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Domestic stuffs (part 2): Worth

Monday, 29 July, 2013

(NB: I wrote this last week and didn't get a chance to finish it before the weekend, thus missing my self-imposed deadline [sorry!]. I can't be bothered updating the references to “this week” to “last week”, so please read it accordingly.)

(Read part 1.)

So this week I changed all the bed linen; washed all the clothes, sheets, swim things, towels, hand towels, tea towels and face washers; did the admin for childcare (which involves scheduling an email through Laytr to book Astrid into childcare two weeks in advance, scheduling a money transfer to pay for those slots, updating the calendar and updating my spreadsheet, which keeps track of all the money in my childcare fund [aka writing fund]); paid the Term 3 fees for Music Time; did the data entry for Music Time; did a mountain of admin for the next women's ministry event at church; reminded everyone in the Sydney Comics Guild about Thursday's mid-week meeting; filled in the forms to claim back tolls on the M5 for the past year from the RTA (which was totally worth it as that's a $60 refund we hope we'll receive); took my car to the mechanic because I had noticed that dark grey smoke billows out of the exhaust when travelling at high speeds (too much oil in the engine); took Astrid to her swimming lesson (where she got to use the new swimmers I'd researched and bought for her the previous week); restocked the swim bag when everything was dry; posted some shoes that was Astrid was given by grandparents back to the clothing manufacturer in the hope they can exchange them for a bigger size because they were too small; bought those covers you can get for the door knobs so that little fingers can't open them (because Astrid now knows how to climb out of her cot and will do so up to half a dozen times of an evening instead of going to sleep); organised a group of families to go to the Peppa Pig stage show and then hit redial on my phone for 45 minutes the morning tickets went on sale so I could actually purchase some (the line was constantly engaged; one parent commented on the Peppa Pig Facebook page that tickets to this were harder to get than for Pink!); picked up the new bed I'd ordered for Astrid as we are going to move her from a cot to a bed sometime soon (and the company had originally indicated that their warehouse was 10 minutes away from us, but then when the bed finally came in, they said that it was at their new warehouse half an hour away—grr!); redrafted part 3 of my graphic novel for writing group, which meets Sunday; attended the Sydney Comics Guild mid-week meeting, which had new attendees, whom I tried to introduce to the rest of the group; organised to have dinner with my father and stepmother, who are in town at the moment; attended medical appointments; dropped off and picked up Astrid from childcare; cooked; packed morning teas and lunches when needed; put out another half of loaf of bread to defrost; did the dishes every evening; responded to emails; received two rejections regarding organisations stocking Kinds of Blue; recorded a bit for the Beardy and the Geek podcast; met Guan to talk about the M&M Vanity Project; and seamed a sweater (just need to knit the collar and weave in ends and then it will be finished!).

Congratulations if you made it through all of that without your eyes glazing over! The point of it wasn't toot my own trumpet (although looking back over it all, it makes me think, “Oh, that's where all that time went”); the point was to highlight that when I talk about “housework”, I'm really talking about something much bigger than cooking, cleaning and taking out the garbage. I'm really talking about what Gaby Hinsliff refers to as “wife work” in Half a Wife:

… there is part of being a ‘wife’ that was always more than glorified skivvy, and that's the part we are still struggling with.

This is the wife as collective memory, repository of The Knowledge—that exhaustive domestic map of exactly what needs doing when and by whom, which is necessary before you can make anyone help you do it: the wife who manages the family's social capital and its emotional health. It's wife as air traffic controller, tracking the erratic flight paths of the family through domestic space—who needs swimming kit on Thursdays, which child has inexplicably fallen out with their best friend, how long it is since anyone rang the in-laws. This wife is the architect of the family's relationship to the outside world, she who both knows where the Sellotape is and remembered the birthday in the first place. And this is what dual earner couples are really talking about when they sigh that what they both really need is a wife. ‘I just want somebody else to deal with all that “what have we bought my mother for her birthday” or “when are we seeing my sister again” or “when are the So-and-Sos coming around”—because these things magically happen, apparently,’ says Liz, a voluntary sector executive.

What constitutes this kind of ‘wife work’ is an entirely personal thing, although in this house this week it's included the normal household chores plus tracking down a Spiderman [sic] costume for one of those compulsory children's fancy dress days apparently designed to catch parents out; ordered a wedding present; a trip to the vet; a morning at the village school my son will soon be attending; booking a hotel for a weekend away; and working out how to kill the ants' nest under the kitchen floorboards without poisoning the dog too. But for me at least, being a ‘wife’ in this sense isn't really a full-time job (unlike being a parent, which is a 24/7 state of mind whether you are with your children or not). (pp. 106-107)

(NB: Obviously not everything I mentioned in that opening paragraph constituted “wife work”; a bunch of it clearly isn't. I was just trying to give you a richer picture of my week.)

