Friday, March 26, 2010

The problem with keeping house these days.

I do not make bread, grow my own tomatoes, or sew aprons to make a statement. I enjoy these activities. I like yeast, and dirt, and fabric. I like working with my hands, growing things and making things. At heart, I am a homebody. An outgoing homebody, but a homebody nonetheless. So my favorite activities take place in and center around the home. For these reasons and more, most of my favorite "hobbies" never used to be hobbies at all, but were once a cornerstone of our economy - essential "women's work." Activities that are also known as the "domestic arts" or (shudder) "home economics."

Why do any of us enjoy the things we do? I cannot explain exactly why I am drawn to traditionally feminine occupations. I'm pretty sure it's not innate to my gender, but it may well be innate to me. It probably doesn't hurt that these hobbies provide a welcome contrast to my professional life: I make my living as a lawyer, in a traditionally male-dominated, left-brained, field. (However, this does not explain my enthusiasms entirely, as I enjoyed sewing and baking bread long before I dreamed of law school.)

I've blogged before about how the "domestic arts" are fraught with symbolic meaning in our culture. The domestic arts are not simply arts that are domestic, but have come to stand for what women ought to be, for millennia of inequality between the sexes. Feminists question or decry these occupations (see here, and here, for just two examples from the last couple of days, from the NYT) and the rabidly anti-feminist exalt them to ridiculous levels (see here).

This has always been the source of some intellectual discomfort for me, and I feel compelled to bring it up here because I don't feel right talking about all of these traditionally gender-segregated activities (that I love) without at least mentioning the underlying inequality now and then.

I consider myself a feminist. I am a lawyer, and currently, I am the primary income-earner in my family (although my husband will always be the one to bring home any actual bacon in this house), with Steve staying home to care for Joe four days a week. Steve and I both love cooking and gardening, and sad to say, neither of us do much cleaning, so I am definitely not working a "second shift." I just happen to enjoy baking a loaf of bread here and there.

I think this is why some recent well-intentioned remarks about my "superhuman" or "supermom" abilities made me feel ... well ... a little uncomfortable.

On the one hand, I am really flattered and a little gratified. I mean, it is a major accomplishment to juggle a more-than-full-time job, two dogs, and an almost-eleven-month old baby, and still manage to bake a loaf of bread here and there. To the extent that I manage to pull this off, and remain sane and nice to the people around me, I am (rightly, I think) proud! Although, just so you know, it sometimes involves some pretty crazy hair-dos (Joseph, stop laughing at your mother):

But of course, I can't take all of the credit: I am able to do this because of all of the help I get from my husband and our wonderful housemate Rebecca. Seriously, without them, there would be no genius cheese bread. When I get that Oscar-equivalent in bread-baking (hey, a girl can dream), these are the folks I will thank first! Hey guys, you rock!

And there are some sacrifices. My husband and I are scraping by on a bit less income. We rarely go out to restaurants anymore, because Joe, for all his cuteness, is also a major handful. It's hard for me to get out to my regular singings these days, and Steve and I have gone on exactly one "date night" since Joe was born. I would like to go out more, but I already spend a lot of time away from Joe as it is, and when we babysit our friends' kids (or agree to babysit their future kids, in the case of my pregnant sister and brother-in-law), it is often in exchange for daycare so that Steve and I can simply go to work.

Parenthood is wonderful too - I mean, have you seen how cute my baby is? It kills me! Daily! The truth is, Steve and I are both homebodies, and I think we both secretly (or not so secretly) relish this new excuse not to go out as frequently. I have loved "settling down" even more into our comfortable family life.

My concern with the "superwoman" label is that it is rooted in the idea that women must "do it all." That in order to be good wives, we must be great housewives. In order to be good mothers, we must puree our own baby food. "Superwoman" is no longer "super" at all, but has become a statement about what is expected of women every day.

Now, I do not believe that being a great housewife is inherently oppressive any more than I believe that pureeing your own baby food is inherently oppressive. The work that women do, at home or in a profession, should be valued, as expression, as creativity - as work. I try to have fun with motherhood, and I try to share the things I love with my baby: that's why I made all that puree that he refuses to eat (anyone interested in some frozen cubes of applesauce?). The problem is that we women tend to measure ourselves against an impossible ideal of womanhood. An ideal that used to just require that we be good housekeepers, wives, and mothers, but now requires that we fit a full time job in there somewhere too. We can't just be good moms who play with our kids; we must be supermoms who cook, clean, and sew our own cloth diapers while serving as CFO of a major corporation.

