The Hausfrau and the Hobbit’s Coffeemaker

To say that I am not a fan of the works of Tolkien is opening a big can of worms, but I’ve got a really good can opener and I’m feeling reckless.
It’s not merely that I have no interest in The Lord of the Rings or anything to do with it — though it’s absolutely true I will never been seen toting volumes of it around. To me the issue isn’t just that I cannot deal with fantasy — though I can’t. It’s that there’s a whole life aesthetic bound up with the likes of Tolkien, and the Narnia books, and all of it all of it all of it drives me fucking nuts. This aesthetic — by which I mean the physical objects and articles that seem, inevitably, to be favored by folks who’re into this stuff (I’m deliberately refraining from saying “this shit” lest I come off as too rude and dismissive) — is something I reject wholeheartedly.

I have had many tense conversations with my husband, over the years, regarding home decor, but one thing on which we have always been agreed is that there is a look that is Hobbity (should that be Hobbitty?) and we will not have it. 

We will not live with macrame anything; we will not have dishes or mugs that look charmingly hand-made; anything that screams 1970s hippiedom is scorned. There are no blankets made of granny squares, no pieces of dark 1970s wooden Ethan Allen furniture with white porcelain knobs. Our wardrobes hold no floppy leather hats, no shirts that have elaborate lacings on them anywhere, no knee-high boots of suede, no suede-fringed anything. There are many aesthetics we appreciate, and many eras of design I thrill to, but the 1970s is not one of them — though I occasionally like a 1970s piece which is obviously Art Deco or 1940s inspired.

We then come to the question of coffeemakers. I know you’re going, “the fuck?” but bear with me.
We gave up on electronic coffeemakers a long time ago, and for more than a decade relied on one of two different devices. The first was a Melitta pour-over, which had a lovely tall thermal carafe, and it worked quite well. But some little thingy broke off the filter part that sat on top of the carafe and that was that. (We kept the carafe, which is occasionally useful on its own, but we no longer use it as a coffeemaker.) I had long used a French press, for times when I was just making coffee for myself, but when it broke my husband surprised me and gave me (us, really) a bigger, steel French press, where the carafe was thermal and hence could keep coffee hot for a reasonably long time. And so the household converted to the French press method, which we both liked a lot. The one problem is that it can be hard to get a replacement filter thingy for this model of French press, and you do have to replace them periodically because they have silicone edges that wear down over time.

Now, in the meantime, my husband decided that he wanted yet another coffeemaker, and he asked me to buy him a Chemex as a Christmas present. I didn’t see why we needed one, but he’s hard to shop for sometimes, and seldom makes such specific requests, so I bought the Chemex. He promptly began a massive coffee-drinking frenzy. He became, as Nicholson Baker wrote somewhere, operatic with caffeine.

The thing about the Chemex is that its pros and cons are, like the object itself, abundantly clear. It makes coffee that is so smooth and easy to drink that it’s very, very easy to drink way the fuck too much coffee. But, you know, it’s good coffee. The carafe is, like, the absolute opposite of thermal. And the filters — paper filters, which annoy me, but there’s always a flaw in every coffee making system — have to be purchased every few months. (When we started using it, I found the filters a little difficult to find in local shops, but since then I’ve noticed boxes of them for sale here and there, so I’m no longer sweating that particular issue; and they’re not hideously expensive, as long as we’re only making one pot a day most of the time.) My one voiced concern about the Chemex, when we first got it, was, “How’m I supposed to clean inside this thing?” My husband assured me that it wasn’t a problem because you would just rinse it out after each use.

I knew this was bullshit. There is no coffee making device in the world that can be cleaned by merely rinsing it out. This isn’t the device’s fault, nor the user’s: it’s that coffee generates oils and scunge that just naturally build up on the surfaces where it rests. It’s the nature of the beast. This chemical fact of coffee’s fundamental chemical nature is why old coffee cups that aren’t properly cleaned after use get brown and sad-looking inside. (Same for teacups, not that I drink tea, so I’m not going to discuss that any further.)

It is entirely possible, if you clean coffee cups properly, to have them in use for decades without having them go brown inside, by the way. I know this because I own coffee cups that have been in regular use since the 1980s and they are white inside, and have always been white inside. Because, in all these years, no one has abused them. (Let’s acknowledge the abuse of our kitchenware, shall we? You know who you are, you people whose coffee cups are never really clean inside and you’re just used to it. Get yourself some baking soda and deal with that shit, would you?)

I knew that I would have to be the person who oversaw the occasional de-grossing of the Chemex, but, okay.

So the one real practical problem with the hourglass-shaped Chemex — cleaning it of that inevitable rancid yellowish-brown cast — is easily solved, as long as you’re willing to look kind of like an anal-retentive asshole once in a while. What to do: You pour some baking soda into the bottom of the carafe along with your dish soap and then you take a wet dishrag and choose to look like an idiot by sticking the handle of a long wooden spoon in to swish the dishrag around, really rubbing the interior well and making sure that the soap and gentle abrasive get all the crud loose. Maybe you could use a bottle brush, if you had one, but I don’t: I use my dishrags for everything. But I think the dishrag is preferable in this case anyhow; and swishing the dishrag around with the spoon handle for about ten seconds does the trick without my having to acquire another object to keep at the sink.

Then you do this: Rinse rinse rinse, and let the Chemex dry.

So basically, I can get behind the Chemex. Except. Except.

