Emily Regan is the author of several books, including "What's an Adult?: No One Knows Anything and We're All Going to Die." She is an avid fan of reality TV, an unironic Hanson fan, and currently resides in Arizona with her family.
I’ve passed the halfway mark of this challenge and circled back to the weekly chores in addition to the daily ones, and I’m not going to lie–I got kind of spoiled over the weekend of having only to do the dailies. I also noticed that although I was fine doing the daily chores, the weekly chores felt like…well, more of a chore.
Because I just did a deep clean of the bedrooms last Monday, it was hard to motivate myself to do it again. “Really? I have to wash the curtains again? I just cleaned them!”
But I know that’s part of the challenge, so I sucked it up and did it. Does it seem excessive to me to wash the curtains again already? Yeah, a little, but whatever. This challenge is only two weeks and having to run curtains through the washing machine is not even close to being a real, legitimate problem. However, I am starting to suspect that women were told to clean their houses likes this in the 1950s so that they didn’t have any free time for thinking. Check out this vintage ad for a washing machine:
Did I feel like a queen while washing curtains today? Not exactly, but maybe the problem is that I have blackout curtains and not light, sheer curtains. Clearly I need to go shopping for new window treatments and possibly a new washer and dryer combo. Then I’ll stop thinking about the psychosocial aspects of this challenge and focus more on feeling like royalty! Although I’m pretty sure Queen Elizabeth II isn’t over in England doing her own laundry.
I know last week I said I was going to give myself the option of adding in cooking dinner every night on top of the cleaning, but I ended up deciding against it. However, I did jokingly serve Jon a plate of food over the weekend by kneeling at his feet and presenting it to him with my head bowed so he could get the full experience of being “the Mister” while I do this challenge. This was his reaction:
Even though the cleaning is going a lot faster this week now that I don’t have to constantly check the to do list, it’s still a ton of work and I’m worn out.
This probably makes me an inferior housewife since women in the 1950s were, according to my source material where I got the challenge info, expected to clean and cook and make themselves pretty so they were like beautiful pieces of furniture for “the Mister” to enjoy at the end of his long workday. Unfortunately for Jon, I haven’t showered today and instead of something “festive,” I’m wearing a t-shirt featuring Lil’ Poundcake. Which, to be fair, could be considered festive if I’m getting ready to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race.
When I sat down to write this post for today, I wanted to write something a little more substantial instead of just an update about my progress. However, now that I’m sitting in my couch and I’ve finally stopped running back and forth across my house while I clean the bedrooms and wash all the laundry, I feel like my brain is powering off. That being said, I’m kind of fascinated by the vintage ads I found for this post in a “rubberneck at the horrific car accident” kind of way. I might have to delve a little deeper into those during this last half of my challenge, but for today…I’m spent.
Sleep is evidently for others, because I lay awake in bed until almost 6AM again. No particular reason, I was just…awake.
I only managed a few hours of sleep and although I know I could’ve slept longer, a single thought kept running through my head: I have to get up and clean!
After only a week of this challenge, it feels wrong if I don’t start my day by doing the daily chore list, like my house has somehow gotten super grimy in the last 24 hours. Which is ridiculous, but some part of my brain keeps insisting that I need to obsessively clean as if I’m preparing for an inspection.
What’s in a Name?
The other day, I had an interesting conversation with Jon about the terminology people use to describe mothers who stay home with their kids. I asked Jon to tell me his gut reaction to each term and to explain why he thought he had those reactions, and then I later reflected on my own biases and reactions, which resulted in the following:
Google Definition: “a married woman whose main occupation is caring for her family, managing household affairs, and doing housework.”
A housewife is also apparently the name for “a small case for needles, thread, and other small sewing items.”
Jon’s Reaction: His initial reaction to this term was pretty negative. “I just think it makes you sound really subservient, instead of the equal partnership we actually have.” Jon went on to explain that the term reminded him of a stereotypical 1950s-type relationship where the man leaves to go to work and then comes home to a polite, well-groomed family who talks in hushed, reverent tones so as not to interrupt the man’s relaxation during his evening.
My Reaction: I mostly agree with Jon’s initial reaction, but I also realized how many deep-rooted biases I had against the term “housewife.” Although I’ve always supported other women’s choices to stay home with their families if they wanted to, I realized I had a lot of internalized misogyny about the idea of me being “just a housewife.” My brain immediately conjured up thoughts of Stepford wives, which is a really shitty way to think about women who stay home with their families, and I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that I thought that way. But, recognizing crappy behavior is the first step in changing it, so I guess at least there’s that.
Google Definition: Google routed me back to the definition of “housewife.”
