Double-Edged Domesticity

The before picture. It was supposed to be “a ball” at this point. Yeah, right.

I grew up thinking that being a housewife was the ultimate in lame. My mother was one for the early years of my life, but I don’t remember that, because she was already working part-time as a substitute teacher by the time I was in kindergarten at age 4. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way, because my mom was happy, I was happy, and I didn’t know there was any other way to do things. When we moved to the suburbs when I was 7, my mom was back at work teaching full-time, so I became a latch-key kid. Again, I was cool with that, that was what Gen X kids did, and it made me self-sufficient in a way that I wouldn’t have been otherwise. My mom still made lunches for us every day and dinner almost every night — my dad often didn’t get home from work until after we’d eaten our meal at 6 or 6:30 — and we all enjoyed her food, but it was never something she loved to do. This might be why my father complimented her cooking so much: it was good, and helped me discover that garlic powder, paprika and salt can make a brick taste delicious if you cook it long enough, but he also knew that she was working and cooking and cleaning and also going to marches and meetings, because she was one of the organizers of her local NOW chapter. She knew that her raison d’etre was not being a wife and mother. While she loved her family and enjoyed spending time with us, the drudgework of those roles was never something she would pretend to enjoy, the way that many women of her era and the eras before hers did. She didn’t have to, because she had better things to do.

I was always pretty aware of this. From an early age, my brother and I were expected to clean up after ourselves, because my mother did not consider it her responsibility to do that, and if any of us left a mess, including my father, we would hear about it. I also knew how to prepare my own after-school snacks when my mother wasn’t home, which included the basics of making canned soup and toast (though we also had a never-ending supply of all the packaged snack cakes we now know that you aren’t supposed to have), and both my brother and I started were making our own school lunches by the time we were in junior high. Plus, my mother had no tolerance for television housewives like Carol Brady or Lucy Ricardo, and either of their shows would automatically be provided with a running commentary on what demeaning stereotypes those characters were and why (the same with “Charlie’s Angels” or “Three’s Company,” though obviously for different reasons). So I was disabused of any romanticism I might have had about what it meant to be a homemaker early on, in no uncertain terms. 

I developed a more nuanced understanding of the work/family balance when my friends started having kids. They all had real jobs, mostly as lawyers, doctors and techies, but they started to realize how difficult it was to “have it all” in those jobs the way we’d always been promised we could. One factor is that most of us are still dealing with husbands who, while mostly also feminists (most of them won’t come out and use that word to describe themselves, but if you call them that, they’ll sort of nod and shrug, right? You know what I’m talking about), still don’t know how to do the straight 50% of the housework, including management, that we would need them to do for us to really enjoy the “it all” part. Because women all know that if we don’t want to be doing every single task ourselves, that’s what a huge part of “housework” is: setting an agenda, delegating, and making sure things get done. Most men our age either never had to learn how to do either the tasks or the management of them. They were never taught by their Management growing up that it was their job to do it. Why? Because Management was their mom, and even if she was a feminist, she wasn’t their role model for adult responsibility, Dad was. Now, my brother likes to cook and I think he does much of the cooking in his house, plus he is a control freak who is happier when he’s managing everything — but I think he’s the exception. All of my serious boyfriends (including the current, permanent one) were raised by stay-at-home moms, so that helps explain why they were helpless in the face of basic household chores, but I’ve heard a lot of the same complaints from my friends: their husbands don’t really know how to do anything related to household management, and they have no interest in learning. Even if they enjoy making “their” one or two dishes (aka the ones they know how to prepare), they will just never fully believe that everyday cooking and cleaning are their responsibility, and always seem to expect a medal when they do them. And while childcare is something that more of them are getting involved in, certainly, than dads of my dad’s generation, it’s also surprising how many of them I heard say that they didn’t find their children interesting until they could talk — and that takes kind of a long time, during which they still need kind of a lot of maintenance. Many are still just fine with being “fun Dad” — as in not having to figure out every child’s needs and schedule and make sure it’s all attended to; again, not Management. But it’s not all about the men (thank god): a second part of the equation was that many of my female friends discovered that they wanted to spend more time with their children than having a demanding full-time job would allow, and so they chose to stay home for several years. Which blew my mind at the time: women had fought so hard to not have to do that, and now they were giving it back? But once they started talking about how much you missed out on if you were away from your kids for ten hours a day, or were traveling three days a week, I realized that maybe what we had won was the right to decide for ourselves what we wanted, and that might even include being a full-time mom, if they had the option/luxury of doing that.

