The Hidden Work of Housewives

What Didn't Get Done, © amomnextdoor, 2014

What Didn’t Get Done, © amomnextdoor, 2014

Periodically Mr. Banks says to me, “I just don’t know what you DO all day.” He can’t understand how he could possibly come home from a day at the office to find unwashed dishes, rumpled laundry, strewn toys, and cranky kids. As he recently pointed out, “You have fifteen hours in a day! How can you not have enough time?”

Hmmm. Well—setting aside that fifteen hours dedicated to house and home would take me from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. with no meals or tea breaks (and certainly no writing time)—how to describe the intensity of day after day with children to someone who’s never done it himself? I’m not sure it’s possible. But for my own gratification, for my own sense of self-worth, I found myself keeping track one summer’s day, of all that I did with my time.

A day with children is a day spent teaching and learning. Some things I teach them directly, some by expectation, some through modeling, and some by opportunity. All of it I teach with as much deliberation and thoughtfulness as this mama can. I find being present with my children in such a way both deeply draining and relentlessly rewarding. I wouldn’t give it up for anything.

Things I taught my children today:

  • How to exercise daily
  • How to commit to a goal and follow through
  • How to be patient
  • How to contribute to the family
  • How to play independently
  • How to play together
  • How to brush teeth properly
  • How to clean up after brushing teeth
  • How to give privacy to people using the bathroom
  • How to pursue one’s passions and interests
  • How to sew: how to plan a project, use pins, thread a needle, cut a thread, make a knot, make a whip stitch
  • How to share underlying feelings
  • How to listen deeply
  • How to take responsibility for one’s mistakes
  • How to be married
  • How to take time for oneself
  • How to give others space
  • How to respond to an invitation to connect
  • How to speak one’s mind
  • How to keep a house organized
  • How to tidy
  • How to reuse
  • How to recycle
  • How to roll out the garbage cans for collection day
  • How to core strawberries
  • How to break eggs
  • How to cook an omelet
  • How to load the dishwasher
  • How to close a sliding car door safely
  • How to treat clerks and service workers
  • How to behave at the checkout stand
  • The value of a dollar
  • How to negotiate
  • How to wait
  • How to notice the world around
  • How to give and receive love and affection
  • How to be an audience
  • How to hold back
  • How to laugh
  • How to be silly
  • How to create
  • How to imagine
  • How to have fun
  • How to love

That gets us to about lunchtime. I guess the laundry will have to wait until the afternoon.

What Happened Instead, © amomnextdoor, 2014

What Happened Instead, © amomnextdoor, 2014

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Imaginary Conversations With My Fictional Husband

A room of my very own, in the beginning     © amomnextdoor

A room of my very own, in the beginning © amomnextdoor

I think he said to me once, As long as you can cover the cost of childcare.

Another time he referred to my writing as a “hobby,” but a severe weather system moved in after that, and the thunderstorm that followed obliterated the word entirely from his vocabulary, if not his thoughts. I am the stay-at-home mom of two children under seven—I HAVE no hobbies. If I am writing, it is a necessary act. But how to get him to understand that—this man who reads neither packages nor instructions nor street signs? A steady diet of work emails, the New York Times and the occasional Lee Child bestseller does not exactly constitute a rich and vibrant literary life, from which to judge my scribblings.

But why have they come up for judgment at all? Another time, when a last minute business trip meant I wouldn’t be able to attend my writing group, I told him that I didn’t want my career to always come second to his when making decisions about our time and priorities, just because I earn less money than he does (in fact, at this point in my writing career, no money at all). He conceded the point, but objected to my use of the word “career.” A career denotes a salary, set responsibilities, a defined position in some organization. What you have, he said, is a business. Much as I hate the term, I conceded his point.

So now I am working on a business plan. And the first question that rises in me, like hot magma or the fury of Yansá, is this: why is it my job to cover the cost of childcare? When we married, I was working full time; my husband was jobless and getting his MBA. We paid for his education. Our child was born. I gave up my teaching career and salary, and instead worked full time from home taking care of our child, our house, and him, while he started two businesses. I was not compensated financially for this work. He did not claim the cost of childcare as a business expense.

(A mild digression, since I fear you may be asking, Who is this guy, anyway? I actually have some trouble naming this character–my husband–so central to my life. Many mommy blogs refer to a “DH”, or Dear Husband, but I am put off by the subtle implication of sarcasm in the word “Dear.” Especially since the term most often comes into play when referencing said character’s propensity to throw his dirty socks into the laundry hamper inside out, or put the can opener away in the wrong place. My personal nickname for my husband is the Big Man, because he measures in at a broad-shouldered 6’3”, can carry anything, takes good care of me, and scares the cat. But “The Big Man” has Orwellian overtones and an unfortunate acronym. I could call him more affectionately my BM, and that would be appropriate in so many ways, perfectly capturing the occasional constipation and effort of marriage, but new readers of my blog would definitely get the wrong idea.

