Thursday, 20 May 2010

postcards from the twilight zone

I know there's been moments of normality in there, but the last few weeks (month?) have felt a bit like the twilight zone. There's been sickness all round, which never helps, and a bunch of stuff going wrong and I've felt bad and sad and confused and all that, but sitting over the top of it all I just haven't felt entirely like me. I skirted the Sew it Together events on the weekend, something I fully expected to participate in, but between my mental distractions and the demands of a very challenging class to teach on Saturday I felt very monosyllabic and barely present. Like I'd been taking drugs but without the fun. I'm usually such a joiner inner but somehow I just wasn't there.

I've also been exceptionally tired as Wil's recent sleeping problems and illness have developed into full blown night terrors. There's lots of contributing factors and I remember Amy going through a similar phase but it's such a drain to be tending a screaming child in the night. Quite a few nights he has ended up sleeping with me - which doesn't reduce the number of times he wakes but does help him get back to sleep much quicker. And while I hate the sleep deprivation I get as a result, and it feels like I can't do anything to help the poor terrified lad, I do think making scared kids feel like they are less alone somehow makes a difference in the long term. He's had more trouble than usual getting off to sleep too so I've been spending my evenings in the work room where Wil can hear I'm around until he drops off to sleep and we've been leaving a light and the radio on in my work room so he gets the impression I'm around even when I'm not.

There also seen a much greater focus on the household chores side of my life. The sewing machine was packed away a few weeks ago to encourage a cleaner, neater, more home cooked kind of family life for us all and I have been blogging, photographing, twittering and blog reading a lot less. I can report the house has most definitely been neater and more home cooking has most definitely been eaten and there has most definitely been less crankiness from some quarters and less rush.

But a couple of things have bubbled up along with that, and I have to say I'm not so pleased with them. The first has been a return of the feeling I worked very hard to get rid of some years ago that in the end my life has amounted to how clean I can keep a house. The mountains of reading I did for my thesis about the ongoing imbalance between men and women around domestic work is like bile in the back of my throat, and when Amy informed me that I really should make her bed everyday because it was my job because daddy builds houses and I make beds, I felt for one dizzying moment like patriarchy was alive and well and breeding in my house.

The reality that raising children and doing paid work and balancing domestic arrangements are complicated and subjective is not at all new to me (after two years of postgraduate study I get that at the very least) but it also feels like a very fragile treaty not just for me but for pretty much every woman I know. And before anyone jumps in here with a balanced view I'll say I'm not saying men don't have their own issues, frustrations and so on, but simply that I see a lot of evidence of how the negotiation of these issues wears women down. And how the persistence of resulting unhappiness seems to be at the heart of so many relationship breakdowns, mental health problems and all manner of other manifest issues. You know, the I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore stuff.

So while I've been sitting on the domestic worker side of the scales these last few weeks a couple of things have percolated aside from a general anger and sense of injustice. And one of these is how bottomless the domestic workload is. I know this isn't news but I simply can't believe how many hours I can devote to shopping, washing, picking up, sweeping, sorting, putting away, cooking and so on. There is always, and I mean always, more to do. The second is how utterly invisible such work is. Not just in the no one notices a nice clean house or how could there be so little evidence for some much work kind of invisible but in the quite literal sense of standing in front of someone doing the work and them not noticing it is being done. I feel like a complete idiot saying all this - the most fundamental reading of history and feminism tells you this most basic of facts, but the living in a work of endless work with so little achievement or recognition drives the point home in the most unpleasant of ways.

And all that has been doubled by the loss of time for doing things that help to ameliorate those feelings. Not in a direct way - I haven't found myself dying to sew while I have cooked - but I have deeply missed the feelings of joy, engagement and accomplishment that being creative provides. In fact I have felt largely uninspired to do anything enormously creative. I have churned stitch by stitch through a thousand miles of stocking stitch in the round while walking and commuting and waiting for small boys to fall asleep, but that's not what I consider to be a really creative enterprise, and there is as yet no achievement.

All of this has led me to think very carefully about what it is I seek in a domestic environment. Because quite aside from the work of maintaining the home, there is also a question of what I would rather be seeing when I look around me. The problem I have with the clean and tidy house is that both directly and indirectly it discourages me from being creative or relaxed. It removes a sense of the need to create, it removes the inspiration to create and it creates an enormous overhead to create what with the getting all the stuff out and packing all the stuff up in the small amount of time one generally has in a single slot. I really don't crave that sparkly super tidy minimalist aesthetic because it makes me anxious not to mess it up. And even more, it's an active suppression of all the stuff I like. It's empty.

