I wrote this piece many years ago, in the early days of raising a family. It's interesting to re-read it through a different lens and see how little has changed.
Simone de Beauvoir in her timeless and classic book, The Second Sex, spoke for thousands of women imprisoned by the shackles of domesticity when she wrote, “Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.” The book was first published in 1952. Her words still ring true, except today, it might be more fitting to drop house from the word and apply it to work in general. Because in fact, many jobs today are about as disagreeable as housework. Granted, each has its own reward: a clean house, a paycheck.
But the cost is great. In fact, so great, according to de Beauvoir, to continue doing it requires an immersion into a kind of insanity.
“The battle against dust and dirt is never won,” wrote de Beauvoir. Therefore, she says, “…very often the housekeeper submits to it in a kind of madness that may verge on perversion, a kind of sado-masochism. The manic housekeeper wages her furious war against dirt, blaming life itself for the rubbish all living growth entails.” And, “she wishes those of her household would hardly breathe; everything means more thankless work for her. Severe, pre-occupied, always on the watch, she loses her joie de vivre, she becomes overprudent and avaricious.”
Not too different from many people in the modern workplace.
Our materialistic culture requires an intense dedication to one’s work, not only to do the job well, but to have the job at all. One’s life has to fit around one’s job, rather than the other way around. The industrial, consumer-based society has created a large class of people living paycheck to paycheck. Just as housewives in the fifties were overly dependent on their husbands, today’s workers are overly dependent on their jobs, making them vulnerable and powerless; the specter of destitution constantly nipping at their heels.
De Beauvoir suggested that some women, took to “orderly housekeeping as others take to drink,” so do people become workaholics. An obsession kicks in, as a kind of pressure release, an anesthetic, which induces a long-term suspension of basic human needs for creativity, joy, passion and intimacy. Work serves as an escape from reality. Not long ago, one of my clients took me aside and whispered that the majority of his co-workers were addicted to the adrenaline stimulated by their high-pressure, deadline-driven jobs.
Homemaking in the fifties existed in a “put up, and shut up” era. Women were told to be grateful to the men in their lives for supporting them. They were expected to be appreciative of the modern conveniences that adorned every kitchen and laundry room.
Working in today’s culture has become a “put up and shut up” era all its own. Employees are told to be grateful to their employers for having jobs at all. They’re expected to be appreciative of the meager perks that come with their jobs.
In the fifties, success was marked by a home, a station wagon, two or three kids, a yearly vacation, and all the soap suds money could buy. Today, success has come to mean having a career, and a multitude of possessions, stock portfolios, gourmet food, exotic trips, nannies, etc.
While women have been freed from the exclusivity of chasing dust bunnies around, all is not bliss on the home front. Working parents are being crushed under the weight of too much stress. News articles appear almost weekly outlining ways of coping with the daily overload. Fathers often see as little of their children as previous generations. Women are juggling too many balls. Children are spending too much time alone.
Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, “Perpetual devotion to what a man calls his business is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things.” Knowing this to be true, we must ask ourselves the question, What are we working so hard for? To make the rich, richer? To make more profits for big multi-national companies? To compete globally?
Talk about insanity.
In numerous polls when Americans are asked what if anything they would change about their lives, most respond by saying they want not more money or more things, but more time. Time for themselves. Time for their families. Time for their communities.
Life is not about some quota or profit margin; it’s about our relationships: with ourselves, other people and our beautiful planet with all its life forms. De Beauvoir’s take on housework, speaks volumes about today’s employee. Just as women moved beyond the confines of the household and expanded their roles in society, today’s workers must now move beyond the limitations of their job-centered identities, and redefine the way they relate to the world.
It is no longer a matter of choice, but necessity. Those who refuse are simply paving the way for a future that resembles Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In that kind of world, housework will look like a vacation.