December 29, 2014
When Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963, she described a world where women were told they could find salvation in housework. Television programs like The Donna Reed Show and Leave It To Beaver featured perfectly polished housewives in perfectly polished homes. Those women were fictional. Real women were popping mother’s little helpers, praying the laundry would be done before the pot roast and maybe there was enough money in the cookie jar to hire a maid on Fridays.
There is no reward in drudgery if that’s all you’ve got. If you have an actual life, there is something satisfyingly zen about going at the bathroom tile like your life depended on it. Like rock climbers who free climb and can ONLY think about where their fingers go next, you can block out all the noise when your are channeling Mr. Clean. (This is how yoga is supposed to work but my mind is usually focused on the percent chance I will fart before the hour is up.) But for those who are not grout yogis, housework sucks.
I get it. So much of being a house-husband is getting it. You gotta walk a mile in somebody’s slippers, pushing a vacuum cleaner. I so get it. I get my mom and why she had to get the hell out. I get all the women who were sold a bill of goods about the American dream and then felt like they were sold into slavery. A white picket fense ain’t gonna make Swiffing any more rewarding.
I have done housework my whole life, but it always seemed manageable. When I first moved to Portland I had a roommate who must have had June Cleaver for a mom. He never cleaned anything. He took his laundry to his parents’ house where it was magically washed. I once got a little fed up and said, “Hey, who do you think cleans the bathroom? Me. You need to do it sometimes.” I came home the next day and found a young woman cleaning our bathroom; his new “girlfriend.” (Happy day note – this guy has evolved since then. It was the grunge era after all.)
I’m the kind of guy who feels like the world is askew if my bed is not made. I am not anal. I am a slob. But there is a maximum number of dishes in the sink and a laundry on the floor before my inner neurotic begins to hyperventilate. So cleaning is just part of life’s routine. All that changes when a baby shows up.
A baby is the ultimate excuse for everything. I’ve completely missed meetings and just said, “Oh, the baby was being fussy” and people are like, “Don’t worry. I totally understand. Cherish these moments.” It’s like having cancer. You can totally get away with murder. “I stabbed that guy because the baby was crying and I just got stressed out.” “Don’t worry. I remember when my kid was that age and I stabbed a guy.”
So if my house is kind of messy right now and you don’t have kids of your own, back the fuck off. I thought I would have so much time as stay-home-dad. I would get my new novel started and work on remodel projects while the baby slept. Nope. The baby takes up all the time. Her quick naps allow me enough space to check my emails, maybe work on this blog and run down the street to give the outgoing Netflix of The Good Wife to the postman, who I missed because I was feeding the baby. While my wife watches time slow down at work, my day speeds by and I didn’t even get a chance to throw the dirty bibs in the wash.
When the wife gets home, she’s drained and in no mood to do housework. I get that, too. I was that guy. Who wants to tackle the kitchen floor after a long day at the office? So I try to make her coffee in the morning and a cocktail at night. But I’m still in Suzy Homemaker mode. Now that she can watch the baby, I can get a load of laundry through and wash a dish or two. Weekends are our time, but there is still bills to be paid and grocery shopping. So I’m first out of bed and the last in. There are baby bottles still to wash. So if my house doesn’t look like the Brady house, kiss my dishpan hands.
Dorothy Smith wrote in feminist classic The Everyday World As Problematic (1987) that women are relegated to domestic sphere doing the logistic work so man can occupy the public sphere. (“Behind every great man is a great woman – not getting any credit.”) I understand that the laundry and the dishes are now my job (and the kitchen floor and putting the diapers out and…) and that’s OK. My wife works hard. She brings home the bacon and nurses the baby and so much more. I can make her a bagel in the morning. But I can totally see how so many women get lost in this support role. When is it my time?
Empathy is the most important quality in the world. I wish the New York cops who turned their backs on the mayor this weekend had empathy for the members of the minority community who continue to be racially profiled. I wish the members of ISIS had empathy for anybody who is not in ISIS. But most importantly, I wish men had empathy for all the women stuck at home who are supposed be be happy because they have a new dishwasher and a front-loading dryer. Maybe if you would just lend a hand.
EDIT: The dishwasher is now officially dead and I have to wash everything by hand. Represent!