A modern marriage is a contract whose negotiation of terms never ends. Gender roles are up for grabs, first come first served. Now that marriage licenses no longer come with job descriptions, it is our responsibility to negotiate our positions and expectations every single day. How exhausting! The ideal of an exact balance, of perfect cooperation, with two equal paychecks, two chefs, and four hands in the dishwater, is a diplomatic nightmare.
My own marriage is free form, adaptable to celebrate and accommodate each partner’s strengths and weaknesses, at least in theory. And operating under that theory, as the mature world wise bride I was at 21, I decided to preempt the war and quickly negotiated THE DEAL with my hubby dearest.
He works full time, while I work part time and do the housework (note: laundry still a free agent)
A perfect balance? In theory. I figured I would rather be washing dishes and have time for my writing than practicing my Subway Sandwich artistry around the clock. But when I eagerly told friends and family about THE DEAL, it invariably elicited raised eyebrows and sad eyed sympathy for my obvious naiveté. I’d argue, of course, pointing out the genius of customized role design and touting my approach as the new feminism. Yes, down on my hands and knees sweating over a mildewy bathtub, I am the poster girl for the modern woman, sigh.
There was only one small catch that I hadn’t considered: How was I supposed to know that things actually get dirty?
I grew up with a poet and an artist for parents. Tidy was always such a constrictive word. The surface debris was kept to a minimum, but full bathroom and kitchen scrubs were real events and cause for great praise and recognition. Any time spent on mundane repetitive tasks (and is cleaning anything else?) was considered a major sacrifice of one’s creative output. Just imagine how many of our most illuminated works would never have existed if Rembrandt and Byron had to spend their mornings “tidying up”.
Naturally, I expected the same heaping on of praise when I presented my first sparkling clean kitchen to my new husband. As soon as he walked in the door I took him on a guided tour of the room, stopping numerous times to explain my method of attack. I was so proud. He smiled and kissed me, then we plopped down in front of the TV.
During the commercials I kept getting up to go peak into the kitchen, each time feeling a surge of pride. I walked in the next morning fully expecting the same thrill, but no. There was grease all over the stove top, crumbs on the counter, and a brand new pile of grimy dishes. All my hard work was ruined! And I’d been the one who’d made supper, so who was I supposed to blame for such a travesty? The absolute horror struck me, whatever I cleaned would get dirty again.
Worse than that, my hubby was far less impressed with his second tour that evening and, even more tragic, I didn’t feel that same sense of accomplishment.
At first I blamed my husband, whose abandoned socks in corners under dressers became personal insults. His shoes in the middle of the floor, I was convinced, were set out maliciously, to take advantage of the sweet deal he’d struck with an obvious idiot. I was even overwhelmed by guilt at my own clothes lying on the floor. I was loading more work onto a poor girl who was already in over her head. To make matters worse, there was a mysterious third party at work who I held personally responsible for all mold, mildew, and dust. I’m sorry, but I refuse to take ownership for my skin cells after they make the independent choice to leave my body.
I’d signed onto a daily struggle, battled out over dirty water and dust mops since time immemorial. What a deal!
The great tragedy of housework is its temporary nature. Like a fragile bouquet of annuals, a clean toilet (just as precious and fragrant), only sets the stage for living. I understand something more about being a woman. So often we’re setting the stage for other’s greatness. See, I’m trying desperately to get something, even philosophy, from cleaning!
Coming home from an afternoon shift on cash, only to find myself on hands and knees reaching into a dark corner for someone else’s contaminated sock was not my initial idea of perfect balance. Moments like that still bring anguished groans and cries at the injustice of it all, but then my husband walks in and collapses at the table after a full shift managing the chaos of a coffee house. He takes a bite of the supper I’ve been able to cook us in our clean kitchen, and he smiles. Suddenly, I remember what our deal is all about. It’s not about getting a drum-roll every time I get out the broom. It’s about setting the stage for that tired smile and knowing that we’re both taking one for the team. Now if only we could out-source our laundry, we’d be well on our way to having this marriage thing all figured out.