I'm not going to get into an enormous dialogue here about form over function but when I see an empty mantelpiece, an absence of toys, vacant tables and neatly stacked shelves I have to ask what they are for. Why have these spaces if they say do not use me, do not dwell here, make no mess? As though we must eradicate the evidence of the life we live the second we have lived it for fear it may pollute tomorrow - eternal vigilance! Instead of feeling more houseproud as the surfaces clear I feel increasingly disassociated, depressed and oppressed. And don't even ask me what I think this does to the way kids see their role in the family home or how it influences the way you spend time with kids. Let's just say there's been no pint size painting, crafting or even drawing here in weeks.

I don't know how you find the right balance, I mean no one wants to live in a pig sty and of course at a certain point mess itself becomes an inhibitor to a fun and creative life. But I feel like I've moved off a continuum and into a separate kind of reality. Between caring for wee ones, doing the unavoidable and trying to keep things looking schmick I have just kind of shut down the part of myself that makes the fuel that keeps the engine going. It all feels so much like performance and not at all like living, and really I just don't understand why people want to live that way.

Luckily in just over a week I am off to craft camp. I think I am looking forward to it like I have not looked forward to one before, I'm hoping to find some inspiration and some clues about how to get back to some kind of real life.

22 comments:

Marina said...

Ooh, you know, I don't know that I've ever posted a comment here (though I've been reading for awhile now! sorry for being a creepy lurker!) so it is perhaps doubly weird for me to comment immediately after you post this, but I just happened to check Google Reader, and goodness this is just so on point. I've lived with my boyfriend for nearly two years, and I'm in grad school for history, and I'm so familiar with the kind of scholarship you reference, and I just feel so so weird and uncomfortable and unsure how to even feel about domesticity and keeping the apartment clean and doing the cooking. In the interest of not getting all oversharey, I will just say that I fully empathize with that need to get back to a real and balanced life, and I really hope you get back to that balance soon.

michelle said...

arghhh. yep. it sucks. all of it. The chores, the result of not doing the chores, and the effect on everything else of one choice or another. I'd give some chores to my kids, but then I seem to be nagging them to complete them which makes nobody happy either. All that conflict of priorities contributed greatly to the break down of my marriage. If you discover the secret let me know...

Leah said...

It's been on my mind too. I'm returning to the paid workforce for the first time in seven years (gulp) (for about 4 full time weeks atm) and ever since I found out have been cleaning and organising like a domestic freak. It always needed doing, and still does (very little of my work remains done...) But somehow the prospect of work has freaked me out sufficiently into some kind of 'cleaning is why I am a sahm' mode. In the last three weeks I've probably done 4 rows of knitting, and sewed five hexagon equivalents. Nothing. And I'm tense, and can't sleep, and am getting sicker... and it's all too much. And the worst part is I've done this all to myself. I hate it.

angelasavage said...

Sooz, you have such a talent for articulating thoughts I struggle to put into words. It's almost scary how furiously I agree with you about the depressing, nullifying effects of housework and tidiness. I try to communicate this with A, who admittedly does a lot more housework than me, but also complains about my standards. 'But it can't be any neater,' I protest, 'we live here.' Remember the old saying: 'A clean desk is the sign of an unoccupied mind.'

travellersyarn said...

I'm a firm believer in the re-balancing effects of creativity. while cooking is creative - it's ephemeral.

As for tidying - I hate it, and think that it destroys the soul. Cleaning is necessary but too much tidy - no thanks!

flamehair said...

I can empathise with so many points in this email. The night terrors, the illness, the relentlessness of cleaning, the loss of creative opportunities. And unfortuntely I am no closer to finding a solution than you are. I continue to clean a tidal wave of mess and defeat a mountain of washing each day, cook to a varied and healthy meal plan each week and occasionally steal 5 minutes to sew a few seams.
I hope you have a great time at craft camp and get the respite/recharge/refuge that you need.

Anna Bartlett said...

Thanks so much for that post.
I live in a messy, arty, crafty home that I always feel like I need to apologise for.
There is ALWAYS a mountain of laundry and a mess on the kitchen bench, and when people visit they always admire my husband's garden while I think "every hour he was in the garden I was solo-parenting".
It's a good day when I've done something fun with the kids, or some art or craft for myself.
And that's just not often enough at the moment.
I think my first step is to just stop apologising, spend a little less time reading/writing blogs and to go take the towels off the line while I plan my priorities list in my head.
Enjoy your craft camp. And resist the clean mantlepiece brigade as best you can.

Ali said...

Oh, this post resonates. So very much. I have no answers, just solidarity and a hope that your scales tip back a little closer to an approximate equilibrium soon.

frog said...

Yes. I haven't found a solution either, but we seem to be slowly, achingly stumbling our way towards one. And I hope that with each partial solution to one part of the problem helps us spiral up just a little bit more.

