Sunday, December 12, 2004

really, this happened, or, domestic labor really was invisible

It's unbelievable, true, but here's what happened, just an hour or so after I wrote the last entry. The scene: a family holiday dinner, kids all around, siblings, great aunts, granparents. My mother in law spent all week preparing. Chopping for the beef stew. Grating potatoes for the latkes. Baking two cakes. Making her own apple sauce, which, I know, it's easy to buy very good apple sauce these days, but she loves making her own. She's 79, and this is the way she's always done it. She set a gorgeous table, two actually, one in the dining room for the adults, and put a cloth on the kitchen table for the kids.

After it was over, most of us adults were in the kitchen, cleaning up. My father in law was with his sister in the dining room. it turns out that though they've been married over fifty years, this is the first dinner party she's thrown that he ever helped out with. He was proud of his contributions, and he was beside himself: he couldn't believe how much work it took to pull the dinner together. For him it was one of those 'ah-ha' moments. As in, the floor doesn't sweep itself. The garbage I put in front of my house doesn't go away by itself. Dinner parties don't cook themselves.

He finally got it. And in his excitement, he said to his sister, a woman in her 70's who has spent many a week preparing many a dinner party, "You have no idea how much work goes into a dinner party."

The poor dear. He meant well. He meant to convey to the women around him that he finally realizes the extent of their labor, cooking all those meals he has so enjoyed.

His sister was furious. "You are so stupid," she said, losing her temper. "You are so stupid. Of course I know how much work goes into a dinner party. I've been making them all my life."

The rest of the apartment grew quiet. In the past I've been the one to raise my voice and quiet the place down, so I was glad to have some company in that regard. One time I had to yell at an older man who was harassing my daughter. I told him that if he didn't stop I was going to raise my voice so everyone would know. He ignored me, kept teasing my then-four-year-old daughter, I raised my voice and yelled at him to stop. All the relatives turned toward us, silent, until his wife ushered him out. He's never been invited back to a family meal.

"You don't know. Believe me, I know how much work it takes." And she huffed into the other room, repeating how stupid he was.

Now, name-calling aside, and they did make up later, there it was, clear as daylight, the invisibility of women's domestic labor. Over fifty years they've been married, and while he's been appreciative and admiring of the women in his life, he's never exactly realized--till now-- how much labor they performed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So true! And such a good description of how it actually happens, of how men of a certain generation just don't see the labor. And even in our generation, it's so easy to slip into the gender roles once we women marginalize our professional lives to take on greater responsibility for the home, family, children.

-Jenni Mechem/Jendle