The dirty work of being a female; or, cleaning the house
A version of this piece was originally published on Rachel's blog, Navigating by the Book (a venture that only lasted 3 posts before life took over).
The first time I went over to my now-partner’s house for dinner, it took about 20 minutes of watching him cook (he’s a professional chef), before I volunteered to clean the pile of dishes in the sink. The nervous, excited, third-date energy was going to manifest itself into something productive, dammit. And before I had properly considered the future implications of what I was about to do, I put on an apron and started cleaning the plates and cutlery that were overflowing the sink. As I soaped up the mess, we looked at each other, grinning, and I made a joke about already being barefoot in the kitchen.
Four years later and living together, my chef and I still follow a similar routine: he cooks and I clean the dishes. (Although after living together for almost two years, I now do my share of cooking as well. A girl cannot live on gourmet meals alone). One weekend, while the chef was at work and I was scrubbing the kitchen counters, I couldn’t help but wonder (in my very best Carrie Bradshaw voice over), whether wanting to have a clean living space was somehow betraying my feminist ideals, like I was succumbing to the pressure of being an ideal partner, equal parts housewife, bed mate and working girl. We may not live in the most luxurious apartment, but it will be clean and tidy – that much I expect and am willing to maintain. However, while doing my share of the chores, I still feel that there’s part of me that rebels against this traditionally female task – cleaning.
The fact that I like having a relatively clean and uncluttered apartment means that, as someone who gets home first at the end of the working day and is by myself most weekends, I’m the one who finds herself doing the dirty work. None of this is to imply that my partner doesn’t do his part; on the contrary, he does the tasks that I don’t, like cleaning the garbage bin, mopping the floors and doing his share of the dishes. Yet I had a suspicion that his masculinity and sense of self are not troubled by these activities – at no point does his male ego feel effeminate by cooking for others for a living. On the contrary, professional kitchens are notorious for being male-oriented spaces.
So why was I getting all worked up over cleaning the counters and doing a few dishes? Perhaps because of a fear of giving into the stereotype of Woman, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.
So why was I getting all worked up over cleaning the counters and doing a few dishes? Perhaps because of a fear of giving into the stereotype of Woman, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. I find it slightly ridiculous that my type-A personality and desire for not-filth can result in a vague existential crisis (or maybe that’s just my philosophy degrees imposing words onto vague feelings of dislike for the tasks at hand). I’ve lived with roommates before, 4 other girls, and we did our best to divide the house chores. Cleaning isn’t something I enjoy doing, it’s not particularly cathartic or stress-relieving. It is satisfying, though, to know that for the next little while, everything looks alright.
I hadn’t considered the possibility that my partner had his own thoughts about gender and housework, none of which reduced me to the primary cleaner.
Interestingly, when I raised this concern with my partner, his reaction was not what I anticipated. He told me that growing up in a single-parent household, he and his father often felt alienated by the commercials for cleaning products, and that maintaining a tidy home was a preference he shared with me. I hadn’t considered the possibility that my partner had his own thoughts about gender and housework, none of which reduced me to the primary cleaner. On the contrary, the expectation that we would both be productive human beings and divide the house work (somewhat) evenly was taken by him as a given. This is a far cry from the house that I grew up in, where my Indian mother stayed home to raise her four kids while my father worked. Even when my mother returned to work, I noticed that she was still the one doing the majority of the homemaking, aside from the nightly dishwasher loading that my father preferred to do.
The more that I think about this issue of gendered labour, the more it strikes me not only as a division of labour, but as a means of showing care. Some people express their care by making sure that there are no financial needs for their partner or their family, and others provide care by looking after the needs of the house. In my current relationship, my partner and I seem to straddle both of these aspects, each contributing financially and physically. I’m not sure that it will always be this way in the future, and I have to be alright with that. If doing the dishes so that we have a clean kitchen is a means of showing attentiveness to my partner, then the feminist in me is not going to rigidly dig in her heels. I’ll keep doing those dishes, and my partner can keep scrubbing that bathtub.