had rats once. Well, twice. Not the New York City kind
that come because you are living in unclean circumstances, although
that kind would probably feel pretty comfy chez nous. No, we live
in Texas, and we got infested with Texas tree rats. Big ol' things
that jump down on your roof from trees, bite holes through the shingles,
then set up housekeeping inside. With you.
My husband first discovered
the problem. He smelled something funky near the stove, thought
it must be a dead mouse, and did exactly what I would have done:
turned the oven up to 500 and figured he'd broil the hell out of
whatever it was. This is kind of our housekeeping style--wait until
something stinks, then do something drastic and inappropriate and
hope the whole thing goes away. In the case of the rats, it didn't
go away, and we ended up hiring expensive, orange-suited rodent
My husband is a professor,
and he is absent-minded, but he doesn't reap the main benefit of
this stereotype--unfettered thought on higher matters. If he smells
a rat, he deals with it. If he can't find his glasses--a typical
predicament for spacey, professorial types--he can't find his glasses.
No dainty woman in an ironed apron says, "Here honey. My goodness,
you're silly! They were right on the bathroom cabinet."
I'm not unusually cruel,
and I do help my husband if I know where his glasses are, but I
rarely do since our house is, basically, a sty, and he puts his
glasses in totally bizarre places--between the links in our chain
fence outside, halfway through a huge stack of magazines, under
our son's rocking horse. I am slightly more organized than my husband,
but I am a slob, a packrat, and, perhaps most important to me, I
am completely adamant in my refusal to be the single-handed grand
orchestrator of our household.
I've heard several of
my harried friends, male and female, say something like: "what
we need is a wife."
Yeah, us too. An unresentful
wife. An unaspiring wife. Someone who is truly fulfilled by doing
housework. But then someone would have to talk to her. I bet she's
This is kind of my dream
(and I think it might be my husband's dream too): writing all day
with healthy and delicious meals magically and silently arriving
at appointed hours in a house that neatens, cleans, then organically
disinfects itself without bothering us.
Not possible? Okay then,
let's say my husband and I do find a wife, and he doesn't have sex
with her (that would upset me), and I don't have to talk to her.
Or maybe we just have a cheerful housekeeper like Alice on "The
Brady Bunch," and we don't have to talk to her either. Here's
the sticky part: what will the kids (we have a baby and a three-year-old)
be doing while we write all day, and all night if the muse so moves
I don't want to shunt
off all of the childcare--just the icky and boring parts. Maybe
I could pop in and out like Mary Poppins on speed. In for the first
step, out for the messy poop. In for the story and kiss good-night,
out for the 2 a.m. wake-up call. Trouble is, I know this doesn't
work. I know the good moments don't make sense, and possibly don't
even happen, without the bad, perhaps more kindly referred to as
I think quality time
is a crock of bull. You can't "get more" in terms of your
relationship with your kids by parenting intensely for fifteen minute
chunks. Parenting is a hands-on enterprise. You can't step out because
it's messy or boring or irritating and expect to be welcomed back
in for the high moments. Generations worth of workaholic Dads who
paused to toss a ball directively with junior on Saturday morning
have proven that quality time, in and of itself, is not enough.
How about the house?
Can you at least contract out all that work without ill effect?
There does seem to be a proliferation of household management services,
and oh, are they pricey--children's birthday planners, closet reorganizers,
professional bill payers. Living in a reasonably-sized city in the
year 2000 with completely unlimited income, you could probably pay
someone to do literally everything in your house. But if you're
a slob like me, one kitchen reorganization won't hold you long.
I'd need those people, those domestic managers, to move in.
I have a confession to
make. I could manage a house quite well. I have the skills. I'm
not a born slob, I certainly wasn't trained by my mother to be a
slob--just the opposite. I'm a self-made slob. An aggressive slob.
I slob on purpose. I slob to say fuck the Betty Crocker crap.
