When we visited my sister and her family for the first time in 10 years, our children were full of questions: How old was Erica? Did the Larsens have a ping-pong table? Were they Red Sox fans? Could we ride their horse?
But one question, asked after we got there, bothered me. Catching me alone in the kitchen, my youngest son asked, ''Does Aunt Brenda work?''
The question was annoying because the answer should have been obvious. Brenda and Charlie live in the country with 3 kids ages 4 to 13, 2 horses, 2 dogs, a sow and 10 pigs, 2 cats, and a parakeet. They have no help with their house.
Charlie did stay home to help the sow deliver her litter, and the kids are supposed to work. But while we were there, Brenda was always up before us, getting breakfast or running the vacuum.
So how could Nate, who has advanced through the sixth grade, have asked, ''Does Aunt Brenda work?'' He could ask because ''working'' means the same thing to him that it means to the publishers of Working Mother and Working Woman. How many mothers or, for that matter, how many women don't work? Outside the world of Jane Austen, not many. Yet Working Woman is not aimed at all women who work; it is aimed at those who are paid for their work. What Nate really wanted to know was whether Aunt Brenda had a paying job.
The verb ''to work'' has long meant both ''to do something involving effort (of body or mind),'' and ''to pursue a regular occupation to gain one's livelihood.'' But the quotation used in the Oxford English Dictionary with the first meaning suggests that neither definition has been associated with women: ''For men must work, and women must weep'' (Kingsley).
Work was something men did, usually to make money. And whatever it was that women did had a different name - woman's work, as in the maxim ''Woman's work is never done.''
It was not until women took jobs outside the home, jobs previously held only by men, that some women were said ''to work.'' ''Working women'' were those with jobs outside the home, and women without such jobs were ''not working.''
So what? Is the only thing to be learned here that Nate and the publishers of Working Woman understand the word ''work'' better than I? Is annoyance at the question ''Does Aunt Brenda work?'' on a par with worrying about whether the head of a committee should be called ''the chairman'' or ''the chairperson''? I don't think so. The fact that women who work at home are thought of as not working affects our perception of the jobs necessary to run a home and the demands we make on the people who do these jobs.
Housework has a bad name. Nobody puts on a job resume ''experience with a broad range of housework.'' Housework is the target of stand-up comics. Says Joan Rivers: ''You know what I hate about housework? You get the beds made, and six weeks later it's to do all over again.''
But housework's bad reputation doesn't come just from the nature of the job. Sure, making beds is repetitive, but so is making change at a toll booth. Vacuuming and dusting don't present much challenge, but neither does shampooing hair or writing parking tickets. Housework's bad name doesn't come so much from the nature of the job as from the fact that the people who do this job are not paid and, even worse, are thought of as not working.
As a result, women who work at home are continually imposed upon. They are expected to accompany their children's classes on every field trip because, after all, they aren't working. They are asked to collect money for every fund. They are called upon for odd-hour car-pool shifts, the volunteer jobs at the church, and the presidency of the PTA because, after all, they have plenty of time.
All work takes time. It takes time regardless of what the pay or what the job is called. But the fact that we don't call housework ''work'' makes us act as if it took no time. In short, it makes us rude.
''Does Aunt Brenda work?'' is an annoying question because it's rude. And kids are not the only ones who ask rude questions. Women are asked, ''Are you working?'' by people who would be embarrassed to ask, ''Are you making money?'' They must be taught that ''Are you working?'' is an equally improper question. A more appropriate question might be ''What are you doing these days?'' or ''Where are you working?'' (Many people besides homemakers work at home, including writers, artists, and computer programmers.) But until people ask the right questions, the right answer for most of us to ''Are you working?'' is an emphatic ''Yes.''