Earlier today, a facebook friend posted a query asking about what chores other peoples’ kids were doing. I chimed in, along with a bunch of other people. One of those people rung in with a thing about how the appropriate chores for children are going to school, going to bed on time, playing, etc. Something about the comment bothered me, and I spent some of that morning wondering if I were wrong to ask Selam to do chores. (I don’t call them chores, actually, but you get the drift.)
It seemed of those whose children did traditional chores, that Selam falls right about in the middle in terms of what she does. She makes her bed every day, and clears the table and feeds the cat. She also puts away her toys every night. Other than putting away the toys (which is a production), she doesn’t complain about these duties. When I do laundry, she helps sort clothes into the right piles, and then matches socks and puts away some of her clothes. When it’s cleaning time, she takes on a few tasks: vacuuming under the sofa cushions with the dust buster, dusting all the flat surfaces, and putting away her stuff. She also sometimes asks to do more. Tonight she wanted to wash the kitchen floor (with one of those swiffery things) and I let her.
Later that day, I had a conversation with a new graduate student who nervously admitted that she was living in her first apartment, and was anxious about managing that and her studies. She’d lived in dorms for four years of college, and had a laundry service. She had never cooked, done laundry or cleaned anything other than a bedroom. She admitted that she had spent an entire Saturday cleaning her one-bedroom apartment because she was so unsure about it. She was thinking of hiring a housekeeper.
“Well haven’t you seen anyone do things like this before?”
“No. My mom did all of that while I was at school.”
“And you never helped out on a weekend?”
“No, my job was always just being a student and getting good grades.”
I don’t mean to be calling this young lady out. She’s obviously very distraught over her lack of domestic experience. But she’s 22, and did laundry for the first time last week. She washed her kitchen floor on her hands and knees because she didn’t know that the easy mops were much easier. She’s never seen someone scrub a toilet, much less done it herself.
Selam does chores not out of any grand design on my part but mostly because it’s just what you do. You live in a family, you help out. I’m not trying to teach responsibility. I just don’t like stepping on legos. I wanted her to feed the cat because I thought it would make him be a little less threatened by her (that worked, by the way). She does housecleaning with me because that’s what I’m doing and we’re a family. I grew up doing chores. I never liked it, but didn’t feel like I was doing more in chores than my peers were.
I guess I struggle with the idea that your job at any place in life is just to learn. Knowledge is wonderful, but one eats and sleeps and gets one’s clothes dirty and showers and walks on floors while one is learning. It just seems like part of life to do a little cleaning up. And I’ve always found that most things worth learning are tinged with the quotidian.
Selam likes to do most of this (except the putting away of toys–that is pure torture). Tonight she slapped her hands and stood back from the coffee table. “I did a goooood job,” she said.
It’s not so bad to do a little work where the result is visible now and then.
To be of use
by Marge Piercy
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.