Women – at least in the United States* – are socially engineered to belittle our houses as an extension of ourselves. That’s a thing I told someone today. The person I was emailing back and forth with is a guy and his fiancee felt that their house wasn’t “nice” enough to host a particular event. He asked for my thoughts, and so I gave him some brief thoughts and then I kept thinking.
I mentioned to him that I’ve hardly ever had a visit to a woman’s home that didn’t involve a “sorry about the mess” even when there actually is no mess or if maybe the house just looks like people live in it. Hilariously, a bit later I popped over to my amazing wonderful neighbor’s house and she said sorry about the mess, or something to that effect, and I let it slide although I usually don’t. So that got me to thinking about how I respond when someone apologizes to me for the mess that is their home. Usually it goes something like this:
Woman: Hi! Come in. Sorry the house is such a mess.
Me: Are you kidding? Your house looks fine/great/awesome, my house is a sty. I’m so jealous.
As I was driving home from the store, continuing to think about this ritual that we go through – me and many, many other women with each other – it occurred to me how wonderfully well this little ritual keeps us in our patriarchally preferred place.
Let’s put me in the place of hostess this time. Someone comes to my house. I begin the ritual by belittling my ability to maintain a clean home (and what worth can I have as a woman if I can’t even do that?). My nice well-meaning lady friend then tells me how wrong I am and in fact how clean my house is thereby letting me know that my observations and feelings are invalid and untrustworthy while reinforcing that validation must come from outside me. Obviously, I don’t think I actively value myself based on the cleanliness of my house and she doesn’t intend to undermine my ability to trust my own observations but there we both are. We’ve just completed the Ritual of Invalidation. Of course I’ll be sure to invalidate my friend when I go to her house. What kind of a friend would I be if I didn’t?
There are a number of other implications inside this ritual that we can unpack as well. How about you putting the entire burden of the state of your home on yourself. I mean, sure, if you live alone, but I certainly don’t. My mom didn’t. Her mom didn’t. Many of the women in my life through the years that I have listened to apologize for their houses didn’t live alone. There are often spouses and kids. What about them? Do they have no responsibility for maintaining their surroundings? Obviously they do, but when your friends come calling suddenly the pile of newspapers next to your husband’s chair is all your fault? (That’s totally not a personal example at all…)
And how about the actual value of the labor that you put into keeping your house to whatever level of cleanliness you prefer? The work that women do in the home is often devalued. When you devalue the work that you do in your home for zero dollars, imagine the effect this mindset has on the dollar value of the work that domestic workers do in other people’s homes.
How do we turn this around? Even enlightened feminists like me (she says with a little wink) still do it. It’s a reflex. You walk in my house, I apologize for it not living up to the standards that I seem to think that you have. This ritual is like your appendix. There’s no point to it except sometimes it almost bursts and then you nearly die. The good news is that you don’t need invasive surgery to get rid of this ritual.
Moving on though, I wouldn’t recommend quitting cold turkey. Maybe try practicing with some of your better friends. The next time one of your girlfriends comes over say hello and invite her in and then go about your business. Don’t tell her how long it’s been since you vacuumed the stairs. Honestly, she probably doesn’t care at all. Just see how it feels . Let it sink in.
Now, let’s say you’ve mentioned this to your friends and you’ve started a modest trend of people not demeaning their houses every time you walk in a door. There’s another step. When you go over to a friend’s house and that friend has decided not to apologize for their home – independently compliment something. Yes, external validation, I know but it never hurts to make someone feel nice and then your friend has gotten a compliment that they didn’t have to solicit by putting themselves down.
Let’s face it, ritual invalidation is pretty common among women. We are taught to put ourselves down all the time. Eventually all those on-the-surface insincere put-downs become extremely real. So maybe we can try to reverse course on this one. It doesn’t mean that we can’t value a good clean house. After all, houses don’t clean themselves. If you aren’t doing it yourself, you’re paying someone and either way the work is not easy even if you do like cleaning.
I’m not sure what the bottom line is except that this thing that we’ve been doing to ourselves over and over isn’t helping anyone except the patriarchy.
*And maybe not all the women in the United States, but certainly a sizable sector.