Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Cleanliness next to...

There was an interesting article in the NYT today about the fact that parents are spending just as much if not more time with their children than they did almost forty years ago. (Now, mind you, forty years ago dad was the sole breadwinner and mom was inevitably home with the tykes-- a far cry from today's more likely scenario where both parents work outside the home). So, where is all this extra time coming from?

Well, for one thing, papas are more involved than they have ever been in child-rearing, toy-organizing, teeth-brushing and to-bed-getting. Oh, and then there's the rest of the housework. Well, they do some of that too.
Fathers have picked up some of the slack. Married fathers are spending more time on housework: an average of 9.7 hours a week in 2000, up from 4.4 hours in 1965. That increase was more than offset by the decline in time devoted to housework by married mothers: 19.4 hours a week in 2000, down from 34.5 hours in 1965.

Still, picking up the slack doesn't a clean house make. Take my house as a tiny example. Last night, with all good intentions, my husband and I laid down in our bed to "rest our eyes" (this usually results in prolonged periods of eye-resting, as one can imagine), which meant that when our little guy woke up this morning at a quarter to eight, the house was still a wreck from the night before, and the first playgroup members would be knocking on our door in less than an hour. Panic? Not I.

I have developed a new cleaning strategy to manage the unruliness in my life: regrouping.

Instead of cleaning up my son's toys, I make interesting groupings of them around the house. The first step on our staircase may be transformed some days into a parking lot for every ilk of truck and tractor. All balls group and await instructions from the mother ship.

It's much easier than trying to hide it all. Perhaps it might even pass as an art installation?

Still, when one of the women in my playgroup arrived with her mom, she said that in the beginning of our playgroup, I had set the domestic bar high: I baked muffins. From scratch.

Now, I did notice that every time someone hosted after that, they also baked. From scratch. I remember thinking (and knowing me, probably saying) that this was a wonderful extravegance that they need not go to.

Yet I, myself, was hell-bent this morning, unshowered, on baking again. Even if my hair were still standing in its morning rendition of the famous Ukiyo-e print of the crashing wave when the first guest arrived.


It begs the question: What do I really have at stake in this domesticity?

The answer didn't come to me until late in the afternoon. I had an appointment with a headhunter who was hired to help the spouses of new professors find career opportunities after relocating.

It was alright, but she was a perky 20-something asking me questions that to her were probably not existential, but to me were very much so. What kind of position was I looking for? What would its title be?

I ended up saying that I didn't really know and talked about how hard it is to think about rejoining the work force after being a mom (AFTER being a mom?). I love the work I do, but I need more stimulation, I said.

She said I can imagine there are a lot of people who after meeting you would think wow- yay- I'd really like to have her on my team!

And then I thought oh my lord get me out of here. Not this team crap again.


On the way out of the office, passing by a bank of decrepit computers where a man with a turban was viewing online temp positions, a wave of relief started to drain through me. I had been holding my breath.

The truth is, the reason I am so invested in domesticity is because for me, it's about people and comfort and connection. My people. My bevy, my tribe.

I bake the muffins, hell, I even scrub the toilet if I have to, because it makes me feel like I am a center of connection. People very directly feel comfort and connection by the things I do.

And there's a certain continuity to it. Just as monkeys and apes enjoy hours and hours of social grooming to maintain their social relationships, I apparently need (and want) to perform certain tasks in order to nurture my relationships.

Given my own nature, that means that I have my own special ways of doing things. And it means that generally, the house is not pre-emptively clean, but rather, is cleaned when it is dirty, or when the piles get high.


The downstairs of my house as I write this is a true disaster. Believe me.

Four children tore through boxes of toys, piles of books, fistfuls of cheerios and the downstairs has taken on truly Vesuvian proportions.

The domestic goddess has returned to her perch far above the fray. She awaits the arrival of the male of her species to build them a bower made from the trucks and crumbs.

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