So I got this email today from a woman named Nellie Wieland. I Googled her and she appears to be a professor of philosophy or something like that who has reviewed books by Noam Chomsky. Now, I love Noam Chomsky but only when someone else explains to me what he’s talking about. This is by way of saying that Nellie who emailed me must be way smarter than me. And I really like people who are way smarter than me (as long as they don’t point it out too, too often).
Anyway, Nellie asked whether I had considered the life changes involved in No Impact in terms of traditional gender politics. She mentioned that buying fresh food, not using a fridge, washing clothes by hand, and making meals from scratch is very time consuming. She said that women still do most of the housework but the time they spend doing it has fallen by half since the age of mod cons and household appliances and readily available energy. "Many of the steps we can and should take to lessen our personal impact involve changing the ways we perform what has traditionally been woman’s work,” Nellie wrote.
To quote her a little more:
“Of course in the green future, men and women should share the burden of daily shopping trips, making vinegar from scratch, hand washing, and so on. And, I think it's also the case that we overestimate how time-consuming some lifestyle changes would be. But the environmentally responsible lifestyle changes need to be made now, before our social and gender politics have time to catch up.”
Riffing off the Prof, let me say how things go around here. Michelle, my wife, works in an office and I have a lot more time flexibility so I do the food shopping, the mixing of homemade cleaning products, and the cooking. Michelle does the dishes, makes most of the logistic arrangements for Isabella, and takes care of a lot of other family admin. We pretty much share the childcare. Frankie the dog’s care falls mostly to me but Michelle takes the morning walk. I think we both really value each other’s contributions to the running of the family.
We don’t think about it gender-wise, unless I am so culturally brainwashed that I don't see it. We just split the work up whatever way makes sense and we like it that way. We work hard to figure out how to run our family in a way that makes us all happiest. Michelle is asleep, so I can’t ask her, but I think she would agree that we kind of feel proud of that. She does like to joke, though, that No Impact has turned her husband into a nineteenth century housewife.
One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is how household chores were downgraded in importance during the early twentieth century by the marketing folks. Washing dishes, cleaning house, doing laundry, cooking meals were all labeled as “drudgery” and appliances were then marketed as a way to get away from that drudgery. As I’ve been faced with a lot of these tasks, I’ve spent a lot of time examining that underlying assumption about household work.
Sometimes my brain tells me that manual labor is a waste of my time and that I should be undertaking so-called higher intellectual pursuits. But what higher calling is there than for me to feed Michelle and Isabella? Because of the eating local—which means not eating in restaurants so much—I’ve been cooking for a lot of people who come over and I have to say it is a new found pleasure to do something so simply essential for my friends and family.
What more important thing can I do with my life than feed them? Should I be reading Proust instead? Is my time better spent there? Or is my time better spent using food to help build our circle and strengthening our relationship bonds?
What’s interesting to me is the cultural idea that the chores are
somehow not worthwhile undertaking, but that I am finding satisfaction in them. I think there is an idea in the culture that we should buy and consume and--for crying out loud--make sure we have time to watch enough TV. It's as though being in touch with actually taking care of ourselves and our families is somehow a lesser experience. I'm not finding that.
Around here, I am in charge of the composting, and I harvested compost for the first time this week and top treated my tomato plants and they shot up. That was fun. In the surprising and sometimes frightening media rush that has descended on No Impact Man, some of my safest and calmest times have come when I was kneading the bread. I feel like I’m getting in touch with something important, but probably too hard to describe when you’ve been awake this many hours.
This is in no way meant to be a comment on whom—man or woman—the household chores should or should not fall to in other people’s homes. I'm with Nellie about men and women sharing the work equally, but I guess what I'm adding is that what has to be shared need not necessarily be seen as a "burden." Again, what else important is there for me to do with my life?
These are just musings. I’m not pointing some way forward. I’m not suggesting anything for anyone else. I’m just sharing my experience and pleasure in simple tasks along with enjoying the thoughts of Nellie the professor who kindly took the time to email a very interesting and thought provoking note. I’d love if people want to comment about how eco-chores break down in their household or finding pleasure in undervalued tasks or anything else related to the Prof’s or my thoughts. Oh, and of course, I'd especially love to hear comments from you, Nellie.
Colin Beavan (that's me!) is now leading a conversation about finding a happy, helpful life at Colinbeavan.com. If you want to know how people are breaking out and and finding authentic, meaningful lives that help our world, check it out the blog here and sign up to join the conversation here.