I like to see you reference your studies, the reality of your life because that domesticity thing gets to the heart of ourselves as women, and how our experience of domesticity can be made to be as protective and nurturing for us as it is supposed to be for our partners and children.

Masureen said...

I'm so sorry you're going through this more, so because I did the same thing 30 years ago.
I've never lived with anyone who put me under pressure, I did it all on my own despite my feminism.
Slowly, over the past 15 years or so, something shifted and this not just because children are no longer at home. A sense of letting go, letting be. Almost a spiritual shift rather than a political one. Here's hoping it doesn't take so long for you.
Until then, please know that your blog brings huge enjoyment to women all over the world. I love that linkage through craft, family and sisterhood.Hold on, take the support that is out there for you. As they say "these things too shall pass"

Leonie said...

You read my mind didn't you? As well as so many others here as well, it seems.

When I find myself going around and around in the never ending circle of housework and find my brain screaming for relief I refer back to a wall hanging Mum had on the wall at home while I was growing up.

"My house is clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy" and for a couple of days the mania subsides.

I think that as a generation, the never ending cycle of housework is all the more mind numbing because we have been encouraged to be more educated, to identify things that appeal to us and to pursue them, and if nothing else housework negates that. So where is the value in it for us? Apart from hopefully keeping us and our families healthy. And by finding a "value" in it does that help to make it less challenging to deal with day to day or is just an attempt to feel less downtrodden?

I also find it all the more worse when I am tired or worse still sleep deprived. Sending Will calming vibes so that he can work out the source of his horrors, face them and put them behind him so that you can get some decent unbroken sleep.

Best Wishes.

Claire said...

I totally understand how you feel - it's such a fine balance. I am experiencing the flipside - My house is totally out of control to the point of sapping my creativity but to spend my precious free time cleaning it also seems like such a waste - I haven't created anything in MONTHS and I'm hoping for some divine inspiration from somewhere. Hoping you find some at craft camp! xx

Rachael said...

I know just of which you speak, being a sahm of three young children, BUT I also can't stand a messy house. Just can't function. I definitely need to tidy to have a tidy mind.

And if I fixate on the lack of appreciation I do try to look at it the other way, i.e I appreciate hubby bringing home the bacon but I don't thank him for it daily either.

*sigh* I don't know. I just don't know.

lisette said...

i'm moving out of lurkdom too :) i feel annihilated and claustrophobic in a neat and uber clean house - surfaces inspire a need to cover them with something - anything :)

mess and dirt are depressing but a bit of clutter leaves room for creativity - it's full of possibilities. if i tidy away all my stuff (yarn, fabric etc) it's as though it doesn't exist anymore....

totally agree with you re the pointless invisibility of housework - the doing or lack of lead to too many destructive arguments in our house - solution - a weekly cleaner who does all the basics. she is employed and we get a clean enough house

fiveandtwo said...

This post will resonate with so many of us. We struggle to create some sort of balance for ourselves.
I have just started reading a book "Radical Homemaking" - no, the author doesn't advocate a return to the subservience of women. The archetypal 1950's housewife (there are pages written regarding how this came about, but in your study you've probably covered that ground).
The author (Shannon Hayes) is, I think, trying to present ways to reconcile the needs of the family and the needs of the woman.
I've only read about 30 pages, introduction and first small chapter. It appears she's coming from the wanting/needing less school of thought. It's certainly not a "how to live on less money", budget instruction book. With a flick through it seems to give a thorough background on the history of women, going back some 5000 years and what happened to bring us to where we are now.
You might now borrow the book to compare and contrast with your postgraduate study.
Recently I have chosen to ignore some minor household maintenance (I used to do all that, but have decided to drop it in the "seeking balance" endeavour). I always felt that, because I did less paid work I "should" do everything that I could around the house. Now a balcony rail requires painting, a door needs scouring back and re-painting + other things. They wait to be done, not my problem.
This has become too lengthy. Hmmm, perhaps I should do a post about this.

sewing spots said...

www.flylady.net. Her website has gotten a little cluttered, so it might take some looking around. She began this website a long time ago as a way to help us maintain our homes and frustrations in dealing with housework, errands, and so forth. 15 minutes a day! Hope it helps-

kim at allconsuming said...

I've been sitting here staring at my comment space trying to think of something prosaic but nothing comes to mind. What you have written is simply how it is. Or perhaps how it can be. Clearly it is not how you want it. On that front I totally hear you. People question how I have time to bake or quilt or blog and my simple reply is that I have an untidy house.

I know there have been bigger players in this current state of affairs so it's not so simple as to say, if you don't like it, change it. I know there is negotiation and discussion and rehashing and that takes a whole other realm of energy that in the short to medium turn can be totally out-weighed by simply clearly the clutter off that step/bench/chair/surface. The time will come.

