I Acted Like A '50s Housewife For 10 Long Days, & This Is What Happened
I’m a work-at-home mother. Notice how I don’t say “housewife.” Not just because the term is sorely outdated (being a housewife and raising kids in the '50s was so much different), but because I do so much more than try to “be a good wife” that looks after the home: I parent two children, I write (articles such as these and children’s literature), and occasionally, I do some housework, though it falls at the bottom of the to-do list. I don’t enjoy it. I’d like to be righteous and say it’s because I put my kids first, or that my work is very important (to be fair, it is to me) but really, I just downright hate all things cleaning.
The last 50 years have seen huge shifts in the roles of women within the family. Women get married later, have more charge over their fertility through birth control, have more options when it comes to their careers, and most things in general. Thank god! But some are still quick to romanticize raising kids in an era when all that was expected of women was a prized casserole recipe and a clean house.
My grandmother, for example, is one of the brightest most capable women I know. In the '50s and '60s, she was a rarity, working a full-time job outside the home while being married and raising kids. She was even more of an anomaly when she got divorced and became a single working mom in a high-powered job. And though she went on to work in publishing and editing, she studied things like household budget and child development in college; she majored in home economics. The idea of going to college to study that is almost laughable today.
The video below details what a program of study in home economics at Iowa State was like for my grandmother was in college. In fact, my grandmother knew the star of the film, Kay. This is what women had to look forward to during that time. This was what society asked of them:
I thought I would embark on a great adventure. I’d try to do what my female ancestors had done for years and years before me: I’d be a housewife and put cleaning my house and caring for my husband first for 10 long days. And before we go any further, I have a confession to make: I really, really did not want to do this. But I wanted to know if I could possibly find it rewarding. I wanted to know if my husband would appreciate it, or if he’d even notice. I wanted to know if following the standard '50s housewife advice would be impossible.
Day 1: The Great Facade
I had some help getting started on the first Monday, because I was getting a quote on replacing my windows and I wanted the window guy to be able to walk around my house without tripping, or worse, knowing the slob that I am. I started the day on fire. After dropping my oldest at the bus stop, I ran home with my daughter and began “cleaning.”
There was no actual cleaning involved, though, mostly just putting the mounds of crap that had migrated from their rooms of origin back where they belonged, or on the stairs, or in bags which I shoved into various closets and under beds. Once the floors and surfaces were mostly devoid of clutter, I discovered a horrifying secret: all that clutter was hiding piles of dog hair and patches of inexplicably sticky or stained floors. (It’s OK if you’re judging me, I am judging myself pretty harshly.) TBH, it isn’t that I never clean. Sometimes I’ll attack a room with a vengeance. I’ll even scrub the walls. But it’s been a long while since most of my house had received that kind of treatment.
A proper housewife, after ushering the window guy through the house, would have set to work with the required cleaning. I, unfortunately, fell very short. I’d already run through the house and expended a ton of energy. The cleaning could wait until tomorrow. When my husband arrived home, the first words out of his mouth were, “Wow, it looks great in here.” Score! (I guess he didn’t look too closely.)
Day 2: Actual Shopping And Cooking!
I’d do anything to avoid actual scrubbing, so instead of getting right to work on cleaning the house, I decided to go grocery shopping. It’s still a housewife-y task, right? And even though it probably makes no difference, I didn’t wear yoga pants to the store. (I know.) I actually put on nice jeans and nice shoes and felt — gasp! — sort of pretty and put together. I realized that I actually did enjoy my shopping more as a “housewife” because I felt like less of a mess. Point one to the foremothers.
I got lots of “wholesome” fruits and veggies and chicken. Because I was going to cook! And housewives love chicken! A roast! A casserole! The chicken options were endless. OK, the reality might’ve just been me throwing some things in the Crock-Pot and turning the knob, but there were good cooking smells emanating from my kitchen. Once that was all set, I cleaned the kitchen. Yep. Actual cleaning.
The kids loved the dinner I made. And it was really lovely sitting down to eat on matching dishes and with a clean tablecloth. There was a distinct lack of shoes sticking to the floor. It was really nice. My only problem: My husband was working late, which brings me to my next day…
Day 3: No Complaints!
One of the housewife rules I was following was to support your husband in his career. This means no complaining about your day, or even boring him with the details. And no questioning him if he has to work late. Absolutely no going: “What the hell, dude? Are they paying you overtime? Can you please come home and help with bedtime?” As unattractive as that might’ve been to my foremothers, it isn’t that far from how I’d normally react when I’ve made dinner for the second day in a row and I’ve hardly said two words to the guy I created two kids with.