Now, that is oppressive.*

Working mothers should not feel that they need to become more domestic in order to prove that they are good mothers, any more than stay-at-home mothers should feel that they have to get a job to prove that they are good feminists. 
In her blog post "On mommy blogging, etc.", my friend Emily asks, "When I eventually have kids will I find myself able not only to grow my own food but to puree it for the little ones?" My own answer to this would be "Well, not exactly." Becoming a mother did not flip a switch in my brain that turned my interests to all things domestic. I'm still the same old me, who just happens to regularly fantasize about being a pioneer woman. But it has given me an excuse to spend a bit more time at home. Which has been great. So if you wanted to pick up cooking or some other home-centered hobby, but you don't have time right now, you might indeed find that your domesticity increases when you have children.

Or you might not. There is room in this world for all kinds of women, and all styles of mothers. If you like cooking and want to puree some baby food, do it! It's easy, and I think it's fun! (Good luck getting your child to actually eat it.) But if that would be oppressive to you, don't do it! My idea of "fun" is another woman's idea of "drudgery," after all.

It sounds so glib, and it is such a cliche, but it is all about having the choice, isn't it?

My choice is to almost never clean.

And now I'm off to plan my next loaves.

* You know what else is oppressive? The way that traditional women's labor, especially housekeeping and childcare, is so severely devalued in our culture that even ardent feminists tend to dismiss it as "drudgery" and fail to regard it as "real work."


  1. What a great blog. Love, love, love it. Thanks for sharing your adventures Inder. <3 april

  2. April - You of all people know that I have always (1) enjoyed domestic pursuits; and (2) been a slob. Hee hee.

  3. I followed April's link on Facebook to your blog. Greatly written :) I share the same attitude as you do towards housework. Enjoy making your loaves & spending time with your child. He is going to remember that the home you provided for him was a happy place, not if all the dishes were clean at all times!

  4. DK - Welcome! Funny, the dishes are the only chore I regularly do - I need clean mixing bowls to make bread! ;-) But I never mop - that's what dogs are for! Glad you enjoyed my post.

  5. Inder, this post is extremely thoughtful and articulate. You said a lot of things that should be shouted from the rooftops, things I have puzzled through myself and been unable to put into words. When I decided to stay home with Miles, I really struggled with how to reconcile that with my feminism. I felt like I needed to apologize for it or explain it. (Same, to a lesser extent, with knitting, cooking, etc.) At one point, I even felt I needed to apologize for things like being femme. So thanks for reminding me to stop apologizing and just embrace my lesbian feminist housewife life!

  6. Yay femme feminist lesbian knitting housewives! Yay! :-)

  7. If it helps, I spent a lot of time writing that blog post agonizing about the various cliched terms I was using. The "supermom"/"superwoman"/"woman who does it all" debate/dilemma/deception/expectation/whatever is probably the thing I spend the most time, as a modern feminist, fretting about. in other words, it's the thing I find hardest to not fall for as an ideal/expectation, at least subconsciously. (i will probably be somewhat inarticulate in this comment; so what else is new?) if anything, i think i intended my post as more of a musing on that issue, and on how, upon reading yours or other women's blogs, my first impulse, despite knowing that a) i have a very busy and happy life as is and b) the women whose lives i'm reading about are NOT actually "doing it all" because they're not leaving the house or not cleaning or not working or not a mother or just because the blog post represents one tiny, deliberately shared snippet of their lives, is to feel inadequate. THAT is a big fucking problem, basically, is what i was saying, and kind of trying to explore that impulse a bit.

    i feel you on the uncomfortable-ness, i guess is what i'm saying, and apologize for adding to it. i will just add that i think part of my own personal anxiety around these issues stems from the fact that (shh) i *don't* feel particularly attached to my day job, and yet feel like my day job detracts from my ability to explore other "hobbies" that i feel i might enjoy more, from cooking to reading to whatever. not to mention, and not to go all low self-esteem (or whatever) in a blog comment, but i have this lingering doubt that i have actually found "my" hobbies or talents or whatever at all, and am therefore just wasting my time sort of drifting around. so perhaps what i should really apologize for re: uncomfortableness is projecting my own issues onto other people!

    anyway. thanks for blogging, i enjoy it! hope to see you in person soon. and i know many a person has said so before but i have to add - joe is ridiculously cute.

