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On being an adult

NoShoes

Paul: I learned to do specific, useless household chores as a kid. Like iron towels.

Julie: My mom asked me to help fold towels once. Then she told me to stop because I was doing it wrong. I don’t think I ever did anything around the house again.

Just this morning, Paul and I were talking about household chores, and then later I ran into this essay about how we all need to learn to do domestic adult-type things. [ Be an adult... learn to cook] This inspired me to locate and publish this partially completed essay started about a year ago:

Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House

I recently skim-read this book while those around me played card games. I’ve had housekeeping on the brain, since getting engaged in an aggressive, hardcore effort to make the apartment livable, now that we finally decided we probably couldn’t save enough money by moving to make it worthwhile to move for that reason, and Paul’s Not-So-Excellent Elbow Adventure renders any other reason to move, for the time being, moot.

I read the introduction when the book first came out (2005) and was intrigued by some of her ideas, but then tossed it aside in disgust when some of her assumptions started to get on my nerves. Probably the most grating thing was her consistent underlying assumption that the primary keeper of the house was female. Maybe that reflects reality, but I still don’t like it as an editorial stance.

Another problem I had, is that her standards are so incredibly meticulous. Sure, she
says she’s giving a best case scenario and you don’t have to do everything she recommends as frequently as she recommends doing it. But she recommends changing bed linen more than once a week, vacuuming daily, cleaning out the refrigerator — not just dealing with leftovers and stuff but taking everything out and unplugging and disinfecting all the interior surfaces — once a week. Once a frigging week. Something I probably get to once a year, in a good year.

So, her advice leaves me with no sense of what a realistic on-top-of-things housekeeping schedule would look like for an ordinary mortal like me. (With her, every day is CLEAN ALL THE THINGS.)

Her most interesting content is her theory about why nobody knows how to keep house anymore. She claims that, when technology dramatically changed the realities of daily housekeeping in the early 20th century, the then-adult generation didn’t pass down housekeeping skills to the next generation, because they didn’t see the point. The pre-vacuum cleaner generation didn’t have a clue what to teach the post-vacuum cleaner generation. In turn, their children expected to have nothing to teach the next generation after that, because they thought it would all be done by robots or whatever. Instead, housekeeping technology has remained pretty stable since the original vacuum-cleaner event horizon, but the break in generation-to-generation transfer means that most people nowadays grow up without the faintest clue how to keep house.

This part resonated with me and with Paul. We felt like we were never really taught how to keep a house, nor were we appropriately apprenticed. Then our parents acted surprised when we turned into adults who didn’t have a clue about how to do all that stuff.

However, I would attribute the transmission failure at least partly to a different cause — the technology itself makes it possible for a sufficiently dedicated housekeeper, especially one without a day job, to basically pick up after the whole household. In Olden Times, the enthusiastic participation of every single available member was required just to keep up. So the primary housekeeper would teach the kids how to do it out of necessity, because their labor was actually required.

But — let’s face it — teaching very young children how to do housework is actually kind of a chore all by itself. And they’re kids, so they won’t be very good at it, not at first. And with school being their first priority, things won’t always be done on the preferred adult schedule, etc., and before you know it, you have the pattern we grew up with. As a young child you’re given either token chores, or “pick up your own room” types of chores, but you’re not expected to help with the more general housework. Then, as an older kid, your mom thinks you ought to be helping, but because you aren’t in the habit, you have no idea what she expects you to do. Then, when you get to be a teenager, your mom doesn’t even try to get you to help anymore. She just complains that you don’t.

Et voila, another domestically clueless adult is loosed upon a college dorm.

(Side note inspired by the Jezebel article, which includes a number of horror stories about people getting to college without even the vaguest idea about how to do laundry or cook food: neither Paul nor I was ever so clueless that we could literally not follow the directions on a washing machine or box of Kraft macaroni.)

Home Comforts contains no theories about where people do manage to get their ideas for how housekeeping is supposed to be done. Magazines, certainly, and web sites. Personally, I think a lot of people get their ideas from commercials for housekeeping products. You see an advertisement for a toilet bowl cleaner and think — oh! You need to clean toilet bowls? So that’s why mine doesn’t look like Mom’s used to!

