Thursday, December 4, 2014

To Be A Housewife

Who knew such an innocuous comment about sewing buttons could touch off such a firestorm? There has been a lot of talk about the history of the home as a functional economic unit, and the value of the craft of homemaking in the family, and what homemaking looks like in real life. You should go read them all. Do I have anything of value to add to the conversation? No, not really. As I have read these various takes on the value of the work of a homemaker, I have felt a bit like an outsider. The fact is that I am not a homemaker. The basic skills of homemaking or the lack thereof is what drove our decisions about who would have a job and who would stay home. A large portion of my life circumstance is based on the fact that I had no idea how to run a household or do many of the tasks pertaining to housewifery and the thought of doing it overwhelmed me. Fear-based decision making usually doesn't turn out well, in case you were wondering.

I was raised to have a career, except it wasn't exactly phrased like that. I could be anything I wanted to be. I was expected to get good grades. I was expected to participate in extra-curriculars. I was expected to go to college and get scholarships. I was not expected to learn how to cook. I was not expected to learn to sew. I certainly was not expected to craft anything. In school, career after career was presented to us, but mother and housewife was not among them because, really, who does that? At home, it wasn't discussed.

I never had any interest in learning to cook. My mother's idea of cooking involves boiling something out of a can and baking meat in the oven. It wasn't good, but she had no patience to give the food its proper attention. This isn't an accusation; she will tell you exactly that. Since food was meh at best, learning how to function in the kitchen seemed pointless. What's funny is that I had a friend who loved to come to our house to eat because her family went to Taco Bell every night. Even soggy green beans boiled to oblivion were more homey than her house. I certainly wasn't the only child with little to no example in the kitchen.

At some point in my teenaged years, my mother would sometimes expect me to feed myself and my siblings when she wasn't home. My little sister almost always stepped in to do it. Nobody taught my sister to cook and yet she learned. How or when, I have no idea. If I were alone, many times I would just starve. I don't know why, but I had to overcome a lot of inertia to get me into the kitchen. I think a lot of the reason is that I want things to be 'just so' and when it isn't really your kitchen, nothing is 'just so.' I still have that problem. For me to prep food with peace of mind and without crankiness, I would first have to completely clean and reorganize the kitchen. This is a task of several days. I just stay out as a coping strategy. I also don't think well when I am hungry. I make the decision about what to make much harder than it should be. Quick and easy is not something I am capable of in the kitchen unless we are talking about boiling pasta because my knife skills are not developed enough. When I'm hungry, quick and easy is what I want, but can't deliver.

Growing up, I had chores. I can still name them for you: load the dishwasher after supper (everything went in the dishwasher), vacuum the upstairs, clean the big half of the upstairs bathroom that had the toilet and the tub, and pick up my room. But beyond these basic tasks, learning household skills was not a part of my childhood. Sometimes my father, who grew up on a farm and knows how to do a million things, is incredulous at the tasks my siblings and I don't know how to do. My sister will retort, "I don't know how to do it because my father never taught me how." This reply usually ends the recitation of our shortcomings, but doesn't change the fact that teaching household skills was pretty much ignored. There is much we are clueless about.

For whatever reason, the culture around doing chores at my house was discouraging. My mother was very easily distracted by conversation so she did not like doing her chores with company--this is also not a secret--which meant we did not do our chores with company. My mother usually did most of her work around 6am on Saturday mornings. We never saw it. To me chores felt like punishment even when they weren't. I was banished from society while doing them. Instead of acting rationally and getting them done as quickly as possible, I would languish for hours trying to figure out what to do first or get lost in my head. I could lay on the floor doing nothing for hours.

I am an odd introvert. I like to talk and am quite chatty. I like being around people, but not too many people. I feed off of the energy of having other people around except not too many people and not for too long. I know, picky, picky. I still have this problem. I accomplish more when someone else is home than when I am by myself. I just feel lost when I am home alone and hours waste away with nothing to show for it. I get frustrated with myself because why can't I just pull it together? When I was first married, all those old feelings surfaced again. Dave was working and I spent hours and hours by myself, lonely and spinning my wheels. I didn't really know what to do or how to do it or if I did, I'd waste hours waiting for someone to get home before starting. This isn't a recipe for success.

What is the point of this tale of woe?