  8. Emily, if it makes you feel any better, it has taken me many years to make my peace with my desk job, and the way that it detracts from my "hobbies" (read, greater passions). I spent most of my 20s freaking out that I had "sold out" and was not "following my bliss" or whatever. Much angst!

    At some point in the past five years, I relaxed into it a bit. I mean, I like my job, even if I don't feel that it uses all of my skills, and it doesn't JUST detract from my hobbies - it also makes those hobbies possible. It does FUND my hobbies.

    Since having a baby, I'm usually too tired to angst, which may be another hidden benefit of mothering. My life is full of chaos and needy creatures (animal and human) and bustling activity, and I rarely get any quiet time. So I miss quiet time to think, but my tendency to overthink everything is somewhat dulled by the chaos!

    I read your blog post as a musing on expectations for "motherhood" and "domesticity" and I found it really fascinating. That even post-feminism, we still hold ourselves to an ideal of domesticity - our femininity is tied to it. But at the same time, feminists react against that ideal, trashing domesticity and writing it off as "oppressive."

    My genuine enjoyment of cooking and mothering gets lost in this intellectual shuffle, and I wanted to address that head-on. I was trying to engage you in a cross-blog dialogue - I'm a lawyer, and I love a good "discussion," right? Fun fun!

    So thank you for the stimulating post!

    I think some of us (hello - me) are not meant to have one single overriding passion in life, but like to "dabble." And that's okay too. We dabblers are fun people to hang out with.

  9. A little shout out from the academic contingent. One of my favorite things about this post is the credit you give to your spouse and housemate--the atomization (heh) of contemporary life is a major problem. More on that in a sec. I also want to say that while i feel the angst, I think that the idea that feminists bag on SAHMS/domesticity etc is somewhat outdated. Most current feminist theory and activism seeks to recognize how freakin hard domestic and caretaking work is, and to agitate for policies that recognize caretaking as legitimate labor. (Um, universal health care????) I agree that domestic labor continues to be denigrated socially, but I disagree that it's feminists who are doing that. I would maybe suggest that our own internalized misogyny that is as much of a problem as the social structures delegitimating domestic labor.

    This gets back to my first comment about the atomization of contemporary life--we don't really have networks to support caretaking labor. Feminist work does an awesome job of pointing out the social structures responsible. (health care policy, workplace structures etc) But it's quite hard to achieve these on our own. Especially without the cash to hire folks. But if we had a broader social acceptance of less conventional households like yours, it would be better. One example (sheesh, should I get my own blog or what) is my recent househunting expedition to find a house where we can live with our kid's grandparents. Houses are built for the isolated nuclear family. Hardly any place has two master bedrooms, or a bedroom/bath set apart from main bedroom space, etc. It's like we stay upstairs and g-parents in the freakin basement. It's just not recognized as an option to share space with another couple. And it's part of zoning codes too--"single family" vs "multifamily" homes.

  10. Hello, Ms. E!

    While I do not doubt that academic feminists have moved past the "domestic is drudgery" concept, I also had no problem finding multiple New York Times articles (all from the past 72 hours, no less) that presented domesticity in a questionable fashion, as something that keeps women down in some way. It's not the dishes that actually keep women down - dishes are inanimate objects, after all - it's not having the same freedom to do or not do the dishes as men.

    I also agree with you 100% that it is spoken from internalized misogyny - that seems obvious to me too.

    So I'm saying - it may be out of date, but it is not dead.

    Theorists may say "well, we've moved past that" because the theorists have moved past it. But as a society, we clearly haven't moved past this issue. Women's work is still worth less, financially and in every way, than men's work. My male colleagues feel free to discuss sports at work, but I know better than to bring up my love of design and fashion in that context. While society looks down on traditional women's work in this way, feminists who love this type of activity will continue to question whether they are somehow undermining the cause by enjoying these traditionally feminine activities rather than getting out there and competing with the guys. Yeah, it's more a second-wave concern, but I think we third-wavers still struggle with it.

    I get your point about not blaming "feminists" for saying something - after all, feminism itself can't actually speak, and feminists come in all shapes and sizes. Very true.

