Why Housework Matters

There was an op-ed piece in the The New York Times entitled “The Case for Living in Filth”  about the role men and women play in the management of the home. Among the writers and philosophers cited in the article are Karl Marx and Simone de Beauvoir, one indication that the topic of housework and the division of labor is no small subject.

One phrase in the article leaped out at me – “emotional work.” As a stay-at-home mother, the management of my home – from making beds to paying bills – was my responsibility. I have always had a weekly housekeeper to do the serious cleaning, both because I’m terrible at it and because I was fortunate to be able to pay for it. But the “intimate drudgery” (another phrase from the article) of the lives of my family fell, for the most part, on me. I did all of our laundry, picked up after everyone, organized, grocery shopped, cooked, planned social activities, vacations, doctor appointments, play dates, home maintenance appointments, and so on. I found great reward in being the conductor of the little orchestra that was my family – and the “intimate drudgery” of the day-to-day tasks I performed connected me to my children and my husband in a profound and, yes, emotional way.

There will always be a division of labor between husband and wife. The article discusses that once a woman is earning more than her husband, she actually does more housework than she did when she was earning around the same or less than he does. It makes me wonder if, as women grow more successful and perhaps more distant from the day-in-day-out of their family’s lives, they feel an almost primal need to connect with them in this very basic way. Maybe women need an intimate connection to their family that housework, in some forms, can give them, in a way that men don’t. Men tend to bond with others through action – whether tossing a football, riding a bike or playing a video game – while women, for the most part, bond through words and emotions.

For me, the intimacy of organizing my children’s closets, folding their socks, making their meals – it was as integral to my life as their mother as watching them play sports or helping them with their homework. By performing these day-to-day tasks, I was able to gain an insight into their lives in a way that my husband couldn’t.  While he understood them on the softball or football field, I was privy to the little things that were in their pockets, their backpacks, their lunch boxes. The “intimate drudgery” of being their mother, of fishing out the empty packs of gum from under their bed or the half-eaten bag of Skittles from underneath a pile on their desk; the birthday party invitation crumpled up in a book bag, or a gumball machine charm stuffed in a pocket – these things were just as important to my understanding who they were as hearing about their day each afternoon. Sometimes it’s the clues that seem unimportant that can tell us so much about our children.

When I grow nostalgic for my children’s young years, the days of playgrounds and afternoon snacks, worksheets and skinned knees, it’s rarely for the big moments. What I miss most are those little things – the detritus of their young lives, the million socks I folded, the lunches I made, the sweaty hugs and bubbly bath times – the little intimacies.

I no longer enjoy the “emotional work” of keeping house the way I used to now that I’m an empty-nester. Now, dust is just dust, and laundry is simply a chore, and cooking…well, it’s practically a lost art. There are no Skittles to be found, no permission slips to be signed.

If the housework I did as a stay-at-home mom was “intimate drudgery,” it was filled with my children – and that made it worth it.

boy's life, mothering, raising kids, nostalgia, midlife, empty nest
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  • Tell me do you still have the housekeeper to do the heavy loading? I too am an empty nester, love a clean house and hate cleaning anything other than putting dishes into dishwasher.

  • I also am not the best housekeeper, and have always had someone clean once a week since I was single and living on my own! But I loved cleaning my son’s room, doing his laundry and making his lunches. The connectedness I felt never went unnoticed to me. I knew it would someday end, and I lived in the moment of doing it all. I miss it terribly.

    Part of the circle of life, the growing of children, the entrance to a new phase of my life is still difficult for me. It’s nice to know I have friends like you going through the same emotions at the same time.

    Nice piece, Sharon.

  • Thank God I have a housekeeping team every 2 weeks, because i have always hated housework. Laundry? It’s immediate gratification and I love it. but I get no pleasure out of cleaning. No satisfaction. I get lots of satisfaction every other Wed. when Esther and her team come, though! 😉 Oh yeah.

  • Sharon, the “intimate drudgery” involved with keeping house with children is definitely a window into their lives as you have so beautifully written. We have all made countless discoveries – some enchanting, others much less so – YIKES! One memory I will cherish is sitting on my daughter’s bed, typically in August, watching her try on clothes from the previous year, shocked at how much taller she had grown and how few of her school pants still fit. Next August, we will have one last shot at it before she leaves for college. Oh, my, I will miss that intimacy with her; it never felt like drudgery.

    • Cleaning out my daughter’s closet was one of my most favorite things to do with her – it was a chance for us to reminisce and giggle and plan what fun new things she would buy for the upcoming school year. I love that you enjoyed that too.

  • I dream of a day to hire a housekeeper for the big house cleaning. I like how you put into words about the day to day care taking rewards of motherhood. I loved it one day when I arrived at my sister’s house and found a layout of laundry stacks being done by her husband. He was in charge of this and a lot more as she worked so many hours.

