…”My God, who wouldn’t want a wife?”
The premier issue of Ms. magazine included an essay, “Why I Want a Wife,” written by Judy Syfers. I was introduced to this insightful piece of feminist satire a decade later as a sociology student at Hood College.
I want a wife who will keep my clothes clean, ironed, mended, replaced when need be, and who will see to it that my personal things are kept in their proper place so that I can find what I need the minute I need it. I want a wife who cooks the meals, a wife who is a good cook. I want a wife who will plan the menus, do the necessary grocery shopping, prepare the meals, serve them pleasantly, and then do the cleaning up while I do my studying.
This piece came to mind on Friday evening when Ruth proclaimed, “It sure is nice to have a wife!” I can’t say that it was one of my sabbatical goals to be a good wife. Nevertheless, I find myself pondering that role and thinking back to my introduction to feminist thought on the subject roughly 40 years ago.
Last week was a week to find joy (and sometimes struggling to find joy) in doing a few things that needed to get done. Weeding and mulching. Returning things, including a few Christmas leftovers, to the attic. Mopping floors. Preparing to be out of town for a week which meant picking up drinks and snacks for the road, putting fresh straw down in the goat barn, finishing the laundry so we would have our favorite comfy clothes for the trip, communicating with neighbors and family and animal caregivers, and getting things packed. It was a completely different experience to have plenty of time to do these things, to know that they could and would be done well before we planned to leave, and to even be able to look ahead and scope out a great place to eat at our first stop along the way. So when Ruth called on her way home from work Friday evening concerned with all that needed to be done before our departure Saturday morning I shared the list of what was already completed–and I could feel her relaxing right through that cell phone. Which is when she blurted out, “It sure is nice to have a wife.” I chuckled.
If you haven’t read Judy (Syfer) Brady’s essay Why I Want A Wife, please do. It is easy to find on-line. While you are at it, take a look at Pat Mainari’s The Politics of Housework , another classic penned in 1969. In the 1960’s the “average” woman was spending more than 40 hours a week on some form of housework. The American Time Use Survey, an annual national time use study that asks a representative group of people to track their daily activities, found that in 2017 on the average day 84% of women and 68% of men spent some part of their time on “household management activities” including housework (49% of women, 19% of men), food preparation and clean up (69% of women and 46% of men) and lawn/garden care (11% of men and 8% of women). That time totaled an average of 2.6 hours a day for women in 2017, a dramatic reduction from the nearly 6 hours a day of the sixties. Brady and Mainari were focused on gender inequity–they hoped to spark debate as well as real change. While there appear to be shifts toward equality in the data, these changes reflect many different demographic and social trends including men spending longer periods of time during their lives without a female in their household, recent surges in male interest in food prep, increased engagement of women in the workforce which has expanded the “purchase” of help with household management activities–from dining out to cleaning house to lawn care. All good food for thought as we continue to work toward gender/role equity in all aspects of our lives.
The food for thought I found myself gnawing on all week was twofold. There was the luxurious feeling that accompanied having time to garden and clean and cook and prepare for a trip referenced earlier, but there was also a building anxiety around housework. Was I really going to spend my sabbatical changing sheets, vacuuming several times a week, washing windows and organizing closets? I have resisted devoting any part of my time or consciousness to the art or skill associated with being a “good wife.” So it is a little bit amusing…and little bit freak-out worthy…to assume that mantle, even in jest.
As I imagined this time away from work, and as I have experienced it these first three weeks, it has centered around the home and the people that fill me up with peace and joy and stoke my imagination. It is not a new discovery for me to find that I need a certain sense of order and cleanliness in my surroundings to really relax. In a space that is shared with multiple generations of people, and with multiple two, three and four-footed beings, and where we have had decades to acquire stuff of all sorts (practical/ beautiful/sentimental, as well as outdated/broken-down/redundant) there is always going to be disorder, clutter and a good bit of dirt.
When commuting and working takes up 10 hours or more of the day an easy balance emerges around what is required to keep our home orderly and clean “enough.” The surprise for me this week was that I will have to be intentional to find a new balance around housework while I am on sabbatical. Cleaning and weeding and managing stuff could easily distract me from the peace and joy and creativity that also surround me. Hmmmm. A slightly different perspective on “The Politics of Housework!”