August is my time for cleaning house. Before the start of the new school year and the next winter season, I like to clear out piles of old things, papers that are no longer relevant, clothes that will never be worn again in this house, projects completed or abandoned. It’s a spiritual as much as a physical task, all about letting go, making space inside myself, and starting over. So it has been with a certain interest that, as I filled my fourth garbage bag for the day, I read the story by Elissa Strauss and the follow-up post by Debra Nussbaum Cohen about women’s housecleaning.
Personally, I relate much more to Debra’s outlook than Elissa’s. I cannot imagine idealizing the balebuste, or housewife. Until I read Elissa’s post, I had not even considered fluffing up pillows, and certainly the notion of making the living room ready for my husband to read the paper is a scenario far removed from my daily life. My husband and I do many things for one another; fluffing one another’s pillows is not among them. Like Debra said, housecleaning is a chore that must get done, and whoever is around and available has equal responsibility to do it.
Indeed, one of the main problems with idealizing the balebuste is that it’s a woman’s thing rather than just a human thing. The image of the happily housecleaning woman is a way of promoting women’s unpaid labor in service of men by turning it into something that women enjoy. Like, of course women love being balebustes; it’s in our happy-go-lucky nature. We whistle while we dust, fluffing those pillows as we daydream about our strong, virile husbands coming home and sweeping us away. Lah-de-dah, another day in the happy life of a housewife. We live for other people’s success and are content to be the eternal enablers, providing all of man’s basic needs — food, comfort, and a clean house — so that he can do all the really important jobs in life, like working and thinking.
That’s another problem with the idealized balebuste: She is kind of brainless. Not really, obviously. Our grandmothers were smart women, to be sure. But the balebuste is not a character who passionately expresses political or philosophical opinions around the Shabbat table. A woman obsessed with dusting curtains is not likely to be consulted on social policy or high intellectual analysis.
But mostly, the reason why I have zero aspiration to balebuste-hood is that cleaning house has no more impact on my identity and my life than, say, brushing my teeth. Cleaning up is just something that human beings do. We are messy creatures, we cause chaos and we clean up after ourselves (ideally…) Cleaning is good for our hygiene, as well as our spirits.
I pondered all this as I worked on my office this week. Although I’ve been spending an hour or two cleaning different corners of the house each day, I actually spent two whole days on my office going through piles, filing, rearranging, reorganizing, putting away that which I’ve completed and making space for new projects to come. In some ways, this is my favorite room in the house. It is the room that I feel holds my identity. I sometimes think, if my children one day will ever be interested in finding out who I am, what my passions, dreams, and life work are about, they will find it here.
But I realize how strange that is for a woman to say. Women are more likely to write about the centrality of the kitchen, not the home office. But I just don’t relate to that. Certainly I love cooking, as does my husband; it’s a colorful activity that fills us with scents and memories. But it’s not identity. Here, in my workroom, the room with no pillows to fluff and no guests to entertain, this is where I continue to discover my own mind.
Of course, that’s only part of the story. Because my other favorite room is the living room, especially the coffee table, where our family plays games every Shabbat, where the non-fluffed pillows are as likely to be thrown as used for headrests during newspaper-reading time (by anyone), and where our relationships are truly formed. For me, the components of a woman’s life, as well as a man’s, should be so dominated by these things — our work, our passions, and our most cherished relationships — that the cleanliness of our houses does not even register as an element of our identities.
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is an award-winning author and feminist researcher, educator and activist. She is currently studying to become a rabbi at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, and is blogging about her journey at www.jewfem.com
The Problem With ‘Balebuste’