Community: A Wife's Guide To Domestic Warfare


Mel did a really nice thing this morning: he put out the garbage and took out the recycling. This was especially endearing because he took out the trash at the crack of dawn, when he was in a rush to get to work. I had this on my mental to-do list, so I could cross it off without even putting down my coffee cup. And now I can't even thank him.

Interesting, isn't it, that I feel I have to thank him for participating in the routine chores of our household. But the truth is that I have to reinforce these types of things—they consolidate the victories in my guerilla domestic warfare.

There is always the question, especially with men of Mel's age: is he incompetent, ill trained, or just plain lazy? Funny, how most guys keep you guessing on this point. For example, just as Mel had convinced me that he was not capable of ironing I overheard him giving his son ironing tips! I had to wonder why he had always asked me to iron for him (once or twice a year, when he really needed clothes that were not wrinkled)? Was this laziness? Or lack of confidence?

Perhaps Mel asked me to iron for him because of the old gender burp: just because I'm female it's so much more natural for me to do the grunt work. This is simply a joke. I am no domestic goddess, and many people know this. In fact, I have secured a firm reputation with my family of origin as a slob. To this day I can see the surprise on their faces when they find my house neat or I cook them a good meal.

When I was younger I vowed to hide all my domestic abilities so that I would not get trapped by them. However, I met Mel and got slack. This is a common mistake women make: excessive caretaking of their man during the courtship phase of the relationship, or during the honeymoon phase of the marriage. (In fact, this may be the whole reason the honeymoon comes to an end—the new wife gets sick of pretending to be a domestic goddess, and the husband feels cheated when she comes down off her pedestal.) I fell deep into this trap and have been trying to get out ever since. Mel actually had reason to think I was domestically inclined during our courtship when, for example, I cleaned his whole roach-infested apartment. I cleaned it because I was pretty sure it was a health hazard, and it was beyond even my high threshold for dirt and disorder. But how could he know I was raising false expectations? This ruse has haunted me even after all these years: Mel still has not noticed I am a slob, and routinely accuses me of oppressing him with my neatness!

This is the thing: we are baby boomers, we lived through the surge of feminism of the seventies, and we are both lapsed hippies. So, theoretically, we both believe in equality for men and women. But theory and application are very different. Many of you have experienced this firsthand, I suspect, at home. We women can work all we want outside the home, with enthusiastic support from our husbands; the gender gap reveals itself when it comes to finding a babysitter or doing laundry, or, or, or.

So, Mel is not bad in certain ways—he is on board with my career life and an active father. However, every time he messes up the schedule and I say, you find a sitter—there is trouble. He has a history of coming up with outrageous plans, so misguided that I can hardly bear to remember them (such as suggesting that we velcro the children to the wall for a couple of hours)! When I'll point out that he has not considered the children's safety nor welfare, he'll whine, you call someone, I don't know anyone. Usually I'm backed into a corner, and have to scramble to clean up Mel's schedule mess.

It never really worked to have Mel arrange childcare. I knew it wouldn't. This was a tactical move in the guerilla domestic warfare. I had bigger fish to fry. Mel's failure to provide a childcare solution generated enough guilt that it would ensure greater success on another front, such as picking up, doing laundry, or kitchen maintenance.

My first big victory was on the laundry front. I guess Mel got tired of having to run out to the store to buy clean shirts after I quit doing his laundry—so he learned to wash his own clothes. I must confess that he has never learned to fold his clothes or put them away, so he lives out of a pair of laundry baskets—but as long as he keeps them in the basement, it's OK with me. 

It is in the kitchen that I have advanced the front furtherest. (It is hard to cut Mel loose to do the grocery shopping because he will typically come home with a jar of pickles, a box of Lucky Charms, and pretzels.) Mel has taken on the dishes with a vengeance. Water flying, plates clashing, silverware sounding, he orchestrates a symphony of near destruction at the sink. He seems to relish the rivulets of water spilling off the plates while he directs the traffic of pots in his quest for order. And, he has gotten positively tyrannical about the brand of dish detergent he will use. I really don't mind having to clean up after Mel does the dishes, because, after all, what's wiping down a counter or two after all that excitement?

This past summer, Mel expanded his repertoire to cooking (and I don't mean grilling). I think he just got sick of meat, meat and more midwestern meat. So he went in search of seafood. Once Mel located a fish store that he liked, he became the seafood chef of your dreams. He regaled us with tips he picked up from the fish monger, as he brought forth steamed clams, soft shelled crab and tuna steak.

There are many things I would not expect Mel to do, or which he failed at so miserably, that I just gave up. Mowing the lawn has remained in my domain. I cannot stand his self-righteous satisfaction at having mowed a patchy lawn littered with tufts of grass. The problem is—he is just too creative for his own good, and he has to go in circles and then squares and finish up with hitting random grassy spots; he will not settle for a series of overlapping rows or grids which would ensure that he hits every blade of grass. I know this is his nature, because we painted a room once—and you should have seen the ceiling!

Just between you and me, Mel and I have slowly been switching personalities. (I think this is pretty common in marriage.) He has gotten neater and neater over the years. In fact Mel picks up after himself much better than I do. While I grant that I probably used some bullying and scare tactics along the way, I am starting to wonder if, in fact, my victories in the guerilla domestic warfare are mainly due to the Stockholm Effect. What can I say? Basically, if you want a clean house—wash the brain first!