Some New Terminology in the Field of Domestic Life: The Hausfrau, by Another Name…

Bear in mind, this is all off the (freshly ironed) cuff:

I recently had occasion to hear a woman describing the less-than-delightful first time she met her husband’s ex-girlfriend. The woman (wife) had instinctively made the move to take the high road and not let fear or jealousy of her husband’s past color meeting this person. The ex-girlfriend obviously had no such instincts: When the wife extended her hand and said, “Hi, it’s nice to meet you after hearing so much about you!” the ex responded by not shaking hands and saying, “Oh, what a nice little housebitch you’ll be!”

Which is not an auspicious beginning for much of anything. Except for this:

I’d never heard the term “housebitch” before and on hearing it, I thought, “Wow, that is not a nice thing to say,” and then immediately afterward, “But why does it have to be that way?”

Concerned that I was not grasping the most accurate meaning of the term, knowing I’m not exactly up on current (or even decade-old) slang, I Googled “housebitch” to see what was out there. Naturally, Urban Dictionary rose to the occasion. “Housebitch” is not a term that has any positive connotations, in current/recentish usage. It’s been understood to mean Someone who’s been whipped by life such that all that they’re good for is housework. I gather that the term is particularly insulting when applied to men. But I think that should change. Much as the gay community reclaimed “queer,” and as other groups have taken back pejorative terms to use as statements of group and identity pride, I will say that strong willed women who are housewives should feel free to declare themselves housebitches. I realize that many will be uncomfortable with this. They will be angered by this, because “bitch” is not always perceived as, like, a positive term.

To which I say: If sounding slightly unpleasant is what it takes to convey that, even if you’re a stay at home parent, you’re not a doormat, then so be it. The housebitch, as I see her, is a housewife who is actually pretty good at coming up with dinner for five on a night when you thought it would be dinner for three. The housebitch is a skilled problem-solver. The housebitch is annoyed when the kid spills paint water on the kitchen floor, but has a pile of towels nearby to be used precisely for mopping up this kind of mess. The housebitch has systems for the household that work. The housebitch is someone who knows that it’s smart to own a pair of scissors that can be taken apart for washing, that you always keep a Sharpie in the kitchen drawer, and isn’t afraid of taking apart the vacuum cleaner when it starts making a weird noise. Ten years ago, the kids might have called this having mad housewifery skillz.

A lot of women are reluctant housewives who defensively take pride in being crappy at it because they’re rebelling against the Donna Reedism that they think is part and parcel of being a housewife. They are women who had children and found themselves at home all the time and feel daunted by it and so they do the best they can. That’s fine. The reluctant housewife isn’t likely to embrace housebitchery as I’m envisioning it here, though bitching about housework may be a primary activity. But this may be a mistake: the reluctant housewife who’s pulling it off even half-way well should embrace the moniker housebitch and claim it with pride. Because if she’s still getting shit done, that counts.  If she’s doing it while still wearing her old Fluevogs? Hell yes.

But what about the people who find themselves unexpectedly at home with children and who turn out to be good at it? And whose brains do not, in fact, melt into applesauce as the result of being a housewife? And who say to themselves, “Ok, this has some bad moments, but overall, I can do this shit?” You can be a competent housewife and a sentient being. You can be a housewife and a not-vapid person at the same time. You can be a housewife without being someone who identifies with the current stereotype of the woman who’s holding a microfiber cloth in one hand and a glass of wine in the other hand. You can be a housewife — and be good at it, even — without giving up your own fractious identity.  This has been said before a thousand times, but I don’t think it’s ever been said while connecting this idea to housebitchery. And this is a real linguistic opportunity, which I am grabbing, the way my husband will reflexively grab another brownie before bedtime, just because they are there.

To me, the word housebitch conveys: Someone who’s taking care of the household (making sure that daily life isn’t a total shitstorm; that the kid/s is/are alive and reasonably content at the end of the day; taking care of laundry in reasonable fashion, and making dinner most if not all nights of the week; you know how this list could go on and on) while retaining her former personality. The housebitch is not defaulting to an artificially sweet and light mode because she feels like she has to turn into Donna Reed when she wakes up in the morning. The housebitch hasn’t forgotten who she was before. She’s recognizing that she’s using parts of herself that perhaps didn’t have an application until this time, and making the most of that application. You, Housebitch, can be someone who does a good job of keeping house without sacrificing the things that make you who you are (unless, I suppose, your inner you is just a massive slob, in which case you might have to reconsider). You can be a housewife, and maintain the title respectably, without going off an emotional deep end and winding up as someone who cleans the baseboards with Q-Tips. And yes, I’ve met someone who did this. (She also refinished all the woodwork in an early 20th century house, bit by bit, over a ten year period, and did a job so good that no one would ever guess that all that woodwork had once been slathered with white paint: so we have to admit that the compulsive types have their virtues, in the context of housewifery: when they tackle a job, they tackle a job.)

