Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Home-living over books and snack?

Where does my daughter get her love of domestic chores? Here she is, voluntarily sweeping the porch with my BFF's adorable son.

From a very young age, SB has always been a regular in the home living area of her daycare, which is decked out with a play kitchen, dining room, couch, dress-up clothes, and baby dolls. During free play time, home living is a "choice"; there are lots of other "choices," including doing art, playing at the sensory table, reading in the library, and having a snack. But her teacher tells me that, 90 percent of the time, SB makes a beeline for home living to cook, clean, and take care of babies.

"She picks that over snack and books?" I asked, incredulous, wondering if this small person has been paying attention at all to how things go down at our house.

I mean, I rarely choose to hang out in the home-living section of our house. Alex likes to cook meals, even on weeknights; I could subsist on take-out and finger foods. He does a lot of the cleaning, too; I haven't touched the toilet or cat litter box in years (still coasting on the whole "pregnant women shouldn't clean the cat box for fear of contracting toxoplasmosis" rule). I specialize in fun domestic chores like making elaborate desserts and storing bulk foods in attractive containers and scheduling social activities.

In my observations of my friends' domestic lives, this arrangement seems fairly common--not at all as unusual as it might have been a generation or two ago. And it turns out that this kind of equity in domestic chores will at least keep us in the business of being a country: Did anyone catch the New York Times Magazine cover story this week, "No Babies?" It's fascinating look at how birth rates are dropping so drastically that some European countries are facing population declines and demographic shifts that are, according to one professor, "pathological." Some sociologists think one of the causes for this decline is the growing tension between traditional and modern roles of women: studies show that women who do the majority of the housework and child care have fewer children than those who have partners who "share the load."

But population replacement rates aside, I assumed this gender role shake up would somehow be visible in my daughter, evident in a kind of genderlessness--you know, playing with trains in a princess dress, bouncing a ball while rocking a baby to sleep. But maybe it's only been confusing to her? When she was about two, she commented that "Daddies go to the office and mommies stay home," and I corrected her by naming off all the working moms (myself included) she knew. But the reality/perception thing baffled her for months.

She's getting older, though, and figuring it out: A couple of months ago, she told me she was choosing art because she didn't like to clean up the home-living section after she was done playing. And a couple of weeks ago, she remarked, "Dada's a good cooker and cleaner. He's the boss of the house." Then she hurriedly added, "But Mama's the boss."

"Sure," I said, my defensiveness immediately quelled by the formula of Mama=omnipotent, Dada=middle management.

Then she wandered off to cook in her play kitchen, reciting a list of things she was going to pick up at the grocery store--after she was done with her "deadline." Aha. She's been watching us after all.


MoziEsmé said...

They learn way too much from us, don't they?!

My baby's a regular cleanaholic and loves brooms, mops, rags, etc., as well as stirring food. I just hope she retains the love for the rest of her life. And ignores all the whining I do while I'm cleaning/cooking.

melissa s. said...

I think another great reason to separate domestic chores as a couple is that it teaches our kids to see us doing activities we enjoy -- SB sees Alex cooking as something he enjoys and she picks up on that. She sees you gardening or preserving and learns to appreciate those things as well. Of course, she'll learn that everybody hates cleaning the toilet as a hard fact of life ;-)

jpassaro said...

It was a proud moment when Olive picked up the broom and said it was "Dada's."

I'd rather make a fig and olive tapenade or plant needless annuals in cute pots than clean the house.

I love that my Gen X husband does more housework than I do. But neither of us likes to clean the toilet or dust or put away our clothes.

So what are we teaching our daughter? To make stuff and fritter away afternoons while the doghair gathers in piles that look like clouds sweeping across the hardwoods? I can live with that. She has a great immune system!

fasenfest said...

Not until I left my "professional" world did I come to appreciate (and respect) the complexities, joys and responsibilities inherent in the domestic word. It was/is complicated to run a home and I speak as someone that has run/owned restaurants for years.

I take on this new task with pride. There is definitely something to be learnt in the world of "home economics" Slowly I develop my skill sets and experience that make the running of my home more enjoyable. But I don't ever expect it to be all enjoyable. What is?

I admit that I do a lion's share these days since everyone else is off at outside jobs or schools but I really don't mind. What's more, I often breathe a sigh of relief when it is them, and not me, that is off in the "real world" everyday. I've had enough of it.

I see my homemaking as my contribution to the family unit and it never feels laden with gender confusion. Maybe that has to do with the fact that I feel solid in my gender identity and that I am respected by everyone in my family. Certainly picking up a broom is not going to set me into crises mode and I really don't think it will confuse my children since I doubt they ever see me as subservient. I dare them.

Yes, cleaning toilets are never high on anyone's list but neither are focus groups or market reports or deadlines or commuting every day or the annoying office mate that tell you about every detail of their annoying life.

I'm not sure we should worry so much about the subtle messages we are offering our children but rather teach our kids that all efforts - including homemaking and keeping - have more and less enjoyable tasks. Bucking up to the task at hand is not just for mommy or daddy or girl or boy but about becoming an adult.

In the end, I do not think the inclination to turn a home into place of comfort is a gender fascination but rather a responsibility of the members who reside there. I delegate what is fair (given their other responsibilities) and then set aside my gender sensitivities to pick up the toilet brush.

DomaMama said...

All good points. I especially like the notions of modeling to our kids what we enjoy and teaching them that all tasks have good and less-good parts to them.

I think I'm fascinated with SB's domestic proclivities as they're related to how young children read gender in everyday life. I mean, the fact that she didn't immediately perceive that I, like her dad, work in an office, made me wonder if she was doing some sort of toddler observation poll: watching whether moms or dads came to pick up her friends at daycare, noticing their attire (work clothes versus home clothes), etc.

The ability to generalize must start somewhere, even before we can articulate patterns and trends. Perhaps they start even sooner than we think.