When my mother died I inherited some money from her life insurance policy. Most of it went directly toward retirement but there were two small extravagances I indulged in and about which my mother would’ve wholeheartedly approved: I bought my first couch after 25 years of sitting on a futon, and we hired once-a-month housecleaning help.
My mother kept an immaculate home. You could have eaten a meal off her garage floor. When she died, the state of her craft cupboards made me cry: Every shelf was neat, every box labeled, every item there was either significant or useful. My mother elevated home-making to an art and, perhaps unusual for a woman of her generation, for the most part she thrived in it.
So I grew up in a joyfully clean home. I took my mother’s sense of order and cleanliness for granted until I became an adult and realized that the time and energy she invested in her home was, for me, unsustainable. I inherited her joy in housework and her satisfaction in cleanliness, but I also inherited her values (creativity, community engagement, social action), which for me, especially now that I have an exuberantly creative kid, all too often take precedence over housework. Which means I live with messes. And dust bunnies. And disorderly closets.
Like my mother, I take pride in housework; an hour spent scrubbing the oven by hand I find deeply satisfying. I look back on my childless days, when I could give an afternoon to dusting and reorganizing my bookshelves, with longing. At the same time, whenever I’m confronted with a choice—clean or play with Gwyn? clean or write? clean or go to the school equity group?—there’s really no choice. The decision to pay someone to help was both a concession (I had to admit I couldn’t do it all) and an acceptance of our privilege: We can act on our values and have a clean house. Once a month.
The work of realizing privilege, accepting it, and acting from it is so complex! Because my clean house comes to me as a gift, I have a consequential strange sense of disempowerment. I can no longer claim the state of my home as my doing. I’m tempted to attach my pride to other things (parenting, work) to make up for the lack, but truth be told, every dimension of my life is gift—the fact that I have a daughter to parent, work I love, talents that matter, a roof over my head, a healthy body… My every breath is a gift, and accepting this feels like falling down a bottomless well of humility.
If even my agency is a gift passed along by my family genes and my upbringing and white privilege and happenstance, then any sense that that agency is mine is an illusion. Down that well, I imagine, we’re swept away in a mighty stream of gift-receiving and gift-giving. It’s dark there, but it’s also a lively and life-giving place to be. There’s not much to hang onto except, perhaps, each other. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew