Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Why Do We Try To Do It Alone?

I’ve been missing my sisters and mothers in the Big House lately. I miss living together—us, our kids, our spouses and partners—in our Big House. I miss eating together, and scrubbing together, and digging together, and singing together. I miss how we casually keep an eye on each other’s children and gossip while we cook and do the dishes. I miss knowing the intimate, silly little details of their daily lives, and having them know mine. I miss how they are good at things I’m bad at, and how I don’t have to try to do everything. I miss how our togetherness makes our creative work more satisfying. I miss how our companionship makes the drudgework less onerous. I desperately miss how we know together that our work is important, how we roll our eyes at each other behind the backs of anyone who doesn’t get it. I feel so lonely for these women, my mothers and my sisters.

I also miss the special savor of the intimacy when my husband and I finally retire to our private bedroom in the Big House at the end of the day. We’ve been looking forward all evening to finally being alone. We whisper and giggle and catch up in ways impossible in front of anyone else. We do other things that aren’t any of your business—more fun because we’ve missed each other while we were next to one another in the crowd of our family. We don’t bicker about who should do the dishes, or whether it’s important to do the dishes, or who does the dishes more often. And we don’t feel we should – or could – control everything about our lives, because many decisions, and a lot of the work, are made by the entire community.

But the Big House isn’t a place that has ever existed for me, really. I get tantalizing tastes of what it might be like on Thanksgiving, together with my sister, mother, aunt, cousin and grandmother in the kitchen. But I haven’t ever lived with extended (or honorary extended) family.

In my everyday life, I live alone with my husband and ten-month-old son. When we share meals with others, it’s a special occasion. I cook and clean for just the three of us, and take care of the baby, and sometimes get enough time to write. My husband works, too. He has a prestigious job which demands 85 hours of his time each week, on average. The only person who cares or knows enough about my work to appreciate it in all its insignificant detail is me. I have to pat my own back when my son emerges from under the furniture NOT covered in dust. A pinch of nutmeg in the cranberry sauce I made the other day tasted wonderful! But my son can’t tell me if he noticed, my husband doesn’t like cranberries, and nobody else had any.

I am sustained in my domestic work by these little moments of creativity. But it is hard to give to myself all the acknowledgement and appreciation I need. And it is in these moments that I miss my mothers and sisters the most.

I did field research in rural Nicaragua for 11 months in 2006 and 2007. And life there wasn’t exactly like life in my Big House. But most of the people I knew, although usually living in individual houses with just their nuclear families, lived within short walking distance of many family members. “Luisa’s” mother lives just across the street and up the hill with her sister and nephew, her father-in-law is next door, and her older brother lives with his wife and children about a ten minute walk away, close to the well. Some non-relatives also live just across the street, and life is such that everyone is often in and out of each others’ houses. There is malicious gossip, there is jealousy, there are feuds. There is also deep, deep poverty, and attempts to better one’s own situation at the expense of others. It isn’t beautiful or ideal. But it isn’t lonely – loneliness, or a desire to be alone, is actually culturally understood as sadness or sickness. And when a woman wants to go earn money by working for a day or two in the fields, her mother or her sister can watch her children. She doesn’t have to get on a 9-month daycare waiting list where the child will be watched by strangers, and do the math to see if she’d earn enough to pay for the daycare.

I fully acknowledge that my community of women—and their children, and partners, and everyone else who lives in my Big House—would not be, could never be, a harmonious, argument-free group. There would be gossip, and disagreements, possibly even big fights. And in my misty images of the Big House, I always seem to forget the various ways my actual mothers and sisters (blood, in-law, and honorary) can often find to push my buttons. But right now, I feel maybe disharmony isn’t the end of the world.

Why do we try to do it alone? Why does each nuclear family feel the need to have its own individual house with its own individual yard and its own individual oven and dishwasher and furnace and washer/dryer and hot water heater? When it’s almost as easy to cook for 8 as for 3, why do we insist on somebody from each individual family planning and shopping for and cooking and eating and cleaning up after their own individual dinners in their own individual houses every single night? Or instead grabbing something on the run, which is more expensive and less yummy or nutritious?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a total, raging, bra-burning feminist. But… especially since I’m breastfeeding, I’ve come to think that we may have been rash in burning all bras. Since I’m a Gen-Xer (sort of), I feel we women, and also men, what the heck, should be able to choose whether to work outside or inside the home once we become parents. But now that it’s happened to me, (I’m not sure it has felt like a conscious choice, but that’s another story) I feel diminished and almost ashamed sometimes. At parties, I get snappy and defensive when people ask me “if I work.” And I think it’s because I work by myself.

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