Saturday, January 19, 2008

About Grandmothers and Housekeeping

Scb asked, in the comments:
What is it about grandmothers that they can run rings around us?

and though she probably didn't expect an answer, I have a few thoughts.

The world has changed significantly, mostly with respect to two things. They're mostly attitude changes and are actually two separate threads though they are intertwined.

1) There was no such thing as leisure. Fifty, sixty years ago, if you had nothing to do you were "idle." And idleness paved the path to hell. So, no leisure. And quite simply, there was no expectation of leisure. If you sewed, it was because the children needed clothes, not because you liked to sew. You didn't expect to get through your chores in order to sit down and watch TV. That evolved in conjunction with:

2) "Me" time. This is definitely recent and it's a very difficult attitude to live with. If you are always looking for "your" time, then others become irritants, your duties become things which interfere with your objective to get more "me" time. Of course, I speak only from my own experience. But this notion when taken as far as I do, is anti-family, and anti-biblical (but not for that reason).

The first is, of course, more a notion belonging to a particular class than a religious notion. Scb's grandmother and mine obviously inhabited different social worlds. In mine, you only had "help" if you couldn't physically cope anymore: as my grandmother's mother did, in her eighties.

I hadn't come across this attitude directly, as Wende mentions here:

This happy life {of living in a residential hotel] offended the sensibilities of late Victorians, who were quick and vocal in declaring that doing housework has a moral effect on women, and that freedom from housework destroys a woman's ethical influence over her family, saps her purity, alienates her husband, and endangers the very fabric of American society.

It doesn't surprise me in the least. There is, very much, a moral undertone to cleaning and keeping house (as there is to hs'ing). I can't remember which book I read it in, but apparently the disinfectant movement of the late Victorian age and again, with the merchandising messages of the fifties and sixties, women were empowered to keep their children healthy by controlling dirt on the one hand and then told the germs were insurmountable without constant vigilance and special products with the other. Given the deplorable conditions of the late Victorian age, the message certainly had its place--but like Wende's black San Fransisco dirt, to dump all the responsibility for cleanliness on women certainly wasn't fair.

As Wende's analysis shows, Virginia Woolfe was much more radical than we can appreciate today. But, I fear, the Victorians may have been partially right. To expect to have a room of one's own is to set oneself up for all sorts of family strife.

My day today is a case in point. I just wanted some peace and quiet. I didn't want to nag anyone or even, if I could avoid it, talk to anyone. I just wanted to work on my little scrapbooking project in solitude. My desire for that solitude could have been answered by a room of my own: trying to carve out a space in one room while others are interacting around me and with me was extraordinarily difficult.

I've always been something of a pragmatist. If my desire for solitude conflicts with my ability to get it, then perhaps I ought to give up the desire. Perhaps, even, the desire is wrong, precisely because it creates conflict, as the Victorians knew it would. And yet, I persist. I was an only child. I'm well and truly tired of dealing with my children from the moment I wake to just about the moment I fall alseep (and certainly long past the moment I want to fall sleep) every single day. Oh--and Aurelia still persists in climbing into bed with us, so you could say I deal with the kids while I'm asleep, too. When we're hs'ing, I feel the need to regroup, alone, acutely. It's almost a physical need and I was an awful, nasty bear about it today.

So, while we try to find a golden mean between a gross and disgusting home and one in which it's so clean I'm a neurotic drudge, I'll be trying to find a balance between them and me. Who does what? to what standard? when? and how often?

And it's not something Flylady really talks about except to say: "You do it, they'll follow." Well, sometimes.

Addressing those questions will be really good for us.


scb said...

Wow. A lot of food for thought here. A lot and a lot a lot.

(Just in passing, my grandmother was 78 when I was born, so there was some of the "can't do it all because of age" thing going on, although I think she always had "a girl" of some sort around. She lived on a farm, had a husband and six sons to deal with. Although, of course, by the time I knew her, all but one of the sons had married and moved to his own home.)

scb said...

Correction. Grandma was 70 when I was born. It was Grandpa who was 78.

Grandma still did all the cooking, baking, laundry, dish-washing... I think Tina did dusting, floors, that sort of thing. It was a two-story, 6 bedroom house.

Alana in Canada said...

Wow lots of house.
My grandmother's was a two story, one bathroom, three bedroom: but the living room, dining room were one long shot, the entire width of the house, the kitchen was an add-on in the back: the washer, dryer, freezer and pantry were in the "back kitchen." It was built in the late 1800's and my grandparents inherited it from my grandfather's parents.

drwende said...

In past generations, your children would have been considered old enough to play quietly on their own, as well as to participate in household chores. Today's norms of child-rearing make your life much more challenging than what your grandmother would have experienced.

zooza said...

Gosh. So much to think about, especially on the "me time" front. It certainly puts things into perspective for me, with no kids and still struggling to keep an orderly house! However, I think we all need time for contemplation, but maybe our grandmothers had quiet time while doing chores because, as Wende points out, the children would have been expected to amuse themselves after a certain age.

Mella DP said...

I read this over breakfast and I've been ruminating over it all day. The world is dramatically different, but in every conceivable way. This:

Perhaps, even, the desire is wrong, precisely because it creates conflict, as the Victorians knew it would.

especially caught my eye, and I plan to write on it. In the meantime, the urge for solitude, especially if you get very little, isn't inherently wrong. Naturally, it can't always be indulged, but for some of us with certain personality types, it's simply a manifestation of how we were created. And it's worthwhile to acknowledge and honor that, even if we can't have it our way all the time (which would be spiritually unhealthy anyhow).

Alana in Canada said...

Thanks, Mella. I look forward to what you have to say!

lorijo said...

I have always needed a lot of "me" time. I think it comes from just years of being alone and happy. I feel guilty now if that need to be apart from everyone else rears it's ugly head.

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