Anyway, in theory this book should have been exactly what we needed — the important housekeeping information we didn’t get from our parents — but it’s too sprawling for reference, and doesn’t address what I see as the biggest challenge in this modern era of egalitarian households: how do you divvy up the responsibilities so that everything gets done  and nobody feels burdened by that OH MY GOD WHY DO I HAVE TO DO EVERYTHING AROUND HERE feeling.

You get into passive-aggressive roommate standoffs. Well, it’s sure not MY job. Nope, not MY job either. Then the person who is more easily disgusted, more efficient, more organized, or just more irritated by STUFF everywhere gives in and cleans up. By some strange uncanny coincidence, this is usually the female roommate. Nobody involved is obnoxiously patriarchal enough to actually declare “well, you’re the chick, so it is your job actually,” and yet the end result is exactly the same. So what do we do about that? I have no clue. No clue at all.

One problem with domestic chores is that if you are succeeding at keeping on top of them, they become kind of invisible. Cleaning is about the disgusting grime buildup that isn’t there; straightening is about the discarded pair of pants you don’t trip over; paying bills on time is about the service that isn’t cut off and the creditors who don’t call to harass you. So it can feel like you’re not being rewarded at all for something that is actually a lot of hard work.

That’s probably why, of all the domestic chores there are, cooking is the one I actually got into. Cooking involves so many cool things that make it inherently fun: knives, fire, chemistry, books, research, experimentation, fruit, vaguely witchy jars of herbs, etc. And the reward when it works out — delicious food — is immediate and tangible. So I think I have a pretty good handle on cooking… when I’m functional enough to have a handle on anything.

 

 

Originally published at Goth House. You can comment here or there.

Comments

( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
xiphias
Oct. 19th, 2013 01:13 am (UTC)
We have quite a number of books on keeping house -- not only HOME COMFORTS, but also things going back to "Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management" from 1861. Indeed, we kept collecting books on household management, organization, and clutter control until we looked around and discovered a clutter pile consisting of nothing but books on how to control clutter.

The most useful one we have is one designed for Orthodox Jewish women, called Lifesaver! by Sarah Glaser. Seriously. It's SPECIFICALLY designed for Orthodox Jewish women who grew up in more modern families, and are now finding themselves in the position of being in sole charge of a household, even though they never grew up expecting to be running a family with lots and lots of children, in which the gender roles are expected to be separate. You think the HOME COMFORTS assumption that women are primary homemakers is grating? This blows that one away.

And yet, it's actually USEFUL. It's got charts and daily lists and stuff. Its housekeeping standards are within human ranges -- it's designed for the assumption that you will usually have at least ONE toddler puking behind the dishwasher at any time, and therefore you're not going to manage perfection. It's got a supplement for cleaning for the Jewish holiday of Passover, which is an EXTREME chore -- and the largest part of the book is "which are the bits you can skip when you're running out of time." On its front page, it says,
WARNING!
Because LIFESAVER! contains so much information, it may be overwhelming and intimidating to some readers.
Do not expect to do everything that is presented! No one does. It is unrealistic to even try.
Select those details important to you. Learn, and then apply them, one at a time.


Mind you, I DON'T manage to keep the house to that standard, but at least it's plausible.
mcjulie
Oct. 19th, 2013 04:28 pm (UTC)
discovered a clutter pile consisting of nothing but books on how to control clutter.

Heehee.
calendula_witch
Oct. 19th, 2013 01:41 am (UTC)
Now I suddenly feel grateful for having been raised off the grid and having to help out from an early age. Maybe that's why everyone who enters my house these days goes, Wow, this seems so grown-up. :-)

I'm just always thrilled to have electricity and hot running water.
mcjulie
Oct. 19th, 2013 04:31 pm (UTC)
Congrats on being a grownup!

