Prefatory statement: I began to write this on Thursday morning, when my husband and child were not in the house. It is now six days later and I am only now able to clean it up enough to post it. I have spent the morning doing laundry, cooking dinner, and cleaning up much of the mess addressed in the below essay.
My daughter had a full week of winter vacation from school. My husband decided to take some time off from work so that he could spend time with us and engage in fun family activities with our daughter. He did a splendid job of it; on Friday, they went to New York City on a fact-finding mission: Where is the Best Ice Cream in Manhattan, and Is It Better Than Ashley’s on York Street? The day before that, they went on a bird-watching adventure which lasted about an hour, culminating in their being (so I am told) nearly attacked by a hawk, which was, according to them, totally awesome.
These mama-free time frames are fun for them; they get to do things I either don’t approve of (walking around in nature) or am too lazy to do (go to New York solely to eat ice cream; I approve of this wholeheartedly, but there’s no way I’d ever do it).
Part of why I was happy to stay home on Friday, and not go to Manhattan with my loving husband and child, was that I hadn’t had much time to myself, even with all that wholesome bird-watching. We pretty much stuck around the house all week. All of us. Which is fine — I’m not known for my love of travel — but it means that my usual housework was, at the same time, increased exponentially and also made exponentially more difficult, because I lacked the usual six hour window of time in which the house is empty except for myself and the cats. Without a school/work day, it is very hard for me to get things done, or even think, in this apartment. Obviously, too, I hadn’t had a lot of time to just be in my own head without an interruption. If we went out of town, during a school vacation, there’d no time to be alone, it’s true, but it’s also true I wouldn’t have the housework weighing on me either, since we wouldn’t be at home cooking and so on. (Ok, it would weigh on me in that I’d know I’m coming home to whatever havoc the cats may have wreaked, but that’s a different kind of problem from the usual day-in-day-out of the human chaos.)
In other words: if we are all home, all of us, all the time, there is a constant rotation of activity in the kitchen, a constant rotation of laundry, a constant rotation of straightening up to do, in even greater levels than normal, because there is never a period of time in which the house is laying fallow and I can try to keep up with it a little bit. That little bit at a time — the probably two and a half hours a day when I am, really, absolutely focused on keeping the household running properly (and the rest of the time, in which I’m doing other things with half my brain and keeping the household running with the other half of a brain) — turns out to be absolutely necessary to keep the house operating at a level where we aren’t, say, eating off floors covered in random bits of paper, pieces of the Master Mind game someone sent us, and stepped-on bits of Meow Mix. To keep the house relatively orderly, it turns out, I need the house to be empty for at least five hours of the day, and this assumes I personally don’t have anything else going on.
The fact that it’s not just breakfast and dinner that have to be assembled — that lunch and snacks must also be served to three people every day — throws a spanner in the works. Normally, we run the dishwasher once every three or so days — possibly every two days, if I’ve made some particularly elaborate dinner one night. But three meals a day served, plus snacks, means the dishwasher is being run far more often. We only have so many plates and forks and spoons, after all. And the coffee cups! My husband will drink coffee all day long, and the number of cups that are generated as a result is staggering. Mostly I wonder why we have so many coffee mugs, but a few days of all three of us at home in the wintertime makes it clear that we actually need all these mugs.
Then, in wintertime, there is the likelihood of the child going out to play in the snow. This week we had snow on the ground at the beginning of the week but then we hit a warm phase. The snow turned quickly to mud. Either way — snow or mud — it meant an increase in the amount of laundry being done, because snow pants/muddy pants and gloves/muddy sweatshirts, whatever the case may be: all of it has to be washed and dried after use.
It should be obvious, too, that the bathrooms are utilized more frequently than they are during a normal week, and so they are getting dirtier faster, and need more attention than I would normally give them.
All of this wore me down as the week passed.
One vacation morning I was scooping the cats’ litter boxes, as I normally do, around ten o’clock. (It’s something I try to do twice a day. There are two cats, and three litter boxes, and you’d think that once a day would be enough. I suppose technically it is, but the reality is, life is better for all of us if it gets done twice a day.) My daughter came downstairs for no apparent reason — just to remind me that she was alive, I think — and held her nose: STINKY!