Jon’s Reaction: “That one is better, but I don’t think it fully describes what you do.” Jon also pointed out that he doesn’t think of being a parent as a job as much as a responsibility, one he shares equally with me. Not to say that he doesn’t think parenting isn’t work, because he absolutely does; he was clear to make the distinction that he views a job as something you get paid to do but there are lots of things, such as parenting, that are definitely work.
My Reaction: This is probably the best term to describe what I do, especially since I’m currently homeschooling Kiddo due to the pandemic and his medical issues, but I still really don’t like it. My main problem with it is that I feel it reduces my identity down to my relationship to another person, namely my son. I absolutely love being his mom, but this circles back to my comments in my pre-challenge post about how I don’t like my identity being reduced down to being a mom. As an independent person with my own thoughts, feelings, and ideas, being solely identified by having a child feels like my identity and purpose are to be a supporting cast member to another person. I love Kiddo with everything I am, but being a mom is not the most interesting thing about me.
Google Definition: “a person, especially a housewife, who manages a home.”
Jon’s Reaction: “That one sounds like you’re going to make all of our clothes out of burlap.”
My Reaction: I suppose this one makes sense as an alternative to “housewife” if you think of it in a sort of “a house is not a home” way. Plus, this one has the added bonus of not including the word “wife” or “mother,” which I like. However, it does feel a little outdated and Little House on the Prairie to me, which is fine if that’s what you’re into, it just doesn’t fit for me. I think perhaps I don’t care for this term because it feels like the responsibility is solely on me to make our home enjoyable for the family, whereas I feel Jon is an equal contributor to our home. Yes, I’m cleaning a lot more than he is at the moment, but Jon’s the cook in the family and he always pulls his own weight.
Jon also brought up the time after our son was born, when his immune system was so fragile immediately after his transplant that neither Jon nor I could get a job outside of our home because it would be too much exposure to possible illnesses that we could pass on to Kiddo. Due to the extensive amount of care our son needed, no one assumed I would ever go back to work…but Jon got an extreme amount of judgment from older family members, especially during the times when I was the breadwinner with my freelance work and he was the primary caregiver for our kid. They were shocked Jon took on an equal share of parenting duties, and even when Jon was able to create a career working from home, they didn’t think he was “really” working because he managed to do it from home instead of leaving the house all day. Family members used to refer to Jon as “Mr. Mom” which is a bullshit way of saying “father.” It’s the same kind of way that people will ask a mother if the father is “babysitting” the kids. It’s not babysitting if they’re your children; it’s called parenting. But this illustrates that the biases go both ways; while I’m paranoid about being thought of solely as a mother, Jon was frequently viewed as not fulfilling his gendered role of sole provider during the times when his focus was on our son.
Labels & Boxes
So what housewife-ish term do I like the best for me? Honestly…none of them. I feel like there isn’t a common term that fits because to me, they all feel so reductive, including homemaker, because it feels like each just reinforces a gendered stereotype that women belong at home with the children and the vacuum. I think this is largely due to the way Americans are labeled and judged by their profession. “What do you do?” is one of the first get-to-know-you questions we ask each other in social situations and, whether we want to admit it or not, we have preconceived notions and assumptions about people based on their answer. “I’m a doctor,” automatically commands respect, but if you tell people, “I’m a bartender,” they assume you’ve fucked up your life in some way and can’t get another job. I’m particularly salty about the latter because when I was a bartender, I’d already completed my Masters and I was bartending because I made good money while leaving my days free to work on my writing. However, bar patrons were often shocked to hear that I not only finished college, but I had an advanced degree since they’d assumed that, due to the nature of my job in the service industry, I was barely literate.
I want to rally against the whole “what do you do?” thing and instead shift the focus to who we are as people, but that’s not exactly a short soundbite that can be easily exchanged during small talk at a party. Maybe what I really hate is the shallowness of our connections with people to where we’d rather quickly label one another instead of taking the time to get to know who they are. But, rather than admit that we don’t give a shit, we keep up a facade of interest so we can widen the appearance of our social circle, thereby making us seem more interesting and popular because we know one or two facts about each person without having to put in the time and effort to get to know each other as complete, complex humans.
What is your freaking point, Emily?
I’m not sure I have one yet. I’m still exploring what my personal identity means to me now that I have taken on a role I never planned to fulfill as a housewife/stay-at-home parent/homemaker/whatever you want to call it. While I admit I’m coming to terms with my own internal biases, it feels more and more like I’m rallying against how I think I’m being perceived by those around me. And why should I care what other people think? They’re not the ones living my life and I don’t have to justify myself to them or anyone else. However, considering the length of this particular post, maybe I doth protest too much. As much as I hate to admit it, maybe I really do care what other people think which is why I’m so upset at the idea of being pigeonholed by the fact that I’m a mother.
