Domestic Musings

Just a couple of anecdotes for a Friday evening concerning bookish things. It never ceases to amaze me how intertwined my reading and my life become, but that may simply be because I spend all my days reading at the moment. This is very pleasant, but after a while it does your head in as it becomes difficult to distinguish what is life from what is something I’ve read. I’ve been reading a lot of harassed mother books of late, stories in which busy, working women struggle over the tedium of household chores and the endless demands of their family. Some of those books have been fiction, but some others have been sociological and psychological studies. Now the other evening, I was sorting out the laundry while my husband was eating a late dinner. He’d been out rowing and was tucking into a rather nice pain au chocolat pudding that I make despite the fact I cannot personally eat it. Whilst eating he was idly flicking through one of the sociological studies I just mentioned and reading snippets out from an article written back in 1979 by a college professor who was discussing the difficulties of family life when both partners work.

It was rather a touching, heartfelt account in many ways, with the woman writer describing how anxious she used to be every morning, waiting for her housekeeper to turn up (who was a paragon apart from her inability to get there in time, it would seem) and fearing she’d be late to teach her class. Or how when she did leave, her son would roll around on the floor in front of her feet howling and begging her not to go. Neither of these situations did her husband have to deal with, for they were, as usual, left for the poor mother to negotiate. I particularly liked the story she told about the time her son threw a massive tantrum when her housekeeper picked him up from school. Apparently the housekeeper took it badly and threatened to leave unless she ‘did something’ about his behaviour, and other mothers from the school rang her up to ghoulishly gloat and criticize, suggesting that if she stayed home, the incident would not have happened (and remember this is 1979 when working mothers were rare). The professor roundly scolded her son and banished him to his room, then did what any woman would do under the circumstances: went to bed for a good cry and a tortuous session of guilt and self-reproach. Fortunately, when her husband came home and heard the sorry tale, he roundly declared he ‘had never seen a worse example of a would-be feminist in his life.’ The first time that the other mothers treated her maliciously, she had gone to pieces. Were children their mother’s puppets? Did he not count for anything in the child’s upbringing? What had happened to their belief that children were autonomous beings? The writer goes on to say that feedback from other people has a big influence on women’s ability to combine careers with motherhood. I’ll put it more bluntly: sometimes women can be really mean to one another, and never more so than over the working mother/stay at home mother debate. I don’t quite understand what’s at the bottom of this, but I’m going to make it my business to have a good dig around in this particularly murky swamp.

The extract that caught my husband’s eye, however, concerned shared household chores. The author writes that ‘the wife’s problem has only begun when her husband promises to take over certain chores. The real challenge is to get him to do them regularly so that she no longer has to think about them at all. This often requires a good deal of tact and persistence on her part as well as a willingness to accept that her husband may not do the job as well as she thinks he ought to.’ Now this was a poignant moment in the Litlove kitchen as I was at that point attending to laundry that is designated as a task for my husband. When my husband first came off work and I wasn’t so well, we redistributed the chores and he got the washing. But what this means is that we all wear our clothes very mindfully as what goes into the washing pile might not reemerge until the seasons have changed. Many a time I have had a serious underwear crisis, and my son regularly runs out of socks, despite the extremely toxic nature of any that he is obliged to wear twice. I don’t like to think of the times that garments are taken back from the laundry basket, and it is the norm to pluck them, creased, from the ironing pile in the hope that body warmth will do the trick. So there I was, with a big bundle that contained all my winter sweaters simply because I had none left that were clean. But as I say, I’ve been busy with research lately, and not too attentive to chores myself, with the result that the jumpers went into the tumble drier on Friday evening, and then seemed to take forever to dry on a low heat. Every time I walked past I gave them a little longer, and it was Sunday evening before they seemed dry enough to fold. So perhaps it was not surprising that as I held them up before me, I realized that they looked rather like the clothes of a big dolly. The arms aren’t too bad, but all my polo-necked jumpers, the staple items of what might laughingly be called my winter wardrobe, now reveal a chilly inch or two of my tummy and ping up to mid-rib if I lift my arms above my head.
‘Well would you look at that,’ said my husband, half admiringly. ‘You’ve tried the incompetence ruse. Any man would be proud of you.’ Then he lowered his voice and said, ‘A word to the wise: you’re supposed to sabotage your partner’s clothes, not your own.’ And then he laughed a lot. How terrible to think that nothing has changed since 1979.

