I have, this past year, fallen in love with doing the dishes. Partly it is that we have a dishwasher now, which is buoying. “Just load what you can into the dishwasher and you can quit after that,” I tell myself, but I always keep going, searching for that feeling I get when I step back and look at the clean white countertop. I feel so protected, so taken care of, like we will be okay after all.
It’s more than that, though, more than the pleasant middle-class reassurance I get squirting the dish-washing detergent into the right compartment. Now that there is a toddler in the other room, doing the dishes is an escape. Virtuousness is a fringe benefit to standing in one place alone, unbothered, thinking about the day or listening to a podcast. When I do chores now I am finishing something blessedly concrete and straightforward, something finite if Sisyphean, and something that — unlike writing or parenting — doesn’t require my full attention, or insight, or creativity, or ingenuity.
Chores used to be the thing I avoided after work and then spent one weekend morning doing all at once. Then, I was choosing between cleaning the bathroom and, well, doing whatever I wanted. Now, while I’m cleaning the bathroom, I’m choosing not to read Curious George for the third time in a row. My hours spent rolling around on the floor and having a small man yell “MINE” at me are joyful and hilarious, but after I pretend to make his stuffed animals kiss about a dozen times, the law of diminishing returns begins to take effect. And then I want to take the trash out to the street, because I want to get out of the goddamned house, even if it’s just to walk alongside it. I want to drag a horrid plastic box on wheels through spiderwebs and under trees, hulking it down cement stairs to the side of the street; I want to experience the fresh air and the small pride, knowing that my family is inside watching me doing it, but, crucially, I cannot hear them. They cannot get to me.
When I became a parent all of my thinking around the hierarchy of things I want to be doing changed. Leisure time collapsed into a few hours (nap time, early bed time, sometimes more), traded off between two parents. If there is something I really want to do, I can make it work, but that any time to myself is concentrated, strategically experienced, often paid for by more time spent with kid while partner gets away.
Most weekend mornings I have to stop myself from thinking about what I’d want to do if I could do anything. Yoga? A movie? A nap? Instead, we are wandering between rooms, playing with Play-Doh, making dolls kiss, shrieking with laughter, pointing at dogs, blowing bubbles. One cannot keep this up for too long unless one is either a saint, on meth, or 16 months old. Like work-work, parenting work requires my whole brain, even if it’s in surreal, singsong, repetitive toddler mode. After a while I cower away, exhausted, to go do something that will make me feel useful and peaceful and accomplished. “Look at me carrying the laundry up to the bedroom!” my body language announces. Then I hide in the bedroom until I can hear one of them wondering where I am.
Yes, this is the promise of feminism: to share equally the burden of housework and child care and wage-earning, or at least feel guilty as hell when you aren’t holding up your end of whichever part of the bargain. Making money and advancing your career with a small child and expensive day care is hard. Taking care of a small child is very hard. Housework, on the other hand, while physically tiring, is arguably the simplest leg in the wobbly family stool. It’s ennobling and satisfying and it can be completed. I’m not saying I wish second-wave feminists had been more enthusiastic about dish-washing, but now that equal household contribution is a widely held ideal, we’re left to figure out which contributions are more fun. We’re sneakily trading off, vying for the better deal, wondering where in the day’s tasks are the small moments of respite where we can feel human.
For the record, deciding what to make for dinner is terrible, especially when it necessitates consulting someone else, but actually making dinner: amazing. Chopping a vegetable, dreamily flitting about the kitchen and laughing at whatever song and dance goes on in the other room: This is my present equivalent of stopping off at a bar on the way home from work. Going to the grocery store, folding laundry, running errands, picking up takeout, taking out the trash: always the better end of the deal. If you get to leave the house alone, well, you’re basically taking the night off. You may as well be out drinking with friends, strolling around the store aisles at a leisurely pace, sitting in your car too long checking Twitter because no one knows where you are and why you’re taking so long. Out running an errand, you are alone and at ease and even though you’re tired, you are in control. They can tell you about whether the baby cried or shat in the bathtub and they can silently curse you for forgetting to buy beer, but they can’t take away your ten quiet minutes spent reading the internet in sweatpants at 6:30 p.m. on a Tuesday.
Just for god’s sake finish it all before the kid goes down for bed, otherwise you’re left choosing between work and not-work, dishes or Netflix, laundry or a hot bath, deadlines or drinks with friends. After all, escaping the paralyzing existential question of how to spend your time is, by my estimation, one of the fringe benefits of parenthood.