  • So well written Sharon!
    Before my Mother went into an assisted living facility I cleaned her home and felt that connection when I found various things. It was really a good barometer on her ability to live alone. When I kept on finding a dinner in the oven not eaten, bills not paid and house plants not watered we all agreed it was time for some assistance.

  • I really love your perspective on this from an empty nester’s point of view. As a current stay at home mama to two little boys, I sometimes get caught up in the drudgery of it and forget that it really is a love language to care for those closest to us, even on the most basic level. Sometimes when the crumbs, smudges and clutter push me to the limits of my patience, I have to step back and remind myself that this is something I will not have the privilege to do for these boys forever.

    • It’s easy for me to look back and remember the poignant moments, but believe me I remember the hours of frustration, mess, sick kids and tasks to be done! My grandmother always told me, when I’d complain, to treasure those days with my babies, and more often than not I did – but I had my moments 🙂

  • This is meant as an observation, not a criticism. I was a stay at home mom on and off so I can relate to the bits about being involved in children’s lives. As I read your description I just became aware of how much that experience isolates and removes dads. It would seem to relegate the father to a sort of distant figure–missing out on some of the most rewarding and intimate part of parenting. Certainly what happened in our lives as children, and even as we were at home parenting, but I hope that my sons will become more intimately involved in the childrearing and homework-ing that fosters those connections.

    • I think men find intimacy with their children in many ways – I just don’t think most men find it in the little moments the way women do. And that’s not just for SAHMs, but for all moms. My husband was great at the middle of the night cries and bath time – but he wasn’t the one who tended to their day-to-day needs the way I did.

  • I’ve always enjoyed cleaning, sorting, organizing in spite of the fact that I have a college degree. Maybe it was because my own mom made it fun for us to clean/bake/launder together. I think that’s the key. We never thought of it as drudgery, just something we did together. Even now, when my 32-year-old son is around, when we’re cleaning out his bookshelves or sorting through old clothes to donate, it’s a way for us to get a job done and spend time together. Just a different perspective, and kind of funny, cos I wrote a post/review today about a cleaning product I tried.

  • Helene Cohen Bludman

    I also enjoyed the intimate job of washing clothes and folding laundry. The annual ritual of having them try on last year’s clothes was the true indicator of how much they had grown and how fleeting our time together was.

  • The article you quote is yet another in a long diatribe of intellect that’s short on humanity. Yes, it raises my hackles. I would not change one moment, or drudging chore, in the youth of my children’s care. Housewifery is an art and my family was worth every stroke of overworked frustrated paint I put on our canvas. It turned out to be a beautiful picture.

  • Very sweet post. And I’m not a great housekeeper either…pretty cruddy at it, actually. For someone who has a keen eye for the smallest detail, I don’t seem to “see” dust and dirt very well. But I’m great at decorating! LOL. Pillows always in place and nicely decorated rooms(if you ignore the dust). LOL. Would love to have someone clean my bathrooms and mop. Sigh.

  • I have always preferred housework to grocery shopping. I teamed every other week with cleaning help, but organizing games and toys, changing linens and keeping clothing clean never weighed too heavily. In the midwest climate many months were spent indoors and I could always pull my daughters into a game as I worked. Carrie was two when I decided to paint some woodwork. I gave her a small brush and a pail of water and she painted too. Naptime was dedicated to chores that couldn’t easily include my children.
    Thanks for your post, Sharon. As an empty nester the housework isn’t as much fun anymore.

  • I am not much of a cleaner but do try to keep things intact and make sure cobwebs don’t develop in those 4 weeks when my cleaner comes by for a rigid cleaning…lol

    loved your piece 🙂

  • The “intimate drudgery” was the sweetest, and like you, the times I miss most now that mine are grown. And probably why I look forward to grandchildren!

  • I’m trying to think positive warm fuzzy thoughts about all this but I just cant. As a single mom who does it ALL (no hired help, no family help – NOTA!), it bends me the wrong way to read how joyful we all should be with the “drudgery” of running the household. Plain and simple, I hate it and I am TIRED. NO warm fuzzies here. It plain sucks and is exhausting & soul-killing for me.

    I think it is also important to keep in mind the class issues that are not being discussed here. Some of us do not have the luxury of choice to get hired help. Or the luxury of having a male partner who comes home every night. Some of us have to be mom, dad, and everything in between. And believe me, the daily grind of doing it all takes its toll. It is difficult to read about how others take joy in their motherly duties. Oh how I wish thee could walk a mile in my shoes!

    Sorry, this is sounding harsh. And I don’t mean for it to be. Perhaps I don’t have the benefit of hindsight; since I am right in the thick of things now.

    • No need to apologize. If I had been a single parent I would have had a very different experience, no doubt. I’m sure my reminiscences seem a little crazy to you in your situation.