I have no doubt that being raised off the grid helps.
seventorches
Oct. 19th, 2013 06:38 pm (UTC)
I used to really like Flylady. She started letting her religion and morality bleed into everything too much, and there is too much shilling for her products now (you can get nice big microfiber towels at a local store that DON'T have to be washed so the purple dye doen't bleed all over the thing you're trying to clean, for a lot less). BUT, the basic advice is excellent. Divide the house into zones and do one zone a week; do a single task for only 15 minutes and then stop; declutter first, then clean; set times to do household planning (bills, menus, etc) and then do them at those times; stuff like that. "Put the rag in your hand and move it back and forth."
mcjulie
Oct. 19th, 2013 07:14 pm (UTC)
Hmm, I'll have to check it out. The 15 minute thing strikes me as possibly good advice.
cjot
Oct. 20th, 2013 02:17 am (UTC)
Ha, that is Uly & my book! Neither of us ever did read the whole thing. We like it because it is a big fat book and the author is kind of crazy, so it's entertaining. It does contain useful information, so I use it as a reference one in a while. But yeah, it is not even remotely realistic. The bit that first clued me in was when she started talking about ironing tablecloths. Now there's nothing wrong with ironing tablecloths, but she wrote as though of course everyone is going to do that on a regular basis.
mcjulie
Oct. 20th, 2013 04:58 pm (UTC)
Yup, it is your book!

There was a point where I tried to add up all the things she thought you should be doing on a regular basis and how much time it would take, and it was not just too many hours for somebody who also has a day job, or hobbies, or a need for sleep -- it struck me as taking literally more hours than there are in a week.
skellington1
Oct. 21st, 2013 01:17 am (UTC)
Reading this reminded me, again, that I was raised fairly differently from a lot of people in-and-around my generation, which is something I didn't really grok until the last few years. Specifically, the foodie movement started getting hip, and house-cleaning sites talking about 'old fashioned' cleaning tips started becoming cool, and slightly-younger-than-me friends started talking about how amazing it was to cook from scratch -- and I looked up, slightly bewildered, and asked "Wait. That isn't what you've been doing all along?"

I think it's because my mom grew up dirt poor in a family with 7 kids, and then my folks were poor when I was small. And poor in rural Oregon 50 years ago is a different beast than poor now, obviously -- when mom's family was *broke*, they got home-made bread and food from scratch. When they were doing well (by their standards) they bought velveta and wonderbread. :P Now, families in poverty are more likely to have parent(s) working more than one job and unable to cook, or live in a food desert. But mom learned all the 'old' stuff, and passed it on to me as normal.

I knew lots of people my age who DIDN'T know basics, though. Most of 'em were male. :| All my female friends were expected to help out around the house, while only some of the guys were. Some of the guys admitted intentionally screwing up simple tasks so they wouldn't be asked again. Drove me CRAZY.

That said, all that just means I know how to do stuff. It doesn't mean I do it. :P Granted, my mom was NOT a regimen keeper, so I never got much idea of schedule beyond 'when mom freaks out.' But it's 90% laziness/lack-of-reward/having-a-hundred-better-things-to-do. I once saw an Unfuck Your Habitat suggested cleaning schedule, and I do everything they suggest at least one time category less often -- so if it's daily, I do it weekly; weekly, I might do it monthly, etc -- except for changing sheets. Literally the only thing on the list where I met their standard! Like you, I deep clean the fridge once a year, if that. If I could manage once a season, I'd think that was quite respectable!

I definitely think the lack-of-reward is HUGE. I'm super motivated by projects that have some tangible outcome; cleaning just puts you back at square one to do again next week. And the housemate thing does complicate it -- I'm landlady AND housemate (and then my BF's here a lot but doesn't live here), and I've no idea how to make it equitable. I know I do more than housemate Xed, but I also make more mess -- I'm the one that has cats, and hobbies, and does actual cooking instead of microwave magic. We muddle along okay with the division of labor that evolved (he mows, gets the trash out on pick-up day, and deals with the main bathroom; I do the other common areas), but whenever we add a third housemate to the mix it just goes all to hell.
mcjulie
Oct. 21st, 2013 01:41 am (UTC)
Some of the guys admitted intentionally screwing up simple tasks so they wouldn't be asked again

I have accused my husband of this. Usually he denies it.

Unfuck Your Habitat is a pretty great site. It actually has the attitude I was looking for.
skellington1
Oct. 21st, 2013 05:32 am (UTC)
It's much better than most such things, I agree. At least there's a sense of humor about it.

I'm still a time-increment off all their suggestions, though. :P Such a shitty housekeeper.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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