The Thinking 

The Housewife and the Plumber

October 29, 2009


Housewives and plumbers are natural comrades in arms. They have something very basic in common and that is, they are always and everywhere needed. They address the most fundamental and routine needs of human existence. Civilization cannot function well without them, and yet so rarely acknowledges its dependence upon them. There is something shameful about both the housewife and the plumber because of this dependence. They point to the most trivial of human weaknesses. No day proceeds without clean dishes, swept floors, cooked meals, laundered clothes and unclogged plumbing.

I have a friend who is a plumber. He never goes to social events and limits all casual interaction with anyone but his customers. He lives in perpetual anxiety that harmless interactions with neighbor or friend will lead to requests for his services. I once invited him to our home for dinner and the event was ruined by his suspicion that at any moment we were going to ask for his professional expertise in pipes, drains or septic systems.

So it is with the housewife. People are often eager to create an informal tie with her. She cooks. She cleans. She takes care of young and old. Compared to the average adult today, she seems to possess an eternity of time. She has absolutely nothing to do.

The truth is she has far too much to do. The world is overflowing with need of her services and for the order, tranquility and health these services provide. A neighborhood boy used to show up at our door everyday at 7 a.m. His mother never asked if he could come over before school started. She just assumed because there was a mother at home, her services were there for the taking. The housewife is often veiwed as a de facto employee of the public school and it continually invents the most petty of projects to indenture her.

Of course, the housewife is glad to aid the world. The very best thing about her vocation is that she can meet the spontaneous needs of friend and relative as these needs arise. She can help others without the burdensome scheduling and impersonal interaction that characterizes the commercial world. She is glad to help. The spirit of charity runs thick in her veins. But, the need for the plumber is about as infinite as any basic need in this finite world. So it is with the need for the housewife. She must exercise some discretion. I believe many women have fled to the relative predictability of offices because they could not manage this demand for their time. It’s so much easier to say, “I have to go to work,” than, “No, I can’t do that today.”  This demand would be less pressing  if  the housewife weren’t such a rarity and if more organizations respected her privacy. As it is, she must be like the plumber. She is entitled to her privacy and some leisure. If she’s not cautious, she may be draining pipes night and day.



[See comments below.] 

Karen I. writes:

You are 100% correct in everything you wrote in The Housewife and the Plumber. I have been a housewife for over 10 years and I have learned to mistrust women who, upon meeting me and finding out I don’t work outside the home, decide they are going to be my new best friend. It has happened several times. They start out super friendly, and work their kids into the conversation. Then, they start saying things like “I never get a break”, “my husband won’t help me at all”, “I never get to go out without the kids”, or “if only I had someone to watch the kids”. When I don’t acknowledge the comments, as I have learned not to, they persist. After awhile, they usually realize I am not going to be a free babysitter. That is when they do one of two things. They pull away and start ignoring me entirely or they ignore my obvious lack of willingness to watch the kid and start sending them over anyway to “play outside”. Those are ones with the most nerve and the ones I do not know how to deal with as my son resents me saying “no” to playing with a kid who is on the doorstep waiting for him to come out. The mother who sends her kid over almost every day knows this. So, my kids are outside playing with theirs but I have to watch everyone while I am trying to make dinner. Those mothers often say how “lucky” I am, even though they are the ones getting free babysitting for an hour or more after school every day. I have had other experiences that were even worse, like the mother who left her child in the sand box with mine and drove off without telling me she was leaving the kid, or the one who showed up on the doorstep over the summer saying she had three kids for me to watch so she could keep her important job, but she could not pay me more than $20 a day! For eight hours of watching three tough boys? I was downright insulted by that one. 

It has gotten worse since my kids both went to school, as the mothers now see me without a kid all day and truly don’t think I do a thing. Not that they ask. Their minds are already made up. I told my husband I am going to lie and say I am going to college online but that probably won’t help. It may be worth a try. What do you do about kids coming over uninvited?

Laura writes:

Go ahead and sign up for a course or for some new project and make a point of telling the women in your neighborhood that you are pressured because of this activity. Tell them you have started to write for a blog (this is true!) or that you are trying to start a business (isn’t everyone trying to start a business?). The only way to get across that you are not open for anything is by having something concrete that others can understand. Perhaps you can tell the mothers which days you are “working” at home and say that as much as you would like their children over, you just can’t do it on those days.

This can be a big problem, but at least your kids do have others around. It can be worse when a neighborhood is devoid of children and you have to drive them to play with live human beings.  It’s better to have these kids at your home then your kids being at theirs, where there is no supervision. Many children are not offended if you simply say, “You have to go home now. We have things we need to do.” Your son might not like it, but it is unlikely to hurt his relationships with those children at all.

Laura adds:

Because child care is so time-consuming and expensive (if one pays for it), the increase in economic power for women has caused the exploitation of some women by others. There’s no way to get around it. It has damaged community and fellow-feeling among women. There will always be women who take advantage of other mothers. That’s a fact. But, feminism has made it much more common and acceptable.

Feminism increases the exploitation of women by women. There are women who get paid nothing to prop up those who rake in the money and prizes. Motherhood is a state of dependence.  The most powerful of mothers, even the Sarah Palins of the world, share this dependence.  By denying it, they deceive themselves and others.

A female reader writes:

I desperately need help because of illness, but I am very loathe to  ask other women for any because I know they are being exploited by others.

I have a housekeeper that I pay a pretty princely wage – $25/hour –  and the jealousy this engenders in other women, particularly working mothers, is horrible.  My own mother-in-law hates me because of it, and I don’t use that word lightly.  Believe me, I would trade my housekeeper for their health in an instant.  What really gets me is that many of these women don’t think anything of making use of other women’s services as long as they are unpaid or poorly paid.  And they certainly wouldn’t dare say anything if I was working.  But God forbid I pay someone what the job is worth, so that I can save what shreds of  my health and energy I have left for caring for my children.  And God forbid I have a household employee who would be my social equal if we met socially.  That really seems to steam people – better I underpay a foreigner who is separated from her children, then adequately pay an American single mother.

Laura writes:

It’s sad to have to ask for help when you are ill and this brings us back to the damage that occurs to community and charity when so many women work. The people who really need the care of others are neglected: the young, the sick and the old.

The last comments raise an interesting irony. Many working women just don’t want to pay to make their lives easier. Some truly can’t afford to pay for the services that compensate for their absence at home, but others could afford better babysitters and house cleaners if they cut back on the expenses for big homes, fancy gadgetry and expensive toys.

In sanctioning the departure of women from the home, society has denied that all the work of caring for home  and children and the old is real. So what happens is working women deny that all this is real and when it comes to arranging and paying for these services, they do it cheaply and on the fly. On a cultural level, we are in massive denial. For all our advanced technology, we cannot cope with what makes ordinary human life function day to day.

A second anonymous female reader writes:

Boy, that really steams me that the working mothers are mad at the sick stay-at-home wife for hiring help and paying her well. We “thinking” women really must do what’s best for ourselves and our families and non-supportives must be relegated to the outer, outer, circle of our lives. They are on a different path and likely too sheep-like to have an intelligent discussion with anyway.

Laura writes:

We must stick together, stand up for ourselves and have the courage to say that not all ways of running a home and family are equally good.

The second reader adds:

The less they pay these women that are cleaning their homes, the more these women must work and the less time they are in their own homes, monitoring and supervising their children. These unsupervised children often end up in gangs, on welfare and so on. Greed has consequences.


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