It all began when my 4-year-old daughter, Lili, told me she wanted to be like her dad- “a scientist who helps keep people safe.” Having quit my full-time job as an editor to be home with her, I wondered how she'd describe me. I still write, but only for a few hours each week and mostly while she sleeps. So I asked her, “And in which ways would you like to be like me?” I waited, watching her little tongue work the outside of her mouth as she thought hard for an answer. “I wish I could clean the floor like you do.”CRASH. My ego lay in pieces at my feet. And the floor wasn't even clean.
What she'd said upset me for two reasons. First, no one with 20/20 vision could call my cleaning skills good. Second, I had never considered myself a homemaker, a domestic engineer, or whatever words you want to use to describe a person who stays home while his or her partner brings in the money. Had I deluded myself?
I swallowed my pride and turned things to my advantage. “Let me show you how to clean the floor,” I told her. The rug got mopped along with the hardwood, but all things considered, she did a good job. Still, my heart sank. Was I bringing up my daughter to believe that cleaning was something to aspire to?
I decided to shift some chores to my husband so I'd have time to show our daughter that Mom's good at other Very Important Things.
Over the following days, I nagged, my husband tried, and Lili quietly observed. When she asked, “Mommy, why are you angry with Daddy?” I realized my plan wasn't working. I sat down with my husband and told him I was unhappy doing so much of the cleaning. “I want to be known for being a successful, creative woman, someone our daughter can look up to,” I said.
My husband nodded but looked confused. “I thought you loved being home with Lili?” Quitting my job was my choice—one I was lucky to have. We talked some more and I came to a realization. I had always identified myself as a woman and a journalist. My daughter had identified me as a mom and a housekeeper. I knew she valued other things I did—the creative stuff, snuggly moments, and playful learning. But I clearly undervalued what I, and many other women (and some men!), do every day. To me, “cleaning” was a dirty word.
While housework may not seem as valuable as the “big stuff,” it is. Not just because it creates order but because it teaches independence and responsibility. If Lili spills her drink, she doesn't just sit there. She mops it up. Seeing that still doesn't give me the same sense of pride as watching her try to write her own name, but maybe it should.
When you conjure up a child's milestones, you think of things like walking, potty training, and the first day of school. I don't remember the first time Lili tidied up after herself. Yet unlike writing her name, it shows that she's grown up enough to accept responsibility for her own actions. That's pretty “big stuff,” if you ask me.