Cutting Back on Housework,. Marriage, Self, and Child
Yet another set of strategies involved cutting back on effort or on basic ideas about “what needs to be done” for the welfare of the house, the child, the marriage, or oneself.
Cutting back on housework was clear, intentional, and almost across the board for those without maids. Traditional working mothers often began the interview with apologies for the house and felt their lower aesthetic standard of living reflected on themselves personally. They felt badly when the house was messy, or at least thought they should feel badly. To them, it was a wrench to disaffiliate their self-esteem from the look of the house.
Egalitarian women did the opposite. They tried hard not to care about the house, and proudly told me about things they’d let go or forgotten to do. As Anita Judson said with a triumphant laugh, “Fm not the type to wash walls.” Others questioned the need to make beds, vacuum, clean dishes, pick up toys, or even make meals. As Carol Alston explained, “We eat big lunches, and Fm trying to diet, so dinners not a big deal.”
On the whole, women cared more about how the house looked than men did. When they didn’t care, they struggled harder against their upbringing and exerted more emotional effort to stop caring about the house.
After the birth of their first child, every couple I interviewed also devoted less attention to each other. Cutting back on time together was usually unintentional and very emotionally charged. Most couples felt as if they were “waiting” to get more time together. As Robert Myerson commented: “We have no time together alone. Were hanging on until the girls get older.” But when marriage became the main or only way of healing past emotional injuries—as it was for John Livingston—it was often hard to wait.
In the race against time, parents often inadvertently cut back on childrens needs as well. For one thing, they cut corners in physical care. One working mother commented: “Do kids have to take a bath every night? We bathe Jeremy every other night and then otherwise wash his face and hands. Sort of sponge him off. He’s surviving.” Another mother questioned a child’s need to change clothes every day: “Why cant kids wear the same pants three or four days in a row? When I was a girl, I had to change into fresh clothes every day, and my favorite clothes went by so quickly.” Another mother shared her philosophy of eating greens: “Joshua doesn’t eat greens anyway. So we fix something simple—soup and a peanut butter sandwich. He wont die.” Another mother sheepishly complained of housewifely standards for preparing Halloween costumes: “God, these mothers that have their Halloween costumes sewn in September! I go ‘Oh no! Its Halloween,’ and I dash out and buy something.” Another working mother lowered the standard for considering a child sick. “I send James to day care when he has a cold. I don’t have any backup and, anyway, the other mothers are in the same boat. All the kids there have colds. So he gets their colds. He might as well give them his.”
Sadly enough, a few working parents seemed to be making cuts in the emotional care of their child. Especially when parents received more from their own parents than they are giving their children, they have to manage a great deal of guilt. Trying to rationalize her child’s long hours in day care, one working mother remarked about her nine-month-old daughter that she “needed kids her age” and “needs the independence.” It takes relatively little to cut back on house care, and the consequences are trivial. But reducing one’s notions of what a baby needs—imposing the needs of a fourteen-year-old onto a nine-month-old baby—takes a great deal of denial and has drastic consequences.