Those Things Domestico

It’s a line from the 20th Century Fox animated Thumbelina spoken by the overly ethnicized character of Mother Toad as she tells Thumbelina her destiny is to settle down and “do those things domésticas.” It’s one of those lines that, like the Banana-Boat Song in Beatlejuice, you only need hear it once before it irritatingly creeps back into your brain at inopportune moments. Everyone has been asking me lately what I’ve been doing with my time now that I’m no longer working . . . and each time I’m asked, I answer that I am enjoying my freedom to be just a wife and mother. But in my head, I’m saying, “Oh, just doing those things doméstico.”

Notice the just? I can’t help it. I have been working steady since the age of fifteen. I have never been without at least two outside-of-home commitments on my plate since the day I got married. Job, marriage, motherhood . . . and school. These four nouns have served as character descriptors in my life for nearly nineteen years. When the academic year came to a close this May, I packed up my schoolroom of the last five and stepped into a three-category life. The first few weeks were rough. I began writing task lists. I created an enrichment schedule for my youngest daughter. I began walking the dogs. I began re-organizing closets. I began pulling weeds. When I lay down at night, I carried the guilt of uncompleted tasks on The List. It took self-convincing to quiet my mind and remind myself . . . there’s no one watching. There is no boss. The dust will wait one more day.

I think it’s the just though that drives me. The unarticulated judgment I suspect in other’s voices when they ask what I’m doing these days. My oldest daughter is taking a summer Race and Gender Studies course. She came home appalled having heard how young women of the 50’s were instructed to greet (or cautioned away from greeting) their husbands when they came home from long days of work. I’m going to speak in the generalized “we” here for a minute and speak as though there is a unified collective women. We were taught that the man sacrifices himself for the sake of his family—going off each day to work. In exchange, he earns the honor of returning to his abode filled with the welcoming scent of dinner, freshly-scrubbed children, and a lightly-perfumed wife. And we, women, were later then put in the position of having to justify our desire to work outside the home—assuring ourselves, our husbands, and society at large, that we could do both, that the management of the home and child-rearing would not suffer if we also pursued careers.

Being that I have always worked, I am obviously of the generation that grew up within the context of professional women. What’s interesting to me is that, while the stigma of a working-woman was something I never felt personally, I still managed to feel as though it was my job to make sure the house and children were cared for. Now this is in no way a reflection of my husband or his ideals. He never expected dinner on the table, kids well-groomed running to him at the door. And being that we have both always had careers in addition to family and personal hobbies, we obviously had to develop some kind of shared-routine to make it all work. So my own feelings aren’t a reflection of circumstance—they go deeper and must originate in the reverberations of culture itself.

Again, I return to a conversation my oldest and I had regarding the difference between men and women. She wanted to argue that there is no difference between the sexes, but of course we know there is. While there may be hormonal variations between one woman and the next or one man and the next, the physical indicators between the two recognized genders are different and serve different functions on a simple physical plane. The bodies of women can house life and must therefore accommodate. The bodies of men cannot, and therefore are built accordingly. It’s the reason still today the Olympics has male and female categories. If we were the same, there would be no need to differentiate.

Sameness is often mistaken for equality. “So you’re saying women are the weaker sex?” That accusation again equates difference to mean unequal. In my classroom I hung this sign:

In this classroom, Fair is not everyone getting the Same,

but rather everyone getting what he or she needs to learn Best.

It is a difficult concept—especially in a school environment. But what I’m realizing is that it is a core value for me, not just as a teacher, but as a person. It is how I know that my seven-year-old’s needs are different from my seventeen-year-old’s. It’s how I know that chores do not have to be evenly divided between the four of us. It’s how I know that my need for sedentary thought is as vital as my husband’s need for physical motion.

Taking care of my house, my home, my family are basic needs for me. Having more time to devote to them sent me initially into an overwhelming mix of emotions. I fought with my own sense of what being just a wife and mother would mean. I worried that the “me” might suffer, but the really cool thing is that the individual within me finds satisfaction doing just this—sitting here, writing and contemplating, in a clean, well-organized room, my children and husband well-fed and in their respective corners of our home. Is it for everyone? Certainly not, but luckily for me, it is just what I need at the moment.

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