Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Messiness and cleanliness: negotiation in feminism and relationships

The man I share my life with is not a feminist, but damn can he clean. J has many admirable qualities that allow us to functionally share our lives without sharing feminism that I will expound upon at greater length in later posts, but this is one quality that has been essential to the growth of our relationship since we moved in together a year ago.

But J has been out of town on business since Monday, and he left the house neat and clean, with just a few dishes in the sink. I hoped to have him return to the house in the same condition, but despite spending less than a dozen waking hours in our living space since he left, it's a damn mess. Dishes are everywhere. There's a random loaf of bread on his computer table. Clothes and wet towels blanket the couch. A brush has been on the floor and not in my hair since he left.

I? Am not so good at cleaning. In fact, I suck at cleaning. I always have. [ick warning] Something literally died in my dorm room junior year, and I didn't notice until I moved out. Mess (and yes, grossness) does not bother me.


Outside of the complications being messy brings to my cohabiting relationship, not being neat is also a weird space to negotiate as a woman, a feminist, a person with OCD, and a live-in girlfriend.

But as a feminist, I feel like I need to take care of myself. Organization and being able to quickly and easily find things allows me to get things done quicker. How can I be productive if my desk is covered with the debris of lunches and project past? How is upkeep entropy conducive to feminist activism?

As a woman, I am constantly expected to pick up after mine and others' shit. Being messy is sometimes empowering - it's subverting and cutting off the expectations of others, and releases me from another pressure of society. It's a way to excommunicate myself from the feminine mystique.

I think not being clean kept me from recognizing that I had OCD for a long time, particularly as a teen. OCD is portrayed as the hand-washing disease - it's the kind where you're terrified of germs. I am totally not terrified of germs, so how can I have OCD? The media portrayal of OCD as a one-dimensional, comical fear of germs shuts off the many, many facets of the disease, and led me to an alternative and fairly wrong diagnosis of ADD.


J's mom keeps a very neat house. While J is skilled in the art of "picking up the damn towels off the floor" and "not throwing shit everywhere" in a way I am not, when we first moved in together he was not used to having things taken care of for him. The laundry piled up, and up, and up. So did the dishes. He didn't think he'd have to do them, but I sure as shit wasn't going to just do them.

I figured that he would understand that he had to pick up a lot of the slack, having, you know, dated me for two years prior to this and having spent many nights in my various dorm rooms. But he didn't, and there were clashes, fights, arguments, passive-aggressiveness about cleaning. He understood that I wasn't going to be a happy housewife intellectually, but it was a bit of a shock actually living in it, after being accustomed to having women pick up after him.

But you know what? He shaped up, and dealt with it. We don't have an exact system, but there are things that I generally take care of (litterboxes, cooking, folding laundry) and things that he generally takes care of (the yard, the dishes, loading the laundry). When we are having people over, we clean together. My (very clean and neat) mom (and other immediate family) came to visit a couple weeks ago, and she even commented as to its cleanliness, which was kind of a triumph for me.

While neither of us are perfect, J and I pick up the slack for each other to create a functional, helpful, clean space that's about as free of mess as it is of drama (not entirely, but mostly!). Sharing household duties is essential to having a functional relationship - not just as a feminist, for me, but as a way of being. J's activity in household duties lifts up my own nascent instinct to not live in filth, and spurs me towards actually vacuuming once in a while.


  1. I think it's a very present ordeal for the feminist: How do I get people to realize I'm just me, and not a Woman-Who-Does-Woman-type-Things? I think half the reason I'm so cynical about dating is that I doubt I'll ever find a man who can handle it, as apparently Jason can. ;)

  2. Jason is a catch! Keep looking though - I think they're just hiding themselves. I'm sure there's a man or two in that high-falutin' grad school of yours who'll catch your fancy. ;)

  3. Actually my fiance is the only man I've ever seriously dated that isn't a "neat-freak". Dating neat freaks was always good for me because it made me reign in my messy habits. We are both semi-messy people, and pretty much bring each other down. He's out of town as well this week, and my job is to whip the house into shape (minus his stuff that's out of place- including laundry- which will be neatly piled around his computer desk). and then we hope to work out a plan like you two!

  4. Bringing each other down - that is what happened in my junior year. I lived with a lovely but very messy gal, and it just piled on.

  5. When we first lived together I did most of the cleaning because my tolerance for mess is far less than that of the unhusband. I have this thing about not stepping over mess and being able to see the floor at all times. Since I became differently abled, he has had to do it all. Surprisingly, all those years of living in a clean home means that he can no longer tolerate mess...who would have thought. For the most part he does it all and I will load the dishwasher or cook the occasional meal as my health allows. I do agree though, household chores are enough to break a relationship if both parties don't work on some form of agreement.

  6. I am not a super neat person, though I'm not the messiest and I like to have the household ick-level pretty much under control (I think of myself/my space as cluttered, not dirty). I find myself wanting to fulfill a lot of the traditional aspects of a housewife though, especially lately, and it's something I've been trying to examine now that I am settling into a new house with my fiance. Do I want to do those things because I've internalized that I should, or because it's a new house and I just want to be truly settled, or because it's something I really enjoy? I think a combination.

    I am lucky though that Jonathan is great at doing specific cleaning tasks, most notably the dishes. We didn't have a dishwasher at our apartment, and I hate doing dishes by hand -- so it was always, without a doubt, his job. (I probably washed ten dishes in the time we were there.) Jonathan isn't necessarily a self-starter when it comes to general cleaning, but he would always get on board if something needed to be done, and usually before me when I'm just idly whining that the pile of miscellanea on the table was avalanching itself onto the floor. I anticipate that this kind of a system will continue, and I do agree that it's important that the daily tasks of a household are worked out based on who is best suited for what task, not based on gendered assumptions.

    It's hard, though, not to have a little bit of self-reproach when I realize how much I would like to actually be home by 1 or 2 pm to start baking/preparing dinner/doing laundry/other cliched things. I don't think I could be home all day every day, as evidenced by how crazy I felt when I was unemployed for a month this spring, but I miss like hell all the interesting recipes I made and how much I felt like my life was organized. I think, though, that this might be a taste of that craving for work-life balance, despite not having a family or many extra-curricular responsibilities besides happy hour plans with friends. While it may be more of a pressure on women to perfectly perform both work and home duties, the desire for it is surely not one felt exclusively by women.

  7. I'm glad you found a situation that works for you. In my relationship we haven't. I'm happy having it all and even doing it all myself. But if the second part is also true I want the freedom of being single, rather then being tied down to a relationship or sex with one man.


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