Good lord, it’s exhausting being in my head all the time.
For the record, I acknowledge what a first world, white lady problem this is. I’m fortunate enough to be in a situation where I can choose whether I want to get a job or if I want to be with my son full-time. A lot of people are not afforded the luxury of this choice and I know how lucky I am. I’m grateful for the opportunity to do a ridiculous challenge like this and wax philosophically about the words we use to describe women who stay home with their children and spend all this time thinking about it. At times this makes me feel a little frivolous, but I also know I’m not the only person who thinks about these topics, so why not be involved in the discussion when I have the opportunity?
Today was my first weekend day in the challenge and all that I had to do was the daily list since the weekends are supposed to be for relaxing. It came as a surprise to me that not only did I not mind doing the daily list, but my morning felt incomplete without it. After I finished my coffee, my fingers were practically itching to start dusting the living room. I do not recognize myself.
I also find that Saturday has been much. more enjoyable overall because I’m not trying to relax with Jon and Kiddo while simultaneously trying to ignore areas of the house that need to be cleaned or laundry that needs to be washed. It’s just…done.
For those of you who are already adults who know how to do basic housework, this probably sounds like the dumbest revelation. “No shit, Emily, a clean house is enjoyable and if you do a little every day, it can stay that way.” But for me, it kind of is. For a long time, I’ve bought into the myth that creativity has to equal chaos to some degree. I love planners, especially bullet journals, and I’ll spend way too much time color coordinating everything to an unnecessary degree. But then I end up stuffing the pages with story ideas scribbled onto receipts and half-finished thoughts on on post-it notes and I’ve told myself that’s fine, I don’t need to sort that out because my creativity comes from my dysfunction. I even once expressed this concern to a therapist when I went on antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication for the first time.
“What if I’m only creative because of the chemical imbalance in my brain? If I fix that, aren’t I fucked?” I asked.
“You’re creative because you’re creative,” my therapist said. “You don’t need to have every day feel like a fucking nightmare just so you can fight through all of that pain to produce something. For all we know, you going on medication might free up your brain to be even more creative.”
Turns out, he was right. And yet there’s still an asshole part of my brain that wonders if I could’ve created so much more if I’d left my brain alone to be a cesspool of trauma. Last night, Jon and I watched Shirley, which, if you aren’t familiar with it, is a new movie starring Elisabeth Moss in which she plays Shirley Jackson. At one point, Elisabeth Moss says, “A clean house is a sign of an inferior mind,” and when I saw that, I realized how connected I’d been to this idea of creativity needing chaos. The movie also showed Shirley Jackson in the throes of mental illness and with erratic behavior, and it made me a little uncomfortable. Not because of the depictions themselves, but because of how much I recognized myself in those behaviors. Depression and anxiety have, at times, kept me bedridden, I often lie on the floor when I’m in the midst of a creative conundrum or an existential crisis, hanging out at parties exhausts me for days afterwards, I hate leaving my house (at least now I have coronavirus as a legitimate reason to stay home), and when I’m in the middle of a writing project that’s gathering steam, I barely sleep or eat because I’m so obsessed with writing. As much as I enjoyed the movie, it held up an uncomfortable mirror to my ingrained ideas about creativity.
The most eye-opening part of this 1950s Housewife Challenge so far has been the way it has made me examine parts of myself I didn’t expect. I thought I was going to spend two weeks obsessively cleaning while writing blog posts about “fuck the patriarchy” but instead, I’ve been coming to terms with my own changing identity as I’ve become a stay-at-home mom. Tomorrow marks the halfway part of the challenge and in this last week, I have started challenging my own ideas and biases and questioned why I have been so resistant to allowing myself to be in a stereotypical gender role.
I keep promising I’m going to post more about the terminology we use for women who stay home to manage homes and families, and I will–tomorrow. Because right now it’s Saturday night, Kiddo is asleep, and I want to hang out with Jon and watch some old Survivor episodes in our very clean house.
While I was cleaning, I was surprised by how good I felt about how the house looked. I also realized that after getting into the habit of doing daily maintenance plus a deep clean of an area each day, cleaning is getting easier and easier. It occurred to me that I started this challenge with an attitude of, “I’m going to clean every day like a housewife! Look at me!” Now that I’m on Day 5, I’m sitting here saying, “Oh, fuck, is this what everyone else does and I’m just the idiot who doesn’t know how to adult?”