And yet, I still have some discomfort around my own housewifery. I still want my husband to do half of the housework, and he doesn’t, but I continually add things on the list of chores that are “his” in the hope that someday they’ll become rote and I won’t have to remind him about them three or four or ten times before they get done. We have accomplished this with doing the dishes and watering the plants, and for a time it seemed like he’d also gotten to the point of regularly setting loose our Deebot robot vacuum cleaner, but now I think that was because he was using it as a procrastination tool (because isn’t that the only way that chores suddenly become appealing?), and now that he’s working on something he enjoys, he no longer sees the dust bunnies amassing in all of the dark corners of our apartment, waiting for their opportunity to lay siege. But I keep trying, because I don’t have time to do it all and I don’t particularly enjoy menial tasks, and also because it’s not supposed to be my fucking job any more goddammit. And for a while, this also applied to trying to get him to cook once a week, until eventually I realized that I liked what I cooked better, and, that, well…I kind of like to cook. Yes, I have trouble, even now, admitting that to myself. I get uncomfortable when my friends share recipes, because I still don’t think that this is something we should be doing. I have an even weirder relationship with baking, because all through high school and college, I did a lot of it. It was partly due to an unhealthy relationship with food, where I wanted to be around it while I still always thought I was too heavy and was dieting all the time, and it was also something I did to get people to like me — in my freshman dorm, I got a reputation for being That Girl Who Bakes Cookies in the Dorm Kitchen, and if that doesn’t make you popular with 19-year-old guys, I don’t know what will (even if it doesn’t translate into dates; somehow, I could never make the conversion).

But now here we are in a pandemic where women everywhere are cooking and baking their little hearts out. Some men too, though you don’t really see that as much — and again, when they do it, they do it as epicures, expecting to be showered with likes. I have made bread twice, and lemon poppyseed muffins once, but I refuse to post about it on social media, and not just because I’ve never wanted to be one of those people who posts pictures of their food (is it me, or is that the pinnacle of the social media mission of living your life for the envy of others instead of for yourself? Nobody but you and whoever you’re with can actually taste the food on your plate, so you should be eating it, not telling people about something they can’t possibly enjoy for themselves). Yet even without sharing my baking with the world, I still feel kind of weird about it, like it was something I did back in the phase of my life before I became a full-fledged feminist, because I didn’t have better things to do (which, in junior high and high school, I totally didn’t). However, slowly I’m realizing, now that I’m making dinner pretty much every night, that it actually is something I just enjoy doing for myself. I don’t enjoy doing it for my spouse — sure, he likes my cooking, but I don’t really get any satisfaction from him telling me how good it is because that fits back into my old weird stereotypes of the big man praising the little woman to make her more accepting of her role. I think I find the ritual of cooking — following simple tasks and directions that require my attention but not so much that I can’t listen to NPR while I do it — soothing. As opposed to ordering food from a restaurant in these weird times when nobody in Brooklyn seems to understand “curbside pick-up,” or “no-contact delivery,” or “six feet,” and we are trying to dump our take-out into bowls and dispose of the containers without letting them touch anything and then wash our hands before we touch anything else — definitely not soothing. (By the way, I get that the Brits are annoyed at the NHS guidance of “three fridges” to explain to people what two meters of safe distance is, but it’s better than the every-idiot-for-himself attitude that we have here, because when you give people no good concrete examples, people just end up keeping a distance of about arm’s length, and newsflash: nobody has six-foot arms). What I enjoy most, though, is making food that tastes the way I wanted it to taste — or else good in some unintended way, which often happens too, since I’m a much more accomplished eater than I am a chef. And then I get to enjoy it as leftovers, and say, “Wow, I made that, and it’s even better the next day.” I don’t really like it for the creativity, because I usually just follow a recipe (though sometimes I adapt it, because I have don’t have an ingredient and running out to the store for one thing isn’t a good option nowadays, or I don’t like sweet entrees and so ugh, why would I add sugar or fruit to my dinner?? GROSS), and I don’t really like it for the challenge, because I enjoy cooking familiar dishes as much or more than new ones. I think I really just like the everyday success that cooking provides — in a very tangible way, that you can eat.

This doesn’t mean that I am outgrowing my feminism, as I’m sure Phyllis Schafly would say (is everyone out there watching Mrs. America? You should be). It’s just another adjustment to it that comes with living long enough to know that times change, and that the strict rules we once observed don’t necessarily apply any more, or aren’t one-size-fits-all. I still really hope that we are raising this next generation of boys and girls (and if you don’t identify as either one, so much the better) so that those who identify as boys can be househusbands without feeling weird about it, and those who identify as girls can really just be good at opening cans and making toast if they’ve got better things to do. Rethinking our assumptions is something we all need to do from time to time. But I hope that someday we get to a point where, once and for all, we all will able to just like what we like, without having to second-guess ourselves too much about if it’s because of our gender.

Next, I’m going to try making challah. Because it’s delicious.

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