There are lots of traditionally “female” tasks that I’ve never quite gotten a grasp on: walking in very tall heels, putting on eyeliner, wearing flattering pants. But while I’m okay with my fashion and beauty choices leaning toward the whatever-is-easiest option, there’s one arena where, feminism be damned, I feel guilty for failing to live up to my “womanly” duties, and that’s the domestic sphere. Since moving in with my boyfriend in 2013, I’ve realized just how outclassed I am when it comes to cooking, cleaning, decorating, and all things related to keeping a home looking like, well, a home. I didn’t grow up learning about those kinds of tasks. Sure, my single mom and I did laundry, vacuumed, and washed dishes, but in our small two-bedroom apartment, things were more often haphazard than immaculate. My boyfriend, however, takes after his mom, who polishes the kitchen counter every day — sometimes more than once. I lovingly refer to him as a “neat freak.” He objects to the term, but I consider it 100% accurate. He gets antsy if even one couch cushion is astray. I’ve gone to the bathroom and returned to find he’s folded the blanket I was using mere moments ago. He has a generous cookbook collection and enjoys few things more than selecting and following a new recipe. For a recent dinner party, he made his own ricotta. Me? Well, I’m the exact opposite. I can hard-boil eggs and make polenta, and that’s about it. I toss my belongings wherever is most convenient and don’t care if a stray pile of mail sits on a living room chair for days (or weeks or months, if I’m being honest). I’ve never purchased a bed, couch, or any other furniture, instead subsisting on hand-me-downs. I make my bed when we’re having company, but otherwise actually prefer to climb back into my already nicely rumpled sheets. We dated for a year before moving in together, and my messiness was definitely a subject of discussion. He knew I had issues with hoarding and cringed whenever I mentioned all the stuff I had lying around the floors of the two-bedroom Brooklyn apartment where I lived alone. It’s one thing to hear about the clutter, but another to cohabitate with it. To my credit, though, he’d also seen me fastidiously wash dishes at his place (that, along with vacuuming, is my favorite chore).
It would be my first time living with someone, and I had plenty of trepidation. What if he found me so undomestic he wanted me to move out? What if, when he saw up close and personal how lackadaisical my approach was to, well, every aspect of life, he was no longer so smitten? Even though I vowed to keep any messiness at bay in my own private space and not the common areas, I wasn’t sure I could actually stay true to that promise. Once we started living together, though, I found myself grappling with a strange mix of guilt and shame around not being more domestic. I mentally compared myself to who I imagined his ex-wife to be. I’d heard him mention certain dishes she was famous for cooking, and wondered if he missed having a partner who’d spend her weekends creating grand edible concoctions rather than lying curled up with a book or hunched over a jigsaw puzzle.
I found myself grappling with a strange mix of guilt and shame around not being more domestic.
My discomfort stems from feeling like I don’t measure up to what I “should” do for my partner. I worry that I’m a bad girlfriend because I’ve cooked a grand total of two dinners during our four and a half years as a couple. Both those times my boyfriend was sick, and he had to walk me through frying fish fillets and even boiling frozen ravioli and heating up sauce from a jar. Yes, that’s how pathetic I am in the culinary arena. When I’ve lamented my lack of cooking talent, he’s assured me that he doesn’t mind. “You’re good at other things,” he’ll say, usually with a jokey sexual double entendre. I believe him; he’s never expressed even an iota of regret that I’m not more hands-on in the kitchen.
Yet I still feel inadequate that I don’t have a simmering pot of something delicious bubbling on the stove when he walks in the door. I work from home, while he goes to an office, which only adds to my belief that I’m a domestic failure. Even though I know that I work hard, doing it from the same place where we relax, hang out, eat, and sleep means I could, in theory, be whipping up a meal in between meeting article deadlines. Where I truly feel I’m a relationship disaster, though, is cleaning. We tend to assume that women are somehow “naturally” neater — this stereotype crops up every time the issue of getting men to do more housework makes the news rounds. I always feel completely out of touch when I see those stories, because my boyfriend does the majority of the household chores. Plus, he doesn't just vacuum, dust, scrub, and do laundry, he genuinely cares about each task. I can’t count the number of times he’s berated me for simply dumping all my panties into my dresser rather than painstakingly folding each one. See, even though I feel guilty about not being more domestic, it hasn’t quite propelled me to actually change my behavior. My ideal version of myself is able to get all my work done and turn out gorgeous, Pinterest-worthy meals that make my boyfriend swoon. The real me brings home gummy worms for him when I travel and calls that “making dessert.” I’m sure that if I were dating someone who insisted I wait on them hand and foot and be solely responsible for keeping our house clean, I’d resent them for not pulling their weight. Because my boyfriend has pretty much accepted my lackadaisical approach to homemaking, I want to be more of a Martha Stewart than a Max on 2 Broke Girls. But while I have, once or twice, spontaneously baked brownies or busted out the vacuum unbidden, I have a feeling my fantasy version of myself as a domestic goddess will remain just that — a fantasy.