that pink ring in the toilet bowl is not a moral failure

There’s a general consensus, amongst bourgeois women that I know, that paying for a housecleaner is a relationship saver. Let me add a caveat there: amongst bourgeois women who also work full-time. Without a housecleaner, house cleaning usually goes something like this: both people are working full time, so no one’s doing it during the week. At some point, usually about once a month, someone (almost always the woman) gets fed up with it and decides they should clean. Someone (usually the man) is resentful that he/both of you are spending their ever-dwindling leisure time cleaning. So they come up with a plan: one partner will do the kitchen once a week, the other will do the bathroom once a week. Great. But someone doesn’t really do it without being reminded, which means that the other someone is constantly reminding them and feeling like a giant nag. Cue: the housecleaner conversation.

The women I know don’t think they’re above cleaning or even really hate it that much. I certainly don’t — except the bathtub, that sucks. But when both people in a relationship work full-time, there’s leftover domestic duties, namely, everything performed as part of the full-time job that was historically (and in many cases, still is) filled by the woman. The question, then, is who does that job. The modern, enlightened, proclaimed feminist man will do so some. But as I wrote about last week, in relationships between a man and a woman (I don’t want to presume heterosexual, who knows what people’s sexualities are!) the average labor split remains 65% female / 35% male.

Even doing 50% of the domestic labor is hard, because you’re doing it on top of your other full-time job. (One reason patriarchy endures = men love only having to do one job. Dude, so would I). But 65% or more is exhausting, and builds resentment, and sours a relationship. Take away house cleaning, and the ratio of work might still stay the same, but the amount of work goes down substantially. What can you do with those newly freed hours? Some people just work more. Some people fill it with more time with their kids. But there’s also the option to fill it with what people used to do with those hours, before they were de facto working two jobs: leisure. Not play dates, not scrolling through Twitter, but doing something that feels genuinely restorative, something you just like to do.

And this, I think, is one of the reasons women feel so ambivalent about actually hiring a housecleaner. The first time I found myself in a financial position to pay for one, my partner and I were living in a tiny Brooklyn apartment and saving a good chunk on rent by squeezing in. But the apartment was near the BQE, and it was New York, and everything just seemed filthy all the time. I got a flyer in the mail for Handy, and I tried it. The services were good, but you weren’t actually able to request the same person repeatedly, and this was about when all the stories about what people in the gig economy actually make. So a friend told me about Si Se Puede, a cooperative run and led by immigrant women that ensures everyone gets a living wage and isn’t exposed to harmful chemicals. It was more expensive, but paying someone to do a thorough clean of your house should be somewhat expensive.

But not everywhere has a Si Se Puede. It can be hard to find someone on your own. So that difficulty combines with the feeling that “I should just do this myself” and it doesn’t happen. But again: I think the difficulty in figuring out an ethical pay arrangement is a low barrier, and pretty easily surmounted. If you have the financial means, the feeling that “I should just do it myself” is often the actual barrier. And where does this come from? I know it feels like the answer to questions like this is always “the patriarchy,” but, uh, the patriarchy. Women used to do all of the domestic work and often grow up watching their mothers do all the domestic work and are trained, in a way that most men simply are not, to do that domestic work themselves.

Perhaps most importantly, men are not inculcated to believe that the state of their home is a reflection on themselves. Sure, they might be a little embarrassed. But most don’t see a pink ring around the toilet bowl as a personal indictment. Dog hair on the couch is not a sign that they’re dropping every ball they’re trying to juggle. The fact that they haven’t gotten on their hands and knees to spend an hour scrubbing the kitchen floor doesn’t mean they’re a failure as a person. You might say: well, it doesn’t mean any of those things for women, either. You’re right, it doesn’t, not really. It’s all total bullshit. But that doesn’t change the fact that we’ve internalized it that way.

I think a lot, for example, about what I do when my mother-in-law comes to visit. It’s like I’ve put on very powerful glasses and can see every single speck of dust, every smudge. It doesn’t matter that she knows and appreciates how much and how hard I work. If the house was dirty, who would that reflect poorly on? Not her son. That’s not her fault; that’s just how we’re still trained to think, and I’m guilty of this too. But it’s not as if women just like things cleaner than men. That’s essentialist ridiculousness. Women know that lack of cleanliness can be wielded in all manner of ways against them.

As I write this parenting burnout chapter, I’ve been thinking a lot about the rise of “paranoid” parenting: the idea that a child really needs to be supervised, in some way, at all times, pretty much up until the age of 12, if not until they can drive. It’s ostensibly to protect kids, but it’s also a very recent — we’re talking, the last 15 years — phenomenon. As many women have pointed out, it’s just one of the proliferating parenting compulsions: there’s “the new domesticity,” and the pressure to Pinterest Parent everything, but there’s also seemingly endless ways to parent “better” and “safer.”

Some of this anxiety, like many previous parenting anxieties, is a reaction to nebulous and often unspeakable fears about the future — the decline of America, for one, but also the gradual death of the planet. You can’t control the icebergs melting, but you can make sure your kid is never kidnapped on a playground because your eyes are on him at all times. But some of these compulsions are also a way to curb women’s growing freedoms and resistance to patriarchal ideals. Oh, you’re more powerful outside of the home? Let’s weigh you down with some absurd new parenting standards, unrooted in scientific fact! You’re more confident in resisting the patriarchy? Too bad, puree this baby food or you’re a bad mom!

I know that feels conspiratorial, but patriarchy, like any longstanding governing ideology, is fucking sneaky as hell, otherwise a bunch of organized women would’ve decimated it long ago. And one of its most devious tactics: convincing women to police and shame themselves and others for failing to fulfill the ever-more-demanding ideal, instead of declaring collective resistance. The shittiest thing about patriarchy is second-class citizenship, but the second shittiest part is how it convinces women to direct their contempt towards other women, instead of those who actually benefit from the system itself.

But back to cleaning house. Housecleaners should be paid a living wage. They should be paid enough so that they can take sick days and vacation days if they want it. They should have health insurance and the ability to save for retirement and to refuse to use chemicals that harm them. All outsourced labor should be paid in this way, whether it’s labor in the workplace or in the home, cleaning the home or taking care of a child. But outsourcing labor doesn’t fix the labor division; it just alleviates it. It doesn’t change the fundamental expectation of who’s “naturally” responsible for it. Women. Women who are paid and women who are not paid. I keep returning to this quote from Darcy Lockman’s All the Rage: “Everything we call a sex difference, if you take a different perspective — what’s the power angle on this — often explains things,” neuroscientist Lise Eliot tells Lockman. “It has served men very well to assume that male-female differences are hard-wired.” 

So how do we change this? Does having a housecleaner help, in that it makes it so that children don’t always see mothers doing the work, or does it make children think that things just magically get cleaned while they’re away at school? Does it disappear the problem without addressing it? As with everything, a solution that’s uniquely a solution for bourgeois people isn’t actually a solution. So I think about what I said above: I don’t hate cleaning. I find it kinda therapeutic and mindless. Maybe, if I didn’t feel the need to work so much, and the labor was split in a way where both people actually felt equal responsibility, and no one had to nag, and I’d still have leisure time — maybe it wouldn’t feel like such a shitty weight. Maybe it’d just feel like part of a balanced life.

Some Things I Read and Loved This Week:

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