I snapped at her, “Yes, it’s stinky. But this is something I do every day. Instead of complaining, why don’t YOU try doing it to get rid of the stink? Or just don’t complain?” She removed her hand from her nose and looked at me in surprise. “Have you ever, once, scooped the litter boxes?” She shook her head no. “Ok, then don’t complain that scooping the litter boxes is gross,” I said. I tied up the vile bag of cat excrement and brought it upstairs to add to the kitchen trash, which would shortly be brought out to the dumpster. I tried to not think about the fact that ideally, I would also be vacuuming around the litter boxes and mopping the floor around the litter boxes and laundering the old sheet that I keep under the boxes to try to limit the spread of filth in the basement. I could ask my husband to help with this chore, I suppose, but I know perfectly well that he wouldn’t do it to my satisfaction, and it’s something best left for me to do. But I didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to take it on right then. (Let’s let it pass that I could be doing it instead of writing this essay; take my word for it, I need this time to write a lot more than the house needs to have that sheet shaken out and laundered.)
The challenge of “what to make for dinner” also expanded, mysteriously, during the week, possibly because it’s one thing to come up with something novel or just tasty to eat once a day; to do it twice a day is a real drain. Most nights I make dinner without complaint, and I do it after having a day to think over what I’m putting together. I’m lucky of course — as I am about so many aspects of my life as a housewife — because I’m doing this as my full-time (extra-double-plus-full-time) job; I don’t have to figure this out after being out in the world at work all day. I get that; logically, making dinner is easier for me than it is for others. But that doesn’t make the slog any less of a slog. It’s merely a different type of slog. I face the challenge in a different manner from my friends who teach all day or work as speech pathologists or in retail or whathaveyou. But it’s all labor, ok? And, frankly, since I don’t have a job, the expectation is that our house should run better than houses where the adults are not at home all the time; because, if it doesn’t, what the hell am I doing all day? (Writing; and Good Works. But that’s not enough of an excuse. So.)
The slog of making dinner: some nights are better or more ambitious than others, but the fact is, I’m able to do it, and do it reasonably well, in large part because I haven’t had to really think about breakfast (which is a bowl of cold cereal, or toast) or lunch (which is consumed by the child at school and by the husband at whichever place he decides to get lunch downtown). This is a nearly militant stance for me: I really refuse to cook breakfast and I resent assembling lunch on school days. My family by and large accepts this, and since dinner is usually good, I’m on steady ground.
However, when you have to put dinner together after also putting together breakfast, lunch, and snacks: that sucks. And dreaming up a nice dinner at the end of such a day is not easy. Because not only are food supplies looking uninspiring, or nearly non-existent, but one’s ability to get enthusiastic about making another mess in the kitchen is also drained. I swear to God, it’s not that I look forward to cooking dinner every night, but it doesn’t normally get me down the way it did during vacation week. That week, come about 4.30 in the afternoon, my husband and child would look at me and ask, “What’s for dinner?” and there was, honestly, not one time I gave an answer that was met with glee. Something was always inadequate. I knew better than to say “I’ve been thinking about soup,” even though soup would have been the perfect thing to make with the last of the stock and short ribs I made on Monday — because if I said “soup” no one, and I mean no one, would have been happy, and then I’d’ve gotten angry, and the whole evening would be shot.
Friday, as my husband assembled some sandwiches to eat for his and our daughter’s lunches, he asked me what I would do all day, with the whole day to myself. I said, “Well, I’ve decided one thing, which is that I am not going to spend the whole day doing housework.” “Ok,” he said, not seeing why this was a big deal. I said, “I was thinking I would do some writing today, since that’s something I’ve not really been able to do for a little while now.” “That sounds good,” he said. Unspoken by me was the obvious fact that, even if I didn’t do housework in a serious and intensive way, I would still be taking care of the fundamentals. On a day when I’m “not doing housework,” I am nonetheless scooping the litter boxes, washing the breakfast dishes, taking out the recycling, and probably doing two loads of laundry.
On a day when I vowed to not do housework, I did three loads of laundry, I vacuumed the entire apartment, I tidied the kitchen table, and I made plans for an extraordinarily good Shabbat dinner. I worked on this blog post for about ninety minutes. I did housework for longer than I worked on writing this.
There was an article in the Onion a few years ago which friends always send to me every summer. The headline was “Mom Spends Beach Vacation Assuming All Household Duties in Closer Proximity to Ocean.” I always laugh a little but it’s just true. Vacations are, to me, the same thing as regular life, for the most part, just in a different place. The exception is: Unless we are staying in a hotel where meals are provided and there is maid service. Preferably, the situation is such that I somehow magically don’t have to worry about laundry at all. If this is not the case, then basically what vacation means to me is, “Everything you do on a normal day, but in triplicate.” This past week, when we did not go out of town on vacation, it wasn’t just All Household Duties, it was All Household Duties on Exponentially Larger Scales. It was very grim. By mid-day Friday I was fried but resigned, too: I had only to get to Monday. Monday, I told myself, I will regroup. It’ll all be ok.
