Saturday, December 1, 2007


What is it about the word 'housewife' that I find so derogatory and insulting? There is, of course, the old joke that a woman isn't married to the house. But it's more than that. Since I stopped working (outside of the house, for money, because I should point out that I'm still working), there's nothing that gets my dander up faster than being called a housewife.

Even before becoming a stay-at-home-mom (you'll forgive the PC-like mouthful), I bristled about the idea of the housewife. In beginning English classes, I always found talking about jobs to be good way to teach possessives. Or maybe that's how the dreaded Headway series did it, and I just never found a better idea. Plus, I'd cut out a nice set of bits of paper with pictures of jobs on them. 'What is your job?' 'What is your father's job?' You have to ask the question in this unnatural way to practice the possessives, and also because using the more common 'What does your father do?' often proves to be too confusing even for more advanced students, partly because there's nothing about jobs in that question, and partly because the grammatical difference between 'What does your father do?' and 'What is your father doing?' is often lost on students. For years, and for hundreds of students, only their father's jobs varied. My father is a policeman. My father is a lawyer. My father is a businessman. My father is retired. For years, and for hundreds of students, their mother's jobs never changed. My mother is a housewife. In six years of teaching English in Turkey, I don't think I've had a single student whose mother worked outside the home.

In theory, I think there's something to be said for a culture that so strictly dictates its gender roles. Everybody knows what's expected of them as they negotiate the world. Perhaps there's comfort in this. I admit I've felt this comforting feeling when watching old movies from the fifties, when the man and woman fall in love and get married, and the man has a good job with health insurance and the woman has a pretty house with a garden, a baby on he way, and lots of things to starch. It feels safe. I can see why the media-watching public of the fifties enjoyed eating up this myth so much.

In practice, however, and as a foreigner who wasn't brought up to negotiate the world this way, pre-dictated gender roles suck. Men work. Men do things. Men go out and drink tea and watch football and discuss current events and insure the world's continued activity. Women don't work (of course, no one considers cooking and cleaning and looking after kids to be 'real' work anyway). Women stay home and drink tea and gossip with the neighbors. Women go shopping and to the hairdresser's and watch Brazilian soaps on TV and insure that men and children never have to lift a finger to do anything for themselves. A lot of women don't even seem to like leaving the house very much, and they really do seem to take some kind of satisfaction from clean children, polished moldings, and spotless windows. Most men seem to find any excuse they can to get out of the house, and I don't hear many women complaining about being stuck alone at home all day and half the night with a screaming baby and a pile of ironing. But that could be because I'm also home alone, and not gossiping over tea with my neighbors who I find I have very little in common with, even the ones my own age. Luckily my baby doesn't scream much and I leave the ironing to the cleaner.

Amazingly, most people seem happy with this arrangement. Or is it that the men are happy and the women aren't, but no one cares about them enough to ask? Or is it that they don't even dare ask themselves? BE's mother seems genuinely happy. Her mission in life, it seems to me, is to serve others. Literally. During meals, she may sit down and eat now and again, but she usually stands at the head of the table, ready to spoon more food onto people's plates, or to run off to the kitchen to fetch more. Whenever someone sits down, she appears out of nowhere to try to shove a pillow under them. She lays out on the bed the clothes her husband and sons will wear that day. She wakes up around 6am and you can hear her whirring the house into life by making tea, shaking out tablecloths and bed linens, and getting the washing started. She doesn't complain when her husband arrives home drunk at 2am wanting a cup of Turkish coffee, and she sits with him while he drinks it. She gets on my case because I don't iron underpants and baby clothes because it's 'un-hygienic' not to. When we visit her, she always talks to me at great length (but not in a complaining kind of way) about the housekeeping she did that day, and I suppose I'm expected to join in, though I have very little to contribute (I don't suppose telling her I ran the dishwasher that day is good enough). She has a chronic pain in her right shoulder that comes from, I think, a lifetime of the repetitive motion of wiping and ironing.

Shortly after we got married, BE's father took great delight in getting me to serve the food at their house, and always told me what a good job of it I did, as though it's some kind of rocket science. Once BE's brother greeted us at the door saying, 'I don't like this T-shirt I'm wearing,' and I said, sarcastically, 'What, did your mother choose your clothes this morning?' and he replied, nonplussed, 'Yes,' which is how I found out she puts their clothes out for them. BE, until a few years ago, didn't know how to pack his own suitcase. He seemed to think dirty socks pick themselves up off the floor. The origins of clean underwear were a mystery. For the first few months of our marriage, BE would get upset because I'd call him into the kitchen to get his dinner plate and expect him to spoon out his own food, as it was always done in my house. At first, I got mad at him for expecting me to be his servant, but then I realized his feelings were hurt because he thought I didn't love him very much-- the Magic Fairy service of the devoted housewife is, indeed, equated with showing love.