    • This poem I found is especially for you, House Crazy Sarah. My life was like yours. I’m much older than you and now have grandchildren. I know that it feels like you will never get your SELF back but you will; Trust me. Here is the poem below:

      Leave the dishes.
      Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
      and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
      Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
      Throw the cracked bowl out and don’t patch the cup.
      Don’t patch anything. Don’t mend. Buy safety pins.
      Don’t even sew on a button.
      Let the wind have its way, then the earth
      that invades as dust and then the dead
      up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
      Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
      Don’t keep all the pieces of the puzzles
      or the doll’s tiny shoes in pairs, don’t worry
      who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
      matches, at all.
      Except one word to another. Or a thought.
      Pursue the authentic-decide first
      what is authentic,
      then go after it with all your heart.
      Your heart, that place
      you don’t even think of cleaning out.
      That closet stuffed with savage mementos.
      Don’t sort the paper clips from screws from saved baby teeth
      or worry if we’re all eating cereal for dinner
      again. Don’t answer the telephone, ever,
      or weep over anything at all that breaks.
      Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons
      in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
      and talk to the dead
      who drift in though the screened windows, who collect
      patiently on the tops of food jars and books.
      Recycle the mail, don’t read it, don’t read anything
      except what destroys
      the insulation between yourself and your experience
      or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
      this ruse you call necessity.

      — Louise Erdrich, Original Fire: Selected and New Poems

  • Yes, I did all the emotional work as well…and a housekeeper. Between my back and the fact that I am lousy at housework I spent most of my time with my children as well as going back to get my Graduate degrees while they were young. I have to confess, I never cleaned their sock drawers though!

  • I love this! What a beautiful perspective and it’s very true for me. I’ve been a stay at home mom to five children for 18 years now and sometimes I feel guilty that I still enjoy “housework” so much. Not every part of course, but most of it. I like what you said about “intimate drudgery”. That’s exactly how I feel!

  • Loved this post. Cleaning was always a huge part of my life. I wrote a post about how cleaning affected my life and still does. My hubby of 39 years hardly ever picked up a cloth to dust – only if I asked him to help because I wasn’t feel great. He never said no or complained about the occasional or should I say rare event of his helping out with cleaning. From time to time, I get someone in to help me clean, but I always clean over what they clean so I found it fruitless…part of my cleaning OCD. I don’t miss cleaning after my kids because even as adults I still have to clean up after them when they visit. lol

  • I am a terrible housekeeper..but I get this. I feel connection to my family when I cook for them. I feel annoyed with them when I clean for them. haha.

  • I agree I don’t look at household chores the same way I used to and couldn’t figure out why. This makes so much sense to me. I actually enjoyed those things when the kids were home and now my husband does most of it.

  • Janice

    This post was fascinating to me. We never had kids so the whole concept of housekeeping as a form of nurture is new to me. My mother kept a very clean house (with my help but not my brothers’) but she never cleaned our rooms. That was our job. I was a very private child and would have felt violated if my mother went in my room.

    Neither my husband nor I like housework and do only as much as needed to avoid chaos unless we’re having company, in which case we scramble to make the place spotless. I’ve never wanted to be the chief housekeeper, after growing up watching my mom wait on my dad hand and foot (different times: they were born in 1920). My husband does his own laundry and cooks every meal with me, and it helps that we have the same level of tolerance for disorder. Not having kids has no doubt made division of labor less complicated.

  • I’m lucky enough to have had a cleaning lady once a week, but the amount of tidying needed before she showed up kept me pretty busy. I still enjoy cooking, but not other housework. My husband has taken over the laundry, which is costing us plenty, in trashed clothes, but I’m fine with it

  • So true, Sharon. It’s those little things we find in pockets and the bottom of drawers that reveals so much about them and what they value. I miss some of the day to day “intimate drudgery” now that mine have left the nest.

  • I also don’t mind day-to-day housework. (Yes, I also have a twice-monthly housekeeper for the elbow grease stuff). There’s a satisfaction to having a beautiful, well-running home that I never found in the business world. Just wish I got a paycheck, but that’s not the way it works. Its all out of love and maybe that’s what makes it special and rewarding.

  • Made me cry. I love your perspective on “intimate drudgery,” I loved caring for my boys and all those small details that made up their life. Our surviving son still hands me his trash from a mint or gum wrappers on those rare occasions when we can be together. It makes us both smile, it is still so natural. Beautiful post and thoughts, thank you for sharing.

  • What a beautiful way to describe the magic of what we do as women to care for our families. My honey and I don’t have kids yet but I LOVE to do his laundry – and make his lunches. Yes, some days it IS a PITA, but most of the time, it’s my way to show my love. I know he notices but I think it’s more of a ME thing than overtly for him.

    • Sharon Greenthal

      One of the first things I started doing for my husband when we were dating was his laundry. It just made me happy!

  • As I was making younger son’s lunch today, I thought about how sad it will be when I no longer have someone to make lunch for. He is 16 and I’m sure someone will try to tell me that he is quite capable of making his own lunch but there is so little left for me to do for him. He drives himself everywhere, I can’t help with homework, I don’t tuck him in at night. All that’s left is feeding him and doing his laundry, two things I never thought I would miss but I have a feeling I will. It’s really the only way I have of doting on him anymore.

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