I decided to throw some muscle into making dinner on Friday night. I thawed the last of the really good steaks I’d stashed away in the freezer in the first week of January, and served them, cooked perfectly, with chimmichurri. The sides were asparagus, roasted Yukon gold potatoes, and panne cotto (made with broccoli rabe and not escarole). Everyone enjoyed the meal thoroughly. I thought, “I have bought myself a ton of goodwill with this meal.” So Saturday evening, when my willingness to make a real effort was running very low indeed, and my willingness to go buy any groceries at all was nil, when it came to be five and my husband asked if I had any ideas about dinner, I said with a clear conscience, “I’m making pasta e fagioli.” (In other words, soup, but thickened up with pasta.) Fortunately for my family, there was no visible sign of disappointment.
I scanned the shelves of the fridge. I took out everything I saw that involved cooked vegetables and cooked noodles. I had the last of the panne cotto; I had a tub of cooked cauliflower; I had the last of the thick beefy mess leftover from making short ribs on Monday. I had some celery and some garlic and a Parmesan rind. I got to work and at 6:30 I served pasta e fagioli to my family, who snarfed it all down and quickly went back for seconds. Everyone was happy. I sighed and thought, “I will get through this.”
We scraped through Sunday; it was a long day, but we managed. Our daughter had two swimming lessons this weekend, and I watched the pile of laundry grow larger with her towels and bathing suits thrown into the laundry basket along with muddy jackets, socks, pants, and so on. “She will go back to school on Monday,” I told myself, “And I will catch up.”
Monday morning came. My husband left for work, and I saw my daughter off to school. She had a meatloaf sandwich and some leftover roasted asparagus in her lunch bag. (Meatloaf was what we had for dinner Sunday night. Out of desperation I went to the grocery store on Sunday afternoon and, seeing that ground beef was $2.99/lb. if you bought 5 lbs. at minimum, I bought 5 1/2 pounds and brought it home. Some went to meatloaf; some is simmering on the stove as chili now; and some will become bolognese later this week. I am never, ever not thinking about home economics.) Everyone had been dispatched in the correct directions; it was up to me to go home and face the house.
I spent the morning undoing as much of the past ten days’ damage as I could. First I walked around the apartment gathering things to launder, and at the same time assessing what messes needed cleaning. It was 8.30 in the morning when I turned on the washing machine. I’ve been doing laundry; running the dishwasher; finally cleaning up the mess around the cats’ litter boxes; setting up a huge pot of beef chili; cleaning toilets; scrubbing the vinyl bath mat that always seems to grow little rings of mildew around the suction cups; bleaching the cleaning supplies that I used to clean around the cats’ boxes; straightening up the coffee table; making lists of other things that have to be done.
Soon there’s going to be a Day of No Women in the United States, a protest designed to recognize “the enormous value that women of all backgrounds add to our socioeconomic system, while receiving lower wages and experiencing greater inequities, vulnerability to discrimination, sexual harassment and job insecurity.” This quote is from the Women’s March website, https://www.womensmarch.com/womensday. I didn’t just make it up.
I don’t have lower wages; I don’t have wages. I guess you could say I get room and board for the work I do, but not everyone would find that framing of the arrangement agreeable. As I’ve said many times, here and elsewhere in my life, while my life isn’t perfect, it is on the whole pretty good: we are lucky to be able to live the way we do, in the manner we do; we never want for anything we really need, and that’s because of my husband’s job, not because I’m such a genius at running the household. I’m good at running the household, and if I stopped doing it for a day, well, nothing disastrous would happen, but no one would benefit, either. Housewives don’t get vacations, and neither do housebitches — this essay is clearly in the housebitch category — and that’s part of the deal. If I stopped doing housework altogether (the way my husband stopped going to his job altogether last week), even for just a day, nothing good would happen to any of us, and we would all three of us become very cranky very quickly.
The Moebius strip that is running this household cannot be interrupted without consequences. Maybe they are not as serious as the consequences of, say, not showing up at your minimum-wage hourly job: my husband will not fire me if I don’t do laundry for a day, don’t scoop the litter box for one day, don’t cook dinner for one day. But I will only be making my own life worse if I stop paying attention to any of these details for only one day. Last week’s vacation proved it to me.