|The Neuroses of Domesticity
||[Jun. 28th, 2009|10:26 pm]
Since the birth of my son in 2006 I have been a “stay at home mum” excepting a year working as a waitress in the evenings, and the less said of that horrendous job the better.
Our reasons for choosing not to put Alex in childcare so that I could work a typical day time job were personal to us. We felt it was very likely Alex would be an only child, and we wanted to soak up every minute of his infancy that we could. And sadly, my genius being largely unrecognised, it was unlikely I would earn enough money to make childcare even worthwhile. For us it would have been paying someone else to look after him, simply for the sake of doing so. And thus it was never even really considered.
There have been times in the last three years when I have felt isolated and bored, but on the whole I will say it has been the making of me. Where before I had fuzzy ambition, now I have clarity and purpose. Instead of spending my days doing menial office work I spend them with a small human who is always remarkable. I have been allowed to have the time to think, to learn, to make up in some small way for the lack of knowledge I had from an insufficient education. I’ve explored my interests and strengths and also discovered what I am incapable of. It has not been easy by any means; financially we have been on a downward spiral and this needs addressing instantly. But in this time I have been able to learn more about myself and my priorities than I would have done had I been consumed with exterior work.
As time has gone on I feel more and more intellectually competent (please note – competent as in not deficient but including no brilliance) and parallel to that growth has been growth of a more traditionally feminine nature. I have adopted the Art of Domesticity. As with most things what is an art to some is a compulsion to others, and this is what I write of now. I wish to highlight some of the joys, regulations and pitfalls of running my household. I have found from speaking to other partakers in the Domestic Arts that we all have our idiosyncrasies when it comes to how to keep the cogs running smoothly. For centuries women have written manuals to advise other women how to do it all in a better way, and we still find these books fascinating today. Maintaining a home is one side of the coin that is life, the other being acquiring what it takes to provide for that home. An often used phrase to describe men is “hunter and gatherer” and this is actually incorrectly used. In those ancient days of spearing boar for your dinner, the men were usually the hunters, but they were not the gatherers. The women were. Of course in the modern age of shops and (relatively) equal employment rights we are no longer limited to those sex determined roles. Nevertheless it is still a tandem that it is easy to slip in to. Of course many single parents do it all on their own, and many families have both parents working. Regardless the house must go on and it may not be rocket science but it hasn’t got to be something to be embarrassed about either. It takes just as much skill to manage a busy house in a cost effective, time efficient way as it does to be a bricklayer. Both are for the most part labour intensive, repetitive jobs. One is paid one is not and therein lies their difference. But after all, somebody has to do it.
I shall begin with the task nearest to my heart, that of hanging out the washing on the line. In our old house, the tumble dryer was in a hallway between my bedroom, and Alex’s. One day shortly after putting Alex down for a nap I was downstairs when smoke alarm went off. Immediately the house began to fill with billowing smoke, black and acrid. I raced upstairs to find the tumble dryer had caught light, and was at that time pumping Alex’s bedroom full of smoke, with an opaque wall of it forming between us. I grabbed him from his bed, and went outside, both of us coughing and eyes burning. I managed to kick the tumble dryer door open on my way past so that it at least shut off. After that, while living in that house I refused to replace the dryer because that hallway was the only available space for it, and I never wanted a heat generating electrical device between Alex and the rest of the house again. Shortly afterwards we moved and our new house came fully equipped with two long washing lines running down the garden. And so it began.
First came the winter, having moved in October I found hanging the washing up to be very unsatisfactory. It was damp and cold and all I seemed to accomplish was annoying myself and feeling like an ecological and domestic failure. We dried all of our clothes on radiators. Then Spring came, and still moody from my winter attempts at washing line elegance I continued to heat the house with the windows open so that I could use the radiators as dryers. This is insanity, I agree. One fine day I decided to attempt the line once again, and I have not looked back since. I soon found myself scouring the house for dirty clothes. I felt a distinct sense of disappointment when I reached the bottom of my washing basket, and had to wait a full day to make a load up again.