The fact is that most people around my age and younger were not raised to be household managers. We were raised to get jobs. We find ourselves in situations we were not prepared to handle. Many of us feel there is a better way to live but see a chasm between what we know and what we ought to know. Most of us deal with this incongruency with humor. Dark humor, perhaps, but humor nonetheless. We can laugh or cry in despair. What I don't understand is why many who *do* possess these skills take it as a personal affront because so many of us don't possess them. As Calah says here:
You mothers who entered into your marriage knowing how to sew, cook, and clean, who learned the virtues of patience and fortitude, who grew up being trained in the domestic arts — you are truly blessed. The vast majority of my blog has been a chronicle of the tension between realizing that my vocation is true and vital but having no idea where to start learning it, and feeling that I’m truly failing in the meantime. I’m not laughing at you, and there’s no need to prove to me that you are superior.
It's not so easy to learn entire areas of expertise after you figure out that you actually should have learned all this stuff ten or twenty years ago while up to your neck in children. Most of us do not have nice Mormon neighbors to show us the way. We are groping around blindly. I, for one, admire the ones who stay in the trenches despite their lack of skill and persevere while making it all up as they go along. I ran away like a coward.

I decided I wanted to learn how to knit and I have done it on and off again over the past year. I make washcloths. Ugly, misshapen washcloths, but it is the only way to learn. As I sat over Thanksgiving weekend slowly knitting a new washcloth, I had one child leaning on one arm, another sitting over my head, and then Marian grabbed the needles out of my hand and an hour's worth of work unraveled in about 15 seconds. It was just a washcloth and I didn't even get mad,  but it illustrates the reality of learning homemaking skills with young children. It is many times an exercise in futility. There is no doubt that many times there is value in that futility, but many times we just want to throw up our hands. We shouldn't have such a steep learning curve, but we do, and many valuable skills will have to fall by the wayside until we have time enough to pick them up again.

FYI: I actually do know how to sew on a button. It is ugly and likely overkill, but the blasted button stays on the fabric.


Melanie Bettinelli said...

Reading through all these blog posts, I've realized how lucky I was. Even though my mom worked full time, she passed on many of those skills. She knew how to sew and liked to cook and bought me a cookbook when I was six or so and I worked my way through it making the things I thought looked interesting. I remember cooking some beef dish at the stove when I was short enough to need to stand on a stool to reach the stove. I learned to sew enough to know how to use a sewing machine and to sew on a button. I remember my mom making me a Halloween costume. Just a simple white robe for an Egyptian princess costume, but she pulled out the sewing machine to do it. She took home ec in high school, she always felt guilty about how our house wasn't always neat and beautiful, but it was only messy never dirty. I remember having cleaning days when I was little, Saturdays when my parents did all the cleaning. I remember polishing the coffee table with Pledge on an old cloth diaper and emptying trash cans. And when I was older I took over vacuuming and dusting and I scrubbed the bath tub. I don't remember being made to do those things but wanting to do them. I was the one who made my younger brothers and sister do chores because I wanted a tidy house and felt they all needed to do their fair share. When I was in high school I did more housekeeping than my mom did and while she ran errands on Saturdays and my dad worked his second job at the Catholic bookstore my parents owned I bullied everyone else into cleaning the house. And got paid for doing so--both the babysitting and the house cleaning. I think the biggest struggle for me has been trying to figure out how to keep everything up to my own internal standards of clean while dealing with babies and toddlers underfoot. Things are never really clean to my satisfaction and I go through periods of just giving up in despair and letting everything go to hell because it's just too much to deal with. My hoarding tendencies don't help in maintaining a tidy house with seven people living in it. I know how to sew on a button and do it pretty well, but I still have a pile of Dom's pants that just need a button that have been sitting there for years while I do everything but. Sewing on buttons is boring or something. I have a mental block when it comes to mending though I used to adore mending clothes when I was in high school and college.

bearing said...

I learned to cook because I like food. I never learned to sew properly except as needed -- I can hand-hem pants or curtains, sew on a button, etc. -- but in the age of Youtube, why should we feel sheepish? If we want to know how to fold a fitted sheet or separate eggs there are videos to show us how.

Jenny said...

I can also fold a fitted sheet! I have random talents. :)

My two biggest issues with housekeeping are related: perfectionism and inefficiency. I don't have the skill or practice to do any given task with any efficiency, but I have definite ideas about what standard should be kept. The result is usually that it takes me four times as long as a sane person to do anything and I'm still unhappy with the result because standards. Maybe one day I'll gain the skills to function at home without being hamstrung.

I plan on Youtubing the heck out of knife videos if I ever get to be the household cook. Ten or twenty minutes is not a reasonable amount of time to spend chopping an onion.