To be of service to each other

Sometimes my wife and I look up at the sprider webs on the wall and wonder how they got so high. Or we gaze at the splotched kitchen floor and wonder why the tiles have lost their original look. At other times, we're starting at the carpet the woodwork, on the bathtub and speculating as to who will deal with those matters. The question we both ask is, "Who is going to take care of that mess?" And the answer, almost simultaneously, is, "What we both need is a wife."

Having an old-fashioned wife for a working couple that has little time for clearning is the heart of the matter. After a day's work in the outside world, we have little energy or inclination to tackle lint, wall stains, and dust balls that scud about the place. Though we arrange things, keep our possessions in an orderly fashion, the more challenging demands of housework remain essentially ignored. But not without remorse, of course.

Of course we can call in those men who operate a quick-clean operation in a matter of hours. Four hours -- presto! -- the dirt vanishes. This, though, seems like an invasion of privacy, massive inroads on our private domain.

So what's left? There's the route of hiring a housekeeper, to live in and oversee the whole house. That seems a neat way of dealing with the situation. "Wouldn't it be ideal," we often ask, "if we had someone to follow us about to tidy things, to prepare dinner, to clean up after, to generally set everything right?" Aside from the cost, a live-in helper, even if she were excellent, would mean another person in the house. However unobtrusive, she is there,m and that means behaviour modification, which certainly does not appeal to my shoes-off, shirt-out look most of the time.

The reality is that we have to deal with the shopping, the cleaning, and washing and ironing, the sweeping and mopping, the polishing, and the thousand-and-one other domestic chores, and we've tried to arrive at a sensible arrangement. It's a matter of divvying up the ugly "musts" so that neither of us feels overwhelmed. We make lists in order of priority: "They Uglies," "The Musts," "Teh Not-So-Terribles," "The Easies." If there are four "Uglies," we take two each; that way, we share equally in jobs anathema to us both. It's our modus operandi.

As a househusband, I do the shopping clean two rooms thoroughly on Saturday, polish silverware, climb the ladder for cathedral-high spider webs, and vacuum and polish the floor, while my wife opearates the ever-roaring machines, prepares meals, and irons clothes. Of course this demarcation is never rigid; it changes flexibly for one or the other, depending on the circumstances. The lines are spelled out for the benefit of getting to all the areas that need attention.

What is amazing in this arrangement is that traditional boundaries are overleapt. For example, I have no compunction about sewing a popped button, darning a sock, separating white wash from permanent press, even making social engagements. My wife, on the other hand, has learned to ferry cars to and from service stations, deal with repairmen, replace a washer in the sink, pick up a paintbrush when necessary. When you think about it, a working couple has little time to be sexist. The work, after all, has to get done, and one or the other had to tend to it.

One sure reward is a feeling of equality, respect for the other as a person, and partnership. I can't pull that "It's a wife's job to make the beds," while it would be awkward for her to insist, "That's a man's job to repair a leak in the ceiling." We are past that stage of compartmentalizing and carrying unrealistic expectations of what one should do for the other. When both a husband and wife work from 8 to 5, it's hard to know who has privileges.

Once, in the heat of a lazy Saturday, my wife looked at the house and sighed, "I wish my mother were here to help. She wouldn't hesitate."

"Mine wouldn't either," I added.

"I can't stand all the work that has to be done. I wish I had a wife to do it."

"So do I," I agreed.

We reviewed all the possibilities again -- cleaning woman, live-in maid, mother's helper, cleaning service -- and looked knowingly at each other.

"I guess you and I will have to do the wifely chores together," she commented.

"Why not husbandly services?" I suggested.

"Human services," she concluded.

And that's what we are both doing -- performing human services for each other. A working couple away from home each day has no choice but to learn how to accommodate each other out of love and a spirit of camaraderie that transcends old-fashioned notions.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.