Thursday, April 15, 2004

Cheerful Submission: Live Longer Through Dudgery

So, every few months or so some female friend with a predilection for spamming forwards me an email entitled, "Why I Love My Mom", or "Women Rule", or "Why Women Live Longer." Twice I've received it in honour of "International Women's Day" (I'm so glad we get a day, you know?). Inevitably, the woman sending the email is a wife, a mother, and a breadwinner. She is terminally busy, she is the primary care giver not only for her children but also for her husband, and she is in every way a classic SSF - self-sacrificing female.

My gut reaction to the message she forwards, which ostensibly celebrates women, is a quote from Beautiful Girls: "This is a mockery, this is a sham, this is bulls**t."

What follows is the text of the forwarded email, in one of its myriad permutations:

"Why I Love My Mom
Mom and Dad were watching TV when Mom said, "I'm tired, and it's getting late. I think I'll go to bed." She went to the kitchen to make sandwiches for the next day's lunches, rinsed out the popcorn bowls, took meat out of the freezer for supper the following evening, checked the cereal box levels, filled the sugar container, put spoons and bowls on the table and started the coffee pot for brewing the next morning. She then put some wet clothes in the dryer, put a load of clothes into the wash, ironed a shirt and secured a loose button. She picked up the game pieces left on the table and put the telephone book back into the drawer. She watered the plants, emptied a wastebasket and hung up a towel to dry. She yawned and stretched and headed for the bedroom. She stopped by the desk and wrote a note to the teacher, counted out some cash for the field trip, and pulled a textbook out from hiding under the chair. She signed a birthday card for a friend, addressed and stamped the envelope and wrote a quick note for the grocery store. She put both near her purse. Mom then washed her face with 3 in 1 cleanser, put on her Night Solution age fighting moisturizer, brushed and flossed her teeth and filed her nails. Dad called out, "I thought you were going to bed." "I'm on my way," she said. She put some water into the dog's dish and put the cat outside, then made sure the doors were locked. She looked in on each of the kids and turned out a bedside lamp, hung up a shirt, threw some dirty socks in the hamper, and had a brief conversation with the one up still doing homework. In her own room, she set the alarm; laid out clothing for the next day,straightened up the shoe rack. She added three things to her 6 most important things to do list. She said her prayers, and visualized the accomplishment of her goals. About that time, Dad turned off the TV and announced to no one in particular, "I'm going to bed." And he did...without another thought.
Anything extraordinary here?......
Wonder why women live longer...?

Uh . . . right . . . our drudgery helps us live longer. Okay. I have so many problems with this little story that I barely know where to begin. Why does the author love her mom? Because she is apparently single-handedly responsible for the running of the entire household? Because she still "takes care of herself" - note the filing of the nails and the (my favorite!!) application of the age-fighting moisturizer - even when she's really busy and exhausted? And what of Dad? Are we supposed to love him because he sits on his butt watching TV for an hour while Mom frantically puts the house in order? More than likely, we are meant to find Dad's "inability" to see all the little details endearing. After all, it's a woman's touch that a house needs, right? This is as insulting to men as it is to women.

I do not know many women who behave as "Mom" did, above, and I'm glad of it. The women who forward this message on to me, usually with a sly verbal wink in there to the effect of, "boy, don't I know how she feels", or "who's been spying on my house?" - well, these women worry me. Granted, when I give my usual response of, "well, it's not my life - my husband pulls his weight around the house," they bridle and assure me that really, their husbands are very good around the house, too, but, well, you know . . . hmmm. The whole thing smacks of cheerful submission. There's an overt acknowledgement that it is often drudgery, that it's tiring, that it's unfairly skewed toward women, that it's a "long haul", and yet these women are so proud! They wear it like a badge! It's something for which one loves one's mother ...? It baffles me.

The thing that bugs me the most is the idea that *this* is why women live longer than men do. I am uncomforably reminded of a story I read recently, possibly though not certainly in Dropped Threads:

A middle-aged woman's father had passed away, leaving her elderly mother to live alone. We'll call the daughter Susan and the mother Mom. In the months following Dad's death, Susan became worried about her mother's emotional health. Even though Mom seemed to be coping well, and often acted happy, Susan was concerned that she might be depressed. Mom had gone from running a spotless home - the envy of Susan and her sisters, who never felt they quite measured up - to often letting the house get messy. One day, Susan visited her mother in the early afternoon. She was dismayed to see that Mom was still in her robe, and that not only the lunch dishes but the breakfast dishes as well were still on the counter and in the sink. She decided she should confront her mother about the problem. "Mom, how are you feeling these days? You know, without Dad, how are you doing?" "Oh, you know, Susan, I have my ups and downs, but I'm doing all right. Thanks for asking, sweetie." Susan suspected her mom was putting on a brave face, and pressed on. "Well, Mom, we've all been kind of worried about you." "Why on Earth?" asked her mother. "Well, you used to run such a tight ship around here, and now, well, look at you! It's two in the afternoon, the dishes aren't done, you're still in your robe . . . " she trailed off, slightly embarassed. Her mother began to laugh. "What?" asked Susan. "Oh, Susan! You all think I'm depressed because I haven't been cleaning up a storm? Sweetheart, I miss your Dad so much, there are times when I think I'll lose my mind from loneliness. That's true. But it was always your father who insisted on a spotless house, on having meals ready at 7, 12, and 5:30 on the dot, just the way his mother always did. I'm more like you girls, and I'm just indulging myself a bit these days. I don't have to run the house any way but my own, now."

It's kind of a heartwarming story, but combined with the email story it leaves me uneasy. Work hard, they seem to say. Submit to society's - and your husband's - demands that you, in Fridanesque style, derive personal fulfillment from the pursuit of domestic excellence - nay, perfection - and you will live longer. You will live so long, if you do this work well enough, that you will outlive your husband: and finally have earned the right to lay aside that work, and live in the manner you choose - alone.

Not for me, that life, and I hope not for any of the men and women who are in my life. I wish for us all lives where we share our work, and together create homes (and divisions of domestic labour) that we can enjoy and be comfortable in now.