I’d settle for Fictional Husband, FH for short, but that might lead some people to question whether this man—who dedicates his life to building wealth for his family, loving his children, and pleasing his wife—actually exists. I really do have a husband, it’s not just a blogosphere fantasy, but I guess it turns out that I’m also a bit of a bigamist. I’ve taken a second husband here in these pages and posts, an absolutely essential member of our family. My Fictional Husband, who does not, actually, exist or say and do all the things I report here, takes the rap for the man I love and married first. My FH is a necessary construct, because this society that underpays its women, undervalues its children, fails to protect and nourish its most disadvantaged members, has banned Art from its soul to worship Money instead—this society comes down pretty hard on both of us sometimes, and I won’t let that confine me, hurt him, or come between me and the man I love. So my Fictional Husband steps forward here in these posts to take up that burden for both of us.)

But back to money. Because that’s what all this really comes down to: time is money, my time in particular, more valuable than ANY segment of our society ever lets on. How do I carve out and protect time for my writing life, if I am not making money from my writing? How can I legitimately claim this as a valuable use of my time, when there are dishes to be done, bandaids to administer, stressed-out husbands to soothe?

Pat Schneider, founder of the Amherst Writers and Artists movement, gave a talk recently at the Pacific School of Religion about her life’s work and most recent book, How the Light Gets In. She spoke passionately about our culture’s tendency to define as writers only those who have had access to education (and money)—writers with MFA degrees, writers on this list or that list, writers with prizes and incomes and bestsellers. In her book Writing Alone and With Others, she suggests that “Art is the creative expression of the human spirit, and it cannot–it must not, for the sake of the human community–be limited to those few who achieve critical acclaim or financial reward.” (Oxford University Press, 2003).

So many voices are silenced when we believe that to be a writer we must sell our work. There is value in a drawerful of scrawled poems, in a stack of brown journals with black cloth binding, in the lists layered on a kitchen door, in the bits and pieces of blogs. And as women who write, we MUST believe that this activity–this art–is worth our time. We must tell that story–we must sell that story–to the men we marry, the men on the committee for the National Endowment for the Arts, the men in the legislature who decide how much money to spend on supporting the arts in our society, and to the children who want their diaper changed, or help with their homework, or another glass of water.

Ursula Le Guin writes in her essay “The Fisherwoman’s Daughter,” (Dancing at the Edge of the World, Grove Press, 1989) that “the artist with the least access to social or aesthetic solidarity or approbation has been the artist-housewife. A person who undertakes responsibility both to her art and to her dependent children…has undertaken a full-time double job that can be simply, practically, destroyingly impossible….the difficulty of trying to be responsible, hour after hour day after day for maybe twenty years, for the well-being of children and the excellence of books, is immense: it involves an endless expense of energy and an impossible weighing of competing priorities.”

I am lucky in my husbands, Fictional and real. They have worked hard to overcome the training they’ve received at the hands of our society, “the spite that so often a man is allowed to hold, trained to hold, against anything a woman does that’s not done in his service, for him, to feed his body, his comfort, his kids.” (Le Guin, 1989) Like many artists, I expect “to work against the total, rational indifference of everybody else” in the world, but at least I do not have to work against a “daily, personal, vengeful resistance.” (Le Guin, 1989) I have a husband who recognizes that I am a writer, and that writers must write. He has built for me a room of my own. There may be days when he wonders what I have done with my time, why the rice is burnt and the laundry festering in baskets. But like Le Guin’s husband, he brings to our marriage “an assumption of mutual aid,” (Le Guin, 1989) which daily brings to life the epigraph we chose for our wedding invitations:

“And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone”

Robert Frost, “The Tuft of Flowers

To my Fictional Husband, and the real man who stands behind him, to all you stay-at-home moms and dads who managed to post to your blog today, to the art that feeds us and sustains us, that challenges and defines us, I dedicate this moment of my time.

Thank you for reading, for this moment of your time.

Motherhood: The Vacuum Cleaner Diet

or, A Diet Better Nutrition for Busy Parents

Photo by Rich Pompetti

What would you grab first? (Photo by Rich Pompetti)

Okay, I’m not about to tell you that housecleaning will get you in the best shape ever. I’m the mom whose vacuum cleaner sits stoicly in the corner of the pantry, waiting in vain to rescue our Pergo from its filmy scrud. My kitchen floor boasts layers of archaeologic proportions. I try not to sweep until everything is nice and crusty: sodden gloms of noodles and dirt gross me out, especially when I have to actually bend over to remove them by hand from the broom bristles. But inevitably, a stowaway disk of flattened food will stick to the bottom of my shoe—or worse, my bare heel—depositing smashed peas and streaks of ketchup all over the house, where they will slyly collect cat hair and dust until someone more industrious than me finally swipes them up with a rag.

The filthy underside of this mom gig I have...© 2013, amomnextdoor

The filthy underside of this mom gig I have…
© 2013, amomnextdoor

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Rage, or the Distress Call of the Modern Mother

I write to remember what I know. Recently a mom in my Mother’s Club posted a distress call on our online chat board. After watching her two young children all week and through most of the weekend, she became inexplicably enraged at her husband, innocently returning from his relaxing three-hour Sunday workout. She abashedly described herself as screaming, name-calling, slamming things around and basically engaging in an entirely unprovoked adult temper tantrum.

Boy, did reading her post take me back to the days! The last one was about two weeks ago, in fact. Her question to us was: What to do? But I think the more important question is: Why? Continue reading