Posted on

Art work vs. housework

This month’s post was meant to be about finding time to write and make art—something that I know many people struggle with. But as I was writing about it, I realised that for me, I couldn’t really talk about art work until I’d talked about housework first.

I realise that sounds a little mad. (Welcome to my brain!) Housework is something we don’t usually like thinking about (let alone doing). Housework is boring: it comprises a significant chunk of my days and yet, strangely enough, I haven’t learned to love it. Housework is something most of us ignore until we can ignore it no longer.

But housework is essential to our wellbeing. It’s a necessary evil. It’s drudgery, but it has to be done—mostly for the sake of everyone’s sanity. A messy (overly messy, not normal messy!) chaotic home has a significant impact on the mental and physical health of its inhabitants, and that’s mostly due to the significance of the home. We may work outside the home, but everyone always returns to it at the end of the day in order to be refreshed and to recuperate for tomorrow. Home is the place where we relax—where we can be ourselves—where we can nurture ourselves and each other. Home has a massive significance psychologically: if our home burns to the ground, we feel that loss keenly—not so much because of our material goods reduced to ash, but because of our memories of the place and the emotional value we have invested in that place. Having no home feels awful and unsettling. In contrast, buying or moving into a home (“settling down”) implies a sense of security and stability. Home is about familiarity—knowing the quirks of a place, like where all the power points are located; the temperament of the kitchen oven; the way the light looks when it shines through the windows at different times of days; and the sound the building makes when it’s settling in the cool of the evening. Home is where we feel at home.

And housework is how we maintain that feeling of home being home. This is why cooking, cleaning, laundry, taking out the trash and so on are important. This is why parents all over the world make their children tidy up. This is why housework—boring evil drudgerous housework—has its own dignity, value and worth.

Washing machine

But historically (and this is the part that fascinates me about topic of housework, rather than the work itself, although I hesitate to talk about it because the very act of talking about housework feels incendiary—as if I’m about to start a gender war), it’s always been the lower classes who were responsible for housework: the poor served the rich and catered to their every need. The rise of the middle class has meant that most of us now do our own housework, and traditionally the burden of that has fallen to women. Certainly in the West in 1950s, that’s what being a housewife was all about—keeping an impeccable home, with housework occupying a whopping 32 hours per week back in 1965 (Jennifer Senior, All Joy and No Fun, HarperCollins, 2014, pp. 153-154). Arlie Russell Hochschild, in The Second Shift (which I haven’t read, but this summary makes me want to) found that, during the 1960s and 70s, taking both paid and unpaid labour into account, women were doing a full month of 24-hour days more than their male partners.

These days, accounting for both paid and unpaid labour, men and women are working almost equal hours, and male participation in housework and childcare, on average, has increased (Jennifer Senior, p. 53). (Side note: this is an interesting little statistic: each extra child adds an extra 120 hours of housework per year.)

But the division of domestic labour is not quite at parity. A 2015 study of working couples found that men who took a more or less equal share of the housework before kids added 40 minutes to their load around the time their baby had reached nine months, whereas in comparison, their wives had added more than two hours of daily work (source). Furthermore, mothers are more likely to multitask—usually with childcare and housework: one study found that mothers spend an average of 10 extra hours per week multitasking than fathers. Mothers are also more likely to engage in deadline-oriented time-pressured tasks—for example, getting the kids off to school, or putting dinner on the table. And mothers tend to identify themselves more as caregivers, meaning that they expend a lot more psychic energy on parenting, hence the current discussion around invisible labour and the mental load (Jennifer Senior, pp. 58-61). (Please note that these are all American stats; unfortunately the Australian Bureau of Statistics has not tracked Australian data for the past 10 years.)

To generalise broadly, part of the difference can be explained by the way that men and women are wired. Women are socially conditioned to see caregiving as an expression of love. Cooking is not just putting food on the table; it is nurturing loved ones. Tidying is not just clearing clutter and putting things away; it is creating a space in which family members can relax. Men, on the other hand, tend to view housework as just that: housework—menial labour that they’d rather pay someone else to do than do themselves. This means that a man’s refusal or reluctance to do housework can feel like emotional rejection to a woman, and a woman’s rejection of a man’s suggestion of hiring domestic help can appear ridiculous (Gaby Hinsliff, Half a Wife: The Working Family’s Guide to Getting a Life Back, Chatto and Windus, London, 2012, p. 92).

