Just the other day, I realized that discussion of my housekeeping has been a fairly regular conversation throughout my life. One of my earliest memories is being about four years old in my yellow bedroom on Ruth Avenue in North Canton, Ohio, sitting amidst what seemed like a mountain of stuff. I was trying to organize and put it away at my mother’s behest. I had a red bandana tied across the top of my hair, and I was pressed up against a large cardboard box decorated with Disney’s slapstick hero, Donald Duck. I was young and apparently had not learned how to differentiate all my consonants, because, as the story goes, I complained that all I ever did was “cwean, cwean, cwean!”
As a teenager in my mauve bedroom on Demington Avenue in Canton, Ohio, my sister and I, who shared a bedroom, were under the constant scrutiny of our stepfather. I don’t remember it being exceptionally messy in there; the space was probably maintained better than average for kids our age, but the house was managed like the army. Once, the appearance of the room was sufficiently troubling as to result in the removal of our bedroom door from its hinges. I am still not sure what the purpose of this weird punishment was (humiliation?), but I recall feeling this to be one of the lowest points in my whole housecleaning career.
The desk at school, those individual ones with the lid that opens and closes, were always difficult to keep pristine, regularly filling with pencil shavings, wax nubs from hard used crayons, and crinkled torn spiral scraps from the wide ruled paper we extracted from our notebooks. Dorms, apartments, my hotel room one summer in Israel… all of these always needed some kind of cleaning. And, the common thread in my experience cleaning each one was a persistent sense of moral ineptitude, no matter how clean, for failing to do better.
When I became a first time homeowner, I recall speaking to my dissertation director about my new responsibilities, describing how challenging it was to clean the house, cover each room, maintain the closets and the refrigerator, keep the kitchen drawers crumb free, and so on and so on. I must have sounded, well, in the very least, distracted, because, to quote Ralphie of Cleveland’s A Christmas Story fame, she looked at me “as if I had lobsters crawling out of my ears.” I was then perhaps obsessive, almost living up to Virgo level standards of fastidiousness, but by that time, my sense of self-worth, virtue, and character was intertwined with the interior organization of my cupboards and the prêt à manger quality of my floors. I kept a beautiful home, dear readers, a spectacularly beautiful home.
Today, however, I notice a strange trend in myself, namely, that I don’t think I care so much about that sort of thing anymore. Even though many friends and visitors to my home would note how nicely I manage it, I know it’s a mess much of the time. And, while I suffer from a great sense of moral failure whenever I leave the kitchen in a state, giving a s**t has become a survival mechanism in my soul. Much as an animal urinates or defecates in both fight and fight modes, I think I have evacuated my attachment to my maintaining a house in light of the larger struggles I have maintaining generally.
Somewhere it became too difficult to keep really well sorted the size 8 youth pants from the size 10 ones; the unused shoes that were oversized at the time of purchase from the fitting ones in circulation; the toys that I thought no one cared about (like the bamboo finger trap from Chuck E. Cheese) from the ones that no one in fact cared anything about (like the curious Book of Mormon action figure toys of Nephi and Lehi that I picked up in Palmyra, New York). The kitchen drawers have now become lined with toast dust rather than scented shelving paper, and the chests are mostly just stuffed rather than purposefully filled.
I am not the only one who has noticed this change in myself over the past few years. Persons in my family in particular wonder what may have happened, and the resulting pronouncement is that Natalie needs help with the house. This help mostly takes the form of someone recommending a name of another young woman, who would like to come here and clean for an hour, whom in turn, I will pay for her service. And so, my self-concept and perhaps others’ concepts of me have shifted away from masterful steward of a home to negligent housekeeper that needs someone to do it for her. And as this narrative as shifted, my self-esteem has bent lower under the proof that I have fallen morally because now, according to x,y, and z, I need help.
I write about this not because I am so troubled by it. Objectively, I understand the dynamics. Subjectively, I am still insulated by the removal of my caring. I consider somewhat wryly that it was easy enough to see my investment breeze out the door, especially after spending time in a room which had none. But, housekeeping remains on my mind, because 1) stuff still needs to be cleaned and 2) frequently I am reminded of how much help I purportedly need. I imagine that many women find themselves drowning under similar tensions over what they do in a home; how it reflects on their morality, dignity, and civility; and how to cope when things outgrow their ability to control.
To the point: in the car a day or two ago, my mom repeated the oft-stated claim that I need help with the house, and I had a very important realization for and about myself, which I would like to share and which is in fact the purpose of this particular post. I heard myself respond to her comment, rather boldly, “No, I do not need help.” I had this great spark of insight that this mess, this house, these things, these toys and food products and too few spoons and too many forks – none of this was in some concretized sense mine or at least mine to manage.
No, I do not need help because, no, this stuff isn’t mine. It is everyone’s who shares this space, and it is not naturally mine to touch, lift, spruce, pitch, or shelve. I thought about all the women whose worth is attached to some obligatory sense of domestic service, sock pairing, or crusty milk glass collection from the basement, and I resented powerfully the suggestion that they, she, and I need help. If I need help, it is surely not the kind implied. For it is neither my duty nor my honor to run around in a pair of elbow-length, antibacterial, yellow gloves, fighting against other people’s laziness and the force of entropy itself.
But the real insight, even bigger than the one I just observed, is that saying, “No” to the deep, morally laden duty of housekeeping, doesn’t make a woman bad or lazy in her own right. It makes her on par with everyone who lives with her. And, it empowers her to allow others to develop their own ethos of environmental management and accountability. My child self with her red bandana… she may cwean what is hers, but I won’t allow her any longer to be told she is responsible for more or a moral failure for not keeping up with decay. It is not she who needs the help.
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie’s most recent book is Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.