I fucking hate looking at it. I hate that wooden girdle it wears, and I really fucking hate the leather thong that holds the girdle in place. (Thongs, girdles. Ick.) I like the clean lines of the carafe itself okay; I understand its modern severity. But the overall visual impact this thing has on me is negative. “It does have a kind of Hobbity look,” my husband said — with affection! — when he began to use it, and it was clear to me that to him, this was a sentimental object of some kind; his usual disparaging use of that phrase had turned into something sweet, like he was talking about our more unpleasant and disgusting cat, Jack. Jack is pure hate wrapped up in a coarse fur coat, and my husband adores him out of sheer perversity. The Chemex, though it was so obviously offensive for so many reasons, was a love object in my husband’s eyes. Or at least, the Chemex was something like “a face only a mother could love,” and my husband was the Chemex’s mother.

I was instructed sternly to not ruin it. I should be careful cleaning it. I should never, ever, ever put it in the dishwasher. This, I was told, was how a Chemex of long-ago had met its demise. Apparently my husband had one of these things in his college years, and one time (I guess during a summer break or something) his parents ran it through the dishwasher and killed it. I don’t know if they took the girdle off first or what. Clearly the trauma of losing this first Chemex was so great, my husband — who is, to be sure, among the more stoic types out there — cannot even really talk about it. It’s like, “I had a Chemex, and I loved it so. And then, one day, the Chemex was gone…..”

So, ok. I don’t put the Chemex in the dishwasher, and I remove the wooden girdle before I give it its occasional serious deep-cleaning. It was the process of removing the girdle that got me to allow a grudging admiration for the wooden girdle as an object. But this process also caused me to develop a particular grudge against the leather thong which one was to lace through the wooden bead (that fucking wooden bead) that sits at the front of the carafe, between the girdle bits, to keep everything together.

And the thing is, you don’t have any choice here: you’ve got to have the wooden girdle there, because otherwise you’re going to burn the fuck out of your hand if you pick up this carafe to pour hot coffee from it. The girdle is there for a reason, and if you don’t respect and maintain the girdle, you will regret it. (No, I don’t know this from hard experience; it’s just obvious to me that this is the case.)

I suppose a crafty type would create some kind of alternate girdle that would insulate the middle of the carafe in a more attractive manner. Something made of silicone or wool or fleece or something. Something with little snaps, something washable. Maybe a thin strip of velcro. This would, in all likelihood, ruin the cool modern lines of the thing, but no more than the godawful knitted and quilted cozies for Chemex bottoms I see around on Etsy.

A couple years after acquiring the Chemex, we finally started using it as our daily coffeemaker (I need a new filter for the Bodum French press and am having trouble finding one, any leads helpful) and I gritted my teeth when I dealt with the girdle. Despite my best efforts, in recent months I began to notice a certain crusty quality to the leather thong, despite my noble attempts at keeping it from getting wet, and there was a day a few weeks ago when I just said to myself, “This is bullshit,” and I removed it from the device. I then took some pieces of white twine from the kitchen drawer — bits of string leftover from a cake-carrier jury-rigging of a while ago — and finger-crocheted them into a fat little worm. I then laced the worm around the wooden girdle and through the bead and tied it with an undistinguished knot.

This was preferable to the leather thong — white is better than brown — but it still had a distinctly 1970s-macrame vibe about it, to me. I thought, “I could try a black grosgrain ribbon,” but decided it was seriously not worth thinking about that hard and went on with my life.

A friend happened to visit the next day and noticed the white crochet girdle lace. “Gee, that’s nice,” she said. “I like that better than the leather thing. I hate that hippy-looking shit. Did you make that?” I did, I admitted, saying, “I don’t like it much better than the leather thing, but at least it’s not brown.” She nodded and said, “I know what you mean.”

It took several days before my husband noticed the white lace. That is to say, he may have noticed it straight off, but he didn’t say anything until about a week later. “I like this,” he said. “It has a kind of nautical feel about it,” I said. “Also a little macrame-y, but oh well.” “No, it’s good,” he said.

So we’ve been living with it. It’s not so bad. But I’m not done with this. I am also considering the possibility that a nice clean well-chosen shoelace might be, in fact, the right object for us to use on the wooden girdle. Believe me: since we’re stuck using the Chemex for the foreseeable future, I plan on figuring out how to get this design issue settled and settled right. Because I don’t want to be offended by the sight of my coffeemaker every day.

I’m thinking a black dress shoe shoelace. Simple. Elegant. Maybe I’ll fix myself one last cup of coffee for the day and stare at the Chemex and think about it.

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Short and Sweet: Remembering A Housebitch Moment

My husband decided to make pancakes on a recent Saturday morning. He needed 1 1/2 tablespoons of sugar. I happened to be standing in front of the sugar tub, which I keep a 1/2 cup measuring cup in, all the time. “I’ll get it for you,” I said, trying to be helpful. I scooped up some sugar, eyeballed, shook some out, and held the cup aloft for him to take.
“You can’t just scoop some out,” he scolded. “You have to measure.”
I said, “This is one and a half tablespoons of sugar.” He protested that there was no way I could know that. I said, “Fine, get a measuring spoon, measure it.”
He got a set of measuring spoons and measured it. It was precisely one and a half tablespoons.
“Fine,” he said, grudgingly.
Do not fuck with the Hausfrau, people.

The Moebius Strip That is Our Three Bedroom Apartment: Musings Inspired by Hausfrau During February School Vacation

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.

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.