The Curious Case of the Missing Theory

I attended Evergreen State College where I was exposed to all kinds of theory: feminist theory, film theory, Marxist theory, cultural theory, sexual theory, Marxist feminist cultural film theory; theory wrapped in iceberg lettuce and swallowed with Ranch dressing. There is a lot of theory in an institution like Evergreen, and I read scads of it. Much of the theory is interesting, if, ahem, completely theoretical. Often it doesn't have any real-world application, but if you live in the academic ivory tower, it gives you a lot to think about in your citadel. I'm a big fan of cultural theory: I love reviewing the detritus American culture has thrown up in the last sixty years and scratching my head at the wonder of it all. I love picking apart the semiotics of the latest television commercials, hence my essay about the bizarre intersection of Walt Whitman and Levi's jeans. And feminist theory, wide field that it is, is a necessary evil when tangling with "glass ceilings" and "the politics of housework," inequalities of all kinds, the politics of rape as a form of warfare, etc. There is no shortage of fodder for feminist theoreticians to chew on, and the mastication has been great and wide.

But I've been out of school a long time. Maybe the theoretical void in my life has been filled but I haven't found it because I'm not in school. It's the one that can explain why we're always talking about equality of the housework, the realization of two separate careers, but our collective inability to keep a family from going kookaburra.

I have been a kick-ass housewife. I mean it. Once my son was born, my husband was bringing in the bacon and I was hanging with the boy. Not only was I hanging with the boy, I was buying our new house, dealing with our finances. Landscaping our yard. Learning construction. Painting our house in a wide array of murals, washes and faux glazes, including glow in the dark paint for the boy's seascape scene, moonlight reflecting off the water when you turn out the light. Buying and raising chickens. Cooking food well enough that people asked when I was going to open "Chez Q."

I did my house-wifely duties with the seriousness of a heart attack. I hosted dinners for small gatherings, threw parties for thirty. I was no Betty Draper; mostly I don't have the hysterical devotion to maquillage and won't put on anything like "nice clothing" or "make-up." But you wouldn't either if you were always covered in olive oil or compost or paint.

It was hard work and I relished it. We have a great home to show for my dedication to my job, and our son has had an interesting, well-rounded home-life with one parent who was always around. I wouldn't trade it for anything.

But here's the rub: I've moved on. My "career" (or whatever this is that I'm doing now, this clickety-click typing thing) has turned away from strictly an interest in our home, and is now focused upon the words that rattle in my head all the time. And wow, it really takes up a lot of time. Plus, jeez, a lot of energy too.

So the house and our quality of life has taken a pretty substantial hit. And I'm not laying any blame for this on the inequitable distribution of housework--my husband has no problem doing dishes or laundry--or on any slacking.

Nobody is slacking. There just aren't enough hands to do the work.

Which, digging in the annals of my brain's feminist theory, is not dealt with.

Having a housekeeper is scorned, of course, because you are assuming an unequal position with another person, who you've apparently handed off your least-loved jobs. Feminists love to talk about the economics of feminine work, and no small attention has been paid to the droves of women immigrants being taken advantage of by their wealthier whiter neighbors.

And then there is the distribution of housework; men undoubtedly fair better in feminist studies than women in this arena, though this is changing as women are hanging onto their jobs better than many men in the economic downturn. Even when men make a conscientious effort to do the work of the household in a fair manner, often women still feel they're picking up the slack.

I'm not talking about any of this though. I'm just talking about the sheer quantity of work that goes into running a household, and there not being enough hands to do it.

America and its staunch individualism has screwed me out of my extra hands.

Back in the old days, we were all stuck with each other. Brothers, sisters, grandparents, uncles, aunts. Tumbling extended families that all had to put up or shut up when it came to bringing home the literal bacon. You didn't put in your time, everyone suffered. It was just the way it was.

Now we have been given so many opportunities for a cushier life, but at the end of the day our tiny, far-flung families are so removed from the extended families of old that we don't benefit from our largesse. My son's grandparents live in town, but they aren't here to pick up the slack in our household. He benefits from a relationship with them, but no real distribution of household duties for any of us. We're all vacuuming and sweeping our multiple floors in multiple houses, doing our separate but equal loads of laundry, cleaning up three different kitchens of their breakfast remnants. Spring tidying three separate yards. Driving across town to babysit.

And we all aspire to the American Dream, emphasizing the individual over the collective. I'm a fairly autonomous person; I like my space, I'm fairly private, I'm easily put off by crowds. But I've been raised to think this way. I've lost my ability to connect, share space, duties, responsibilities. I feel guilty and neurotic when my husband does the dishes, though he doesn't mind at all. I feel like I'm slacking if I let the laundry go because I'm burning with the fever to write a new essay on housework.

But perhaps more sinister than my leaving dishes in the sink to write this essay is the abandonment of illness to our individuality. This is acute now that I'm about to re-engage with my father's cancer, which seems to be making an encore after months of no peek-a-boo. And in a complete coincidence of my essay about the need for more bodies to portion out the work of life, Dad handed me an article called, "Letting Go of My Father," which addresses the author Jonathan Rauch's own isolation and confusion in caring for his dying parent.

Where are the hands on deck? Who, other than me and my brother, who lives six hours north of here, and a bunch of hired guns sometime in the future, are going to be able to foster a good death for my father? If it's important to create a good life and we need many hands to accomplish our basic living requirements, surely it's the most important thing to accomplish the same goals for someone who is mortally ill. But we are alone or alienated much of the time.

This culture has failed me in that respect. Far flung families who have to fly or drive everywhere to see one another is not a conducive environment in which to accomplish the unpleasant business of dying. I do not know how my father's illness is going to unfold; he may have years or months, it may be quick or slow, painful or peaceful. No crystal ball has arrived to give me a prognosis, but I'm confident that I will feel a pronounced sense of confusion at the lack of hands available to me.