It's an adolescent stance,
I admit, and it leads to utter chaos and, on occasion, deeper challenges
to hygiene, decency, and safety. I am trying to stop, I truly am,
but I'm angry. I want a life of the mind--it's what I've always
wanted in a way. Are there those who dream of cooking a perfect
pot roast? Or is everyone who prides herself on her domestic skills
settling for less than what she feels she has a right to want? I
don't know, and I'm aware that it will piss a lot of women off to
ask this question. For myself, a very significant part of me wants
to be the absent-minded writer, the privileged man of letters.
Were there ever guys
like this? Men who got to live out some fey, aristocratic life of
intellectual excitement and complete freedom from domestic responsibilities?
I just finished Ernest Hemingway's autobiography, and while not
all of it sounds enviable in the least, I did notice that he didn't
mention a lot of time spent sweeping up Cheerios. Sometimes, I want
to be Ernest Hemingway. Not when he shot himself. But the other
times, the writing times at cafes in Paris and Madrid.
In David Mamet's essay,
"The Diner," he says: "Writing, in my experience,
consists of long periods of hanging out...To hang out is to proclaim
and endorse our need for leisure and autonomy." Leisure and
autonomy seem to me the most taboo qualities imaginable for a mother
of young kids. You might as well go around saying: "I want
to have sex with a cat." And yet I agree with Mamet that leisure
and autonomy are essential for good writing. And for healthy living.
While lamenting the paucity of good diners--Mamet's preferred place
to write--he says: "one cannot write at home, for those we
love might there confound our occupation with Sitting Around and
suggest we fix the shower rod." For me, the one--and surely,
Mamet envisions a woman here--who nags me to fix the shower rod
is in my own head. I'm supposed to be queen of the domestic arena,
keeper of the hearth, nurturer of the kids, scheduler of car tune-ups,
dental work, violin lessons, and here I am wanting a life of the
mind. An unencumbered life, a life with leisure and autonomy, time
to think and then time to truly hang out with the kids instead of
keeping one furtive, unfocused eye on them while I microwave dinner,
throw in a load of laundry, and scrub two-day-old oatmeal off a
I've read about a billion
books on mothers who work, how it's okay--good, actually--for mother
and child, but I still feel guilty. Every mother I know feels guilty.
Here's why I feel particularly guilty: some days I'm home, my kids
are not, and what I'm doing looks like Sitting Around. And yet I
don't sit around nearly as much as I think would be good for my
writing. I'm scared the Bad Mommy Patrol might drive by, see me
without a pen in my hand and turn me in: "That woman's not
a writer, she hasn't written a word in five minutes, and her kids
are in daycare! She's just a bad mother."
A friend of mine has
just completed an impressive 900-page manuscript over the past three
and a half years. She has a four-year-old daughter. When I saw her
last week, she asked how I deal with the issue of productivity.
I mumbled something like, "not well," and she said, "Writing
for me has become like hammering nails. I feel I have to write a
certain amount every day. Otherwise, I feel too guilty having my
daughter in daycare."
I think there are relatively
few types of people prone to write 900-page books. Perhaps it will
surprise some, but I think women who have just had a child are a
very likely group. It is absolutely terrifying to be a woman and
have a child. What will happen to you? Will you ever think again?
Will you ever, ever, have autonomy and leisure again? Will anyone
ever take you seriously as an individual again? It is a hideous
thing our culture does to mothers--erasure is how I would sum it
up in a word--erasure and assumed, prescribed domestication. Although
I did not just write a 900-page manuscript, I kind of wish I did,
and I can totally see the appeal in doing it.
Let me assure you that
my friend's manuscript is not some crazy rant. It is meticulously
researched analysis, written to be irrefutable and exhaustive. I
think this is how mothers feel we have to be in order to have a
shot in hell at being taken seriously. This is how women in general
often feel--the work-twice-as-hard-to-be-seen-as-half-as-good deal--and
this is hiked up exponentially for mothers of young children. Everyone
assumes, in a sick, clucking sort of way, that you now have diaper
brain, couldn't keep a real thought in your head if someone paid
you. Conveniently (or so they think), some employers will actually
offer to stop paying you, to "let you go," now that they
assume you "want more time at home." More time to clean?