The other item that caught my eye and my interest was in a book that made a notable connection between depression and dreaming. The depressed, it seems, dream a great deal more than the contented, with the result that they wake in the morning feeling exhausted and so perpetuate a cycle of depression. The situation arises when something happens that impacts on a person’s ability to get their basic needs met. Those who have a pessimistic or introspective disposition then tend to worry about their difficulties, ‘misusing their imagination’ as the authors put it (and the imagination is understood as a powerful tool that can do a great deal of harm when put to the wrong use) and allowing emotionally arousing thoughts to go round and round their heads. The result is ‘catastrophic thinking’, the ability to see the situation only as black or white, which in turn triggers the fight or flight responses, releasing adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream that simply make the situation much worse. At night, the mind attempts to deal with this influx of bad feeling by dreaming, distorting the amount of REM sleep (dream sleep) that the individual has. Too much REM sleep means not enough stage 4 sleep, the point where we heal our bodies and enjoy full, blissful rest. The poor individual wakes feeling exhausted and without motivation, and then, convinced it is not normal to feel this way, start to believe they are flawed and freakish. And so it goes on. Isn’t that interesting? I found that most credible and sensible. The problem, then, can be traced back to the (non) fulfillment of those basic needs that sets the worry off in the first place. The authors suggest that the route back to health is to figure out which need is not being met and to do something about it, as far as is possible. Here, for your information, is a very neat list of the basic needs:

‘Physical needs include a wholesome diet, exercise, good air to breathe and clean water to drink. Emotional needs include the need for security, to feel one has some control over events, to give and receive attention, to be emotionally connected to others, to have intimate closeness to at least one other person, to have status within one’s family and peer groups, to feel autonomous and competent, and to be ‘stretched’ in what we do (because being physically and/or mentally stretched is what gives meaning and purpose to our lives – a healthy brain is a busy problem-solving brain).’

It’s like a recipe for good living. I’ll be back on Sunday for the round up of the week’s reading, but may you have all your basic needs met in the meantime.

18 thoughts on “Domestic Musings

  1. What a lot of wonderful things to think over! I’m thrilled to hear you’re going to give some thought to the work/home split. I’ve never undersood the stay at home/work outside the home thing. It’s all work, and we should just get on with it and not try to make ourselves out to be saints and others sinners just because we’re doing it slightly differently.

    And, oh, that was so funny about your sweaters shrinking. Spring will be here fairly soon, so maybe slightly shrunken sweaters will work better than you know, fashion-wise.

  2. Your sad laundry tales remind me of my own! Just this morning I presented a child with a pair of non-matched, but clean, socks to wear with the recommendation that she “stretch them”.

    I love the recommendations for good living. Thank you for those.

  3. Dew – I know! roll on the summer. And one recipe coming up – I’ll email it in the morning and see if I can find American measurements for it (cups and such, right?). Bloglily – no surprises to find you are a woman after my own heart! Whatever a mother does, it’s going to be hard work, and sisterly support is essential to that and helps the day pass better and more contentedly. There is no moral highground in a minefield. And I do like the thought about the approaching spring. If the midriff is back in fashion, I will be laughing (if a bit chilly around the kidneys). Charlotte – Oh loved that story – yes, a matched pair of socks is a beautiful thing around here (and rare). I am repeating the list of basic needs like a mantra – I’m sure the answer to life lies within them!

  4. I saw the sweater shrinking coming a mile away. I prefer to mix my lights and darks from time to time and see what new color everything turns 🙂 Your husband has it right though, you’re supposed to mess up the other person’s clothes not your own.

    Women can be so mean to each other over just about everything. I’ve never understood it especially the working mother thing. Maybe while the working moms feel guilty the stay at homes are envious? I’ll be interested to see what you discover. And that’s an interesting bit about depression. My sister suffers from depression and sleeps a lot but yet she is always tired.