“Wife work” is menial, tedious, futile (because everything that you clean will never stay clean; at some point, you'll have to go and clean it again) and mindnumbingly boring. At the same time, it's ridiculously essential to the running of a household. If it doesn't happen, not only does life at home start becoming rather unpleasant and unliveable (hygiene, people!), the wheels start falling off everything else and the tasks left undone start becoming large thorns in one's side (even if they are psychological thorns). Imagine if the following didn't happen: (list taken from Babyproofing Your Marriage: How to Laugh More and Argue Less As Your Family Grows by Stacie Cockrell, Cathy O'Neill, Julia Stone and Rosario Camacho-Koppel)

  • Daily: work, children (up, dressed, nursed, fed, de-slimed after breakfast, hair brushed, teeth brushed, lunches and backpacks packed, notes, forms, etc.); drive children to school/day care; daily house maintenance (dishes, laundry, trash, etc.); lawn and garden care; prepare meals; nap management for small children and babies.
  • Weekly: family activity and time management (includes birthday parties); adult social-life management (remember that?); grocery shopping/meal planning; after-school activities/playdate management and transportation; weekly/monthly (biannual?) house cleaning (mopping, bathrooms, etc.)
  • Specials: extended family management (visits, calls, etc.); photo management; gift management: birthdays in your family (3-6 people), birthdays of extended family (6-20 people); correspondence management (birthday cards, thank-you notes, email); travel management; holidays (cards, decorations, gifts, activities, cooking); home projects (repair, maintenance, and generally making it look nice); volunteer for kids' schools.
  • Ongoing administration: bills; health care (appointments, insurance, etc.); education (school selection and evaluation).

(p. 98)

(Obviously that's not a comprehensive list. [I would also add things like purchasing clothes for the little one, pre-washing and then labelling those clothes with her name, product research and purchasing for particular items the child/household needs.] But you get the picture.)

Or imagine if only some of those things happened. (Granted some things become more urgent than others, but at some point, it all has to be done. My lack of organisation when it comes to holidays is starting to haunt me.)

Given the necessity of “wife work” to the continued existence of the human race, it's interesting that it's not valued more. It's not seen as being significant or worthwhile. Tell someone that you're a stay-at-home mum/housewife/home maker/domestic gofer and their eyes usually glaze over and they change the subject. Or leave:

“So, what do you do, do you work?” a fifty-something gray-haired man in a black turtleneck and tweed jacket asks. We're standing in a claret-colored living room at a book party in Cleveland Park, and the bartender has just handed him a glass brimming with bourbon over ice.

“I'm basically a stay-at-home mum,” I say.

“Oh, well, that's such an important job. Kids grow up so fast, don't they?”

“Yeah, they do,” I say.

And that's the end of it. Turn and pivot.

But wait. Wait! Don't you want to know what I think about what's going on in the world? I want to scream out. I've spent the past seven years trying to improve my mind, to prove that I'm more than “just a mom.” I see more plays, read more op-eds, take classes, visit museums. I'm in a book club. I write essays. I read Us Weeklys in the checkout line. (Whoops. Might not mention this fascination with pop culture—too revealing of latent lowbrow tendencies. Okay, better not admit to liking People either.) Driving car pool and discussing favorite food groups is not all I'm about. Yes, I'll gladly discuss those things, but I don't want to be defined by them. (Page Evans, “Sharks and Jets”, Mommy Wars edited by Leslie Morgan Steiner, Random House, New York, 2007, p. 28.)

No one wants to hear about how you spent several hours online in the afternoon, researching different types of beds and mattresses for your child to find the best value money can buy, or how you finally tackled the accounts after four months of procrastination (*wink*), or how, in winter, you keep getting these painful little eczema lacerations on the edges of your thumbs at the corners of the nails due to so much unavoidable handwashing. Tell someone you're a writer, however, and they're far more likely to exhibit interest and to ask questions: “What sorts of things do you write?”, “What are you working on at the moment?”, “What inspired that?”, etc. Suddenly you're somebody. You have a life.

The relatively low status of wife work is why I think there's been a rash of blog posts in the Christian blogosphere in recent years about the importance of raising children in the Lord, serving one's family and not being afraid to submit to drudgery (as if drudgery is a virtue) because you are emulating Christ and his self-sacrificial example. (Here's an example of the sort of thing I mean.) I totally understand the motivation behind that. For women in the modern world, becoming a mother requires sacrifice—perhaps a great deal more sacrifice than it used to because women today have more rights, privileges and opportunities, and moving from being a CEO or a hotshot lawyer to the person who spends all day wiping bottoms, noses and various household surfaces can be quite galling, and Christian women who have made such a shift could be left wondering what on earth they're doing. It's helpful to be reminded that the little things amount to a whole and that children are a great gift from the Lord who should be valued and treasured. At the same time, the danger for Christian women is to sway too far in one direction in their thinking (which is why this post is a helpful corrective to the “motherhood is a Christian woman's highest calling” camp).

But I don't think that the answer is to elevate the menial to the status of divine any more than it's to downplay the importance of wife work. I think we just need to see it for what it is: necessary, useful, tedious, often frustrating, rarely rewarding—something that we need to make time for and accomplish, much like exercise or eating enough fruit and vegetables. When we put enough and energy into wife work, life runs smoothly (mostly); when we don't, we reap the consequences.

The good thing is (as Gaby Hinsliff acknowledges), “wife work” need not be solely the domain of wives and women, even though women end up doing the bulk of it; the nature of the job means that it can be split—between mum and dad, or it can even outsourced to others (*cough* cleaning lady! *cough*), thus cutting down the tediousness somewhat. It can also be minimized—or at least streamlined: I realise that most of you don't find household management a particularly fascinating topic, but for me, that chapter was one of the most interesting and useful bits of Suzannah Windsor Freeman's The Busy Mom's Guide to Writing—how to tackle household stuff more efficiently so that you have more time to write.

Divide and conquer: it's the best way to tackle wife work, I think!

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