"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Housework–Still A Woman’s Job

Bill Carr's kids always helped out with the housework.  It was ‘pitching in’, as his father used to say, being part of a family.  It was also partially remunerated.  Although there was no direct relationship between housework and weekly allowance, chores were considered compensated labor.  His son caught on to this inconsistency very quickly – i.e. either it is communal labor or it is remunerated work, he said.  If it is the latter, then payment must be commensurate to the task.  Cleaning toilets, no matter how relatively quickly done, can never be the equivalent of vacuuming. “I should be paid more than Libby”, he said. “Way more”.
Americans are very good at valuation.  It is almost in our genes after so many generations of free market capitalism, comparison shopping, wage negotiations, and calculations about opportunity costs; and it was no surprise that my son had hit on the central issue of housework.  Time is not the only consideration when assessing value or remuneration.
Not only that,says Stephen Marche in the New York Times (12.8.12), housework is part of a much more complex calculus:
Despite its apparent banality, housework has always been an intellectually confounding problem. The idea that the chores are a series of repetitive tasks undertaken to preserve the health and hygiene of the living space is an easy assumption to make. Nothing could be further from the truth; housework is as complex as the connection between our emotional life and our material life, as subtle as all intimacy.
A good example of this is the issue of floors vs.sinks.  Neither Bill Carr's wife nor he were particularly compulsive about housework, and they had been told that they had a very ‘relaxed’ approach to it.  ‘House-proud’ never made it into the lexicon of his wife’s family; and he rebelled so aggressively against the penitentiary of his mother’s high-gloss, dust-free, scuffless, and clutter-free home that for years he lived in total chaos.  He reveled in clutter, yard-sale disorder, and dirty dishes. 
It was only after years of expurgation that he moderated, hewed back to center, and re-organized his living space.  He had long since settled into regularity – he liked order, but was more or less indifferent to occasional dirt and dust. With one exception – floors. He was first out with the broom and Swifter, and the kitchen linoleum was always clean. His floors were never like his mother’s or those of her friends.
Herbie Hanson’s mother never let Billy into the house unless he took off his shoes, and all the living room furniture was covered in plastic.  There wasn’t a speck of dust anywhere, not a blot of coffee, not one telltale hint of food on the table, hair in the sink, or heel marks on the floor.  The house was impeccable. There was no trace of dirt in the hard-to-reach places where the flooring meets the cabinets; nary a hint of mold around the grouting in the bathtub; not an unwanted yellow stain on the toilet bowl.
Bill's wife, on the other hand, was totally indifferent to floors but is compulsive about sinks; and theirs were are as bright and gleaming as Herbie Hanson’s.  Hair is out of the question, and even a forgotten bit of dried toothpaste is an insult and an affront.  The point is, you cannot even begin to talk about housework, valuation, equal pay for equal work, or any other economic equation without first considering the personal nature of dirt.  It is not the same for everybody.
I had a friend once who considered housework bourgeois, and he made it a point of never cleaning his apartment.  He deliberately washed his dishes on one side only and took a mop to the bathroom only when it got worse than the Men’s Room of the dive bar on Mission.  I knew a gay couple in the Castro who cared little about dirt per se.  It was simply an unwanted intrusion into the carefully constructed art deco space of their apartment.  Dirt would detract from the spare, austere space in which classic furniture, figurines, and lamps were displayed. In other words they cleaned not because of cleanliness or hygiene, but because dirt ruined the effect.

