Thursday, 16 January 2014

How Housework Saved My Life

(Attempting to clean while 
watching over litter of kittens 
produced by supposedly 
spayed cat.)
"Back, back, you beasts!"
(Reflections on time, dirt and studying Thorin Oakenshield through closed eyelids.)

Elsewhere I have written about why my life needed saving in the first place. (Ha ha ha! I love to say: "elsewhere I have written", the thing proper academics write when they are showing off.) It is a harrowing tale, so I will not link to it.

Anyway anyway, there was a time, dahlinks, that I was rather low in spirits and energy. I had a small amount of teaching which I had regained by the skin of my teeth and running myself ragged chasing it down, after nearly being made redundant for the third time in five years. I was v. irritable and grumpy for some reason and found it difficult to even open up my work email, I was so stressed. I had some writing I was doing, la la la, that is a whole other story (wink). And I had the house to clean and Piglet to manage. 

I felt totally exhausted and did not want to even get out of bed in the mornings, and when I had to go and fetch Piglet from school I would sometimes have to sit down with my heavy bags of grocery shopping as my legs turned to jelly under me. The doctors (I mean proper doctors, not like me who will be happy to look at your leg if you ask me but cannot say anything other than: 'lovely!') were totally puzzled, cuz of course housewives do not suffer from stress so they thought I must have some other ailment which they could not find.

I felt I had to make some kind of order in my life. I decided to start at the most basic level. I decided to start with the housework.

'Smatteroffact, I am a great believer in housework. I think that it is good for you to ensure you take loving care of yourself in your own home nicely. I do not mean by that going round polishing the polish on your polished things and ensuring there are clear surfaces and gleaming floors as far as the eye can see. I just mean that you should do sufficient to feel comfortable and happy about your home, the little world you create and wrap about yourself like a spiraling snail shell.

I do not mind mess 'n stuff. I am an anthropologist. The anthropologist Mary Douglas, in her famous study of the symbolic importance of pollution, tells us "dirt is essentially disorder. There is no such thing as absolute dirt: it exists in the eye of the beholder." (Douglas 1966: 2.) 

Still I did feel that my home was a bit beyond the pale. In fact the sink was not white at all; it had become a curious brown colour which did not go with my frilly aprons. Elsewhere I have written (tee hee hee!) about how really getting your house clean starts with the kitchen sink. But I needed something in place before I could get to the kitchen sink; I needed routine.

I set Tuesdays aside for housework. I only did housework on Tuesdays, and anything I liked the look of, like my writing or emailing friends or flirting on my chat board. I did it partly to ensure that I got some housework done each week, cuz a toilet that has not been cleaned for two weeks often offends. I knew I would make sure Piglet was properly cared for and I knew I would get my work done; I am unfortunately pathologically incapable of letting down my lovely students. (You unnerstand - proper academics just write 'could have done better' on all their marking sheets, and quickly chuck them aside so they can get on with work which will ensure their promotion, while I have a dreadful tendency to waste time writing screeds of advice about how the student could have done better.) I was making sure my work got done, just stressing out about it dreadfully and trying to make myself feel that I was doing it badly. But the housework really was suffering. Plus, if I did not get the housework done on the Tuesday, it did not matter; I could always do it another day, so I did not get guilty and upset about it. I could do a very small amount and feel virtuous: "look! I did housework; that one surface I wiped looks great, doesn't it", and carry on with my life feeling good about the world.

See, when I say, I set Tuesdays aside for housework, I do not mean I did lots and lots of housework, LOL. I did as little as I felt I could get away with. I also do not mean of course that I was not going round the rest of the week wiping and washing up and cooking and heaving bags of laundry out and running to get them in again when it started raining.

Gosh, it was nice. It was so pleasant just pootling round wiping the mop over the floor at my own pace, without people coming and treading on it (apart from the cat) and asking for silly things like sweeties, their chemistry game to be fetched out and spread over the kitchen table, or a full cooked meal. It was so nice not to have to keep checking my four different email accounts in case someone had said something important that I must respond to immediately or ... or .... It was like a holiday not to have to multi-task for a few hours.
Cuz what people (including us working parents) forget, is that while the weekend is a nice break for everyone-else, we actually have to do more then. There is more cooking, wiping, clearing up, organising nice trips out and shouting about which DVD is going to be watched at teatime because unfortunately not everyone really enjoys Princess Diaries 2. These few hours while I clean things at a leisurely pace and then do what I want are time I can spend on myself. Owing to my excessively large bump of responsibility, I am not able to just take a day off. Well, OK, apart from the occasional sunny school day when I nip off to the beach with my friend Swiss Army wife, a box of macaroons and no kids (<snerk>). The housework is not difficult and while it could take up the whole of my life, it can also be tucked away in a short period of time; then I feel like I have done my bit for humanity and can put my feet up. If I am feeling more energetic, I clean the oven but if I have had a long hard week, I just rush round doing the bare minimum and then fall asleep in an armchair watching The Hobbit. (Mmmm, Thorin Oakenshield <snerk>.)

It took a while. Slowly I regained confidence, self-esteem and energy. (Partly by spending some of my time catching up on years of lost sleep.) Nowadays I feel able to open up my work email any time - apart from Tuesdays, and all my other email accounts. I started to set aside Thursdays to do some academic reading and writing, and to be patient with myself about it; I often miss it out right now but I know eventually it will become part of my routine like the Tuesday house-cleaning.

From the Henge Shop
Kids love routine. It makes them feel secure and confident about their lives moving forward. I like it too. Thoughts by the Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre (see Bennett 2002) have been helpful to feminists. However we aren't sure about his idea that male time is linear and progressive while women are bogged down in domesticity, going round and round in circles, doing nothing for the betterment of humanity. (Oh excuse me, Monsieur Lefebvre, while I clean under your feet and put your dinner on the table at your elbow. Do not of course stop your v. important writing about time while I do this and feel free to shout at me later when time has progressed without your noticing it and your dinner has got cold.) I think domestic time can be more like a spiral, going round over the routines of daily life while moving upward. I find this a more attractive movement, as opposed to driving directly forwards. If you go in a straight line on a round world like ours, you just get back to where you started from.

Bennett, Tony, 2002. "Home and everyday life" in Bennett and Watson (eds) 2002. Understanding Everyday Life. Oxford: Blackwell. 
Douglas, Mary, 1966. Purity and Danger: an analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

1 comment:

  1. Ha ha references and everything. What, no footnotes? I bought a Roomba recently and sacked my housekeeper. I could leave it on when I am out but I love the sound of someone (thing?) else doing the housework. It just needs to say "excuse me, would you mind?" when it bumps into me and I could believe my mother was in the room (I should add I cleaned my mothers house for my allowance when at Uni so not totally retrograde). x