  5. Ah yes,far too complex for a man to do the washing if it results in such a talented person as yourself shrinking the sweaters! I stick to ironing and washing up, with the odd bit of hoovering when sinuses allow. Now in a way shrinking my sweaters might spur me on to lose some weight, which I find terribly difficult. Pity I can’t just find a simple and quick way to imitate a sweater, but I doubt my head could take any more spinning. That’s an interesting piece on depression and dreaming. I am told we all dream but I could never recall having done so until I aged. Now I do and I am tireder than of old. I just thought it was the getting older thing. I shall have to consider not dreaming or not noticing dreaming again to see if it does the trick.

  6. Good lord — a few bells ringing here and no mistake. I did once shrink one of my husband’s garments. He was a drummer at the time and had bought a very attractive red wool vest to wear when playing gigs. We didn’t have a washing machine at home so I took a load to the launderette, mostly clothes belonging to my one-year-old daughter. When I got it all home, I found a tiny red vest that fitted her perfectly, though I could not remember buying it. Well….

  7. I will return to this post often, I can see, to review its wealth of material. For the moment, I’m stuck on “misusing the imagination.” The unhealthy thinking/unhealthy sleep/unhealthy thinking cycle is the cycle your sweaters must have been on! (At least they didn’t waste money on a shrink.)

    I will hazard a guess from my male perspective about what women were thinking in 1979. Those who didn’t want to work outside the home felt those who did were threatening the axiom that children require a parent who is home all day. They appear to have lost that argument, but who’s to say they weren’t right?

  8. A veritable banquet of food for thought, Litlove, and all quite delicious.

    I’ve always found the whole working outside v. working inside the home debate very interesting. As you said yourself, mothering is hard work no matter which way you approach it. We could all be so much more useful to one another if we were more supportive of the difficulties being encountered on both sides.

    Interestingly enough, I have a good friend who was a stay at home dad, and raised three children while his wife worked long hours as an oncologist. That situation begs an entirely different set of difficulties for both partners.

    I was particularly interested in your discussion of dreams and depression. My husband has begun having the most vivid and disturbing dreams, which leave him exhausted in the morning. I must encourage him to do an inventory of his basic needs to see whether they are being properly met!

    As for your sweaters – midriff baring tops are all the fashion, you know 😉

  9. Laundry baskets! Ironing baskets! Somehow they were always full, overflowing and invading the rest of my space.

    Then I gave up ironing. The freedom, the release from guilt, the extra space! Room for some scattered thoughts on a part of a provocative and fascinating post.

    Perhaps women are mean to each other because, in the pre-liberation days (and still in much of our society and in many different societies) they were/are caught in a constant struggle to get and keep a man. Despite all our advances and enlightenment, most women are still judged on their ability to be both marriage partners and home creators. If a married woman works, it is never her husband who is blamed for an untidy home or a disobedient child. While the male of the species is still, at base, a wanderer, a woman must continue to see all other women as potential rivals and “down-putting” is, sans physically beating-up on the opposition as males do, the time-honoured female way of gaining and and holding an advantage. An emotional and guilty opponent is a weak opponent and unlikely to successfully “husband-steal”. So while the ideal would be a united sisterhood, the reality is a constant, ongoing battle for supremacy. Even a “best friend” is still a potential rival.

    But then I am a mere, non-perceptive male so I am probably completely wrong – as we normally are in the ongoing battle of the sexes. So I shall go and hide away from the rage of thousands of liberated women – perhaps another week in Coral Bay would help. 🙂

  10. Pingback: Laundry « Archies Archive

  11. How couples sort out the work is endlessly interesting (and often depressing), isn’t it? Hobgoblin and I have such an unusual arrangement, I suppose, that I don’t recognize my own experiences in what people usually write — if either of us is the domestically incompetent or indifferent one, it’s me. I’m the one who feels uncomfortable in the kitchen. I kind of like it this way, but I have to remember it’s not always easy on Hobgoblin … and that our house is always a mess.

