Here I was, exactly where I would have never guessed I'd be: standing in the kitchen, wrapped in an apron, my feet and back aching. I’d been preparing dinner for my husband for the past several hours, and I was…blissful.
That realization is what nearly knocked me off of my feet. The daughter of a feminist father, I grew up believing that slaving over a hot stove to prepare a meal for one's family was as backward as Chinese foot binding. Yet here I stood.
I grew up, got married, and settled into cohabitating with my new husband. I soon wanted warm meals at the end of the day and clean-smelling towels in the bathroom. And, like most women, I soon realized that if I wanted those things, then I would need to do them myself. According to a University of Maryland study, men do only about one-third of the housework. My husband tidies up when our apartment gets really messy, but I’m usually the one who notices dust and dirt, and both of us tend to ignore the building piles of laundry and stacks of dishes until we run out of socks or bowls. But at some point, rather than shunning these typical "sexist" household traditions, I found myself yearning to fulfill them.
The good news: I didn’t mind immersing myself in the housework, from cooking to cleaning. The bad news: I had no idea what I was doing. Our kitchen trash was frequently overflowing with take-out containers; we ordered in dinner several times a week. The bathroom towels emitted a not-so-fresh odor. Many women of my generation--a generation that went to school years after home economics classes were abolished--were never taught how to efficiently perform such basic and essential tasks. Housework was never part of the curricula--although I am grateful for the fact that my parents pushed me to get a good education and to learn how to support myself. But once the work day is over, somebody needs to make dinner. And wipe down the countertops. And make sure the bath towels aren't smelly.
To fill this gap in my own life, I decided to teach myself, and to at least temporarily take over all of the cooking and cleaning duties at home. I turned to the experts: Martha Stewart, Barefoot Contessa's Ina Garten, and even Dr. Laura Schlessinger, author of The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands. I found myself in good company: 64 percent of the Food Network's viewers are women, and of the over one million subscribers to Martha Stewart Living magazine, 79 percent are women. Dr. Laura's book is a bestseller. Clearly, I was not the only woman looking for a little advice on how to tackle this unfamiliar role.
My husband, Sujay, I should mention, did not entirely welcome my plans. He was worried that I wouldn't enjoy doing the housework, and that it would make me grumpy. As a product of the same generation, he never expected responsibility for housework to rest entirely on my shoulders. He was also petrified that other people might think he was the one encouraging this return to traditionalism. I promised that I’d explain to anyone who asked that it was my idea.
With Sujay then on board, I decided to go cold turkey: One Saturday morning I woke up, armed with a Barefoot Contessa chicken and garlic recipe and Martha Stewart's two-inch-thick homekeeping manual. To give myself extra motivation, I had invited our friends Mike and Pegg over for dinner. By 7 pm, I had to have a clean apartment and dinner ready, or I wouldn't just be a bad wife--I'd be a bad hostess, too.
I surveyed my surroundings. Shoes and grocery bags littered the area by the entrance way. The kitchen table was covered in dirty cereal bowls and various newspaper sections. My feet picked up crumbs each time I walked near the sink, which also seemed to be the source of a decomposing smell wafting into the rest of the apartment.
Start with 3 Cups of Lemon Juice
I dug in, ready to face the worst corner of the apartment, the kitchen. I relied on Martha Stewart's theory that lemons are one of the world's greatest cleaning tools. She recommends simmering half a dozen lemon slices in water for 10 minutes. In an effort to save time, I squeezed lemon juice around the sink and down the drain, which seemed to replace the bad smell with a fresh, citrus-infused one.
A clean sink: Check. That’s what appeals to me about being a housewife: Unlike at an office job, where the goals are often unclear and generated by someone else, housewifery involves very specific tasks that are met in quick succession: Sweep the floor. Make dinner. Do the dishes. I could cross them off my list. Plus, they made me feel rooted and safe--the exact opposite emotions that are evoked from a stressful, challenging job.
Add ¼ Cup of Calm
While Sujay relaxed on our futon reading the last Harry Potter, I wrapped myself in my red apron and started measuring out cups of flower and sugar for dessert and then chopping vegetables for our salad. As casserole dishes went into the oven and diced vegetables piled up, one might think that could be overwhelming, yet I started to feel a sense of calm and accomplishment--two feelings I rarely experience at work, where a typical project is only completed after weeks of coordinating between multiple colleagues.
I'm not saying I was having the time of my life. I’d been on my feet for at least four hours and they were beginning to ache. An hour before Mike and Pegg arrived, Sujay realized I hadn't said anything for awhile. He gave me a shoulder rub, and then started spontaneously dusting the apartment, a level of cleaning I don't think I have ever even attempted. And that, it turns out, is precisely what Dr. Laura predicts will happen. The more tasks wives do around the house--and the less nagging--then the more their husbands will happily to do their share, she insists. I never thought I would agree with Dr. Laura on much, but in this regard, she seems to be right.
Mix in 6 Tablespoons of Self-Esteem
Dinner, if I do say so myself, was fabulous. Mike and Pegg gushed over the creamy garlic sauce. In my last-minute dash to get everything on the table at the same time, I ended up using Paul Newman’s dressing instead of making my own, but no one seemed to mind. By the time I presented the chocolate cake, I felt like a hostess extraordinaire. The day ended much better than it began: With a glass of wine in my hand, a clean apartment surrounding me, and a gourmet meal in my stomach, the relaxing after-effects of a night spent with good friends soothed my mind. Sujay took out the garbage and finished the dishes while I put my feet up.
In the months since that day, I've learned to embrace the part of me that wants to be a housewife, instead of suppressing it. I fold my husband's shirts on occasion, plan and cook almost all of our meals, and clean our apartment. He does plenty around the house, too, but it tends to fall more into the taking-out-the-garbage and fixing-the-car variety. Even my feminist family is impressed and understands that my kitchen adventures in no way undermine my professional ambitions. Over Christmas, my dad showed his support by giving me Crate & Barrel kitchen gadgets.
I’m still no Martha Stewart. I prefer efficiency over extra work and focus on meals that are easily assembled with no special ingredients required. And some weeks are so busy with work that by Friday, our apartment is covered in discarded socks and junk mail. But come Saturday, I dedicate at least a few hours to cleaning and meal planning, which relaxes me as much, or more, than a trip to the spa. My foray into housekeeping made me realize that I don't need to choose between my domestic and independent, empowered sides. I can have both; we can all have both. And I like that the kitchen is my domain, especially when the floor is shiny clean and the sink smells like lemon (juice).
Kimberly Palmer is a writer in Washington, D.C. and writes Creating Ms. Perfect (www.creatingmsperfect.blogspot.com), a blog for women.