Thanks to the Great Recession, my days are looking eerily like my mother’s did when I was a kid. While 14-year-old Tess spent her Saturday at a friend’s house watching back-to-back episodes of Gossip Girl, I cleaned her room in a fashion that would have made my mother proud. The vacuum cleaner and I unearthed a few hundred bobby pins, a couple of CD covers, two discarded paperbacks from last year’s reading list, and the odd sock. I cleared the closet floor of flip flops, character shoes, jazz shoes, ballet slippers, our daughter’s first pair of sexy heels, Birkenstocks, assorted flats, hiking boots, cowboy boots, and Uggs, and wrote “shoe bags” on a shopping list for The Container Store. I sorted clothes under the categories of keep, giveaway, and toss. I filled two trash bags with things you don’t even want to know about and scrubbed the stains on the carpet like a woman gone mad. The day was a labor of love and an exercise in spiritual practice: Stay present and pass no judgment.
Let’s talk laundry. We are a family of active adults and teenagers who begin the day in clean clothes, who practice yoga, take walks, ride bikes, play sports and, I’m happy to report (in reference to the adolescent male in the house), shower daily—all good things in my book. My mother used to say I changed clothes more often than most people change their minds, so maybe this is payback. When the kids and Tony were newcomers in our home, I got the occasional kick out of counting the number of loads I did on any given day. The intrigue wore thin a few thousand towels ago. Now, if I don’t hear the washer or dryer running, I figure something has gone haywire, like maybe the refrigerator has stopped working and the food is slowly rotting—that is if there’s anything left from the grocery run I did three days ago.
Which brings me to food. My family loves regular meals. I love regular meals. It’s just that supplying them on a daily basis gets old and tiresome and tedious. First there’s figuring out what to eat, then shopping, hauling bags, unloading bags, cooking, and cleaning up. I’m lucky in one regard: this group will eat whatever I set before them. When I opted for a scooter date with Tony instead of another trip to the grocery store last Sunday afternoon, the kids were thrilled with what I billed as a novelty…grilled cheese and roasted vegetables.
So what does all this domestic activity have to do with the Great Recession and my mother? In my family of origin—another family of five—I was one of the lucky benefactors of Mom’s cooking, cleaning and care taking. I took for granted the dinners served promptly at six, the home-baked cakes, cookies and banana bread, the washed and pressed clothes that magically appeared in my closet, and an orderly, lemon-scented, impeccably clean home. I also knew I didn’t want her life. No offense Mom, but mine was the generation of females who would have it all, starting with career. I had earned three college degrees by the time I turned 26, and never looked back. Okay, rarely looked back…until my mid-thirties when the baby urge hit in full force and the stresses of corporate life started to feel somehow not worth it. In the course of trying to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up, I reinvented my professional self a half dozen times. And in the attempt to hold things together as a working mom, I sampled pretty much every support system that exists for employed women in modern America, from live-in nannies and carry-out dinners to standing Friday-night babysitters, summer camps and cleaning ladies. Until now.
In prolonged economic downturns like the one we’re in, the demand for copy writing dwindles to a slow drip. So I’m picking up the slack around the house. I’ve turned the home front into a bustling scene of getting to what I’ve put off, delegated to the spouse, assigned to the children, or ignored. This was not an intentional move. I have long held that men and women need to share domestic responsibilities, knowing that “sharing” often entails convincing the man to do something more than put his dirty underwear in the laundry basket. I scored big with Tony. A working single dad for seven years before we got together, he knows what it takes to keep the ship afloat. And during his 25 years of cutting and coloring the heads of females, he’s heard his share of lazy-husband and disengaged-father stories. So he gets it. Does he parent with the same intensity that I do, or obsessively wipe the kitchen counters until they gleam like stars in the night sky?
But he parents effectively and loads the dishwasher without being asked. What really counts is that, with me working less, he has stepped it up and is working more. The kids and I see less of him, but the bills are paid.
Which makes him about perfect, although he directed a comment my way the other day that still has me questioning just who he thinks I am, and I quote, “You’re the most sensible person I know.” What happened to adventurous, or courageous? What about witty, clever and irresistible? Even smart would do, but SENSIBLE? My mother used the word to describe footwear. From choice of shoes, she inferred character—and meant it as a compliment. For the first thirty-seven years of my life, i.e. before Ali came along, I didn’t want anything to do with the word or the concept. Any psychologist worth her salt would have a heyday upon learning that during my years at Conde Nast, the woman who was raised under a canopy of “sensible” spent thousands of dollars on designer shoes, along with clothes, handbags and Donna Karan shimmering sheers in matching shades. A friend in Denver still teases me about the day I walked into the ad agency dressed in olive green from head to suede toe…but I digress. Fast forward twenty years and the man I sleep with has called me sensible. Apparently he’s forgotten I ride a scooter in city traffic and climb mountains in South America.
Does professional woman turned cook, cleaning lady and laundress make good sense? In this economy, probably. Thank god for the blog, and for you who read it. The writing makes me feel like I still have a real job, even though the pay is lousy. Would I rather be creating headlines than folding laundry? Most days, yes, although it’s harder to believe our planet is on the verge of imploding with warm cotton in my hands. And knowing my husband stands on his feet with his arms in the air for 12 hours, even I’m hard-pressed to insist it’s his turn to cook when he walks in the door. We have a system that happened all by itself: I cook, he loads the dishwasher, and I come around later to wipe the counters one last time.
By the way, I learned there’s a chance I’ll be working on a website for a client I haven’t heard from in a year. Maybe this Great Recession is finally receding. I better clean another closet while I still have the time, but first I’ll whip up a meat loaf.