  12. LK – poor you! I’m so sorry to hear that. Insomnia is a real curse and ruins your quality of life. I’m sure you’ve tried everything but for my own part, I found meditation helped a great deal. The body scan that Jon Kabat Zinn recommends is a great way to calm down and relax and I used to regularly fall asleep doing it. So when I can stop the thoughts going round in my head for long enough to remember it, it often helps me at 3am! Stefanie – LOL! You know me too well! The lights/darks thing cracked me up, too. You’re so right about the non-sisterly behaviour, and I’m sure guilt and jealousy play a big part. I’m thinking if I can figure out how come women feel so much guilt and explain it in such a way that they feel liberated forever more from doing so, then I might make my fortune 😉 Send my best regards to your sister, too. Depression is horrible. Bookboxed, you are so sweet! I’m afraid I have no talents other than a slight ability with words. Really, you should see me trying to change a fuse in a plug. Well, no, that’s not a sight anyone is likely to see! And I’m sure you are fine just as you are – cuddly is good. The dreaming book is fascinating and if I find out what to do about dreams I will let you (and the blogworld) know! Harriet – your story made me laugh out loud and then applaud! I loved it. If only I had had the presence of mind to create some clothes for my son out of my husband’s washing, I would have considered it a job well done. David – your comment really made me laugh. I tell you, if those sweaters could sue me for negligence they’d be on the phone to their lawyer as I type this. I think you are spot on when you say that the new way threatened the old, and threats never bring out the best in people. I wouldn’t myself be able to come down on one side or the other of the working/stay-at-home debate. I think children benefit most from happy mothers, and so it’s up to women to know their own hearts (that being the difficult part). Ravenous – I do love your comments. I’m all for solidarity, too, and for couples figuring their way through the child rearing challenge any which way suits them best. I must look into house husbands, though – that’s an intriguing thought. I do hope your husband gets a better night’s sleep soon. If he can remember his dreams they may well contain the key to his worries. And thank you for the fashion encouragement! I need it! Bluestocking, you most certainly can have the recipe, my dear. I will email it later in the day. I think a drying rack might be a very good solution! Archie – it’s lovely to have you back – don’t you dare head off to Coral Bay again just yet! I love hearing what men have to say about women. I think it’s one of the great hidden gender imbalances that women spend so much time figuring out men, and men (ostensibly) don’t seem to spend any time at all considering women (beyond getting them on a date). It’s funny you should say what you do about rivalry as I’m currently reading a book where the rivalry for the husband even extends to the daughter. It’s something I’ve never thought about before, and can see I must. Thank you for bringing that up. Dorothy – I have to confess I am always fascinated to know how other couples tackle these age old issues. I cannot imagine you ever failing to let the Hobgoblin know how much you value what he does for the household, and that will be enough to delight him. I’m sure messy houses are very healthy – I promise you mine always embraces a certain artistic disorder too 🙂

  13. I’m not sure I would trust my husband to do my laundry. I don’t mind if he washes towels, but I’m sort of particular about my clothes. After 12 years, though, he’s finally started making his own lunch for work (well most of the time)! 🙂 The whole sleep/dream/depression thing was really interesting. I’ve always figured I dream at certain times because I am not feeling in control of life. I have this recurring dream of being a waitress (I was a waitress for a short while when I was younger and hated it–it stressed me out) and having all these demanding customers and not being able to help everyone and feeling totally not in control! I always know when that comes along there’s something not right in life. And sorry to hear about the sweaters–perhaps this will give you an excuse to go shopping?

  14. That stuff about dreaming and depression is fascinating (says your friendly neighborhood armchair psychologist). Would you mind telling me what book you were reading?

  15. Danielle – oh how I understand that lack of trust! When my husband went to work I would sometimes make him a packed lunch and he loved that – thought I was finally being a proper domestic wife! I appreciate your waitress dream; it’s a brilliant scenario of being overstretched by other people’s demands and I’m surprised now that I haven’t dreamed that myself 😉 As for shopping, I like the way your mind works. Emily – it is a most fascinating book. It’s called Dreaming Reality and it’s by Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell. I would absolutely love to know how you get on with it if you do pick it up.

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