Look, having a baby is rewarding. I was ready for this. I had my first job when I was 17 and have been working ever since. I was tired of going out and getting drunk every weekend, really. I was ready to settle. I felt this reward yesterday, for example, when LE clapped his hands for the first time, because goodness knows I've been clapping my hands at him for a couple of months now. It seems like a small thing, hand clapping, but it was momentous. AT the same time, the work that's expected of me now is among the most tedious, repetitive, and mind-numbing work I've ever done, rivalling the temp job I had once of attaching the price tags onto clothing in an Emporium factory (I lasted two days at that one). No matter how much I do, or how much I finish, it's never quite done and all the same work awaits me again a few hours later. LE is cute and cuddly and smiley and he's happy to see me and he's learning how to give kisses (which are sometimes toothier than I'd like), but he's also an unending cycle of diapers, baths, feeding, wiping, and tidying up after. It's menial. It's mundane. It's rocking someone to sleep for 45 minutes only to have his eyes pop open as as soon as I put him into his bed. And, like scooping food onto plates, none of it is rocket science. I thought staying at home with a kid would give me some time to do other stuff, some kind of work, perhaps, like the kind of work that's considered 'real' because you get money for it. Maybe stuff I didn't have time to do when I had a job, like reading and writing and I even had plans to pick up my poor violin again, lying dormant in its case for so long it's getting stiff and tinny. I didn't expect loads of time, but I thought a couple hours a day wouldn't be unrealistic.

Hah. The only reason I'm writing this now is because it's Saturday and BE is home to watch the baby. Other times I post in spurts when LE's sleeping, or leave him to crawl around on the floor, blocking him with my foot from getting into the computer cords while he whimpers and shouts at me to pay more attention to him. Even with BE home, I can hear increasingly frequent screeches coming from the other room telling me LE is going to want to nurse soon. I've been planning to attach the childproofing thingies to the cupboards for over a month. It's a good thing the friend who loaned me the drill for this three weeks ago also has a baby, so she's understanding about not getting it back anytime soon. She probably doesn't have time to use it either.

The value of work, of course, comes down to money. While it's easy to see that raising a baby and making a house into a home are invaluable, apparently they're so invaluable that they're worthless. Priceless and worthless. I mean, I don't expect to be thanked all the time for this stuff, but I also don't like feeling denigrated for it, like I do when someone calls me a housewife. When I started my pregnancy leave from work, BE's mother said, with a glint in her eye I couldn't identify, 'You'll be a housewife now,' as though I were joining some great secret club, and my heart just sank. Would I be ironing underpants and shoving pillows under people too? Of course, not working means that BE supports me now. This is something I'm still getting used to. For months after I quit work I was draining my savings on things like groceries before it occurred to me that BE should be paying for this stuff, and that my savings should be going to things for the baby, or his schooling, or just be sitting there as my cushion-fund, money that's there so I don't have to worry about money or feel dependent. It took me several weeks before I could bring myself to ask BE to leave me money, because I haven't asked anybody for money for a long time. He felt weird about my asking too, because he knows how much I guard my independence. The money tacitly left on the table is just an embarrassing topic we avoid now.

BE is pretty good about helping out. That is, he's pretty good in comparison to most Turkish husbands about helping out with the house and baby. Like most Turkish men, though, he regards this kind of work as 'women's work,' work that is below him, and work that he's now absolved from doing because I'm not earning any money. He can spoon food into LE's mouth. He can change a diaper as long as it's not poopy, though I have to secretly go behind him and re-attach it because it's not on quite right. Occasionally, he'll take night duty, but he regards this as a favor to me and not something that's required of him. The fact that I've been getting four or five hours of very broken sleep a night (if I'm lucky) for the last four months doesn't make him feel any obligation, as in his mind, he's going out to 'work' the next day while I'll just be sitting at home, free to take naps whenever I want. Quite when I should take these naps, yet still get in an hour or so of doing something for myself that's not related to laundry or baby, is my problem and not his. The women in his world don't require time for themselves. They manage the house and baby and lack of sleep without complaint, so I should too. To these wonderful, magical models of perfect womanhood, I offer you a nice biscuit. You've won. I'm losing. And seriously, I'd like to know who you are. I'm somewhere between hating you and not believing in you.

