Monday, July 18, 2011

Home is where the dishwasher is

Historiann has an interesting post up about Michelle Nijhuis's "Not one more winter in the tipi, honey." It's about the gendered division of labor that creeps in when idealistic back-to-the-land-for-a-simpler-life types experience parenthood. The glamor jobs like siding the yurt win a lot of praise whereas the realities of invisible (and repetitive) domestic work like washing diapers don't, and the division of labor that usually attends these tasks often means that women bail out first on the Arcadian dream.

I think it's partly the invisibility of these tasks, as Historiann says, and partly their lack of glamor, but also the sheer amount of mental as well as physical energy that they take. I've never done anything remotely yurt-like in terms of pure back-to-the-landness, but being in the Land of No Internets in the summertime has given me a little appreciation for that life.

I used to get impatient when whoever was in charge of cooking would ask what we'd like for dinner hours before dinner time, but I have more sympathy for that now, though I try not to ask. Once you're the person in charge of cooking, baking, and the rest, you realize that if you don't think about it in advance--first at the grocery store, since it's a long trek back there if you forget something, and then counting back from dinner time to the preparation time you're going to need--dinner and breakfast and lunch aren't going to happen.

Now, to be fair, other family members always offer to take over some of this work, especially washing the mountains of dishes, and certainly at home we have an equitable division of labor: one person cooks and the other cleans up, and so on. I've chosen to take on the more traditional role at the LoNI mostly to give everyone else more free time and because I don't have to do this permanently. I've also done this as a kind of experiment in 19th-century living and as an exercise in shifting focus from one form of work to another.

A lot of commenters over at Historiann's mentioned Laura Ingalls Wilder's books, and I'm reminded of something the character Laura thinks about in The First Four Years. In this book, she's pregnant and feeling miserable, but she realizes that "the work must go on, and she was the one who must do it."

To get back to the "not one more winter in the tipi" idea: You can put a solar panel on a yurt or not, depending on how you feel that day, but for all the domestic tasks, the work has to go on whether you feel like it or not. That makes a difference.


Bardiac said...

I'm finding it interesting that Laura Ingalls Wilder is the go-to model for these discussions. I'm not saying she's a bad model, and people have certainly made me think about her in ways I hadn't as a little kid when I read her obsessively. But more that she's such a cultural touchstone for the academics in these discussions.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

For Americans, Laura Ingalls Wilder is probably useful because she's so widely shared: many of us did read her obsessively (me, too), and the TV series snagged a wider audience (never saw any of that myself). I would like to point out that, repetitive and grinding though women's work was in the 19th century, so was men's: plowing fields and harvesting required long, hard hours of labor. Families were teams, and at best men and women respected each other's labor and realized that the whole enterprise would be lost without everybody's piece getting done. I saw this in my grandparents' marriage; though they were suburbanites by the time I knew them, they started as farmers. Gendered division of labor, absolutely, but my grandfather knew what my grandmother did for him, the house, the children, the church, and she valued her own work, too.

Anonymous said...

I brought her up because she was the last bedtime book we finished, and so on my mind. [We're currently on Henry Huggins (the one with the guppies). Next up, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz (that's the one with the earthquake and the horse... not as good as the last one with the shipwreck and the chicken).]

I've also been doing some work on that time period, so I now know that her experience is not how everybody in the US lived, which I didn't realize growing up! Though I guess they did hit a lot of how different people in the US lived just because they moved around so much.

undine said...

Bardiac, it is surprising that LIW is such a touchstone. I wonder if it's an American thing and if there's a similar figure in Great Britain, for example.

Dame Eleanor--absolutely right about the necessity of labor by both partners and the respect gained thereby. I think the new version (yurt dwellers or whatever) aren't under the same constraints, which is why the kinds of tasks can appear unequal.

nicoleandmaggie--it's surprising just how much people did move around then, especially since travel was anything but easy. I can't tell if people were more optimistic about what was over the next hill (shades of Pa Ingalls) or just had less to lose in those days. The diaries from women moving west suggest that they were often a lot less excited about the prospect.

Christina said...

I'm finding it interesting that Laura Ingalls Wilder is the go-to model for these discussions.
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