August 19, 2011

Half-year of the hausfrau


PLENTY OF FEMINIST WRITING is churned out by people actively engaged in an area of expertise/field of work. As a therapist, educator and social worker, I have always had plenty to say, a stand to take and debates to relish. (Note: I am NOT saying working folks are the only ones with opinions of value!) But for the past 6 months, I was none of these. I wasn’t even (hushed whisper) a working woman. I was, to put it plainly, a hausfrau, and this is an account of my experience.

It happened the usual way. Marriage, partner’s transfer and move abroad. We were going to live in the United States, a country I was very familiar with, had lived in before and was acclimatized to. I knew it was only a matter of time before I re-entered the workforce. Having worked non-stop—often two jobs/businesses simultaneously—for the past decade, I was suddenly faced with swathes of time and the freedom to stare into space if I so chose. As a part of me watched from the sidelines, the job-juggling girl I once knew threw herself headlong into home decoration, baking and the maintenance of an immaculate home.

I will come right out and say it. I loved every minute. No miserable Mondays, time to explore my nesting side and the incredible luxury of fussing over cushions and bed linen just because I could. From whipping up batches of brownies to color-coordinating the tableware, running errands at a leisurely pace and greeting my spouse with an elaborate, freshly-cooked meal each evening, I did all the things women have sought to break free from in decades past. And yet, there I was, a self-confessed feminist, trying to shush her cognitive dissonance by convincing herself it was all a temporary romp in the park.

The first signs of discomfort arose when I had to fill in forms asking me what I did for a living. Homemaker, I’d write, a trifle defiantly, not too pleased with my answer. I was the flexi-time lady, the on-call chauffeur, the go-shopping-at-a-whim buddy, the One Who Did Nothing. And yet I know full well, from my own experience and that of the women in my family, the solid work it takes to run a well-maintained, smoothly-functioning home. Upkeep is akin to a garden—unless you’re constantly weeding, it’s going to overwhelm you. Then what was it, that feeling, the twinge I felt spending money not earned by me, the knowledge that I could enjoy this freedom because my partner worked to put bread on the table?

I put it down to upbringing, role models and childhood narratives. To years of seeing a working mother and grandmother, of being goaded toward financial independence by my stay-at-home grandmother, of growing up hearing that marriage could wait, I needed to carve out a career first, of being firmly told that “sitting home” was not why I was educated and that with my two Master’s degrees I should jolly well step out and make myself useful to the world.

Should I be hating this, would it be terrible if this state of affairs were to go on forever, I’d ask myself, a trifle alarmed at how much I was enjoying the change of pace.  I felt no boredom, I always had tasks to accomplish, and nothing gave me greater pleasure than snatching some hours of reading time on the couch, with nowhere to go unless I wanted to. Perhaps I reveled in it because I knew it was a temporary situation.  It is unthinkable to me that I remain unemployed, even as I acknowledge that there is absolutely nothing “wrong” with the idea. I have always respected the work of homemakers, now even more so. But clearly some part of me still believes that those working outside the home are worthier.

So as I get back to work next week and my cognitive dissonance fades away, to be replaced with Monday morning blues, rush hour traffic and a less-than-tidy home, I hope I can hunker down and stare my biases in the face, so the next time I switch roles, I am freer of labels and sexist baggage and can embrace another aspect of myself more willingly.



2 comments to Half-year of the hausfrau

  • I completely empathize with this piece. Yet I can’t help feeling it’s telling that the first signs of discomfort arose when you had to fill in forms. I’ve been there too, and the “dependent” status on the visa irked me most of all. I think some of the discomfort comes from that external view of dependence – not always true – or the societal view – completely wrong – that a homemaker does not work. I find it wa-ay easier to work outside the home than to keep the home ticking, even with a lot of (hired) help!

    Well written piece and very honest!

    • Dilnavaz Bamboat

      Thanks, Pamposh! Yes, the statement that I wasn’t employed outside the home was certainly more disturbing than actually being a homemaker. 🙂

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