“There are, I now realize, many ways to change the world. We can genuinely touch others via our domestic life, not despite it. Sharing our home life with family and friends, allows us to recognize that beneath all our chafing about world events, it’s the domestic world that we intimately live in, and this pushes me forward and gives me hope.”—Helen Hayward, “Homework”
Like many women of my generation, I grew up thinking that housework was not work, not for mothers in any case. I remember that in kindergarten or primary school, whenever the question of my parents’ professions came up, I always knew what my father’s job was. When it came to my mother’s, I asked our maids about it the first time I encountered the question in a homework assignment. They told me, “maebaan,” literally mother house, or housewife in Thai. I also have a vague memory of an adult correcting me when I said my mother didn’t have a job or that she didn’t work. “It’s not nice to say that. You should say she’s a housewife.” So for a long time, I thought “housewife” was a polite word for women who didn’t work.
I had a very confused, contradictory, and even condescending view of housework growing up. I think it had a lot to do with how I perceived the level of activeness in a person. As a child, I thought my father was always a more active person than my mother. The first school I went to was in Nakorn Pathom, a province next to Bangkok. My father’s office was in the center of Bangkok. But most mornings, he was the one who exercised, played, and had breakfast with us three kids while my mother was still asleep. That never changed even when we moved to Bangkok.
When I came home from school, though, I would occasionally find my mother in my room, re-decorating. It didn’t feel intrusive then. I usually loved the changes she made. My mother enjoyed decorating and redecorating our homes. And I thought she had a talent for it.
I remember preferring the version of my mother in our US home during the summer vacations. It was where my mother’s work—cooking, packing our car for road trips, cleaning, organizing—became more visible to me. I also liked being in the US more because without the maids, except for my younger sister’s nanny, us three kids were able to help out more. I made it my duty every morning to go ask my mother and father what they would like to eat and note it down on a piece of paper like I was a waitress.
Our first year studying in public schools in the US, it was my mother who lived with us for the most part while my father took care of things in Thailand and came for occasional visits. There was no one else to do the housework but my mother. She did our laundry, cooked our food, and cleaned our home. But even then, perhaps because of our time and what girls growing up in the 90s were taught about being a strong and independent woman, I thought none of these things she did was actual, legitimate work.
Strangely enough, it was my younger brother who angrily defended her when I complained that my mother did nothing while in the US. “Mami does work,” he said. “She works really hard!” And yet I was the one who always helped my mother with the cleaning. When I whined about it—because I hated it, though I liked helping out with the cooking—she would always plead, “You’re the only one I can ask to help me.”
When I graduated from college, I thought I would travel, work, or get my master’s. Being a homebody felt to me the antithesis of who I was. And even if I got married and had children, I would be a mother who worked, not a housewife. But I remember feeling surprised and offended when I read this headline in the New York Times in 2005, the year I graduated: “Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood.”
Now that I read it as a 33-year-old woman, the article no longer offends me. I see it now as simply a report on the changing attitude among women and men my age toward career, parenting, and family life. Perhaps I had a problem with it then because the article and the fact that it was written at all seemed to suggest that young educated women wanting to forego their careers for a stay-at-home life was somehow problematic, that they were throwing their talent and education away, that it was something to be rectified, that the path to stay-at-home parenting was one heading for disaster and must be diverted. I thought that if that was their choice, then it should be respected, not freaked out over by society.
“We laugh at the idea that running a home could fill us with pride. Or that we might undertake household tasks with a lightness and grace that ennobles our time on the earth. We may peer into a Vermeer painting of a woman scrubbing the doorstep, or turning the handle of a butter churn, but this is more in wonderment than admiration. In these intimate scenes there is a sense of quiet dignity, of calm and order, of things being as they should be despite a world of flux just beyond the canvas.” —Helen Hayward, “Homework”
I started working as a journalist a few months after I graduated from college. I lived at my family home the first four years of my professional life. I didn’t have to cook or clean because we had a maid. Then I moved to France to study French for a little over a year. For some reason, I never had a problem doing housework there. I had lots of free time. Every weekend I cleaned my apartment and did laundry. I cooked almost every meal and often came home for lunch before going back to my afternoon classes. I never enjoyed cleaning and doing laundry, but I was very disciplined and not very whiney about it.
When I moved into the studio apartment I’m living in now in Bangkok, I had a nine-to-five job as a writer and deputy editor at a magazine. I was also teaching and writing theatre reviews on the side. After months of trying to make time for cleaning, I decided to do what a few of my peers in Bangkok did: I hired a cleaning lady. Yes, I paid for someone to clean my shoebox apartment.
Her name was Nin. And for a while she changed my home life. Once a week I would come home, my head filled with work and stress of the day, to find a different home, a different state of mind almost. Organized and impeccably, and I mean impeccably, clean—the complete opposite of my inner and professional life. I once asked her whether she enjoyed cleaning, and she said she did. The reason? It was relaxing. I didn’t ask her out of pity or guilt. If anything, her professionalism and skills made me respect housework even more. I was genuinely curious because I knew a few people who had said they enjoyed cleaning, my mother included.