I was upset, because didn’t he realize he was derailing my experiment? Except maybe he wasn’t derailing it, because I bit my tongue. I told him I understood and I’d see him when he got here, and I’d package up the leftovers for him. We might not have gotten the family dinner I was hoping for, but he was appreciative when I stayed awake to sit with him while he ate the food I had dutifully microwaved for him. He even asked me about my day.
It was only mildly frustrating that he didn’t notice my strange new behavior. I don’t know if I expected a medal for cooking, but I always strive to do nice things for him, even if I don’t normally put him squarely at the center of my universe. And him asking me about my day proved that he similarly did not put himself in the center of the universe – a reassuring thought, indeed.
Day 4: Failing. Again.
I swear I had good intentions. I really did. But once I started hauling all the sh*t out of my closets (that I hid on day one), I got totally overwhelmed. I had one of those giant IKEA bags full of stuff. There were toys, combs, and hair ties, cans that needed to recycled, random eating utensils, socks, endless amounts of mail and papers, books, and some tools. I started sorting. There was no gusto, none of the frantic energy that caused me to put these things in the closet in the first place. I put my daughter in front of the TV, put some of the stuff away, got overwhelmed, and decided to work on writing instead. I’m in the middle of a revising a young adult novel with my agent. And even though there is no actual time crunch on getting it done, I tend to want to revise all in one swoop. So that’s what I did. It was decidedly not housewife-y. It was also exactly what I needed.
My husband arrived home in time for dinner. But it was pizza. On paper plates. In the playroom. Where both of my children could watch TV so I could keep revising. Oops.
I’m only sharing this in the spirit of full-disclosure. I was constantly changing my mind about how I should feel about this failure. The feminist/artist part of me was like, hell yes, revising a novel is important and my husband and kids are obviously fine with pizza and a movie. The flip side was: I was going to do this experiment. I was really going to try. And wow, I was totally sucking so far.
Day 5: Friday!
Never had I looked forward to Friday more than I had this past week. Eh, perhaps that’s not true, but ever since I started staying home while my husband worked, I couldn’t wait until I had an adult to talk to and someone to help share parenting duties with. Fridays, since having kids, have become increasingly more sacred.
And to start the weekend off right, I had another full day of cleaning and straightening up and fixing actual meals -- baked lemon tilapia with broccoli that I bought fresh instead of pulling out of the freezer– that required some effort, planning, and a “woman’s touch”. Things didn’t have to be perfect, because surely over the weekend my husband would hop right to the domestic duties.
But I was wrong …
Days 6 & 7: The Weekend
The house being in somewhat decent shape for the weekend backfired. While I thought it’d mean I could sit back and sort of relax, what it really meant was that my husband felt no pressure to clean or do dishes. And since embarking on this experiment, I refused to actually ask him for any help.
I don’t want to bash the man. He took the kids shopping with him. He even took my son camping on Saturday night, and they had a great time together. But he wasn’t exactly doing what I had hoped, and honestly, I don’t know what I expected — maybe that after a week of me making no demands on him, he’d send me away to a spa for the weekend? Or that he’d realize I had actually cooked for him and he’d write me a check and tell myself to go buy something pretty. I wanted some thanks, but more so, I wanted major help. I wanted him to really realize how much effort it takes just to follow the kids around and wipe up the messes they make and how much tidying is necessary to prevent constantly stepping on super painful shards of Lego.
That weekend, the house got messier again. I got behind on laundry, and dirty clothes started not making it into the hamper. The dishes sat in the sink. Toys were everywhere. (Everywhere! I swear, Legos have legs and like to crawl into every nook and cranny.)
Monday came way too soon. And I felt pretty defeated. I was a completely rubbish housewife.
Days 8 & 9: Back To The Grind
Monday was a chance to start anew. I stocked up on groceries. I did lots of laundry. Tuesday, I got the kitchen back to an “acceptable” rating. I even found a burst of motivation and got all the stuff shoved in closets where they belonged. I was no June Cleaver, and I didn’t have the benefit of twitching my nose to get stuff done like Samantha Stevens from Bewitched, but I was doing alright regardless!