I'm foreign here. I can't be expected to be like Turkish women because I wasn't raised that way. But I suppose even in America I'd feel a sense of not matching up to some model of the good wife and mother. Millions of women before me have felt like this. Sometimes when I complain (and I complain a lot, sometimes even just weeping weakly because I'm too tired to elaborate with actual, troublesome words), BE tells me 'You're a housewife now, get used to it.' It's that word, housewife. He's not trying to be mean, because even though he thinks of this work as below him, he doesn't think there's anything wrong with being a housewife. That, and Turkish doesn't use terms like 'stay-at-home-mom,' probably because they would seem redundant. But I seriously hate being called a housewife. It rankles. It hurts. And it makes me so mad. Because even though this is what I'm doing now, I also regard myself as above this kind of work. I have 25 years of education under my belt, with two BAs and an MA, and I chose to stay home with my kid because I wanted to, not because it was expected of me. In fact, it might be the opposite of what was expected of me. I have the luxury of staying home with him, and yes, I regard this as a luxury, because in the US this would probably be impossible. But I am not, nor will I ever be, a housewife.

I just have to find the time to do something more.


Iman said...

Another spot on post.
I think part of the difficulty is that one feels so guilty about feeling tired or bored with being a full-time Mum because it's somehow a reflection on one's love for the little one or on one's mothering capabilities. It's tough admitting that actually, sometimes, reading the cow in the cabbage patch story for the umpteenth time is a bit boring or that while it's lovely when they snuggle up to you for comfort and security, it can be tedious when they don't want to be put down at 4 am and would rather sleep in your arms until they're ready to wake up at 7 all full of beans and raring to go, when all you want to do is crawl under the covers and sleep for a week.
As a Mum, the expectation is that we subjugate our every desire and need for our LO, and mostly we do it happily, not to mention gratefully, but sometimes it can be exhausting.
I think what's most wearying though is that society everywhere is ready to judge and comment - from the snide little comments of other mothers (like those over-zealous crunchies you described so brilliantly) to the implicit commentary on one's gross incompetence as a mother for even considering leaving the house without a hat to the patiently explaining for the nth time that, no he doesn't have a cold because his ankle was exposed for 10 seconds when his trousers got pulled up as you struggled to get him into the car-seat, and no there's no need to look at you like that because yes you know he's crying but no you're not doing it deliberately to upset him, he doesn't like it but he has to go into for his own safety.
By the way, when was the last time someone said to you, you are doing a great job?
Well, you're doing a bloody marvelous job.

Stranger said...

Thanks for that Iman. Most the time I think I'm doing okay, which makes it a little easier to deal with the constant crap and commentary from others, but other times I'm pretty sure I'm awful and scarring LE for life. Today, for example, I sinfully decided I wanted a shower. I've vowed to start bathing more, properly, meaning the waist-down baths with LE don't count. Last week, I had a shower Monday, then not again until Saturday. This is because LE has been sleeping so badly, and the pipes for the shower are in the wall next to his head, and the crap construction makes them loud enough to scare him. In any case, when BE's home in the evenings, I've been too tired to bother showering. But it's not good.

But LE refused to nap this morning, meaning no chance for a shower. I decided to try Siobhan's idea of putting him in his carseat in the bathroom, but as soon as I was wet, the screaming started. I figured he'd get over it, but it continued and crescendoed. I started to worry that the neighors would call the police (sound really carries up and down the bathrooms, which I know because of how intimately aware I am of upstairs' toilet habits). So I managed all of 3 minutes in there, a soap and a rinse, banged the shower door open, and came out mad, dripping all over LE while I both tried to calm him and tell him off for not letting me have a shower.

And even though I was mad I also felt horrible. Why did he get so upset when I was right there, peeking out at him? A baby whim? The I realized the water noise may have been scaring him. So here I am (he just woke up again from another 15 minute non-nap) feeling bad about making him scream, but also thinking, 'Would it have killed you to let me take one freaking shower?'

But it's exactly as you say-- I'm quick to judge myself for putting my desire to be clean over LE's desire to to be clinging to me every waking second, and I'm sure my neighbors were judging me too while he howled. It comes from both directions, I think-- others may think because you're not Mother Mary all the time means you don't love your kid enough and are quick to indict you, while at the same time you tear yourself apart because you love the kid so damn much you can't forgive yourself being human and getting fed up with him.

siobhan said...