    My intent, not as well articulated as it could have been, was to remind women who work outside of the home not to buy into the way that paid work is still privileged over at-home labor (until it comes to motherhood, when you're supposed to suddenly bust out your domestic chops), even though it's pretty clear that they are both just work in every possible sense.

    Good times!

  11. Comment too long for one post!

    But yes, the concept of the nuclear family might actually keep women down. It's an interesting idea! I think the hardest part of mothering is just how isolating it can be (this is something that I didn't fully understand until I had a baby) ... you keep thinking, "Where is my village? I thought I was supposed to have a village?"

    But at least I have a full-time coparent and a helpful housemate.

  12. Yeah, I totally get it. I also hadn't really read those links you linked to as "proof" about what feminists were saying. I skimmed them after i posted it, and I still think they are more complicated than a simple "feminists think parenthood and housework is drudgery" line. i got the vibe that it was more of a reaction to the perfect mothering injunction in (middle class white straight) public culture. the "supermom" thing. and the "mommyblogs" thing. Which is all about everything you said, but still not quite the same as 2nd wave feminists think house labor is stupid. I think we're pretty much agreeing that a) our society structurally degrades at-home labor and b) our society is still pretty seriously misogynist. a and be are related, of course, like b causes a but b is far more general, too, bc men who do domestic labor are devalued (at work, say, or by our economic system) and overvalued (by other aspects of public culture), rather than just making choices that work best for their family.

    And also, my feminism makes me uncomfortable with that stuff too. but i don't think i'm getting that message from anyone but myself. or my own internalization of history (my mom in law got harassed for wearing pants to work. in the 70s. but does that make me ashamed to wear skirts all the time? kinda?)

    letting sections out early allows me to write this stuff! yay!

    it's also tough bc the public culture of the home arts is still overwhelmingly women-dominated. not cooking shows, but "good housekeeping" magazine type stuff. (that's typical, though, high fashion/fine food is male while at home clothes and cooking is female. and degraded). did i mention that fascinating "why do all the mommybloggers hate each other?" roundtable at the times? relevant to the discussion. and highly white. here, lemme find it... crap, dont' have time to look!!! but i told melissa about it.

  13. My husband is a stay-at-home-dad! If he were the type to post on such things, I'm sure he speak worlds on how that position is both devalued and overvalued, but never just taken at face value for what it is - valuable work that men can do too.

    I think a lot of my complaints do come up more in the context of mothering than in general feminist chit-chat. As single women, we all knew that we should be able to be fashionable and feminine as well as high-powered. No prob. (Well, not no problem, but pretty close.) We wanted equal partnerships, etc.

    But, as mothers, do we still believe that? Or do we find ourselves sliding back into these stereotypes about domesticity and work? Motherhood seems to be a trigger for some of these issues that otherwise seemed fairly resolved before. The whole supermom thing, and the whole mommy bloggers hate each other thing (I think I sent you that link originally, no?). One thing is for sure - women are more competitive with each other than they need to be, too susceptible to this idea that other women are somehow better (more "super") than us - but we are not nearly competitive enough with men!

    Interesting! So Emily was asking if she would suddenly become more domestic when she became a mom, and whether that's maybe what she wants (if so, I say go for it, if not, don't go for it!), and I was thinking, I feel really weird about being labeled super in anyway, when I should probably just feel flattered - you know, there's something else going on here ...

    I'm still working on what that thing is. It's very complex.

  14. Fantastic blog post, Inder. I really enjoyed reading your insights and wisdom - and seeing pictures of little Joe!

  15. Reading this awhile after the fact. Great post! I wonder if what I would have thought in March 2010 (prebaby prePhd) would be different now. Thanks for the food for thought

    1. Hi! Wow, it has been a while. I think my thoughts on this are more complex and nuanced now than they were three years ago, although I am still complaining about some of these things. I still generally resent being told "I don't know how you find time for it all." Truth is, I don't. With the second kid there have been some (additional) major sacrifices. The house is messier, I am not making my own baby food, cloth diapering, or curating a beautiful collection of high quality toys and books for my children. We have less money than ever. I look back on my one child days the way I used to look back on pre-child days - with nostalgia, and "how did I ever manage to complain back then, I had it so easy!" But I still enjoy doing some domestic things, and I still think it's cool to do those things, or not, if you feel like it.


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