A friend of mine and I once had a discussion about the nitty-gritty of our days. At the time, I was a stay-at-home mom. He had a big title at a fancy advertising firm, something like “Director of Creative Branded Cross-Advertorial Synergistic Relationships.” I asked him what that entails.
“I direct creative branded cross-advertorial synergistic relationships,” he replied.
“What exactly does that mean?” I said.
“I facilitate creative branded cross-advertorial synergistic relationships,” he said, a tad impatiently.
“When you go into your office in the morning and get your cup of coffee, what exactly does your body do until 6 p.m.?” I asked slowly, like he was a kindergartner.
“I send emails,” he said. “What about you?”
“I wipe stuff,” I said.
Motherhood can come with different titles: housewife, domestic engineer, working mother, full-time mother, stay-at-home mother, work-at-home mother. We can parse these titles however we like, but when we talk about the actual responsibilities of motherhood, the specific set of tasks that make up this job of mom, it’s wiping stuff.
To be fair, it’s not all wiping. Sometimes I do a little scraping or scrubbing or folding or sweeping. The actual title is kind of irrelevant, because if you really examined my daily chores, it would be fair to say that what I am is a cleaning lady.
This is only a problem in that I don’t like to clean. I don’t like any chores that, once you do them, you have to do them again, almost immediately, like dishes or laundry or picking up the living room. (I feel this way about grooming, too. Sometimes when I’m in the shower, I think tiredly, “Didn’t I just do this yesterday?”)
When you have a baby, a lot of things are shocking: the pain of delivery, the expense of childcare, the number of people who will tell you to put a hat on your baby when it’s 70 degrees out. But what was most shocking to me, and something no one had ever warned me about, was that the amount of cleaning you have to do quintuples. (I would say it goes up tenfold, but I don’t know the word for that. Dectuples?) My husband and I, as two child-free people, treated chores as an incidental thing: We washed a couple of plates and forks every evening. We vacuumed every once in a while and scrubbed the tub only when it approached über-grodiness.
But when you have kids, a single meal is like a bomb going off in your kitchen. When breakfast is over, it looks like someone had a fight to the death using toast crusts as ammunition. Jam is dripping from the ceiling fan. We use approximately 30 plates, four cutting boards, and 20 knives per meal. Grit crunches underfoot continuously, no matter how diligently I sweep and vacuum.
The dirty dishes might as well be on a conveyor belt. Early on, when I was a SAHM and my husband was walking out the door to work, I’d say, “You know who was Sisyphus’ wife? Dishyphus. While Sisyphus was out making a name for himself in the working world with his fucking rock, Dishyphus was stuck at home clawing at egg stuck to the frying pan.” Then I burst into tears. Then my wise husband suggested perhaps we re-think our division of labor.
But even with two parents dedicated to housework, it is endless. It takes the two of us together pretty much all day, every day, to repair the damage the kids do. Someone likes to cut out bits of paper too small to be picked up by hand, but not small enough to be picked up by the vacuum. Someone took marker and scribbled on his door. Someone dumped sand from his shoes into my clean bed; someone washed their filthy hands and left the sink muddy; someone tried to pee in the middle of the night and hit the general area where the toilet is, but not the toilet itself. (Who knows, maybe that was me.) Someone had been wiping his boogers on the wall at night, a discovery that almost made me have a breakdown.
My husband, too exhausted at night to wash the pots, will set the pan of pasta sauce with its one tablespoon of leftovers in the fridge because “he might eat it tomorrow”—when really we both know it’s just a quiet way station for the pot to grow a carpet of mold. Shoes and coats and bags form a trail from the front door down the front hallway, like discarded garments on a very short marathon route. I just kick my way through them now, sick of imploring children to hang up their stuff.
When you deliver a baby in the hospital, they should issue every new mother some microfiber cloths, a few rags, and a roll of paper towels. And along with the breastfeeding class and the infant-bathing class, they should offer a housekeeping tutorial. “Get used to it,” they might say. “Breastfeeding and diaper-changing is only for a short time. But wiping stuff? You’re a mother now. That’s forever.”