Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Threat of Domesticity

When I was 14, my parents bought a hamburger stand after my dad quit his company job. That was when my mom, who had always stayed home and made us after-school snacks, started working full-time for the first time in my life. They started leaving at 5:30 in the morning and returning after 10pm, six days a week. That left us three kids to run the household.

I don't remember how much housework we had done before my mom started working. I remember helping her with the laundry at times and assisting in the kitchen. And learning how to make a dish here or there. But I can't recall if we even had regular chores until then.

Once she started working, I remember the three of us sitting in front of the TV a lot and fighting over the remote control. While resenting that my brother always wanted to watch horror films, even as we sat next to him on the couch with our hands cupped over our eyes. And endlessly eating burritos and eggrolls stashed in the freezer in wholesale size boxes that my parents had brought home from the burger shop.

Those days are now a blur, but my memory then skips to a time when we started doing the groceries. And the laundry. And the dishes. And cooking dinner. And endlessly fighting over who should do what.

We fought daily. Over the same set of gripes day after next. It's your turn to do the dishes. I did them last night. It's your turn to do the laundry. Why am I always doing them? You have to make the dinner tonight. You said you would!

In my teenage world, having to do something out of turn was a grave injustice. I shouldn't always have to be the one to do the dishes. Why is it always up to me to figure out what to make for dinner? Why can't you fold your own laundry for once?

We had no sense of order. We were living in the realm of the Lord of the Flies, and I was sure it was my place to impose order. And justice.

I developed a habit of ranting freely. Whenever the situation seemed to call for it. The three of us fought with all that was within us. With the fervor and intensity of divorcing couples. There was no sense of boundary of what would be deemed proper behavior. Within our four walls, we screamed at each other and cried regularly. We nursed our headaches afterwards.

Looking back, it's now clear that we were fighting over more than just having to wash one more dirty dish or carry a bag of groceries from King Kullen two blocks down the street. It was a time of change and anxiety for our whole family. We had lost our sense of security that had come with my dad's company job, and we didn't know how to cope with the emotional stress of feeling like we had been spit out into the world to fend for ourselves.

Years later, my mom rued that she and my dad had not imposed a sense of order when they both started working. We were so busy, she said. We shouldn't have left the three of you alone like that.

With no adult to guide us, we never really developed the skills to manage ourselves or each other. And couldn't seem to find a way to cope, except with the passing of time and by drifting away from each other.

One year, when I was home from college, my aunt came to visit from Korea. She happened to come when our family was in the middle of moving from our rental apartment to the first home we had ever owned. She watched me and my sister organize all the furniture, tear down all the boxes, and sort through all that needed to be put away in cupboards and drawers. Later, she told my mom that I was ready to run my own household. That I would be quite the catch. That any bachelor would be lucky to have me in his home.

I remember feeling my face stinging from that comment. It was the same shame I felt when I went to stay with a friend at her aunt's house during one Thanksgiving during college, and as we were helping with the dinner, the aunt observed that I managed myself in the kitchen like someone who had a lot of experience.

Oh, I just helped my parents out here and there, I remember responding.

I felt that I had become overly domesticated. Domestic skills were nothing to be proud of. In my world, they were associated with resentment and bitterness. Something acquired despite myself. I didn't want them to be the dominant markers of my teenage years, even as I gloated when my parents thanked me for helping them.

When I first started living alone, I shunted domesticity to the side. I took my laundry to the laundry service. I had two pots and one frying pan, but took months to acquire cooking utensils. I loved eating out. I'm too busy to cook, I loved to say. Too many other important things going on.

Over the years, I've learned to become more balanced by cooking occasionally and doing my own laundry. And breaking out the vacuum and the mop on a regular basis.

Now that Jeff and I have our baby, though, domesticity once again threatens to dominate our lives. Our days are now filled with laundry, bottles washing, grocery shopping, and cooking. Sometimes I find myself reverting to my teenage self, a complaint on the tip of my tongue over having to wash an extra bottle or yet again doing the laundry. In a preemptive move, I prepared a chart -- with many a revisions -- specifying exactly who is responsible for what and presented it to Jeff after sending it to him on Google Docs.

Do you want to be in charge of clearing the Diaper Genie? I propose to Jeff. Then I'll be in charge of unloading the dish-washer.

He looks at me patiently and asks, Can't we just work together?

It takes me a few minutes to remember. Oh, right. We're grown up now.

I'm grateful to him for the reminder.

1 comment:

  1. This was a powerful post. Don't let the lack of responses fool you.

    As professional women, the struggle within is never more dominant than we become mothers. When we want to take complete care of our little ones - be it cooking, feeding, cleaning, changing diapers, doing laundry. And then, as we do this, we wonder whether there is more to life than this, when this will end, what this means in terms of who we were. And ultimately, who WILL we become?

    Congratulations on your Mommyhood. I am also an out-of-work lawyer (well, by choice at this point) who just had a baby boy.