Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Pierre Bourdieu, my love, why do I want to be June Cleaver?

So last night we celebrated Will's birthday with a lovely little romantic dinner at home. It was the epitome of domestic perfection: apron clad moi making steamed crabs, from-scratch mashed potatoes, green beans and cupcakes a la Giant Supermarket bakery. Of course, I added my own 'unique' touch by putting too much oil in the pan to cook the green beans, resulting in (I'm not kidding) the oil splashing a bit onto the gas stove flame and creating a HUGE fireball. Green beans flambe, anyone? Will even brought me home beautiful pink long-stem roses, and we snuggled on the sofa and discussed how the day's events had treated us both. It was really, really nice. Operation Domestic Felicity: success.

So here's the curious thing that kept running through my head as I waltzed from Costco (guilty) to Giant to CVS...as I saw all these mommies running about gathering groceries with their little children, and then later while I stirred my flaming green beans and mashed the potatoes with my apron tied oh-so-coyly around my bourgeois yoga pant ensemble, I kept thinking that despite how exhausting the whole 'buy ingredients make dinner from scratch' project is, I really enjoyed the whole idea of Will walking into a home cooked dinner that I had prepared as a sign of my love to him. He spends all day and many, many nights slogging away at his work, all for the betterment of our financial future and stability, and I know he is doing it because he cares about our family's well-being. And I couldn't help but feel yesterday that my making dinner was 'providing' something along the same vein. Seriously, I couldn't shake the feeling that me making dinner and errand running hamster-crazy style was the 'right' way for me to be contributing to our household. To my rational, feminist-y brain, this is just nuts. I have a well paying job (thank you G-d), I am a mere few credits away from holding an M.A., and I am officially a 'doctoral candidate' (cue parting of clouds, singing angel chorus). My contributions to our domestic bottom line radiate far beyond my abilities to set the kitchen on fire cooking green beans (ahem). So why is it that whenever I switch into domestic goddess mode I get this weird high off the feeling that I am embodying my true calling? I have told Will many (many, many, many) times that one of my worst nightmares is finishing my PhD only to 'retire' into stay-at-home-mommage. Not because there is anything wrong with it, but rather because it's not the path I choose for myself. I have this deep-seated fear that no matter what steps I take- even going so far as to get my doctorate- I am still going to somehow board the mommy train and end up sidetracked from my professional goals and pulling into PTASoccerAttachmentParenting Station. And yet...slap on an apron and away I go, full steam ahead. All aboard the Phyllis Schlafly express.

To get some clarity on why my brain thinks cooking is cat-nip, I talked to my sociological BFF Pierre Bourdieu (who is dead, but I like to think of him and Michel Foucault as the angels on my shoulder...Glen Beck resides on my other shoulder, for those of you that are curious). I am currently working my way- too slowly- through Bourdieu's writings on social power dynamics, specifically in An Introduction to Reflexive Sociology and Distinction. Bourdieu contends that dominated classes, in this specific case women, reinforce the social structures that subjugate them by buying into the idea that these social delineations are in their own best interests and are 'natural', thus reinforcing power dynamics by further legitimating the status quo. More concisely put, I get high off of my domestic goddess groove because I have drank the 'female in the kitchen='normal/good' kool-aid. I have been socially programmed from my earliest interactions (think Little Tikes plastic kitchen) to think that my 'natural' role is to support my family through my gastrointestinal and errand running contributions. I see this reinforced among my friends constantly. We had our cousins over for spend-the-night and brunch fun this weekend, and my cousin and I hung out (read: made coffee and gossiped) in the kitchen while Will and Micah hung out on the sofa. Dinner parties is the same bet- you'll find me and my female compatriots camped out cleaning dishes while our men folk tend to the pressing needs of Mario Cart Wii. It doesn't matter if it's me and my beautiful stay-at-home mom sis, or my high powered attorney pal J, it's always the same show: women in kitchen doing food prep, men hanging out in living room. I am not pointing fingers and saying our XY chromosome pals are lazy, or trying to make a case for shared kitchen labor. What I am trying to get at is the fact that none of us even raise an eyebrow to question this dynamic. We have all been programed to think of this as normal, and that programming results in the creation and propagation of socially constructed gender roles. We think it's 'natural', that somehow we, as females, are better suited to loading a dishwasher, because it's always been presented as the norm. Had Will and our male pals been raised thinking that playing with a plastic kitchen set was 'fun' perhaps they would be vying to get in on the dishwasher loading fiesta. But they were not raised with this, we female types were. We were the ones fed a big pink plastic Barbie Dreamhouse of domestic fantasies that included cooking, cleaning, and taking care of Ken. And then we grew up in post-Title-IX-anything-is-possible era, got fancy degrees, and accomplished major resume building, kudos garnering feats. We learned that we could run for Congress, own companies, and sue the shit out of anyone who commented on our breasts at work (thanks again, Professor Hill!). Law degrees and PhDs in hand, we marched towards the equality horizon, emboldened with dreams of a just future filled with Ken dolls that happily shouldered half of the toilet scrubbing duties...only to find out that, whoops-a-daisy, girls, let's not get too carried away! We can have our cake, but we better be willing to bake it, too.

In honor of Women's History Month, the Obama administration conducted the first report on the status of women since Eleanor Roosevelt prepared one for President JFK. In less-than-shocking news, the findings show, among other things, that women are still responsible for a majority of the housework in most families. Many are also, not surprisingly, working outside of the home full-time. Juggling this dual role madness of full-time work and full-time housewife is exhausting...and somehow, sickly, exhilarating to me. I feel, deep down, this warm sense of satisfaction knowing that I am 'taking care' of my family when I cook dinner, scrub the bathroom, or sweep the floors. I feel somehow that I am doing 'my part', that I can feel ok accepting roses from my partner because I too have done my job to make the house warm and welcoming. I have kept the familial ship afloat, one home cooked meal at a time!

Many of my male friends would balk at the idea that they expect their partners to do more of the housework, and I think that many of them-at least in my crowd- do kick in nearly 50%. Will folds laundry, takes out trash, tackles the ickier domestic problems like unclogging the toilet...and kicks in half for our cleaning lady to come twice a month so neither of us has to shoulder the brunt of scullery duties. (I am guessing that most of the women in America are not blessed with a partner as evolved as mine, as evidenced by the status of women report.) The issue I'm trying to work out is not that I am expected to do the majority of the housework. Rather, what I am trying to understand is just why, when I do engage in housework, I get this feeling that I am 'really' contributing. I don't get this same high when I put my paycheck in our savings account, nor when I pay for the cable bill or pick up the tab for dinner out. It comes only when I am cooking and/or cleaning. I would love to say, "gee, that's so weird!" but I actually think it's indicative of something much, much deeper at play. Bourdieu contends that sociology's purpose is "to uncover the most profoundly buried structures of the various social worlds which constitute the social universe, as well as the 'mechanisms' which tend to ensure their reproduction." (1992: 7) Applied to my domestic dilemma, sociologically speaking, the feeling of happy provider that washes over me while washing dishes is the result of deeply rooted social conditioning. My domestic diva bliss is the result of me fully giving myself over to society's messaging that the value I bring to the societal table is my skill to cook something to put on the table.

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