The most suckful part of this is that all the shit has to hit the goddamned fan at the same time. It's not enough we deal with shite in the workplace or have sick kids or kids going through a particularly arduous phase or a partner needing some tlc we have to deal with it all at once.

You know what I got most from this, apart from how fucking eloquent you are? That you really need sleep. And a break. And some rest.

Bring on sewjourn.

nikkishell said...

thI totally understand what you are saying, i think we all feel like that at various times. I feel like i'm running on a hamster wheel trying to catch up with all the things i have to do and want to do but never quite managing to.
My house is never tidy. If we tidy up it it's a matter of hours before it's back to it's former cluttered messy self. We live here, 4 of us are here almost all day every day. It's the way it is and we don't apologise for it.

I can't tell you how excited i am for craft camp! YIPEEE!

nicole said...

"...but when I see an empty mantelpiece, an absence of toys, vacant tables and neatly stacked shelves I have to ask what they are for. Why have these spaces if they say do not use me, do not dwell here, make no mess? As though we must eradicate the evidence of the life we live the second we have lived it for fear it may pollute tomorrow - eternal vigilance! "

Thank you thank you thank you! Every time I see a house that's so spick and span you could eat off the floors I think "They must not have kids." or "They must not be spending much time here."
And I like my kids building a cave with blankets and toys and things as long as it doesn't take over the entire room.

Every week I get one day where I tidy and clean and scrub and polish and dust, and then, at the end of that day there's still toys on the floor and there's still stuff on the table and there's still sand or something somewhere because I have kids and we do live here and somehow they don't stop playing just because I'm cleaning.

When I was in the middle of the "OMG social services are going to come over unannounced again at some point" phase of being a single mum of two (long story I don't tend to talk about, enough said) I was pretty much holding my breath for months. I also wasn't being a very good mum. There were no messes allowed, everything had to be put away and tidied up and cleaned and I think I was yelling a lot, too.
The thing is, social workers come in, unannounced and they don't see that you've been up all night with a sick kid or a migraine, or that you had a birthday party in the house a day ago and that the 1.5 year old likes to get into everything she can reach so everything's now on top of the shelfs, at grown up eye level and very messily so, because it doesn't all fit. And you get the "Well, you _do_ have a lot of stuff" comment and it haunts you. Apparently for years.
I find myself striving for perfect, uncluttered, clean and neat on one hand and for being a great mum who will let the kids use watercolours on the dining table and who will let them build forts and caves and who will let them build a complicated, enormous train track without making them put it all away before bed.
And it's doing my head in.

Kris said...

'... a very fragile treaty' says it so clearly for me. This is a beautifully written post that clarifies so much for me, and in particular the balance of tidiness v. creativity and the evidence of patriarchy in my own explicitly feminist home.

Cooking more than tidying does it for me: every night I cook, every night my children are rude and derisive about what I cook. Something that was once a creative and joyous and intellectually interesting act has become a drudge centred around white rice and frozen peas - which may be rejected at any time anyway.

trash said...

Those night terrors are a killer. Hope this phase passes soon for Wil.

As so Kim said your eloquency is magnificent. You summarise for many of us how we feel. Not just about the feminist aspects of domestic arrangements but about the push for clear spaces. This was something I noticed a lot in the past month.

The Australian media sell an image quite different from the UK one. Yes there is similarity in objets de great beauty, gorgeous materials and expensive locations (although that seemed to be just about ANYWHERE in Victoria) but there is a more modern, open feel to the Australian images. Perhaps linked to cultural identity, perhaps not. But certainly noticeable.

Hoping you can hang in there until craft camp.

Michelle said...

Another delurker here.
A fabulous post that has made me rethink so many things. We purchased our current home about 8 months ago and I only saw photos before signing a contract. The real estate agent only had 3 'staged' photos however I asked for photos of every single room. It took awhile to see past their clutter in all the other photos to see this would be a nice home for us to distribute a large amount of clutter. The mother had a very cluttered studio and I think ran a craft type of business from home. In the first few months of living here I cursed the previous owners for the grime they left us. After your post I actually feel like apologising to them (not that I have any idea who or where they are). This person lived how she wanted to live and her craft was her priority and not a clean kitchen. I myself have been very excited to have this new space that I can dedicate to a craft room and also very disheartened that I am not able to keep it as clean as I thought it should be - that would take from creative time – I find it a constant battle. I need to rethink how I want our family to live in this house and not think and say things like “We’ll do that activity when I have finished the washing”
I am no longer apologising for the mess – people just need to realise that we are too busy doing other things – things we want to do.