All of a sudden there were rules to apply to this task, and I wasn’t quite sure where they were coming from. Everything must be given a resounding shake before going on the line, nothing must hang inside out. Shirts are to be hung upside down, from each extreme point. Towels must be given the sunniest spots. The two dirty little pegs that were on the line when we moved in had to be used in roughly the same spot on the line they were found, eyesores amidst my nicely matching pegs but forever to be used as a tribute to What Must Be. For trousers and jeans I got around the problem of a waistband too thick to fit inside a clip by hanging them from only the back of the waistband, so that the front, with zipper etc gapes open. This way the wind catches inside the trousers like a windsock, and you get a quicker dry than by hanging them from the ankles. Larger things at the top of the line, and on the line further towards the back of the garden, the bottom half is dedicated to smalls and socks. Socks are hung two to a peg, with the socks overlapping slightly in the middle, where the peg holds them both. I am eagerly awaiting my Kleeneze delivery of a small multi-peg holder for socks etc to arrive. Imagine being able to peg thirty socks, only taking up the same line space as four – nevermind we never have 30 socks to hang out at once, surely it will enhance my efficiency anyway. When I hang our super-king sized duvet on the line it is draped over in half, and is the perfect hiding place for Alex, creating a cool dark den.
The actual act of hanging washing and taking it down is meditative and relaxing. It stimulates a feeling I can only equate to that of the lovely dreamy feeling you get when the co-codamol has taken over from the migraine. The world is drowsier, and my rhythmic movements of up and down, clip and release give my body its desire of being constantly in motion, while gently whitewashing my over active mind. I watch my four rabbits scamper about their enclosure, or sleeping stretched out in the sun, the birds are singing and I am serene. Few things are as simply satisfying as glancing out your windows and seeing washing waving on the line. And it appears I am by no means alone in this – visit web forums where people crawl out of the woodwork and you will find too many women to count who feel exactly the same. I believe this must have been a satisfying household chore throughout history. I read of a fictional character in Victorian times who hung an item of her clothing either side of her son’s as a form of superstitious protection, and I can easily see the sense in that.
One of my latest additions to domesticity is ice lollies. When I came to England eight years ago the summers were noticeably cooler. Now we have so many hot days that it is every young child’s dream to sit down with a nice lolly. I bought my very first set of lolly moulds and dove in with any combination I could think of. Recently, in our time of extreme financial hardship, I was thinking of cheap ways to bring a bit of sunshine into Alex’s life. I bought store brand basics plain yoghurt and a tin of fruit cocktail which was all of around 20p. Mix it all up with a bit of milk to make it runnier and a dash of blackcurrant cordial and you have enough lolly mixture to make around a dozen purple ice lollies – all for around a £1.00 total cost. I only have four moulds so as each one is emptied it is washed refilled and put back in the freezer. Alex has a healthy treat that I am happy for him to have at any time of day, he feels indulged and I have spent just pence. And I must say, my ice lollies are divine, and infinitely better than any you could buy without at least tripling the cost. And for the adults, there are plenty of alcoholic lolly recipes. You can also blend a small amount of inexpensive chocolate with milk and voila you have a truly scrummy treat. My advice is: embrace the lolly, the lolly is your friend.
A favourite dinner of mine that is a bit more exciting than your average jacket potato but not too much more money is to take a traditional jacket potato. Fry up some mince, in my case veggie, adding half a packet of taco mix spices or making up your own. Then add your tin of beans and stir in well.
Growing your own veg is an obvious means of saving money, and one that is fast becoming more popular as people are realising the whole modern machine is a bit more fragile than we thought. We have found that of all the vegetables we grow, potatoes are probably the most rewarding. They are cheap to grow, give a nice big crop, and can be spread out in such a way you have them ticking along most of the year. If you have a steady stream of potatoes it is easy to build inexpensive meals around them. Don’t think you need a large garden to grow veg, we grow around 30 or so different things mainly in containers. My husband’s top tip for potatoes is to buy a pack of 10 black rubble sacks from a diy store, and roll them down. As your plants grow and require earthing up you simply gradually unroll the sack. Growing your own does require an initial outlay of seeds and compost but if you shop wisely it isn’t actually too bad, even for us who are certifiably skint. It more than pays for itself in the coming months, so a good thing to invest in when there is a little spare. Even very young children can take a huge part in a kitchen garden, Alex has grown and harvested every single thing Matthew has, and at not quite three he can walk around an allotment and name the plants growing. And there really is no better way of getting your children to eat healthy foods. When Alex harvested his first crop of carrots it was like holding back wild horses; it was all we could do to get him to wash the earth off before he ate each and every little carrot. They were in his stomach within 10 minutes of being pulled out with his own little fingers. With shop bought veg he is a typical fussy toddler and it is pulling teeth to get him to eat his dinner.