Even Marx and Engels, the grandest of all labor theorists, struggled to agree on a definition. Housework, for Marx, was not alienated labor, like most other forms of production in capitalist life; it belonged to the category of craft, the humanizing and personalizing of space. Even in Marx’s utopia it appears that people would still have to do housework. Engels believed that housework would eventually be industrialized. Feminism has more or less inherited this double view, unsure whether to celebrate housework as unappreciated “women’s work” or to condemn it as a kind of societal imprisonment.
Aside from these philosophical constructs of housework, there are practical questions to be answered.  Is yard work housework? What about doing the taxes? Is childcare in a completely different category?
I know a married couple who never argue about housework.  Although they have the usual minor squabbles about spots on the rug or hair in the sink, they never argue about who should do what.  He is an excellent cook, and finds the labor of shopping, creating recipes, preparing and cooking food pleasurable.  The kitchen is his domain and he keeps the shelves and refrigerator stocked and organized. The floor is clean as is the sink, dish drainer, and stove.  She is a whiz at taxes and finance, and takes satisfaction in building investment portfolios, limiting fiscal liability, reducing interest payments, and assuring the most cost-effective insurance package.  They have both been successful professionals and get a Guatemalan cleaning lady to come in every week to do the housework.
Most families settle into a modus vivendi – a comfortable place of housework balance.  It may not be as finely-tuned as my friends, but generally the arrangements work.  A lot has been made, however, of the unequal amounts of housework done by men and women.
Women today make up 40 percent of America’s sole or primary breadwinners for families with children under 18, a share that has quadrupled since 1960. And yet in America as well as in several other countries in the developed world, men’s time investment in housework has not significantly altered in nearly 30 years.
Men have taken up spatula, frying pan, and slotted spoon; but they have not picked up a broom in years.  Pushing their kids in the swing at the park has become macho, but swabbing out the toilets is only a remote possibility.  Why, in the view of women’s new assertiveness and economic parity; and why when certain domestic chores have been taken up by men, do they continue to lag behind women when it comes to scut work?
Early feminists decried housework.
Right at the beginning of the modern feminist movement, in “The Second Sex,” Simone de Beauvoir identified housework as the key impediment to the liberation of women: “Woman is doomed to the continuation of the species and the care of the home — that is to say, to immanence.” The prison of immanence is the original imprisonment for de Beauvoir.
Not so fast, says Stephen Marche in his Times piece. Women themselves might be responsible.
Simone de Beauvoir was wrong. Millions of young women are deeply attracted to the gloomy vice of domestic labor. Martha Stewart has made an empire of immanence. The bizarre phenomenon of modern young women proudly making their own candles, knitting and raising chickens, coincides neatly with the rise of working women who actually do much less housework.
One of Hillary Clinton’s major sources of relaxation is HGTV. The fetishization of the domestic is a mainstay of reality television. The fantasies of domestic perfection are the feminine equivalent of “Ice Road Truckers” and “Deadliest Catch” and beer ads. Domesticity is the macho nonsense of women. And, in this light, it is not surprising that men have not started doing more of it.

I am not so sure about this. It is one thing to idealize the perfect home, to imagine home-made scented candles on the Christmas table, Amish quilts bought on a trip to Lancaster, track lighting, and re-covered couches; another thing altogether to swab out reeking toilets.  Building and furnishing a nest is a happy, pleasurable activity for many women.  Cleaning up after their husbands most definitely is not.
It boils down to my earlier thoughts about the valuation of housework.  Men, because of the persistence of traditional social roles, quickly stake out their domestic territory – the lawn, the grill, the car, and the gutters.  The time of that work is easily the equivalent to cleaning toilets, sinks, and floors; so they can conveniently argue parity.  I find it amazing that even in highly successful professional couples, women still panic at the thought of opening the hood, cower when confronted by gas station mechanics, and have never cooked anything on the backyard grill.

The reason why Curves ( a gym chain which caters to women) has become so popular is because the machines are easy to operate. Many a middle-aged woman has put off gym membership because she is afraid that she will look foolish when trying to adjust the seat of the stationary bike. Jiggering with equipment is a man’s thing.
Dividing housework equally is next to impossible, so Marche, tongue-in-cheek, suggests the following:
The solution to the gender divide in housework generally is just that simple: don’t bother. Leave the stairs untidy. Don’t fix the garden gate. Fail to repaint the peeling ceiling. Never make the bed.
A clean house is the sign of a wasted life, truly. Hope is messy: Eventually we’ll all be living in perfect egalitarian squalor.
The more practical and sensible way is to do what my friends did – pick the housework tasks which most suit your preferences and abilities, and pay for someone to do the rest.  Too elitist? Not by a long shot. Everyone knows how corrosive and debilitating squabbles about housework can be.  Hair in the sink can become a cause celebre, a casus belli, and the straw that broke the camel’s back all rolled into one.  It is well worth it to spend the few hundred dollars on a Guatemalan maid than to see an otherwise sane and solid marriage begin to unravel over nothing. Valuation again.
Marx was right in one respect at least -  man is an economic animal.  If housework is disaggregated and both its quantitative and qualitative parts valued; and if a rational assessment of investment, time, labor, and opportunity costs is carried out, bitching, fighting, and squabbling over nothing will stop. Maybe.

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