I was reminded of a conversation I had with my dad a few years ago when he was mocking my generation for not knowing certain skills.
“I read the other day that millennials are signing up for ‘adulting’ classes to learn how to do basic household skill,” my dad said, rolling his eyes.
“I mean, I might be interested in signing up for some of those,” I said. “I could use help folding a fitted sheet.”
“How do you not know how to fold a fitted sheet?” my dad asked, shocked.
“I don’t know, I guess my parents never taught me,” I said.
That shut him up pretty quickly.
I’m not entirely blaming my dad for my inadequacies in folding a fitted sheet (and, for the record, I watched a YouTube video so now I can sort of do it instead of just balling it up and shoving it into a closet). My dad is a boomer and since that falls under the umbrella of housework, I think he might have assumed my mother taught me (but she didn’t. Her version of teaching was to just tell me as a child to do something I’d never done, not give me any instructions or guidance, and punish me when I didn’t intrinsically know how to do something she’d been taught to do decades ago).
My dad, on the other hand, is a really good parent and he taught me a lot of other life skills, including basic car maintenance, managing finances, and some cooking.
My dad is also very supportive. When I jumped on the bandwagon and baked quarantine bread like everyone else and posted a photo on social media to get credit, he called me and told me how impressed he was that I can do things like bake bread from scratch.
Now I’m faced with the reality that because I didn’t learn basic organization and tidying skills when I was younger, it took me until I was in my thirties to realize that maybe something was wrong and I should make an attempt to correct the issue. Am I just this sucky of an adult? I know I literally wrote the book about not being an adult, but I intended that as a humorous, hyperbolic way of exploring imposter syndrome. But, here I am now, getting called out by my own work five years later.
I’m more than a little embarrassed by the revelation, but at least I get to be embarrassed in my very clean house. Maybe I need to take up a new hobby to distract me…
Two weeks ago, my 74-year-old father called and told me that he’d fallen and broken his leg in three places. By the time he called me, he was already in the hospital and they were planning on operating the following morning. He’d had another health scare back in November, so I was extremely worried for him, but surgery went well. In order to make sure everything stayed in place post-surgery, he had to have a metal cage put around his leg with pins going into his skin to hold the bones where they were supposed to be. Icky, but sure, fine. After my son had his heart transplant, he was brought back to his room with his chest still open (covered with surgical saran wrap) and it stayed open for a few days–I’m not super squeamish about medical stuff. The plan was to wait for the swelling to go down and then the doctor would operate again and remove the cage/stabby apparatus. But, in the meantime, the doctors didn’t want my dad to stay in the hospital because there’s a global pandemic going on.
So, since my dad can’t care for himself at home right now due to his leg being in a medical bear trap, the doctors sent him to an assisted living facility. A week ago, my dad called and told me that the facility had three positive test results for COVID-19. Then, the call I was dreading came last night a couple of hours after I wrote yesterday’s post–my dad tested positive for COVID-19.
All things considered, he’s doing well. He doesn’t currently have any symptoms other than a positive test result and he was transferred to another facility. Which is good news so far, but I’m going to be honest–I’m a little freaked out right now. I’m very worried about him and I hate feeling helpless.
Who knew my saving grace was going to come in the form of a ridiculous cleaning challenge? Certainly not me.
By deciding to continue to push forward with this challenge, cleaning the house (and deep cleaning the living room) kept me occupied today. Plus, since I’ve been doing routine maintenance all week, today didn’t feel that bad in terms of time or effort because I was just doing small things to keep my house clean and I wasn’t starting from scratch. Or I was distracted due to the effort of trying not to think about my dad and all the scary “what ifs” I’m not ready to deal with yet. That’s not to say I’m trying to ignore my feelings, but cleaning like a 1950s housewife kept me from lying in bed all day in a depressive state while binging multiple seasons of America’s Next Top Model and eating my weight in junk food.
This isn’t to say that I didn’t do anything practical to help me process what’s going on–Jon and I met with our therapist via video chat today, and Jon and I have also talked a lot about my dad one-on-one. Right now, I’m exhausted. The house looks great, I did the therapy thing, and I even drank more water today than I have any other day this week.
On the plus side, the designated deep clean weekly chores have all been completed for this week, according to the challenge schedule. Since I have a “free day” of sorts for tomorrow, I’m planning on using it to deep clean the laundry room. Then maybe I’ll finally lose my mind and bake myself into a pie.
If I’ve totally bummed you out with this post because you were expecting the introspective, feminist analysis I promised yesterday…my bad. In its place, please enjoy the new music video from Michael Franti & Spearhead for his song “This is How We Living” which is one of the only things that held me together today.