To create the hearth we are all programmed to feel our children
Right after our second
son was born, we hired a well-meaning, yet terrifying born-again
woman as a "doula" (mother's helper) for a few days. She
basically shopped, cooked, and cleaned while I breast-fed, ate,
and cried, and my husband comforted me, changed diapers, and took
care of our toddler. The first day, she brought me a lovely, nourishing
meal on a white bedtray with a note, scrawled in her shockingly
childish hand that read: "If You Don't Know What Day It Is,
Your Mind Is Where It Should Be. On Baby."
Did I really want this
woman in my house, especially when I was suffering from intense
perineal pain, postpartum depression, and overwhelming exhaustion?
Yes, I realized I did. I was really hungry--starving, in fact--and,
as usual, our house was a sty. I thought the baby deserved something
better for his entrance into the world, so I had hired a Christian
to clean our house. Now, I was paying the price.
The doula's note haunts
me even now, more than a year later. Is it so bad to want to know
what day it is, maybe even glance at the paper, for God's sake,
when you have a newborn? Falling into some morass of undifferentiated
Mommydom has always terrified me. And it is most terrifying with
a newborn, when you might as well be a cow for most of the day.
Many intellectuals aren't used to living consciously in their bodies.
So pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding can be potentially positive
and counterbalancing experiences for thinking women. But also totally
terrifying--at least for me.
I'm willing to entertain
the possibility that I could just be some kind of pessimistic, enraged
nutcase. I'm aware that I'm fairly neurotic, perhaps out of step
with a majority of mothers. Here's an example: the parents of our
son's best friend just had a new baby, and three days after the
baby was born, they invited the kids and me out to play putt-putt.
The father began playing intently and seemed disappointed that I
was his only lackluster competition since his wife was carrying
the newborn in a Snugli. As he and I played and the older kids raced
around, the husband would periodically yell to his wife over the
sound of an irritatingly loud leafblower: "2 for me and 4 for
Faulkner!" She would dutifully record our score, reaching deftly
over the newborn's tiny head to write it down. (I had offered to
alternate shots with her, but she was afraid she'd hit the baby
in the head if she tried to putt.) I was totally amazed by this
situation. I knew for sure that if my husband had told me to keep
score while he played putt-putt and I carried our three-day-old
baby, I would have told him where to stuff the putter.
Would this have been
ill-placed anger? Am I wrong to want equity at every instant with
my "domestic partner?" What's wrong with a little putt-putt?
I admit, I could be more
flexible. The putt-putting incident took place on the man's birthday,
and I don't think his wife felt particularly deprived not to be
playing. (It is a relatively silly sport.) Still, I’m afraid--at
least now--to let go of my anti-domestic, anti-I'll-stand-on-the-sidelines-with-the-baby-while-you-engage-in-the-game-of-life
stance. It feels like I could slide all too easily, too unwittingly,
into something hideous, something about much more than who golfs
when. So we live in relative chaos at my house, and my husband doesn’t
play sports with clubs.
I'd like a calmer, less
embattled solution. Sometimes I think science fiction might have
an answer: time travel, another dimension, a wife who can morph
into my body (my husband would still not have sex with her.) If
they can clone a sheep, why not a wife named Dolly? Some days, motherhood
already seems like a sci-fi flick--invasion of the body (or mind)
snatchers where plenty of new moms have already been abducted. I've
had my struggles with the aliens, but they haven't taken me yet.
I'm pretty much the self I've always been: I live in a sty, and
I spend time writing. This will have to do, for now.
mmo : march 2003
Get A Wife:
Confessions Of A Slob first appeared in the Summer 2000 issue
of Brain, Child Magazine (www.brainchildmag.com)