Following is the first in a series of posts by me and other bloggers about homemaking in the 21st century. Also tackling the topic are Marta at My Goodly Heritage and Patrick at Loose Ends, so go check out their posts as well. Besides, theirs will probably be a lot more coherent than mine.
Why even bother asking whose job the housework is? Advertisers know it, buttinski relatives* know it, you and I know it. It's the woman's job -- more specifically, the wife's job. Did I say job? I meant...something else. Something that doesn't imply any sort of status or pay. Um. Where was I?
Oh, yes: The wife's job. There's a lot to unpack in that little phrase, no? Let's start with the creamy middle: the heteronormative marriage-assuming "wife". Okay, full disclosure time: I am a wife. A (practical) heterosexual, legally married to a man, wife. Better still, I am presently a "stay-at-home" mother, not drawing any significant income. But wait! There's more!
I consider homemaking a vocation.
I know, right? Is it just me, or did it get all 1952 in here?
Why does any of this matter? Well, first, you need to see where I'm coming from, which is on the surface as "traditional" (and I use the term loosely and totally inaccurately, as we'll discuss) as a person can get, and outright weird these days. I can't profess to talk about whose job the housework is from any other perspective (that's what those other bloggers are for!). It also matters because underneath the traditional veneer, I have what I suspect, based on odd statistics and general cultural discourse, to be a very, very un-traditional housework arrangement.
So. Housework, or homemaking? Do they mean the same thing? There's a difference, a subtle but significant one, more than just an etymological turd-polishing. Housework consists of the million little tasks that get done and undone in the course of a day: food preparation, dishes, sweeping, tidying, food preparation, repeat ad infinitum. Homemaking is sort of...meta housework, with something more besides. Homemaking involves the overall structure of daily life; it includes the long-term planning of how we get our food and how to organize the flow of the house on a daily, monthy, or yearly cycle. Homemaking means making the home a beautiful, comfortable place to be, so that everybody's brains and souls feel just right.
Historically, both have fallen to women, although not necessarily the same woman. Based on the mountains of books I read while working in the Rare Books department at Princeton, the episodes of 1900 House and Frontier House and Stanky Hippie House (okay, I made that one up. Or I lived it) I half-watched a few years ago, many households had hired help, and not just the rich ones. One eighteenth-century book we had, written by a woman of some means, detailed the methods for doing pretty much anything anyone in her sizeable household would need to do. Kill, pluck, and roast a goose; make soap; sew clothing, plant the garden. These were things she was able to do, and therefore to oversee, but the majority of the tasks were delegated. The family from 1900 House had a maid-of-all-work, for a while at least. Heck, most of the apartments in my 1929 apartment building have maid's quarters and kitchens with two doors, and call buttons in the dining room floors. And these were built as one and two-bedroom apartments! (Mine was originally a one-bedroom; now the dining room is our living room, the parlor our master bedroom, and the bedroom Sophia's room, with little hallways carved out so that the bathroom is separate.) My point is that even when the lady of the house wasn't doing the work herself, she was at least overseeing it (and other women were actually doing it). Of course this presumes that a household consists of a man and a woman. Anyhoo.
Fast forward to today: most of us don't have household help. In many families, all the adults (one, or two, or even three) have outside employment. We'll mostly pay attention to two-parent households here, because with just one parent, clearly all the work falls to her/him. We all know the statistics about what happens to the housework in a two-parent hetero household when both parents work: by various studies, the woman devotes about twice as much time to household tasks (into which category are lumped the children). So, once again, the housework is effectively the woman's job.
Officially, though, it's everybody's job. And everybody's job is nobody's job, which means we now have something to fight about. Who does more? Who didn't do enough? Whose expectations are out of line? Fun! Our culture's practices haven't caught up to these crazy liberated women, all uppity and working out of economic necessity like they do. Into that gulf steps industry and its cadre of advertisers, bringing us helpful products like Swiffers and Crock-Pot liners and frozen "home-style" meals, to do the work that nobody really likes to do but we used to pay somebody to do or at least had time to do it ourselves before we were allowed to go to college and medical school and stuff, when all we had to do was sit around silently dying inside. But now we can make money! To buy the disposable products!
Whoops, gone off the rails a bit again. See, it's an issue that's potentially fraught with judgment and high feelings all around, and I am not even interested in hosting a working mothers vs. SAHMs debate, because STUPID, and clearly I am for homemaker as a viable alternative to wage-earning for those who desire it. And what progress that statement represents -- that one could choose homemaking as a vocation, rather than having it forced upon her! I guess we'll know homemaking has risen in status when men start to do it.
I'm having a heck of a hard time coming around to a central thrust here, partly because my brain is fried from doing actual homemaking and parenting, and partly because...well, I guess the first part is reason enough, huh? How about I just tell you how we do it in our house, and we leave it at that?
I have a bachelor's degree; Sean has a Ph.D. Until Sophia came along we both worked, and split the housework pretty equitably (there are some jobs I care about and do better, and some he does. Bathroom, mine; straightening and decluttering, his), though the homemaking tasks were mine more by choice. I oversaw our CSA share, kept the mental inventory of the refrigerator, and made vet appointments. Now he works for pay, and I do not; I do the parenting while he's at work (obviously), and when he's home, we divide it. When it was just Sophia, Sean would do the bedtime routine while I cleaned up dinner; now I take Daphne if she's awake. If not, I get a little free time. Once everybody's asleep we do housework as needed, and Sean usually works; I get computer or reading time. He does most of the surface cleaning and tidying; I do the toilet scrubbing. We clean the kitchen equally. I do the majority of the cooking, meal planning, and shopping; he does big organizational projects. I sweep, he folds laundry.
In short: when we are both around, we are both doing housework and parenting on an equal though fluid basis. When he's at work, he's working (and running the occasional errand or making phone calls); when I'm home, I'm doing light cleaning and kid-overseeing, as well as a few extra things like doctor appointments and phone company things. I do the grocery shopping. Since I'm home more, I do proportionally more of the housework -- but only just proportionally. In fact, sometimes I wonder if I do less. On the face of it, this arrangement doesn't seem strange -- but according to everything I've read, it is unusual among single-earner married couples in its equity. Our system meets our needs, and it meets my feminist requirements.
The homemaking, however, is my province by choice. I think this is one thing that can fall by the wayside when everybody's busy with work -- it's hard enough to keep the place clean and well-arranged and pretty, keep home-cooked meals from scratch on the table, keep surfaces clear and floors swept, when I'm at it full-time. But I like it. I look forward to expanding it as we move out of our apartment into a house with a yard, where I can cultivate a garden and relationships with local food producers and neighbors, when I can work on food preservation skills to be directly responsible for a greater proportion of what we eat, when I can have room to sew and craft and make certain things for our family. My homemaker dreams aren't Martha Stewart dreams of mere ornamentation (though there's nothing wrong with that). What I want, and what I wish any person in this country could choose to do without economic hardship or societal disdain, is to make my own home -- to take the work and responsibility of every little aspect of life out of the hands of manufacturers and grab hold of at least some of it myself, to find joy in utility and beauty in each daily thing.
And that, folks, is how a radical feminist approaches homemaking. Housework is, in a perfect world, divided according to the abilities of the members of each household. Homemaking is, in that same perfect world, the work of anyone who is called to it.
*Not mine, of course. Mine don't seem to care, except for my grandma who once told me vis-a-vis feminism that "the women have gone too far."