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Living the Homesteader Dream?

January 31, 2012


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Some of our friends like to joke that Mr. B and I were born in the wrong century or are trying to be modern-day pioneers. While I generally agree, one of the topics that I am often personally uncomfortable with is division of labor. It hasn’t been much on my mind recently, but the heated debate in the comments section of this post made me think about it again in the context of our specific life. Please note: I am not looking for comments about my relationship with Mr. B, but just interested in discussing the division of labor when the skill set is so dramatically different between two people. As I’ve stated before, I am not really comfortable talking about our personal life on this blog. Maybe it is out of fear of the harsh negative comments you often see on blogs, or maybe just out of a wish to be private even when sharing our life with people we don’t really know.

It seems like many people are interested in dividing things in their relationship in such a way as to be literally equal, especially people my age. We don’t want to have “women’s” roles and we don’t want one person to shoulder the financial burden. Of course, this varies if one person does make more money or does spend more time in the house, but actual equal time and input is the goal. I think that this goal is a great one, and one that makes a lot of couples happy, but for Mr. B and I it has been impossible for most of our relationship.

I am a graduate student who has a long history of interest in cooking, gardening, sewing, home decor (even though it sounds ridiculous to say). Mr. B is a mechanic with a long history of interest in building, fixing, doing, learning the applied things in life. Obviously we are much more than this short list of interests, but over time the tasks we take on in our lives have come to increasingly reflect those interests. I’ve gotten better at making menus that follow a budget and getting food on the table before 9 pm; Mr. B’s skills as a carpenter/electrician/construction-ist have become highly accomplished. I read somewhere that people in a relationship (of any sort) quickly begin to unconsciously partition tasks; person A might start out only marginally more interested in/better at task A, but over time becomes the one person B turns to for that knowledge, and in turn person A begins to invest more time thinking about/doing task A. I’m not dismissing gender roles here, but it is easy to see how that initial difference in our interests and temperaments has lead us to two almost non-overlapping skill sets.

I think that the key to our current acceptance of “our” jobs is a recognition that what the other person is doing is valuable, takes real time, and is often not what they would choose to do if left to their own devices. We both make an effort to help the other person out as much as possible, and to give them recognition for their hard work (Mr. B is way better at this than me). I will never be able to do as much work on the house as Mr. B due to knowledge/strength/lack of tools, but I work on the house with him on the weekend and sometimes after work at night. If we want the house to ever get finished (or even before when Mr. B was building us book cases or putting up gutters), then I am going to have to make dinner, but Mr. B will offer to buy or make dinner occasionally. We try to split the jobs that neither of us enjoys, like dishes or cleaning. Mr. B usually calls people we need information from, while I prefer to do emails and excel spreadsheets. For us, there will probably never be a literal equal, but I think we are getting closer to a place where our skills make the other person’s life easier, and we both recognize that we couldn’t have our life without the other person’s labor.

To end an already wordy blog post, a long quote from Wendell Berry’s essay “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine”. FYI: Mr. B and I watch a lot of TV and go out a fair bit, so take this with a grain of salt:

Marriage, in what is evidently its most popular version, is now on the one hand an intimate “relationship” involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided. During their understandably temporary association, the “married” couple will typically consume a large quantity of merchandise and a large portion of each other.

The modern household is the place where the consumptive couple do their consuming. Nothing productive is done there. Such work as is done there is done at the expense of the resident couple or family, and to the profit of suppliers of energy and household technology. For entertainment, the inmates consume television or purchase other consumable diversion elsewhere.

There are, however, still some married couples who understand themselves as belonging to their marriage, to each other, and to their children. What they have they have in common, and so, to them, helping each other does not seem merely to damage their ability to compete against each other. To them, “mine” is not so powerful or necessary a pronoun as “ours.”

This sort of marriage usually has at its heart a household that is to some extent productive. The couple, that is, makes around itself a household economy that involves the work of both wife and husband, that gives them a measure of economic independence and self-employment, a measure of freedom, as well as a common ground and a common satisfaction. Such a household economy may employ the disciplines and skills of housewifery, of carpentry and other trades of building and maintenance, of gardening and other branches of subsistence agriculture, and even of woodlot management and wood-cutting. It may also involve a “cottage industry” of some kind, such as a small literary enterprise.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 31, 2012 1:09 pm

    How true this is 🙂 It’s still a fight to split the dishes (only to get worse with children in the future), but why do I enjoy cleaning the bathroom (could never give that one up)? Putting away one’s own clothes is a must, but I so enjoy folding the laundry. I’m interested to see how it will look in 40 years 😉

  2. January 31, 2012 1:15 pm

    I love cleaning the bathroom! I don’t know why, but it is so satisfying. I am horrible at putting away clothes and folding laundry though 🙂

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