I housekeep in Time’s gut-end,
Among emmets and Mollusks,
Duchess of nothing,
For the last week I have been teaching about educational inequality and language, particularly in relation to gender. My students and I have discussed the relationship between language and thought and reflected on concepts such as androcentrism in relation to linguistic choice. We have considered the way in which evaluative judgements may be encoded in language and we have reviewed some everyday examples from women’s lives. And yet I used the word ‘chore’ in yesterday’s post without thinking about any of this.
I did think about it, however, when I read Pennie’s comment on the post. Yes, I thought to myself, that is what I need to do: skip and shortcut should be my watchwords. And why would I consider any other approach? The very word ‘chore’ suggests a process without point or pleasure. I am no Hairtusk’s bride, I told myself.
In this extract from ‘Poem for a Birthday’ Plath was perhaps reflecting (at least partly) on her recent marriage to the poet Ted Hughes. Pregnant at the time, she was juggling roles and attempting to forge an identity from the range of possibilities: teacher, poet, wife, daughter, mother-to-be. Also, of course, her American-British reference points. On the cusp of the 1960s, trying to negotiate all of this, is it any wonder she kept house, some days, in Time’s gut-end?
But this is not the house I keep (and not just because I live in a different time and place). It is because my context has been caring for Dylan, perhaps, that I have come to evaluate chores differently; in such a context, domestic tasks acquire a particular capital or freight. If you are unable to care for yourself – because you are disabled or an elder or child – then processes such as cooking and cleaning may be perceived and valued differently. While domestic work is undervalued by society, and usually unpaid, it is part of the currency of care. This is a language which Dylan understands; some of the things which are most important to him, and which bring him most pleasure, are linked to domestic work: clean clothes; food preparation; and an ordered environment.
Was it possible, I reflected, that it was through such routines that I had articulated my love for Dylan? Keeping house for my autistic son, had I been Duchess of everything? Perhaps what I am grappling with now is not the lack of time for chores but my lack of motivation for them. My domestic routines – the cooking, cleaning, shopping and washing – are transformed by Dylan’s absence; none of them have the purpose or meaning they had before. If I do not have to do these things for Dylan, then they are no longer acts of love in the way they once were. Maybe it is no accident that this series of posts (about learning to live without Dylan) began with laundry? What I haven’t been able to do, so far, is make a routine of these things for myself.
‘You’re looking summery again today’, a colleague said to me last week as I shivered in the office in a lime green sleeveless dress. I mumbled something implausible about access to my wardrobe. Later in the week, my daughter: ‘you haven’t been wearing those summer clothes have you?’ I hardly dared admit that because I hadn’t done any laundry I didn’t have anything else to wear.
Skip and shortcut probably isn’t the advice I need to be giving myself; it’s more a case of building new routines so that I learn how to do the laundry (and shop and cook and clean) for one. And now I’m going to put the washing machine on…
The Sylvia Plath extract is from Part 4 (‘The Beast’) of ‘Poem for a Birthday’ which was composed in 1959 and first published in the British (Faber) edition of The Colossus in 1960.