance of the equality of rights of women and men. But the practice has never lived up to the words. 

The reasons for this are many, including an incredibly complex family structure of yours, mine, and ours kids; my exposure to radical feminist mothering philosophy and lifestyles through my study of midwives; the family-unfriendly environment of academia, in which I had planned to continue working; my husband's super-absorption in work and lack of basic skill (not to mention interest) in housekeeping tasks; my closely spaced last two children, who comprised my second family, and their particular needs; and, of course, the perfectionism that made it difficult for me to operate comfortably in two rival spheres.  But whatever the reasons for our present division of labor, I have never accepted its necessity or rightness.  It is not as it should be, not legitimate.  And I can at least claim to have married a man and raised young men who agree with me about that.

In raising boys, I had hoped to improve on the previous generation of men's behavior and competence with respect to the necessary work of making and keeping a home.  If words, and repetition, and various training methods were effective, I would have succeeded.  But I didn't count on the in-their-face example of a powerful male, and my own battle fatigue.  So having read and tried* several methods, employed various charts and systems of rewards and consequences, and lectured endlessly (according to my kids) on the subject of women's entitlements and men's responsibilities, I still find myself most days up to my knees in other people's stuff and left-behind messes.   

The responses I have tried to this ongoing household disaster have included:  1) nagging--not my favorite, or anyone else's, and anyway, not effective on any more than a momentary basis; 2) doing it all myself, with whatever voluntary help emerges--this approach leaves me smoldering with resentment, and also very tired; 3) giving up, and trying to work around the squalor--but then I am mired in chaos, and CHAOS (Can't Have Anyone Over Syndrome, aptly named by Pam Young and Peggy Jones (the self-styled Slob Sisters) in their book Get Your Act Together:  A 7-Day Get-Organized Program For The Overworked, Overbooked, and Overwhelmed); and trying, Against Medical Advice, to reinstitute past systems that have worked for brief periods--this strategy flies in the face of previous experience, or seen another way, expresses eternally springing hope, not delusion.

One of these past systems was to disallow my children's guests from visiting until said offspring pitched in to make the house presentable.  As time has marched on, however, "presentable" got redefined to meet the standards of other teenagers, mostly males, and I became more concerned about my kids' needs for social contact with reasonable associates where I could have some oversight.  If I had counted on embarrassment to dissuade them from trashing the bathrooms guests would need to use, or the bedrooms they would close themselves into, or even the refrigerators they would raid, I had misplaced my trust.  My kids are either so secure (and so male) that they assume they will be seen as the cool people they actually are regardless of the wet towels and discarded clothing on the floor, the toothpaste in the sink, the unscoured toilets, etc.; or they are so supremely lazy that they can't be bothered.

I have also tried posting clever "reminders" where family members and guests alike can see them.  For example, over the counter that noone can apparently remember to wipe off, this sign:  
Dear Human and Porcine Occupants,
Thanks for leaving this area covered with food remnants, beverage spills and coffee grounds.   
Sincerely, Mortimer Mouse & friends, Abigal ("The Queen") Ant & Associates.  
 And this, over the toilet:
The Management Thanks You For Your Cooperation, As Our Maid Service Has Been Terminated!!!
And a far ruder version, when this one didn't work, specifying aim requirements and threatening exile to the neighboring gas station facilities for noncompliance.

But at this juncture, in response to my own mental health concerns, my priority is results.  I plan to do whatever works to return my home to a state I can live in, with or without help.  I am not above, though I might be beyond, nagging, charting, signage, bribes or embarrassment--which by the way, didn't work with me when I was a non-male teenager.  (My mother once brought a priest into my bedroom to dispel his notion that I was a mature and spiritual being.  I got up the next day, in the midst of a profusion of belongings and refuse, and began writing a short story about the scene!)  

I will do what it takes--though in the interests of the marriage I value, with all its imperfections, I will refrain from employing what my husband calls the Lysistrata tactic. 

If I, and most other women I know, have lost this battle, for this generation, I hold out hope for the next.  But I am breaking out of this stalag of untidiness, and reclaiming the ordered and aesthetic pleasing ground I've lost in the process.

* In searching the library catalog for the titles of books I remember reading, I find they seem to have been superseded by one I wish I’d read, called Chores without wars : turning dad and kids from reluctant stick-in-the muds to enthusiastic team play, by Lynn Lott, Riki Intner.  Their 2005 edition, Chores without wars; turning housework into teamworkdrops the name-calling and the culprit identification for a more cooperative approach.  I prefer the first subtitle.         

1 comment:

  1. I don't have children, so I can't speak to that. I do have a husband, and what has evolved in our 20 years together is a state of disarray most of the time. Most of our cleaning is in preparation for when someone is coming over for dinner--that's when dh will vacuum, and I'll sweep the kitchen floor, and he'll mop it, and I'll dust. We have no real cleaning routine.

    My dh does laundry, when the pile gets too overwhelming on the bedroom floor, cleans the sink after he shaves, and the shower when it's too icky for him to stand, and washes dishes when I am working on paying bills etc. I pick up clutter, wipe down the toilet when I can't stand it anymore, wash dishes when dh has cooked for me. My dh has a mother who cleans cleans cleans, and he gets freaked out by a dirty kitchen. I am much better at ignoring it.

    We both would like a cleaner house, but haven't gotten the momentum to do anything about it. We've thought about hiring someone to clean, but then I feel embarrassed by the state of the house, and allowing someone else to see this.