In response to the original post, I started to feel a lot better, once I let myself off the hook and stopped trying to keep up with the Turksih standard of cleanliness. Life is too short to iron underpants and it's really unnecessary to shake out the carpets and clean the floors every single day, especially given the fact that noone wears shoes in the house and everyone's socks and feet are always kept scrupulously clean.

Anonymous said...

This post is exactly how I worry I will feel in a few months time when our little one arrives. I would like to return to work, but where I work now is too far away and so I have resigned myself a little that I will be a stay-at-home-mom for a short while. In the meantime, I am trying to think of plans for developing my own business from home and then I think am I being realistic? Is it possible?

If I wasn't currently expecting, (while living in a culture not my own) I would say that you are being too hard on yourself. It isn't necessary to iron underpants. Since I am expecting though, I'd say you have captured all of my recent thoughts (although you are a year ahead of me) quite well.

Christie said...

sorry! I wanted to attach a name to the last post!

sandyhoney said...

I gave my Turkish husband plenty of warning that I would be nothing like his idea of what a wife should be. I am not a great cook. If I were completely in charge of the cleaning, it would never be spotless. And when I had our son, I had to go back to work within six months, night-shifts, so that left a lot of dirty diapers for my husband to change.

Now I am actually living with my in-laws. I have forbade my MIL from doing my laundry and to his mother's horror, he does it. Though, not all the time. I have come across at least two other members of his family wearing my socks - which they only could've gotten from when his mom surrepticiously does our laundry while I am at work.

I wish I could be at home with my son more often, and I had been planning to homeschool him here. With my hours at a language school (split shifts) this has proven to be impossible. I never get any time for myself anymore and I am going more than a little nuts. Hubby does think that a wife and mother wanting time to herself is being selfish (and this is bad). In the past I have just told him to deal with it.

It's hard. Desperately need to get our own place.

Stranger said...

I'm not losing any sleep over the ironing. You're right, Siobhan. Life is too short. To me it's amazing anyone would rather spend time ironing baby clothes than playing with the baby. How can one justify to oneself that pressed clothes are better for the LO than serious Mommy time? Turkish standards of cleanliness seem to me to exist for the sole purpose of keeping housewives busy with nitpicky chores, rather than giving them a moment or two to think that something is seriously awry in their world.

And Christie, congratulations! I have to say, I worried so much more when pg with LE than after he was born. It all makes more sense when there's a real baby there. I feel a little bit like LE is on my team against all the idiot comments we hear, if anything just because he has the warmest little feet ever.

I'm hoping to sort out some kind of money-earning thing from home too. This blog originally started with that in mind, but after 3 months, I've earned $5.85 from Adsense. Not that I was too hopeful-- if it were as easy as writing stuff and posting the ads, everyone would be doing it. But I'm mulling other ideas, and I just have to make time. Partly I'm very lazy by nature, and this staying home thing suits me. I may be getting up before dawn sometimes, but at least it's not to go to work for someone else!

Sandyhoney, my hat's off to you for surviving living with the in-laws. I couldn't do it. It would result either in an in-law flying out a window, or the quick failure of my marriage. And it must be so hard being away from your son all day. As much as the tedium of being home gets to me, I can't imagine doing otherwise. Getting time to yourself must be impossible with a job, son and husband, plus I find Turks don't have the same notions of privacy and being left alone as we do. I hope you get your own place soon too!

rrebane said...
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Stranger said...

Yup, still here. And thanks for reminding me of this old post! It's been a long time since I looked back on the first year of the blog...

I started a working (outside the house :) a couple of years ago, and before that, maybe 2009, I found some work writing online that I could do for a few hours a day. Not that it changed anything-- BE was glad for the money but still not willing to do much else. Then I started a "real" job, and he quit his. Even with him sitting around the house all day, he still expected me to come home after an 8 hour day, make food, clean up, take care of the kid, and then would get mad at me for doing more work at home that I couldn't finish in the office.

That's only one of the reasons we're getting divorced now. There were a lot of times in this 2007 posts that I cast a brighter light on things...

You'll find something. No one can be a housewife who doesn't want to. I think that's why they invented Valium :)

Take care, all the best to you, and thanks for your comments!

rrebane said...
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