Sunday, 2 May 2010

A toast to ironing ladies and domestic deities

I have been trying to keep up with a number of interesting discussions on the three or four forums (I want to say "forii" but no one does...) that I follow on-line. There is a particularly virulent debate going on in one - over 100 comments have been posted - and I am hooked - waiting to see who says what to whom next. I have a sneaky suspicion that the protagonists are secretly good friends and are feigning this enmity in order to raise their on-line profiles, as I would have thought that the vitriol and fervour of the debate runs counter to the rules of the forum. I mean if you cannot link your own website surely you cannot call someone a d-mba-s! 

But what do I know. I usually take things like rules quite literally - it's probably the lawyer in me. Oh no, it's not - while I spent three years drafting laws, I spent the next eight finding loopholes and ways around them - different ones - I hasten to add; I am not so lacking in imagination as to want to undo my own hard work, even if the money was ok (until I had babies and started from scratch again, more or less). So perhaps it's really my inner adapted child, goody two shoes, or class captain that likes to know and observe the rules. At any rate, when I join a forum I am conscious of the dos and don'ts. Up to a point. I saw the terms of one forum recently that were so poorly expressed and so strict and confining I could not think of a thing I would want to post or share. What would I have to say if I could not express a personal view point? I am learning so much from these dialogues though. One can stay within the letter of the law and not plug one's business, but one can offer a free copy of one's book as a prize for a good suggestion about something completely unrelated. Human ingenuity, eh?

Best of all, I am learning about what makes people tick. On one women's forum I see that food, childcare and family outings rate as high concerns. On another, a semi-rhetorical discussion about the nature of love proves popular. 

I have mulled over the wisdom of posting here my thoughts on a topic that arose on-line recently. I nearly responded to the question posed but given the tenor of the other replies quickly realised that doing so might result in my being blacklisted. Freedom of speech, like fitness and popularity, is a relative thing. I daresay I am desperate to be liked by all those strangers on-line...

So now that I feel safer - this is my space, after all - I might throw the debate open here. I must say at this juncture that I have been delighted to see comments on some earlier posts. You have all been such a quiet and respectful audience I had started to think/fear there was no audience. However, now that I have seen a couple of remarks, my courage is restored - there is even a man who has read these musings! Stand up Mr Man - thanks for your interest. Let me know what you think and do keep following me.

I am ready to vent now. The question posed elsewhere was: "are you a domestic goddess?".

Indeed. You all had to think for a moment, didn't you? Well I did not. I can say quite firmly that I am not and never have been a domestic goddess. 

I am going to restrain the legislative drafter in me from picking the phrase into little bits and analysing all of its elements to leave it meaningless and naked, and just discuss this term in the way it is generally intended to be understood.

Translated it means: are you, like Nigella Lawson, capable of incredible feats of dexterity, panache and presentation in and around your home in all matters pertaining to housekeeping and cooking?

Let me assure you - especially you Mr Man - that I have no issue whatsoever with Nigella or her producer and camera men. The branding and merchandising and buzz surrounding her status as the goddess is fantastic and inspiring.

Rather, I take issue with the question. Sure, it's innocent enough. Just a little chat to break the tedium of taking care of young children and home...

Is it?

Or an insidious and deliberate attempt to perpetuate a myth circulated by post-feminist perfectionists in a desire to compete and out-manoeuvre the sisterhood of women striving to just cope, let alone attain standards of superhuman detail oriented perfection?

I was quite riled up about the question. When that happens my inner coach asks - what is this reaction all about then? Are you protesting too much? Are you a closet wannabe domestic goddess that feels confronted? Are you in fact the competitive and threatened one?

I am not sure now...

Let me make some things clear though:
1. I am not a slob.
2. I bake and cook and do all my own housework.
3. I run a small business and raise my children with less than four hours domestic help (babysitter) a week.
4. I do my own ironing (there is a tendency for housewives to boast that they have no help, but actually have an ironing lady. Ironing ladies and dry-cleaners rise up and be counted - the unsung heroes helping to make domestic bliss a reality across the globe!).
5. My apartment is not pristine (three small boys - are you kidding?), but sufficiently tidy and well-kept as to not be an embarrassment if unexpected guests should come knocking (never happens, dammit).
6. I enjoy hoovering, washing and sorting out clutter.