You can see why discussions about housework can be incendiary and can often end in bitter conflict, with working mothers and fathers competing with one another to prove who is doing more. (It was conflict over whose turn it was to empty the Diaper Genie that led Jancee Dunn to write How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids [Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2017.]) Gaby Hinsliff in Half a Wife quotes a study of full-time workers done by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine that found that discussions over household chores made blood pressure rise faster than work meetings (p. 91). It’s because such discussions are as much about the worth and value of what each partner does, as well as the content of what they do, and the amount of what each partner does is therefore going to affect what else they can and can’t do—including making art.

So I find myself sympathising with Rufi Thorpe, who wrote in her essay “Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid”,

I have tried to say it to my husband; I have tried to say, “I hate my life.” I have tried to say, “I need help.” I have tried to explain why I am finding being a mother so difficult, but in the face of his questions, my explanations collapse. It isn’t exactly that spending time with the children is so horrible. I mean, sometimes it is, sometimes we have a bad day, but most of the time it is relatively pleasant: we go to the store, we go to the park, everyone is well behaved, the three-year-old says something cute, the baby does something new. The problem is not in what I am doing. The problem is in what I am not doing, which is writing every day, but which is also leading a life of the mind …

There are other ways too in which I am invisible. I often feel that the work I do around the house is the work of an invisible person. How else could my husband consistently leave his underwear tucked behind the bathroom door? His wet towel on the bed? Surely, he does not imagine me, swearing, swooping to pick up his damp, crumpled briefs with a child on one hip as I listen to a podcast and ponder going gluten free. He is not making a statement with his actions, saying, “Here, wife, pick up after me.” Instead, I think that on some level he believes that he lives in an enchanted castle where the broom comes to life and sweeps, and the teapot pours itself …

Male writers have often had children, but they have often famously refused to bend to them. On her twelfth birthday, Faulkner’s daughter asked him not to get drunk, and he refused, telling her, “No one remembers Shakespeare’s children.”

Tolstoy’s wife wrote in her journal:

How little kindness he shows his family! With us he is never anything but severe and indifferent. His biographers will tell how he helped the porter by drawing his own water, but no one will know that he never once thought to give his wife a moment’s rest, or his sick child a drink of water. How in 32 years he never once sat for five minutes by his sick child’s bedside to let me have a rest, or a good night’s sleep, or go for a walk, or simply sit down for a while and recover from my labours.

When I shared these anecdotes with my husband, he responded with horror. “But these men were assholes,” he said. “You can’t possibly want to be like them? Even fathers nowadays couldn’t get away with acting like that.” “Of course not,” I said, because it is hard to defend wanting to be an asshole. “But is it the price?” I asked, unwilling to give the discussion up. “Is the price of great art being an asshole?” He looked at me like I was insane. “No,” he said. “The price of great art is not being an asshole!”

The next morning, I picked his underwear up from behind the bathroom door and wondered if he was right. I will say this: it is probably easier to be an artist and an asshole. It is probably easier to get the time you need to work if you don’t care how it affects the people around you. It is easier to focus on achieving one thing than achieving two things.

I am aware that all of this comes across as hyper feminist husband-bashing, which is certainly not my intention (and it certainly must be said that my own wonderful husband does a wonderful job with his share of the domestic load and in appreciating and supporting me). I actually don’t believe that parity is always possible (or even desirable) when it comes to the division of domestic labour. Instead, I think it’s about fairness and working out what fairness looks like to each person in the couple. The division is affected by so many other factors—not just your ability and willingness to help, but also the status of your paid employment (if any); how flexible your employer is; how much each of you is earning (and how much the household needs in order to service a mortgage or take care of rent so that you can live within a reasonable distance of each other’s workplaces); the length of each person’s commute, and how that affects when you leave home and when you return to it; and so on. These are complicated discussions, and the solution for one household will not necessarily work for another household.

The point of all this is to raise the discussion in the first place. I suspect that, for most women, the amount of time consumed by housework is going to have a far greater impact on the amount of time they are able to spend on art work than men spend—simply because women tend to carry the lion’s share of the domestic load. When I look at my male contemporaries in comics (many of whom are fathers with children around the ages of my children), I don’t see them having to wrestle with these sorts of issues. (Maybe they’ve got it all worked out already!) But as Rachel Power says in The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood (now titled Motherhood and Creativity: The divided heart),

To create art once you have children requires the commitment of more than one person. With kids in the mix, if I wanted to retreat, it required the cooperation of my partner … a situation I found both humbling and infuriating” (Red Dog, Fitzroy, 2008, p. 14).