In the past couple of years, Nin has been struck with one personal tragedy after another, so she came less and less to my place. It became increasingly harder to contact her. I haven’t heard from her for months now. And of course I miss her. For one, I don’t miss having to clean. But more than that, we had a good rapport. Since I started freelancing early last year, I got to spend a few hours talking to Nin whenever she came in to clean—politics, family, the weather, you name it. I shared the food I cooked with her a couple times. We verbally exchanged a few recipes. She promised to teach me to make one of my favorite curries.
When your professional life feels like constant chaos, it’s difficult to forget someone who restores a sense of order and calm into your home.
“I’ve also observed how the choices we make and the things we do, alone at home, come increasingly to define us. And that the things we desire when we’re young aren’t necessarily the things that we end up liking as years pass, when what we can bear becomes as important as anything we might want.”—Helen Hayward, “Homework”
As I’m writing this, my apartment is a mess. Half of my dining table, which doubles as my desk, is eaten away by books, binders, paper, and stationery. Another half I use to work and eat. The surface of my couch is covered with magazines, books, my students’ works from past semesters, and bags. These two pieces of furniture, which has been in this state for months, are a reflection of my current state of mind.
Writing professionally, teaching writing, and writing this blog mean that my home life is tied even tighter to my work life. Sometimes, I am able to push those cluttered, messy furniture to the back of my mind to find inspirations and moments of mental rejuvenation. Sometimes, like work, they’re something whose stare I want to avoid or pretend not to notice.
When I started writing professionally, I didn’t think being a writer would come to define my sense of self and day-to-day life as much as it does today. Or rather being a writer 11 years ago meant something very different to me than it does today.
That’s the thing, when you work at home most of the time, when suddenly work does not have its own separate space, how do you make your home a refuge from work?
All right, once in a while, I manage to gather enough mental strength to organize my home. Twice, when I finally got myself out of terrible writing gigs that had haunted me for months, I feverishly threw away paper and magazines. I even found comfort in Marie Kondo’s famous book The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, which resulted in a much lighter and more smartly organized closet. For a while, order was restored, and I felt emotionally cleansed.
I also find the act of sweeping the floor and doing the dishes meditative and relaxing. I still hate to clean the bathroom and do the laundry, but they’re still part of my weekly or bi-weekly routine. But even then, I always feel the sense of accomplishment at the end of these chores; I love the feeling and the chemically sweet smell of cleanliness and of time well-spent.
“While I’m as much of a feminist as I ever was, these days I’m less of a chauvinist. My struggle with housekeeping has led me to admire it all the more because I know first-hand how challenging it is to keep a home and family afloat. Now, living in Hobart in southern-most Australia, I count housekeeping as an accomplishment and an act of love.” —Helen Hayward, “Homework”
Funnily enough these days whenever work feels daunting and unbearably boring, I fantasize about being a housewife—a homemaker, whatever you want to call it—living with my boyfriend (who’s currently in Germany). In my imagination, that home is quiet, calm, and clean; it’s also physically and emotionally spacious. I would know how to fix things and use tools like a pro (A toolbox is something I’ve coveted since I was a kid. I just love the aesthetic and orderliness of a beautifully designed and organized toolbox). I would have so much time to cook that I become good enough to entertain friends at home. I just love the idea of having the skills and living in a kind of physical and mental space that allows me to share food with the people I love.
Of course, this is me imagining a world where housework doesn’t feel like work. And I know first-hand that laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping, fixing things in the house, and cooking can take the whole day. The first time I realized I was exhausted from doing laundry, cooking, and cleaning up afterward was also the first time I fully appreciated what hard work running a home is. And I live alone. Imagine women (and men too) who are responsible for running a home with children.
“It takes courage to prize the possessions we have over acquisitions to come; to invest in today over tomorrow; to relish staying put over traveling widely; and to open ourselves to domestic longings which are more mysterious and soulful than are our ego’s demands for achievement. Above all, it takes courage to give precious time, once the housekeeping is done, to a creativity that offers so much.”—Helen Hayward, “Homework”
I know I’m still in the process of adjusting to this new freelance life, which I’ve been living for almost a year now. There are moments I’m energized by home improvement plans and ideas. Most days, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be than at home.
This is where many ideas are ignited and incubated and come to fruition. This is where I snuggle down to read books, where I cook, eat, exercise, and have intimate conversations with the closest people in my life. This is where I rest and find my solitude.
This is also where I dump my exhaustion, frustrations, anxieties, and deepest of resentments related to work and other aspects of life.
This is a place I’m thankful for and proud to be able to afford. It is a reflection of both my professional successes and limitations.
This is also a place I wish were bigger and differently decorated.
This is where most of my spending go and where I do the things that allow me to afford the life I have.
This is where I work.