Yes, I do get a kick out of doing chores myself. Yes, I would rather know that I left several dust bunnies behind the sofa than pay a cleaner to do the same, not tell me and thendiscover them later when the hoover is packed away and I have put my feet up to admire my clean home. 

Indeed, there are few things as satisfying as a sparkling shower door. But showering at the gym beats cleaning it every time.

I love to bake fresh, wholesome organic cakes for my children. But the shop bought ones from the Hummingbird Bakery look and taste better and cost less than most of the competitor items in the market - as my aunt says, they were patty cakes in the old days and no one would serve them for tea!

So - I ask you - am I a domestic goddess?

At the end of the day it comes down to perspective and identity. If we want to be something, or be perceived as something, we can be. If we don't, then we don't.

So where does that leave me in comprehending my anger at this discussion being raised at all?

Well, first, let's pose it on some male forums and see what sort of response we get. Can you imagine a (straight) man being asked this? There are no "super dads" - making good money, supporting their ageing parents, taking their kids to the pool, the parties, the fixtures all weekend - these labels are not used for men. Why not? If they are valid for women, then they must also apply to men.

Oh yes, we all boast that our husbands are "domestic gods", leaving a little question in the minds of the listener as to what that might mean, exactly. Hoping that we can bask in the reflected glory of being one of those amazing couples. In truth, these blokes cook occasionally, wash up when we ask really nicely, take the rubbish out under duress and have no idea how to negotiate a supermarket, an iron or a coffee plunger! They have more facility with a set top box than setting up a flat packed shelf, and bring more panache to peeling off their socks than peeling a potato. (Not you, Mr Springgirl! You went to boarding school and are more domesticated than Alice from the Brady Bunch!)

Second, what sort of expectations underpin these concepts and discussions in the first place? Instead of creating reasonable and attainable (by no means mediocre or low) expectations as to our abilities and priorities, we give credence to the notion that handmade petal icing is important. I hate to burst anyone's bubble but not many of these things really matter; they are just that - icing on the cake of life.

Can't we accept that no one - man or woman - can "have it all"? We can do our best, but usually something has to give, if not now, later. Why do we insist on perpetuating this myth of domestic, professional and career perfection. It is an impossible standard to meet. It sets us up for disappointment. The very idea of a domestic goddess or super mum, super nanny, even the hackneyed old "yummy mummy" that we all spire to, should be challenged. Given what we know about marital disharmony, stress and depression, shouldn't we be helping people let go of these unreasonable pressures and expectations that lead to disappointment and misplaced striving?

And no - I am not suggesting we don't try to do our best, work hard and create lovely homes in which to enjoy the fruits of our labour and the time we have with our loved ones. Not at all. I just wonder if we do enjoy them, that's all.

It occurs to me that perhaps I took the question the wrong way. Maybe the discussion was not about perfection and housework and voluptuousness in the kitchen at all!

Perhaps, instead, it was a reference to the pagan belief in the household deity or spirit that protects the home - the hearth goddess - such as the Greek Hestia or the Norse Frigg.

Of course I am she! I ward away all baddies, bugs, spiders, cold-callers, leaks and uninvited guests with vim and vigour.


  1. I think it is a little bit two way and tends to balance out.

    If my wife were a "domestic goddess", I'm not sure how long she would put up with less than a super dad. Even if she did, I'm not sure how long I'd be able to take not being able to keep up.

    As long as both are less than perfect it is much easier to justify failings and reduce the unreasonable expectations.

    There are times when it feels a struggle just to "exist" let alone be a domestic goddess or super dad.

    The trick is to prevent child services from being called....

  2. I agree. Water finds it level, they say.

    As to your last point, I think that is particularly poignant in summer when the windows are open and the domestic harmony can be heard beyond the four walls...