Becoming a Homemaker--Slowly
POSTCARD FROM WASHINGTON, D.C.
When I started calling myself a feminist in fifth grade, one of the first decisions I made was that when I was a grown woman, I would go to work all day just like my father. I was not quite sure exactly what happened at work, but I knew exactly why I wanted to be there. My mother worked, too, but in the kitchen, in the laundry room, in the car pool line and on the phone. She did the same things over and over again each day. And even though she seemed to genuinely enjoy her work, I couldn't understand her satisfaction with writing "Homemaker" under the category for "Occupation" on my school health forms.
To this day, I have not changed my mind about wanting a career. While I have improved my tone since the teenage angst-ridden feminist diatribes I handed into my English teacher ("Slavery: My Mother's Life as a Homemaker") and I respect my mother more than most people I know, I still have a lingering feeling that women who choose or who are forced into the domestic sphere are somehow shortchanged. But I am beginning to learn that in the process of feeling too important for housework, I have put myself at a real disadvantage. This summer, for the first time, I have experienced being a homemaker.
It seemed like the perfect arrangement. My internship does not begin until July. Since I wanted to live with two people who happened to be working all summer, I joined them in signing a three-month lease on an apartment. While my two roommates worked, I decided I would take the month of June to catch up on reading and work on some extracurricular projects for the fall. I would also be in charge of the bulk of the housework. I figured that cleaning an apartment would not be much different than living in a dorm room--I can make a bed, do some laundry and take out the garbage. Envisioning that those tasks would take at most an hour each day, I confidently told my friends that I would be working on the Great American Novel in my spare time. I was not going to be a homemaker. I was going to be working at home.
Well, three weeks into this little experiment, it is clear that the novel will not be written. Unlike at college, where my dirty clothes can pile up for weeks, laundry for working roommates needs to be done frequently and well--not wrinkled or damp like most of my clothes at school turn out. When there's a kitchen in the room, trash is also a high maintenance activity, not just a weekly afterthought. Our tiny dish-washer needs to be run a few times a day. Dust and other strange substances collect on every surface in the place. And if something breaks, you cannot call your mother or your superintendent.
As a result, I have seen a few things I never had before--including the inside of an air conditioner and the inside of a toilet. Just today, I got the idea of finally vacuuming the living room rug. But once I pulled out the vacuum and plugged it in, I was stumped about how to turn it on.
While I have quickly learned humility in all areas of homemaking none is so clear as my experience with food preparation. All those years of shunning learning how to cook (since I equated it with the evil of domesticity) show through clearly in my helplessness in preparing even the simplest meal. I tried to hide my awe when one of my roommates threw two chicken breasts and some oil into a pan and out came dinner. I still haven't gotten to the point of boldly stepping up to the stove and trying to do it myself.
Knowing I am getting what I deserve, I am content to admit that I am inept at keeping house. And even if I hadn't admitted it myself, I am getting my just desserts.
Just as I used to come home from school and look down at my mother and her idleness, my roommates believe that I do nothing all day. "But what about all that laundry?" I want to shout. "Don't you notice how shiny the kitchen counters look and how many clean dishes we have in the cabinets?" my heart asks. Somehow I have managed to spend the bulk of the time they are gone doing one aspect of housework or another. Just about the only thing I haven't been doing is all the reading and relaxing and writing I had set out to do. The only difference between my day and my mother's is that she does her job well.
My snobbery toward housewifery is also coming back to haunt me in my personal relationships. When I was younger and my father got home late from work, the tension would mount during his impending arrival until he walked sheepishly through the door to meet his fate--my mother's wrath at his disruption of the household routine. I generally took my father's side on these matters. After all, he was just doing the job (since in my mind, having a job meant going to an office) and she should just feel thankful that he worked so hard all day. She shouldn't take up his precious relaxation time by fighting with him for being a little late.
Well, I have, once again, become my mother. One of my roommates works the late shift in his job. Combined with his half-hour commute, he cannot physically be home before midnight. However, now that we have calculated that midnight is the earliest possible moment he can get away, I find myself growling and grunting laments to the effect of "the least he can do is come home and spend time in this lovely clean apartment" as midnight comes and goes. My past coming back to haunt me, my other roommate remarked last night that she feels like the little kid hoping her parents won't fight when daddy gets home from work.
Clearly, on all levels I am pretty anxious to start my job in two weeks. I have been having fantasies about being able to get up early and leave the apartment for the bulk of the day. But now I know what I had left out of all of my childhood dreams about having a career and homemaking. Whereas in my fifth-grade mind, Career Woman perhaps had a valet to pick up after her, I am now facing the harsh reality that when I start work, I am still going to have all the housework to do in July and August, only with even less time to do what I do now. And, more importantly, when next year is over and I finally do become Career Woman, I will have an ever-growing platter of household tasks to attend to. With any luck, I'll still have great roommates to share the jobs and teach me the domestic arts I have always refused to learn. Still, no matter what my occupation, I will always be a homemaker. Slowly, I'm learning.