The housebitch is an intensely domestic person who is frankly ok with that; and who combines that sensibility and skill set without losing her essential sense of self. It may or may not have always been part of her essential self, but it is part of her now,  and she does it on her own terms and often with considerable élan. You can be a housewife without letting a lowest-common-denominator version of housewife take over your personality, your sense of who you are, or, importantly, losing your sense of humor about your day to day life.

It probably helps, to be honest, if in your life Before Housewifery, you were already aware of being something of a difficult character. You have to be self-aware. So I will come clean here (no housekeeping pun intended):

Yes: more than once, people have told me that I was not a fun, easy-to-be-around person. Yes, a boyfriend dumped me once for someone who was “more fun” than I was. I can’t say I was surprised to be described as “not fun.”  Likewise, the word “bitch” has definitely been applied to me. It’s ok. I’m not afraid of it. I have my priorities. I have better things to be afraid of.

Since becoming a parent? I’m definitely even less “fun” than I used to be. I’m the kind of person who will lie on the couch and read a book until 9 o’clock on Saturday night and then go to bed. Going out would mean having to deal with other people, and other people usually suck. (There are exceptions, but those exceptions are almost never in bars or out carousing on Saturday night.) Even wholesome activities, like taking my child on wonderful hikes up the local mountains so that she can experience… dirt, or something? That isn’t going to happen. I didn’t give a crap about nature when I was 25, and I don’t give a crap now that I’m 45. I won’t pretend to give a crap because it’s the trendily virtuous thing to do. I’d really rather stay home and take care of the laundry and listen to music.

But all my life, I’ve also been someone who liked being at home and making “home” a nicer place. My mother remembers my endlessly making “nests” under coffee tables, when I was small; I’d set up a pillow and a blanket and a stack of books and crawl under the table and spend hours under the table, reading, napping, or, probably, just staring at the underside of the table. And I think back on that and go, “Well, that’s a fine afternoon, isn’t it!” The nesting instinct, which supposedly only hits women hard when they’re very pregnant, is clearly essential to my nature, and I suspect that most housebitches would read that sentence and nod.

Not everyone with that instinct is a housebitch full time: there are also part-time housebitches. People have jobs, and they can curtail your ability to get too wrapped up in the minutiae of every last detail. I get that. Housebitchery does involve picking one’s battles. You could be working out of financial necessity or out of emotional necessity. I have a friend who embodies many fine housebitch qualities — she will make dinner for ten out of a can of tuna, a can of beans, and a box of ziti, I swear to God — but she really believes she’d lose her mind if she didn’t go to work somewhere every day. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think she feels she benefits from having her time organized in that way, and she feels it makes her more productive on both home and work fronts, because she knows that the hours at each are finite. She loves home and she loves her family but she doesn’t really get much satisfaction out of doing housework and so for her, she splits her time up in a way that works for her and her family. When she is at home, she is at home with a vengeance, and displays domestic competence that leaves me awed. But I think she feels that if she became a housewife, she would sink into a morass of emotional oatmeal and lose her sense of who she is.
I suspect she finds me mystifying in this regard. She and I had spent years discussing the minutiae of running a household but neither of us ever expected me to become a housewife. When I became one, and turned out to not mind it so much, she seemed kind of awed, and said she could never do it. The way time expands and contracts when you are at home with a baby all day, every day, is very difficult for a lot of people, and I can’t say I thought it was fun, but it didn’t throw me the way I thought it might. It turned out I was good at figuring out how to keep things going under those circumstances. I cooked dinner, I took a shower every morning, the baby grew big and got her first pair of shoes.
I complained when things annoyed me, and lost my shit a few times, but overall, I was temperamentally well-suited to staying home with a baby, and I was good at running the household: making sure we didn’t run out of milk, making sure of a thousand little things. I can’t say I felt called to it, the way people feel they’re called to the priesthood, but it was not the stretch I’d thought it would be. Kind of the opposite, in fact.  

There were foremothers, I am sure. Perhaps the fact that I spent my youth reading Peg Bracken and Shirley Jackson’s Life Among the Savages over and over again prepared me for this life. Bracken and Jackson were women who, in today’s terms, we wouldn’t describe as housewives, but they definitely knew the drill. Most of the great housebitches, I suspect, are women you’ve never heard of — and neither have I — because they toil in anonymity. Maybe they don’t accomplish things that make them famous in the big world. They’re just grousing through their days with as much good humor as they can shake together. The washing machine still emits that funny smell. The dog has to go to the vet. But it’ll be okay, because the housebitch isn’t going to let it bring her down. The washing machine will either gets its shit together (by virtue of the housebitch attacking it with vinegar and Borax) or get replaced. The dog will get to the vet one of these days. In the meantime, dinner will be pretty good, and when everyone goes to bed, they will climb into beds that were nicely made that morning…. The housebitch will prevail, without shame, with pride in her abilities to take care of this shit. She may have to crack her copy of Home Comforts to look up how to deal with getting Gorilla Glue off the countertop, but she will prevail.

And, here, ye shall read her words, and ye shall find succor. And maybe a brownie.

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