Often the conversation is more fraught when it’s the mother wanting to create the art, rather than the father, which is why Susannah Windsor Freeman has a whole section in The Busy Mom’s Guide to Writing: Maintain your mommy-groove and achieve your writing goals on how mothers can get their partners to support their writing. Note that this is a topic that usually isn’t found in most writing books written by men.

Green salad

Until domestic robots become much more capable (I confess I look forward to the ubiquity of the laundry folding machine), we’re kind of stuck with housework and the various (and possibly gendered) discussions around housework. And when it comes to thinking about how to make time for art work, in my opinion, the key is to try to keep housework at an acceptable level. Here are some strategies for you (and your partner, if you have one) for how to do that:

  1. Divide and conquer: This is the strategy advocated by Stacie Cockrell, Cathy O’Neill and Julia Stone in Babyproofing Your Marriage: How to laugh more and argue less as your family grows (Harper, New York, 2007). You make a list of everything that needs to happen (and when they say everything, they mean EVERYTHING—even those pesky little tasks you usually forget about, like gift-buying and wrapping, keeping on top of children’s birthday party invitations and the school newsletter, and monitoring homework). Then allocate each task to someone. Of course, this may require some negotiation. If there’s something one of you particularly likes doing and the other doesn’t, it’s easy. But if both of you don’t like doing the thing, some bargaining may need to happen. Once you’ve divided and conquered, monitor how things are going and revise your lists regularly.
  2. Stick to a routine: Sometimes it feels overwhelming to get it all done. I combat that by only doing certain chores on certain days. For example, when it comes to laundry in our household, Mondays are for towels, tea towels and face washers; Tuesdays and Saturdays/Sundays are for clothes; and Saturdays are for bedding. With the cooking, on Mondays I make a meal that lasts for two nights; on Wednesdays I use the slow cooker and make something that might last for three; and on the weekends, I do simple meals, or we get takeaway.
  3. Be more efficient in the way you do the housework: Susannah Windsor Freeman likes to take this approach. So, for example, do your dinner meal prep at lunchtime; draw up a meal plan for the entire month (or have a rough one in your head!); order your groceries online and have them home delivered; make good use of your slow cooker and scale up your quantities so that one meal can be used for multiple nights; pack lunches for several family members at once (I make a sandwich for my youngest for the following day at the same time that I make sandwiches for my eldest to take to school); and hang out your laundry with clothes arranged by person so that you don’t need to sort them later.
  4. Set a timer: A friend of mine likes to take this approach: she sets her timer for 15 minutes and does what she can during that time, then leaves the rest for later.
  5. Reward yourself: Combat the boring evil drudgery by doing something nice for yourself. At the moment, I motivate myself to do housework by promising myself I can listen to podcasts; the content certainly makes the task way less dull. My mother-in-law told me she would reward herself for a job well done with a Mint Slice.
  6. Outsource: This is particularly worth doing for tasks that neither you nor your partner want to tackle. Hire a cleaner. Take your car to the car wash. Get takeaway occasionally. Pay someone to put together your IKEA furniture. When it comes to time versus money, it’s usually better to choose time.
  7. (Related to 3) Co-opt the kids: The Harvard Grant Study, which is the longest longitudinal study of humans ever conducted, found that professional success in life comes from having done chores as a kid, because you learn to see beyond yourself and take initiative. Furthermore, the earlier you start, the better! So even though it can feel easier to just do things yourself instead of nagging and nagging (and nagging), there’s value in getting your kids to help out around the home. Not only does it help you in the short-term, it really does help them in the long-run. (Not sure what your kids can handle? In The Busy Mom’s Guide to Writing, Susannah Windsor Freeman devotes a whole section to listing chores by age group.)
  8. Lower your standards: Obviously your home needs to be comfortable enough so that it doesn’t drive the inhabitants crazy. But it
    doesn’t have to look like something out of the pages of Better Homes and Gardens either. Around here, the vacuuming still gets done every week (either by me or our wonderful life-saving cleaner) because we all have dust allergies that make us more prone to illness. But I quite happily neglect the decluttering, and the mending regularly piles up in the corner.
  9. Institute a housework Sabbath: Choose one day of the week and work towards minimising the housework that happens on that day. This will probably mean getting the housework done on the other days or outsourcing, but it will be worth it because it will give you a well-deserved break.

Now that I’ve said my piece about housework, I hope to tackle the topic of making time for making art next month. Stay tuned!

One thought on “Art work vs. housework

  1. […] A certain amount of time must be spent on certain things—housework (as I discussed at length in this post), eating, sleeping, commuting, working in your paid job, raising children, maintaining your […]

Comments are closed.