On being an adult

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.



1 Comment

  1. At it’s core – if it smells wash it. If it’s on the floor put it away or in the trash (depending on whether it’s yours or someone elses). And try to cheerfully help others clean up your mess.

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