As with anything that must be shared between others there are points of stress in household management. I do most of the housework, while Matthew cooks most of the meals and does the gardening – though he does need reminding when the lawn needs mowing. I think we would lose Alex in the jungle before he felt that needed addressing. I passionately hate the way Matthew loads the dishwasher, and unless I am ill or terribly busy I try to do it myself. The inefficient use of space and hence the wasted water and electricity does actually make my blood pressure rise when I have to unload one of his loads. I shall say in fairness he believes the same of me and my loading technique, but I am quite confident that I am right and any impartial witness would instantly agree if given photographic evidence. He also has an aversion to shutting cabinet doors and drawers once he has found whatever it is he’s been searching for, thereby creating a never ending health and safety risk. I on the other hand truly hate hanging clothes up in the wardrobe, which does strike me as a little odd since I so love hanging them on the line, but putting them on hangers one after the other makes me feel just a touch homicidal. So while I am the processor of laundry and am happy to put things away in drawers, I do leave the hanging up to Matthew. I also will not wash dishes by hand unless I am really forced into it in desperate circumstances. I hate the feeling of dirty dishwater and can seem to feel it on my hands for an hour afterwards.
Other than these unremarkable interests I am fairly typical with the rest of the household chores. I always clean the bathroom first as it is the smallest room and gives a good instant result which helps motivate me along to the rest of the house. It also ends the necessity of bringing men in full body sterile white suits to my house to decontaminate. My strange bathroom cleaning obsession is to buy the very cheapest bleach or all purpose cleaner you can find, and fill that awful container thing that your toilet brush sits in with it, so each time the brush goes in the germs are killed and you don’t get any nasty sights the next time you use it. Then just replace once a month, silently congratulating yourself for your superiority to the micro-organism.
I always clean during the process of making tea. In the four minutes it takes for the kettle to boil and the tea to steep I can get a remarkable amount of tidying done. Multiply by six times a day and I am rewarded with a nice sit down afterwards feeling truly virtuous. Limit your paper clutter to one pile, even if it impressively stands two feet high it will look somewhat better than small piles everywhere you turn. Regularly cull your belongings, selling on or giving them to charity. Sweeping and vacuuming gives the instant illusion of a well oiled machine and certain objects are in the “acceptable mess” category, such as piles of books, shoes, coats and teddy bears. If anyone is offended by these they are being very unreasonable.
Though most of housework is boring drudgery, there is satisfaction to be had in it as well, more so when you discover your own satisfying rituals that give you a sense of achievement. When I do something in a clever way that reduces my work and increases my burgeoning self image of a woman with her toe dipped in the domestic goddess pool, I have the pleasant feeling of having outsmarted my teacher on an exam.
Lastly make time to enjoy your house. I don’t personally aim for show home look, my house has strange ornaments, collections and decorations that are very personal to us. I love it when my whole house is spotless, it feels as if I can float through it and even the air seems fresher. It really is easier to do regular little bits with a weekly overhaul. The most important thing is to have a happy home that people feel comfortable in, and I suppose we all want that even if we hate working for it. I think the trick is finding the rewarding in a task that everyone seems to want to avoid. The object of all of this is to make it appear as if you have more a grip on life than you actually have. From childhood I was fascinated by the scene in Mary Poppins where all the dolls right themselves in the little house, and Jane and Michael’s hats and coats were neatly hung up. A spoonful of sugar and “snap” the job’s a game! And with that, I conclude my shockingly long Neuroses of Domesticity.