Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Tyranny of Housework

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"The individual woman is required . . . a thousand times a day to choose either to accept her appointed role and thereby rescue her good disposition out of the wreckage of her self-respect, or else follow an independent line of behavior and rescue her self-respect out of the wreckage of her good disposition."
-- Jeanette Rankin

If I give up earthly attachment and retreat to monastic life, if I end up divorced and living in a studio apartment, if you find me in a women's commune living off the grid, know that it was all for this: housework. I hate it. I won't do it.

When the kids were tiny, of course I picked up after them. It's not like they were able to change their own diapers or cook their own meals. As they got older, we played "clean-up fairies," singing as we put toys away. Later we had "five-minute runaround," which consisted of setting the timer and charging around the house at full speed to pick it up before the timer beeped.

Then came the chore chart on the refrigerator, subdivided into weekly and daily chores. The daily chores were five-minute tasks such as unload the top of the dishwasher, make a salad. The weekly chores were ten- or fifteen-minute tasks like collect the garbage, water the plants, clean the toilet and sink.

I see housework as the domain of everyone who shares the house. We all eat, we all pee and poop and bathe, we all create laundry, so we should all clean it up. Since four of us live in this house, and our children are capable young people aged 15 and 18, we should each be carrying 25% of the housework load. Right?

Maids are not the answer, ladies. Someone still has to pick up for the cleaning person to do their work, and this part is even more stressful than the cleaning itself. And your maid isn't going to come over everyday to sort your mail and pick up the dirty socks and dishes. Let's face it, vacuuming is not hard once the clothes and newspapers are off the floor.

Plus, a cleaning service doesn't address the core issue of inequality, the perception of mother-at-home as family slave. The main point is that everyone needs to participate in housework on a daily basis, that children and husbands need to be habituated to cleaning up after themselves and participating in household maintenance.

I admit our family system isn't perfect. I still cook and clean more than the others, and we live in a house with an ambience I call "joyful clutter." It's a home people use as a gathering place, a home where the living room is not so elegant that teens can't put their feet up and have sleepovers. Which is to say, our housekeeping is casual.

Still, even with my low standards, I have to constantly remind, insist, occasionally threaten, and once in a while explode.

"I'M NOT CLEANING UP THIS KITCHEN SOMEONE ELSE HAS TO TAKE A TURN WORK IT OUT AMONG YOURSELVES RIGHT NOW IT BETTER BE CLEAN BY MORNING!" is a typical tirade. If the kitchen is not spotless by morning, at least the dishes are loaded in the washer and clean.

My kids have been cooking since they could stand on a chair at the stove, making their own lunches since first grade, and doing their own laundry since age eight. And they're far more finicky than I am about whites. "I have the dirtiest socks in my whole class," Malachi once moaned when he was in the third grade, and that was my cue for letting him do his own wash, since his mom never, ever, sorts. I can't be bothered: I never wear white and my entire wardrobe is colorful wash and wear.

I know a mom who keeps a poop chart. Each person in the family keeps track of how much they're cleaning up after the dog. She swears that if she picks up one more piece of dog shit than the others, the dog is outta there. I'm down with that. That's why my kids have stopped asking for a dog.

A study reported by Brown University states that on average, when women marry, they increase housework by 14 hours a week. Men, 90 minutes. That is 14 hours I refuse to take on. I'm too busy doing more important things. In fact, people often ask me how I can maintain such a full life. "Do you ever sleep?" they ask. As a matter of fact, I sleep very well. Must be the 14 extra hours I get from refusing to do more than 25% of the housework.


Peggy Hong was born in Seoul, South Korea, and raised in Hawaii and New York. She is the author of a poetry collection, Three Truths and a Lie (forthcoming, Water Press and Media); the poetry chapbooks Lies and Fables and The Sister Who Swallows the Ocean (CrowLadies Press); and a fine art letterpress book, Hoofbeats (Gokiburi Press). Poetry publications include Spoon River Poetry Review, Rhino, Bamboo Ridge, and Mothering magazine, among others. A graduate of Barnard College, she received a Master of Fine Arts degree at Antioch University with a dual concentration in poetry and fiction. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with her husband and three children, ages 18, 16, and 13. She teaches at Alverno College and Woodland Pattern Book Center.


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