Thursday, November 17, 2011

living on the roof

When I was in high school, I was in a church youth group, and was simultaneously horrified and amused to come across this:

Better to live on the roof than share a house with a nagging wife.  Proverbs 21:9

This morning, this particular verse sprang to mind as I was trying to avoid getting up, and I heard Kathy say to A, in the kitchen, "Erin says you need to clean up those clothes on the floor of your room before your birthday party tomorrow..." followed by some muffled things I could not hear.  Sometimes I think my family would not so much mind living on the roof.

So, let's unpack the nagging wife, shall we?  My reactions to Kathy's comment (and Kathy's reactions to my reactions), the Bible verse above, the archetype of the nagging wife, and my realization that I am becoming one.

(a view of our rather inhospitable roof, from A's bedroom window)

1)  Kathy's comment was actually well-intentioned.  We had talked before about how it wasn't fair to have one "mean mom" and one "nice mom."  We are both on board with this sentiment.  So, when I mentioned to Kathy that A's room was kind of a disaster and 12 of her friends were coming over the next day, she was trying to take the heat off me -- so I wouldn't have to be the mean mom -- and tell her to clean her room, so that I didn't have to do it later.  While she had not actually been in A's room to see the clothes on the floor and the miscellaneous crap that seems to consistently be left in the wake of a child (baggie of rocks, Frankenstein mask, shirt box filled with packing peanuts and glitter, top to tequila bottle found in the park -- told not to touch but picked up anyway, etc.), she took my word for it and was "mean mom," telling her to clean it up.  But because she couched it in the terms of "Erin said..." it felt to me like I was still the mean mom -- the nagging wife.  Hence, Bible verses I haven't read in 15 years start springing to mind.

I am more into language choices and their importance than Kathy is.  She hates the arguments about sentence wording.  We did discuss this afterward, since I grumped around the house all morning after she said it, saying that "nothing" was wrong and that I was "not mad."  Kathy is always surprised when two words are like a land mine.  But her reaction to the comment was kind of surprising to me.  She kind of had a "Who cares?" attitude. She thought my request to clean up the clothes was valid, and she hadn't actually seen the clothes herself, so she said that it came from me.  Which, actually, it did.  So who cares?

2)  I'm sure there's more to that story in Proverbs that I haven't remembered.  I don't actually care about that.  I think the archetype of the nagging wife is damaging, and I think that particular verse highlights the exact reason it's damaging.  Hey wife, have a perfectly spotless home full of delicious food and well-behaved children, but DON'T YOU DARE TELL ME TO PICK UP MY OWN SHOES, that is so naggy that I'd rather live on the roof.  By the way, what's for dinner?

3)  I truly think that the gender gap at work has less to do with the way women are treated at work, and more to do with the expectations placed on them at home.  When I was a freshman in college, I took my first class under the Women's Studies banner -- Women in Literature, English 353 (better give it an English department title and call it interdisciplinary, otherwise it won't be taken Seriously).  On the first day, the professor asked us to raise our hands if we considered ourselves feminists.  About half the class raised their hands, including me.  Then, she asked us to raise our hands if our dads helped our moms with the housework growing up.  I raised my hand -- I knew where this was going.  We were more likely to be feminists if we had dads who helped our moms around the house.  My dad definitely helped with the dishes after dinner, and took out the trash, and cleaned the garage, and would do anything else my mom asked him to, except for laundry, which he had a tendency to ruin. "Why is it helping?"  She asked.  "Who says the housework is your mom's job in the first place?"  And thus, I was introduced to critical thinking.

In my house, the housework was my mom's job.  I thought this was because she was a stay-at-home mom, and my dad worked full time.  It was my junior year of college, while I was researching a paper on women in the workforce, that I learned that men whose wives work full time do an average of ten minutes more housework than men whose wives stay home.  And the work they tend to do is the manly work -- they fix the car, they clean the garage, they take out the trash.  In other words, work that needs to be done only intermittently, not the drudgery that has to be done day in and day out.  So whatever the dynamic in my own house, the reality is that housework is women's work not because women stay home, but because it just IS.

The truth is that until men pull their weight at home, they will have more success than women do at work.  When you have to get dinner on the table and pick up the dry cleaning and do the laundry and care for the sick child and supervise the homework, all after you get home from work, it's hard to compete with someone who walks in, sits down, eats, then goes and reads the Wall Street Journal so they can be up to speed on what's going on in their field, while their wife puts the kids to bed.

What is a homemaker (whether she also works outside the home or not) to do, then, when no one wants to help us voluntarily?  We ask for help.  And are ignored, so we ask for it again.  And again.  We remind, and remind, and remind that the shoes go in the closet so that tomorrow when you are looking for them, we aren't late.  And the 35th reminder or request for help starts to sound an awful lot like a nag.

4)  Which brings us to the nagging wife, as it applies to me.  One of the nice things about living with Kathy is that there is no husband here.  I do the manly work (lawn mowing, grill assembly, car repair, etc.), and some of the housework.  She does some of the housework, and the money-earning part.  Although we each do things that annoy the other, we don't spend much time reminding the other to take care of things around the house.  We both make a conscious effort to try not to do the things that irritate the other one, and just knowing that makes it a little less annoying when mistakes arise.  We both remind the kids to pick up after themselves, because we are bothered by different things (hers -- clothes piled at the end of the bed, mine -- weird things left in a little trail around the house).  We have a division of labor, yes, but thankfully it's not based on gender.

Yet, I have found that, since I've started staying home, more and more of the reminders to the kids seem to be coming from me, just because I'm here.  It's a lot more annoying to step over a sweater in the middle of the kitchen floor when you have been doing it all day long.  So although I don't really remind Kathy to do things around the house, I do often have to remind the kids -- over and over and over again.  What made me flare up at Kathy's word choice this morning was my fear of becoming that nagging wife, driving my family up onto the roof.  But her "who cares if you were the one to ask?" reaction made me question where the nagging wife came from in the first place, and what's so bad about her anyway?  The nagging wife is just trying to make her house a nice place for herself and her family to live, where people can find their stuff, where there is food to eat and clean clothes to wear.  And she wants to feel like a family member, rather than a servant.  That seems pretty fair to me.

So right.  Erin does say that you have piles of clothes on the floor that need to be picked up.  It's disrespectful to leave your clothes that Kathy or I have taken the time to wash and fold all over your floor, then just dump them back in the hamper to be re-washed because they've been kicked around and you're too lazy to put them in the drawer.  Nagging, for lack of a better word, is how you train children to be decent human beings, responsible for themselves and respectful of the people that help them, rather than brats who expect to have someone wait on them all the time.  Maybe, then, dismantling the nagging wife is less about trying not to nag (which is what I had been doing), and more about owning it.  Until we get some help around here, what else are we supposed to do?

So if you have a nagging wife (or a nagging mother), get down off the roof and go say thank you.  And pick up those clothes on the floor.

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