No One Ever Taught Me to Be a Housewife

You don’t find many housewives these days.  Even the ones who stay home don’t necessarily perform the same chores that housewives once did.  Women instead spend their time crafting or book clubbing or carting their children to little gym classes or toddler music classes.  Women at home nowadays focus on their children rather than the home.  I think that’s okay.

And although I don’t stay home with my children all of the time, I am home most of the time and I can do a lot of my research and writing from home.  And because I’m busy with classes and research and writing (and ballet, piano lessons, gymnastics, activity days, joy school, preschool, church, homework, etc. etc.), the first thing I ignore is the housework.  I wrote earlier this summer about how I was dejunking.  I finally had time to do this because of summer break.  Now that school has started again (for me and the children), the housework is the first thing to go.  It is my last priority and the easiest thing to leave off of my list.  There really is no time.

But it’s not because I don’t want to do it.  I actually enjoy housework and what I enjoy even more is having a clean house.  I’ve always been an orderly and organized person.  As a child, my mother never had to tell me to clean my room.  It was already clean.  I often organized my stuffed animals or my CDs or my earrings when I was bored.  I also enjoyed mopping the floor.  That was my favorite job as a child, and my mother exploited that to no end.  I don’t think she ever mopped.  I always did it.  And if I didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done.

Not much would get done in my childhood home in the way of cleaning.  It was never horribly messy or disgusting, for my mother liked to decorate.  We had nice things, but we never deep cleaned.  This bothered me.  It bothered me so much that once, when I had a boyfriend (an exchange student from Brazil) coming over to visit for the first time, I spent the entire day cleaning.  Eight straight hours.  I scrubbed baseboards, dusted shelves, wiped walls, organized the linen closet, removed cobwebs, vacuumed every single room, and on and on.  I was embarrassed of what he might think, should he discover dust over one inch of our home.

But the truth was that my mother did not know how to be a housewife and she did not teach me.  It is something of a lost art.  And although I don’t plan to spend all of my days from here on out making sure that my house is spotless, I do long for some of that knowledge and some of that order and purpose.  In fact, it fascinates me so much that I’m leaning toward taking a long, hard look at the domestic science movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s for my dissertation.

So what really got me thinking about all of this is a book called To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife (2006) by Caitlin Flanagan.  It is a collection of her essays (she writes for The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly) about housewifery and women’s roles and postfeminism and all of that interesting stuff that applies to contemporary women.

to hell with all that cover

I like her perspective, because it is neither overtly feminist nor anti-feminist.  It seems to fall somewhere in the middle and it is a nice, new way for me to think about things.  I’m all for moderation.

She begins by writing about her mother’s death and how it made her realize that there was no longer somebody in the world who cared about her more than anything.  As she cleaned out her mother’s house, this melancholy realization struck her.  She was now a lone adult, who must play that role for her sons.  But she recognized the importance of that role.  While her father was researching and writing books, her mother “led the kind of life that is composed of countless acts of service, none of which lend themselves to the creation of a special collection in a college library.  A team of archivists was not flying in from Massachusetts to find out why she was so often the first person called when there was a disaster (when a friend’s son killed himself; when a suspicious lump proved malignant) . . . . No one was coming to catalog her recipes or take careful note of the way she organized her spatulas and slotted spoons” (p. xvi-xvii).  But Flanagan noticed, as she emptied the house, and she took souvenirs.  Sometimes that is all a woman’s life amounts to, but it is important.  Flanagan recognizes that and therefore compiled this book of her essays about women and children, households, and marriages. She sees something lost in losing the art of housekeeping, and her book is an attempt to explore that loss.

One of the first losses she writes of is “The Virgin Bride.”  It is an interesting essay about wedding culture and how women now wear white even if it doesn’t mean what it used to mean.  The chapter honestly reminded me of why I can’t watch shows like Say Yes to the Dress, for they make me anxious and upset about something long past and out of my control.   Weddings now are extravaganzas, once reserved for the super rich or royal.  Now everybody has to have a wedding that costs more than a house, and we have television to reinforce that.  I personally had a simple wedding in one of my church’s temples.  Afterwards, we ate a catered lunch in one of the reception rooms on the top floor of the old Hotel Utah.  It was nice, simple, and inexpensive.  My dress cost around $300 and I had it made.  We budgeted on the photographer, and we handmade centerpieces.  That was enough.  I was more excited about the marriage than the wedding.

I’ve been to weddings that go all out.  I’m not a fan.  And honestly, the most memorable one I attended, that costs thousands and thousands of dollars, ended in divorce.  Flanagan makes this astute comment: “In our culture, the wise counselors who instruct young people on the most important ritual of their lives are salesmen” (p. 14).

Another essay, titled “The Wifely Duty,” is quite interesting.  The basic premise is this imperative:  Wives, have sex with your husbands!  She claims that everybody will be happier, and even shares the story of a wife who did just that and ended up getting the new refrigerator she wanted without having to nag or beg.  It is certainly something to think about!

Flanagan additionally explores the differences between at-home mothers and working mothers.  She laments the loss of housework as an art, and instead sees at-home mothers as women who care for children, not housewives.  She also notes that the expense of losing the art of housework is that women of lower socioeconomic classes end up doing it.  She sees at-home mothers as more concerned with “motherhood, which is for me an exquisitely over-wrought enterprise, full of guilt-racked, sleepless nights and over-worried-about children and the never-ending sense that I’m doing too little or too much or the wrong thing, or missing the crucial moments, or somehow warping these perfect creatures” (p. 69).  She notes, “Housewives didn’t trot after their children the way I trot after mine” (p. 69).  It is a fascinating look at the way parenting and housekeeping have changed over the generations.

Flanagan experienced this change.  Her mother was a housewife, who suddenly, one day, when Flanagan was about 11, decided to get a job.  “[M]y mother threw the sponge back in the basin and said—out loud, to no one but herself, and apparently with finality—‘To hell with it’” (p. 206).  This was the moment when life for that family changed.  Flanagan found herself home alone after school, sticking freezer meals into the oven, and missing her mother.  But as much as she recounts her own horror and the hard adjustment, she saw it as an ultimately good thing, for her mother was happier and Flanagan learned independence.

Flanagan realized that her mother was saying to hell with “wasting her education,” and “with her marriage—or at least its most unpleasant aspect, my father’s cheapness and my mother’s absolute lack of financial power” (p. 207).  The father didn’t want the mother to work, but she did it anyway.  She had a nursing degree and starting using it, but it worked because “she was increasingly finding herself out of work in her own home” (p. 209).  Her children were growing and her husband was working more and more.

However, when Flanagan’s mother died, she said, “I probably should have found something more estimable to say about her, but in the days after her death all I could think about was what a wonderful thing it had been to be raised at home, by a mother who loved me” (p. 225).  She is grateful for all of the invisible work her mother did, for Flanagan believes, “The only thing you can protect your children from is the bad behavior of their parents” (p. 236).

Overall, this book of essays is fascinating and enjoyable.  There’s a chapter on clutter, an exploration of Dr. Spock, and some analysis of Martha Stewart and her success.  There does seem to be a resurgence of late of housework and domesticity.  If you’re not sure what to make of all of it, let Flanagan be your guide.

And if you want to know where I heard about this book, it was from my friend and former boss, Alex.  I’ve been able to have a few lunches with him of late, and when we get together, we talk about feminism.  He reads my blog and loves to tell me about the books he’s been reading.  He has five daughters, and he says he is interested in books about women and their changing roles, because, as he sees, it, “When women’s roles change, so do men’s.”  I concur.

Thanks for the great recommendation, Alex!