Until I looked at my bathrooms. They were disgusting. My fingers itched to be typing, and I was getting cabin fever. I was pretty miserable. Add in the fact that work had been crazier than ever for my husband and he wasn’t home for dinner or bedtime — again — and you can imagine how I was feeling about this experiment.
My guilt over being a crappy housewife was really starting to get to me. The daily grind of taking care of the kids from the time they wake up to the time they go to bed is tough for me on a good day. And by good day, I mean one where I cut myself slack, try to give up the guilt, and allow myself to sit on my bed and write, or take the kids to my parents’ house so I can have some adult company and pretend like all the stuff I should be doing doesn’t exist.
The dinner I made Tuesday was truly uninspired. I opened some cans of soup and then put the kids in the bath because I knew that’d safely kill the last half an hour until bedtime. But hey, at least we were together?
Day 10: The Finish Line, Or What I Should’ve Been Doing All Along
I had to rally. I had to get out of my funk. And guys, I had a really great day. I broke up my time. An hour focusing on the kitchen while I listened to an audio book. An hour answering emails and getting caught up on some other writing stuff. An hour out for coffee and a few grocery items. Putting things in the Crock-Pot again so I wouldn’t have to worry about it later. When my daughter napped, I actually worked out and took a shower, which always makes me feel accomplished. An hour putting stuff away (this task never ends). Another hanging out with my son after school, reviewing sight words and talking about his day.
That day, it all felt manageable. And my husband came home in time for dinner. And commented on how nice I looked. (Because I put on real clothes and some mascara and had done my hair. How very 50s housewife of me.) We had this nice sit-down dinner and he asked me about my day. I told him how much I had done. And he was really appreciative. The house looked OK, not perfect, but pretty good. I was probably noticeably happier, especially since he was home for dinner. He gave the kids a bath while I got a little more work done and we did bedtime as a team.
Yeah, it was sort of a perfect end to the experiment.
Emulating Our Foremothers Wasn’t As Simple As I Thought
I actually don’t think I failed miserably, even though about half the days were truly un-fun, and the house was never quite as sparkly as I wanted. When I did succeed, my husband was appreciative. I don’t think the change was dramatic enough that he knew something was up, but then again, he wasn’t home as much as he usually is.
The last day did sort of drive home the fact that I really need a balance. The reality is, most days I’m failing at something, and that’s not unique to this experiment. It’s not unique to me either. Get any group of women together and as soon as one starts describing all the ways she’s an absolute shit mother, we all swoop in with the we’re so much worse. I want to say something righteous about how we shouldn’t do this, except, it feels bloody brilliant to know I’m not the only person in the world that feels like I’m bailing out a sinking ship.
Either I got no writing done, which makes me feel frazzled and anxious, or my kids were ignored because I was writing, or the house was a complete mess, or I forgot about dinner until dinnertime and the only thing to eat was scrambled eggs. I get down on myself really easily. I realized what I was truly hoping to get out of the experiment was the knowledge that if I let go of all that other stuff, I’d actually accomplish the clean and organized home I always wish for. I thought the experiment would give me permission to let it go.
As naive as it sounds, I thought that by only focusing only on hearth and home, I’d discover that the simpler life of a 50s housewife was somehow easier. Maybe more boring, less stimulating, and less rewarding, but at least it wouldn’t feel quite so insurmountable. Even committing to this experiment, I was really resistant to let the other balls I juggle daily to drop.
Because that’s me, a work-at-home mom who loves her kids and loves her work. I may never be as organized or as together as I’d like. I was diagnosed with inattentive-type ADHD, but eschewed medication because it severely interfered with my ability to let my mind wander and come up with stories -- which is a thing I love. I have to deal with a certain amount of chaos. It’s just who I am.
I was hoping for a day where I’d hear, “Honey, I’m home,” and then I’d place a scotch on the rocks in front of my husband and twirl in my pressed A-line dress and click my heels toward the kitchen to finish dinner. But no, I didn’t get that day. Still, I learned a lot. I have a lot of strengths and even more weaknesses, best of all, though, I have a family and a partner who accept these things about me, and support my writing, even if it means tripping over toys and eating eggs … again.
Overall, I’m so glad I live in this era, where a perfect home is not the only thing I’ve been taught to strive for, because, for me, I’m not sure it’d ever happen. My hat’s off to the women in generations past who made their houses run smoothly. My even bigger hat is off to the women who fought to have a place outside of the home. And to the women reading this: you totally have my permission to let your house get a little messy today. I won’t judge you. In fact, I’ll probably thank you.