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Negotiating Household Labor

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

Sometimes, I read articles or see videos about household labor and the gender split; how women are now not only working, but often becoming breadwinners and still shouldering the bulk of household work. This is a fact, proven both anecdotally but more importantly, through plenty of research.

Today is Mother's Day and although I am not a mother, a checkout clerk at Whole Foods assumed I was. "Your kids are lucky to have you!" she chirped as I finished paying for my groceries. Instead of correcting her, I just smiled and said "Thank you." I was buying eggs, wine, a frozen gluten free/vegan pizza, a graduation card, and a bouquet of flowers. Nothing I was purchasing implied motherhood. She simply presumed, just as many of us presume women to be better at cleaning or laundry or scrambling eggs.

I am not a mother, but I know many mothers and of course, I have a mother myself. My mother worked and cooked and did laundry and recruited my brother and I to help clean. One person cannot and should not be responsible for an entire household, after all. Sometimes, I let my bedroom fall into disarray and spent a whole day cleaning it and rearranging furniture. I learned from my Great-Grandmother how to properly square a bed corner, and I learned from my Grandmother how to scrub windows with ammonia and warm water, leaving no streaks left behind. My mother separated the laundry, teaching me tricks to get tough stains out (ammonia and cold water), tricks to get tough scents out (white vinegar), and tricks to folding complicated articles of clothing. We hung laundry outside in the summer, so our t-shirts and towels and bedclothes smelled like a fresh, midwestern country wind.

It was the women in my life who were picky about the ins and outs of household cleanliness, who had a favorite brand of dish soap or bathtub cleaner. I once read that women are better than men at juggling multiple thoughts and responsibilities at once, that our brains can balance a memorized grocery list, a weeks worth of meetings, and what time we need to be where, with whom, and what the proper dress attire might be.

I can attest to being able to juggle multiple things. My first boss called me, "extraordinarily efficient." In college, I could knock out a 20-page research paper in no time, complete with a bibliography, citations, and a compelling intro and satisfying finish. I can flip between my work brain, my creative brain, and my day-to-day task oriented brain quickly and without rest. When women are focused, there is quite literally, nothing that can stop us.

The other morning, I took a break from making phone calls to scrub out the sink. I was cleaning the grout along the edges with bleach and Q-Tips when Mike walked in, "What are you doing??" he asked. What a dumb question, I thought. "Cleaning the sink," I said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, which it was. Later, he said he'll need to up his cleaning game. He's not cleaning the edge of the sink with bleach and Q-Tips. He'll scrub the sink, sure, with the same sponge that he uses to wash dishes with, and I will stand by and silently scream. Cleaning is all about the details. If you don't clean the corners, why clean at all? Why dust the front if you don't dust the back? Why clean the toilet bowl if you ignore the rim?

The division of labor in our home is normally as even as buttercream frosting on a sheet cake. I usually do the laundry, because Mike doesn't separate lights and darks. Mike usually cooks, because I burn everything. I usually clean the stove, because the stove is usually dirty. Mike takes out the trash, and I sweep the floors. Mike makes the bed, and I clean the cat litter. Every few weeks, one of us digs out our hefty thrift store vacuum cleaner to make perfect lines in a floor we'll immediate walk over.

One evening, Mike vaguely mentioned that we could hire a cleaner. Just once a month or so, to do the nitty gritty stuff. The idea of hiring a cleaner made me balk, not because we're strapped for cash, or because I don't like the thought of a stranger in my home, which I don't, but because I take great pride in keeping a tidy home. Plus, we're more apt to be dirty if someone else is going to clean up the mess. Being responsible for keeping things tidy makes us more tidy be default, I reasoned. I didn't grow up scrubbing windows with ammonia and hanging clothes on a line for nothing.

Today is Mother's Day, and all I've written about is cleaning, it's vague sexist implications, and the small, everyday ways we negotiate labor. But I also think that cleaning is one of many ways that my mother and grandmothers created happy, healthy homes. Maybe we're a bit neurotic when we demand shiny windows and scrubbed floors, but we also like homes where people feel loved and welcomed and comfortable. Millions of mothers everywhere are making the same efforts, taking the same pains, cleaning and scrubbing and polishing and shining because they take pride in whatever home they call their own, and because little feet need to march across clean linoleum and drink out of clean cups and bathe in a ring-free bathtub.

Today is Mother's Day, and today, we ought to stop for a minute and thank the mothers who do not bend or break beneath the weight of all their silent, unpaid, and thankless labor.

P.S. Check out this song called "Labor" by Paris Paloma, read a Gallup study on household labor here, or read about how many mothers are breadwinners here.


Sarah Rose

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