HomeLuxury clothes → We have never talked so much about our washing machines: how the pandemic brought to light the wear and tear of domestic work

We have never talked so much about our washing machines: how the pandemic brought to light the wear and tear of domestic work

«The best crimes for my novels have occurred to me washing dishes. Doing the dishes turns anyone into a high-class homicidal maniac." Christie Agatha

This same week, Candela Peña, gave this headline in her interview in El País: "I have enough to know that I have taken the salmon out of the freezer this morning to be aware of interviews." The Iron actress is always a great and generous interviewee, someone who doesn't mind speaking spontaneously beyond the argument of the promo she is doing. But there is something else in that sentence that journalist Tom C. Avendaño chose as the headline, something that connects with what has been happening for a year: suddenly, everyone is talking about their household chores. Of what he takes out and puts in the fridge, of what he washes, of what he irons, of what he tends. In networks, in interviews, in work zooms, in literary articles, in tweets, in novels. On Tik Tok, where a few months ago there was a viral craze for “laundry stripping”, which is nothing more than soaking dirty clothes in the bathtub before washing them, and where the figure of the cleaning influencer has been professionalized . It is as if the border between public and private space had been erased even more, as living rooms and bedrooms had been converted into meeting rooms open to all the classmates of the company or the children's class, that such a poorly kept secret, all the work that goes into keeping a house running.

A few days ago, The New York Times published an interactive report with a very simple premise that has generated an impact that is perhaps not so surprising: “The primal cry. Three American mothers in the abyss”. The newspaper followed the daily life of three women from different areas of the country and different socioeconomic coordinates for eleven months. Both the text and the photos (for which there are already those who have asked for prizes such as the Pulitzer or the World Press Photo, who never tend to pay attention to what happens in ordinary houses, without war involved, behind closed doors) are full of of laundry baskets, of unpicked breakfasts, of toys to order. The photo of a woman burying her face in hot clothes coming out of the dryer is captioned: “Mercedes takes a break while she does the laundry. She was her fourth washer of the day.”

In addition to the structural problems that the article addresses, and that have to do with the price that women are paying disproportionately in a country with little labor coverage, many of those who read it thanked on a more superficial level that in the photos it was done so visible all that work. That those houses look a bit like ours, governed by a very real chaos that is not the artistic and creative disorder of the rooms that appear in the magazine Apartment, but the structural gibberish of a life that is only half working.

At the beginning of the pandemic, there was talk of how confinement was making childcare invisible. Like many people, especially women, accustomed to never mentioning their children in a work context, they had begun to do so more than anything because they had no other choice. The children were there, on the screen, spilling apple juice or smashing their heads against the radiator, and it was hard to hide them. “Parents feel the need to hide or minimize the evidence that they have children in the office,” wrote economist Emily Oster in an article written months before Covid in The Atlantic titled End the plague of secret parenting. "Women told me that they hid their pregnancies until the third trimester by wearing loose clothing," the author explained. Once they had children, some told me they just never talked about them. If they had to deal with an issue related to the children, they would lie about why they had to leave the office. One woman told me that she worked in a team of men, all of whom were fathers. Pregnant with her first child, she noticed that men never talked about her children and assumed that she shouldn't either. The general feeling is that everyone should adopt the gentle fiction that after a few months off, the child disappears into a void from which she emerges only during non-working hours”. We all know that kind of blew up as soon as schools closed, and something analogous has happened with homework. No one is going to cut short a remote meeting alluding to having a lot of iron, but it is not necessary either: your mountain of clothes can be there, in full view of everyone. On the other hand, telecommuting and his flexible hours (which generate their own problems. He had never worked so much and at such strange hours) has also blurred the barrier between work-work and domestic work. We know that many people are tending washing machines between homework because they are also telling about it on Twitter.

In the first months of the pandemic, when we still did not know about aerosols and it was believed that it was vital to disinfect all surfaces, the networks were filled with jokes about Sanytol, the WhatsApp groups with recommendations for cleaning tricks. Something began to transpire: I was cleaning people who had never cleaned before.

Spain is the second country with the most domestic workers, only after Italy. The difference with the countries of the North is abysmal. In fact, Spain employs 28% of domestic workers in all of Europe. And he misuses them, by the way. 30% of domestic workers are paid in black. Many of them stopped going to the houses they clean and that unloaded the tasks on people usually unaccustomed to mocho.

Brigid Shculte, a former Washington Post journalist who runs the Better Life Lab, a think tank that explores issues of gender and reconciliation, often speaks of the "laundry basket effect." In an interview on the US public radio program Fresh Air, she explained that since the start of the pandemic a “grotesque inequality” had been evident in the gender division in the homes of heterosexual couples. “I spoke to a man who said they used to walk past a laundry basket and not even see it. Then the clothes magically appeared folded in his drawer. Now that his wife and he are working and trying to raise three children, he can no longer pass by because he knows that she is the one who will take care of it. For many couples it has been impossible to continue on autopilot.” Shulte proposes dividing the tasks and doing “behavioral experiments” in which the usual tasks are exchanged for a week. That and involving the children, if there are any. “When they feel like they are part of the team, they build resilience.” And by the way, the socks are folded.

For obvious reasons, the literature on housework is limited. Hardly the person who writes is at the same time the person who cleans. The name of Lucia Berlin always comes to mind, who among her many occupations also had that of a domestic worker for a while and drew from there the story that gives the title to the book that gave her posthumous fame, Manual for cleaning ladies. Another author with a niche in that small niche is Linda Thomas, a South African who founded an ecological cleaning company in Switzerland in the 1980s "to be able to pay for her children's Waldorf school," as she often explains. She also cleaned for many years the Goetheanum, the building in Dornach, Switzerland, designed by Rudolf Steiner that is considered a secular temple of anthroposophy. Thomas, who gives seminars on housework and its meaning, is the author of a text entitled Chaos in Everyday Life. About cleaning and caring in which she advocates cleaning "fully conscientiously" and without considering it a burden, but quite the opposite, an act of care. Thomas is very precise: “At the Goetheanum she used to replace the person responsible for cleaning the toilets. She started at six in the morning cleaning 64 toilets each day, often singing to make the task easier. I have my own method. There is daily cleaning and deep cleaning once or twice a week. For that, the toilet is cleaned from top to bottom and requires more time. Since bending down, cleaning, getting up and bending over again made me dizzy, I decided to clean the toilets by kneeling. Once you kneel in front of a toilet, something changes. It is quite subtle: there is a change in attitude, the way you perceive it, the way you do the work, the meeting with the elemental beings. Once the work is done, I have to get up again. I tried to turn this into a conscious exercise in standing up straight. The experience was so enriching and, even now, given the choice I'd rather clean 20 toilets than vacuum the carpet. I also like this task because I find it a special treat when I get to use a bathroom that has just been deep cleaned.” Even having reached that level of enlightenment, Thomas recognizes the Sisyphus-like component of housework, its constant repetition. “Often it is not the work we have done that tires us. It's thinking about everything we still have to do that really wears us down,” she admits.

New cleanfluencers like Sophie Hinchcliffe, who sold 90,000 copies of her house cleaning book in the UK the week it was released, are also addressing these issues, albeit with more filters, pragmatism and #sponcon.

Tags: Coronavirus|Feminism|Children|cleaning|Maternity|Children|telecommuting