My domestic epiphany

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Scraping back floors with a chisel, sanding them with steel wool before staining and varnishing them, gave me a lot of time in which to think. For the first time since having children, renovating an old house provided me with a standing invitation to revisit my past.

Chisel in hand, scraping back and forth, I remembered whole sequences of my life before children arrived to so wonderfully yet rudely break up my experience of time passing. Wearing dungarees and runners, day after day I had nothing better to do than to paint a bedroom, or to scoot furniture from one room to another. And to think. Friends admired my determination. However what they couldn’t see was how liberating I found it to focus on just one thing. For the first time in ten years I was able to catch up with myself, and to hear myself think across time.

Sometimes I’d listen to the radio. One hot afternoon, scraping the hall floorboards, I caught the end of a program about consciousness. ‘If you can’t control your thoughts as they pass through your mind’, the expert was saying, ‘you can never be truly free’. I mulled this idea over as I continued to scrape.

I’d moved from London to Melbourne to Hobart, all in the hope of a simpler life. And here I was, joined at the hip to my renovation, feeling freer than I’d done for years. Why was that? Easy. Working with my hands, away from my desk and attendant demands to succeed, meant that there was plenty of room for my thoughts to pass freely through my mind, and to gain a perspective on the arc of my life. But most of all I felt freer because, focused on physical work, my thoughts really were simpler.

But it didn’t last – the renovation or the liberation. I loved the buzz of working for a magazine at first. I loved it about as much as, over time, I hated the stress that came with it. Nonetheless I got better at doing three things at once. My stress threshold genuinely increased. I didn’t shout at my children and was tactful in meetings. However I did start to feel mounting resentment for the housekeeping that piled up at the end of the day, like leaves sucked into a stairwell after a storm.

When the magazine burst, and I’d licked my wounds and moved on, I found more work to occupy me. Yet still I couldn’t solve my housekeeping dilemma. How, I asked myself, could I make sense of all the time I spent being domestic when, at the end of the day, I was unable to credit housekeeping as work?

‘And what work is it that do you do?’ new acquaintances would ask, as if they were asking after the weather. ‘I’m a writer’, I’d say, wanting to stay on safe ground. Sometimes, unable to contain myself, I’d add, ‘However I usually spend more time housekeeping and being with my family, than I do writing’.

After what seems a lifetime of juggling work and family, last week I had an epiphany. I’d just spoken to my mother, newly admitted to a nursing home. She’d answered the phone in a mousy voice – which I realised later meant that I’d woken her from a doze. All her strength and pride seemed to have gone from her voice. After a few minutes it started to return, but with none of the combativeness she’d once had. She sounded a pale shell of her former self. ‘Look at what life has done to me’, my guilt heard her say.

But this wasn’t my epiphany. This came ten minutes later when I’d served supper and no amount of yelling from the bottom of the stairs roused a responding ‘Coming!’. ‘How dare they?’ I thought to myself, stamping indignantly. It was probably only a couple of minutes that I sat down alone in front of four plates of steaming casserole. But it was long enough to feel profound sympathy for my mother. All her stamping and cupboard slamming had, I suddenly realised, had been triggered by exactly what I was feeling now, as I watched the steam rise from heaped plates. ‘What’, she must have asked herself, just as I was doing now, ‘is the value of all that I do for my family? Why am I spending precious energy caring about things that no one else seems to care about? And why do I spend so much of my day caring about things – laundry, food shopping, cooking, vacuuming – that, were it not for love for my family, I’d care about much less?’ Besides, wasn’t this precisely what once triggered my mother’s frequent rages? The same feelings of rage that I was now struggling with?

And then it struck me – I can’t believe it took sixteen years for this penny to drop. It never was work versus family – ambition for myself versus devotion to family. If this were the equation I may well have balanced them now and then. But it was never just work and family. There was always a third element. It was always work and family and housekeeping.

‘Never take a job that involves working when everyone else is having fun’, my father advised me as a teenager, stretched as I then was between university study and waitressing. But of course housekeeping involves exactly that – it involves the scores of domestic jobs that need to be done in order to enjoy being at home.

It’s a conversational turn-off to raise the subject of housekeeping. Yes, it’s what we have to do in order to keep order and beauty in our home lives. But it’s rarely something we own. Sex is out of the closet, but housekeeping isn’t. If the subject comes up at all, it’s by way of a joke, an apology, or a moan. Are we still in thrall to Simone de Beauvoir – who lived in apartments with .0 dependents – who deemed housekeeping immanent, repetitious, and devoid of value?

On the morning of her death Virginia Woolf’s husband Leonard, concerned about Virginia’s mental state, suggested to the maid that his wife might do some dusting. When asked later, the maid recalled that Virginia picked up the duster and looked at as if it were a piece of material, rather than a duster. Virginia did a bit of dusting, as instructed. However she did it, the maid noticed, like someone who never dusts. Before long Virginia dropped her duster and gazed out the window.

What am I suggesting here? Certainly not a link between dusting and suicide. My point is this. It’s only once you assume responsibility for your own housekeeping that you start to use a duster as a duster, rather than as a piece of cloth. It’s only once you assume responsibility for the appearance of your home, however big or small, that you start trying to achieve beauty through domesticity. Once this happens, housekeeping becomes part of who you are. It becomes part of your identity, and not just your weekly schedule.

For me housekeeping is not demeaning – as some feminists suggest – but a quietly powerful act. For me it’s the means by which I create order from chaos, occasional beauty from daily mess. For me it’s impossible not to care about my home – which is why I serve steaming plates of food to my family, night after night. Just as my mother did for my father, sisters and me, night after night all those years ago. But at least I can now find it in myself to thank her.