I Pay My Own Wages For Housework
Taking care of my home doesn’t feel like drudgery. It feels like taking care of myself.
"How was your weekend?" a co-worker asks me on Monday, because that's what you say to people on Mondays.
Well, I think, let's see: I did two loads of laundry (whites on warm, darks on cold). I watered the plants and vacuumed the rugs and folded the sweaters that needed folding; I wiped down the sink and refilled the soap and roasted those turnips that were not much longer for this world and oh, yes, I did go to that party on Saturday.
"I didn't really do anything,” I say, “which was nice."
Didn't I? Isn't all that — the constellation of little domestic tasks I perform on infinite, variable loop — enough to be called something?
For now I’m going to call it homemaking, because school ruined homework, housekeeping happens in hotels, and housework — well, housework is complicated. I know the word “homemaking” evokes floral aprons and women named Betty (Friedan, Draper) who have taught us about the deep misery and intellectual starvation that await the full-time housewife. And sure, you might sincerely loathe chores for their own sake, which is fine, unless I have to use your bathroom. But I find that when I do it for myself, making and taking care of my home is actually a pleasure.
I have a deep appreciation for the payoff of each mundane process: the grit I dump out of the vacuum canister and the steam that rises from the dishwasher door and the beautiful pile of hot, clean laundry. The time I spend cooking and cleaning is the time I use to listen to podcasts and organize my thoughts and get a little grime under my nails. It feels good. In my experience, homemaking is only drudgery when you're doing it for someone else.
I have lived with several roommates, and I live with one now — a friend and a great person, like all the others. The unsolvable problem of living with anyone else, though, is an imbalance of standards. Say the bathroom sink has been dirty for a while; I want the sink to be clean, so I'll clean it, but that doesn't mean I won’t resent you for not wanting what I want.
I'm sure there are little things I've done or not done that have driven my roommates crazy (may I be forgiven for all the hair I've left in shower drains.) But I think, or imagine, that it's usually me who cares more about the particular ways things look and smell and feel. I care a lot. I’m not obsessive, but I am aware. If I leave dishes in the sink, it’s because I know I will wash them in two hours. I keep an exact mental inventory of the leftover food I currently have in the fridge (at the time of writing: half a pomegranate, one piece of French toast, some roasted vegetables). When the bath mat crosses the threshold from un-pristine to problematic, I notice.
Do you do the work you want done, even if it belongs to someone else?
One more example: My horror of running out of toilet paper, combined with my love of bargains, is so deeply ingrained that I always buy toilet paper in the biggest bulk I can carry back from the store. We’re talking 12 rolls, minimum. I have had roommates who play with fire — half a roll from disaster — and I find it a mysterious, terrifying way to live. In this game of chicken I inevitably break first and bring home the toilet paper, because I'm the one who cares about having all that toilet paper. At a certain point the original impulse becomes irrelevant in the face of precedent, which dictates that I am now and forevermore The One Who Buys The Toilet Paper.
Being so attuned to the condition of a shared living space is a funny bind to be in. Do you do the work you want done, even if it belongs to someone else? Or do you betray your own instincts to prove a point and leave the goddamn sink alone?
As I've gotten older, I've learned that I will almost always clean the proverbial sink. I will buy the toilet paper, because it isn’t worth it to me not to. We all notice different things; these are the things I notice. But I've also stopped resenting that kind of work (as much) (most of the time) and started to think about it a little differently. Not as a bill to be split, but as one of the cheapest gifts I can give myself.
A lot of people I know, mostly women, talk about getting haircuts and massages and manicures as a form of caring for themselves. And I do think physical rituals have real, mentally restorative power, but I don’t find that power in maintaining my body. I don't ever get manicures. Instead, I buy flowers, or organize a cupboard. I make soup.
I wouldn’t call homemaking a job or an artform; more of a hobby. (Ask me about my rubber band collection!) But it is creative; it takes skill and attention. The fact that I’m good at it is satisfying in itself. And, when I do this stuff not only because I want it done, but also because I want to be doing it, it pays real dividends.
You can’t always fix the shit that’s stressing you out, but you can always scrub down the stove.
Homemaking isn’t just a matter of repetitive tasks, but also the infinite process of nesting; collecting and arranging a combination of duvet covers, wineglasses, shower curtains, and shelves that will make me comfortable and happy and even project to the world an aspect of who I am. Maybe capitalism is a rotting plague and possessions are dead weight holding me back from a higher spiritual plane. Whatever. I use those possessions all the time. To borrow a phrase, they spark joy. And honestly, I like going to IKEA.
I should pause to note that if you're a youth reading this and thinking that you'd rather just die now than reach such a low bar for emotional gratification in your late twenties, don't worry: I do fun things outside the house, I swear! I have great friends, and I like going places with them. But I find a very easy, renewable source of comfort in my domestic habits. You can’t always fix the shit that’s stressing you out, but you can always scrub down the stove. You can make something better, more beautiful, more correct.
My mother has told me that when I was little, she could always tell when I felt really at home in a house we were visiting or renting. Here’s how: I would hunt out a broom and begin to sweep the floor.
Sometimes I worry that, by showing an active interest in domesticity, I’m disappointing the fairy godmothers of feminism. WWSJS? (What would Selma James say?) Or Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote in The Second Sex, in 1949, that “few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition.” She brushed off people who find satisfaction in housework as “frigid or frustrated women, old maids, desperate housewives, and those condemned by their husbands to a solitary and empty existence.”
Then I think: That’s stupid. It’s 2016, and my home has nothing to do with a husband. When I wash dishes in my apartment, I don’t feel frigid or desperate or condemned. Rather, I feel calm, productive, and capable. I feel like I’m putting things right, and carving out a quiet space for my mind to rest while my hands are busy.
This work can leave plenty of space in my life for the ambitious things I want to do outside the home.
It probably helps that I grew up in a household where both parents had careers they were committed to, and for most of those years my father was the one whose schedule let him be our primary housekeeper, cook, and caretaker. That isn’t to say he did everything (we were able to hire babysitters, and cleaners who came every other week, and also he still doesn’t really understand the nuances of my mom’s laundry system), or that he always loved doing it. It’s only to say I’ve believed my whole life that housework, homemaking, whatever you want to call it, isn’t just the province of oppressed wives. This work can leave plenty of space in my life for the ambitious things I want to do outside the home.
Let me be clear: It’s a luxury to be able to think this way. Only the fact that I live on my own terms as a privileged single woman, that I do have a steady income from a full-time job, lets me classify all of this — the cleaning, the nesting, the toilet paper in bulk — as a kind of leisure activity. As opposed to, say, a way to earn a living, or a necessity I couldn’t afford to farm out to someone else. And that luxury could fly out the window if I were to lose my job or apartment, or move in with a partner, or have kids. But for the moment, I’m the one who benefits from my own unpaid domestic labor. And I feel lucky to have, if not It All, then at least a challenging, creative career and a sincere love of folding laundry.
I had friends over on New Year’s Eve this year, and I was especially pleased because it gave me an opportunity to show off a beautiful new carpet (a gift picked out by my dad, among whose many talents is a real eye for rugs). I love to host parties and dinners and generally to invite people into the space where I live. I am proud of how pretty, how clean, how well taken care of it is.
I think: This is my rug, my room, my bed, my lamp, my bookshelf. This is the way I arrange the chairs. This is the way I stack the books. But I'm not doing any of it to impress you; I’m doing it to give myself somewhere good to be. I am no one's housewife except my own.