An op-ed piece in the Sunday, December 8 edition of the New York Times entitled "The Case for Living in Filth" about the role men and women play in the management of the home is most certainly going to be the trigger for many discussions among groups of women and married or cohabiting couples. Among the writers and philosophers cited in the article are Karl Marx and Simone de Beauvoir, on indication that the topic of housework and the division of labor is no small subject.
One phrase in the article leapt out at me -- "emotional work." As a stay-at-home mother, the management of my home -- from making beds to paying bills -- was my responsibility. I have always had a weekly housekeeper to do the serious cleaning, both because I'm terrible at it and because I was fortunate to be able to pay for it. But the "intimate drudgery" (another phrase from the article) of the lives of my family fell, for the most part, on me. I did all of our laundry, picked up after everyone, organized, grocery shopped, cooked, planned social activities, vacations, doctor appointments, playdates, home maintenance appointments, and so on. I found great reward in being the conductor of the little orchestra that was my family -- and the "intimate drudgery" of the day-to-day tasks I performed connected me to my children and my husband in a profound and, yes, emotional way.
There will always be a division of labor between husband and wife. The article discusses that once a woman is earning more than her husband, she actually does more housework than she did when she was earning around the same or less than he does. It makes me wonder if, as women grow more successful and perhaps more distant from the day-in-day-out of their family's lives, they feel an almost primal need to connect with them in this very basic way. Maybe woman need the intimate connection to their family that housework, in some forms, can give them, in a way that men don't. Men tend to bond with others through action -- whether tossing a football, riding a bike or playing a video game -- while women, for the most part, bond through words and emotions.
For me, the intimacy of organizing my children's closets, folding their socks, making their meals -- it was as integral to my life as their mother as watching them play sports or helping them with their homework. By performing these day-to-day tasks, I was able to gain an insight into their lives in a way that my husband couldn't. While he understood them on the softball or football field, I was privvy to the little things that were in their pockets, their backpacks, their lunch boxes. The "intimate drudgery" of being their mother, of fishing out the empty packs of gum from under their bed or the half-eaten bag of Skittles from underneath a pile on their desk; the birthday party invitation crumpled up in a book bag, or a gumball machine charm stuffed in a pocket -- these things were just as important to my understanding who they were as hearing about their day each afternoon. Sometimes it's the clues that seem unimportant that can tell us so much about our children.
When I grow nostalgic for my children's young years, the days of playgrounds and afternoon snacks, worksheets and skinned knees, it's rarely for the big moments. What I miss most are those little things -- the detritus of their young lives, the million socks I folded, the lunches I made, the sweaty hugs and bubbly bath times -- the little intimacies.
I no longer enjoy the "emotional work" of keeping house the way I used to now that I'm an empty-nester. Now, dust is just dust, and laundry is simply a chore, and cooking...well, it's practically a lost art. There are no Skittles to be found, no permission slips to be signed.
If the housework I did as a stay-at-home mom was "intimate drudgery," it was filled with my children -- and that made it worth it.
This post originally published on Empty House Full Mind