Lydia Davis Is the Anti-Domesticity Influencer Pandemic Moms Need
Davis encourages us to embrace doing a mediocre job around the house
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I picked up Lydia Davis’s Almost No Memory again recently for the first time in years, and as I flipped through, one line shone out to me like a beacon. In “The Mice,” Davis writes, “our house is much less tidy than the houses of our neighbors. There is more food lying about in our kitchen, more crumbs on the counters, and more filthy scraps of onion kicked against the base of the cabinets.” If I even registered the onion on my first reading, I don’t remember it. But this time around, I’m 37, and because of the coronavirus pandemic, I’m home pretty much all the time, trying to juggle work and housework and childcare. And I know that when you’re a woman with a career and a family and maybe another career—a side hustle, a passion, an aspiration—on top of that, there are probably going to be some onion skins on the kitchen floor.
I turned to Davis’s Collected Stories in search of more and found domestic failures everywhere. When Davis discusses disorder in the home, she reports on it with a cool remove. Of her children, she writes in a story called “Selfish”: “they have clean clothes most of the time, a fresh haircut fairly often, though not all the supplies they need for school, or not when they need them.” From another story called “Our Kindness”: “Our house is not clean, not completely clean. Our family is not completely clean.” In “The Caterpillar,” Davis writes, “Now the trouble is the stairs are so dirty. I don’t clean them because no one ever sees them here in the dark.” In a story called “Her Damage,” which clocks in at a total of 535 words, Davis recounts, in a single matter-of-fact sentence, an episode that in another author’s hands might serve as an opportunity for self-flagellation: “The baby rolled off the side of their bed and fell onto the floor.” I’ve seen Facebook mom group posts longer than 535 words on far less risky baby situations.
It makes a lot of sense to me that Davis writes so much about the things that go wrong in her home. I suspect most women who work outside the home obsess over the messes, the school supplies that weren’t purchased on time, the little injuries that might not have happened had they been paying more attention. I know that finding the right balance between caring for a family and doing my own work obsesses me, too. Lydia Davis sums up the dilemma in a story called “Mrs. D and Her Maids,” in which a writer works through three drafts in an attempt to create an ad for a maid to help manage the domestic burden:
Writer couple with well-trained schoolgirl daughter and year-old baby
Writer couple who must have harmonious household with wife free for morning work
Woman writer who must be free of household problems every morning requires helper…
By now, we all know the basic facts of life for the modern American woman: Even though women make up more than half of the U.S. workforce, they still do more housework and childcare than men. Married American women who have children spend nearly twice as much time on housework as their male counterparts. In heterosexual couples where both partners work, finding and paying for domestic help like housekeepers and day cares is still often women’s domain. In one 2018 survey, “mothers were 40 percent more likely than fathers to report that they had personally felt the negative impact of child care issues on their careers.” Leaving the workforce for even a few years to care for a child can also have a big impact on a woman’s lifetime earnings–reducing it by as much as 20 percent. The pandemic has only exacerbated the issue. It is women who leave their careers to care for the children and manage online school, even in families where the woman is the breadwinner. More women have left the workforce than men in the pandemic. In September 2020, when virtual school came back in session for many, 865,000 women left the workforce, more than four times the number of men who left in that month. One mom famously shut down her business and laid off 13 employees because her husband (who was unemployed) couldn’t handle twelve-hour days of solo childcare. Their case was extreme, but the story went viral because women find themselves making similar choices all the time.
Why is it like this? In 2019, the New York Times reported on a trio of studies that illuminated how Americans think about domestic duties. When shown photos of a messy room in one study, participants judged it as more messy when they believed it was a woman’s room than when they believed it was a man’s. They also thought that this imaginary woman would be less comfortable having guests over and would be less positively viewed by those guests than a man. Women do more housework and childcare because society expects them to and because they’ve internalized those expectations. The messages that women get from society are transmitted in a variety of ways, but even when they’re subtle, women feel them acutely. Women know what we’re supposed to do: cook nourishing meals, make sure our family looks nice, create enriching activities for our children, have a beautiful clean home, and somehow, in addition to all that, have a career.
For me, at least, even before the pandemic I found it impossible to do all the things I thought I was supposed to. And I have to assume it’s the same for other women. We purge belongings with Marie Kondo, we make schedules with the Fly Lady, we watch an army of cleaning influencers clean toilets and countertops and organize toy closets. All of these people offer a false promise: that if you just follow the program, you’ll finally be able to get it all done. But none of it helps, because the problem isn’t in the method. The problem is in our minds.
When I sit down to work with laundry unfolded next to me and dust bunnies collected in the corners of my room, I tell myself that my creative projects are more important than a perfectly clean house and press on, but I still feel guilty. However, I notice that my daughter, nearly three, sees a smudge on the wall or a cobweb in the corner and has no reaction to it. To her, these things are just part of our house, like the front door or the living room rug. She doesn’t yet know to derive any meaning from them. Somewhere between three and 30, women learn to feel guilt. But we can unlearn, too, with enough practice and the proper influence.
Part of the trouble is that there are few places we can turn for an alternative model, one that’s perhaps dirtier and more equitable. Social media is little help. A few months ago there was a trend on TikTok where women showed off their messy houses (a response to all the pristine mansions showcased on the app). These so-called messy houses were a little cluttered, lived-in, played-in. But they weren’t dirty. They were relatable, cute, funny—not anything you’d be embarrassed about if a guest came over. Then there are the Instagram moms with their letterboard signs. One mom vacuuming a white rug in a perfectly clean house had a sign that read “Cleaning with kids in the house is like brushing your teeth with Oreos.” These accounts are supposed to help us feel less alone, but they don’t because they’re trying to have it two ways. They’re not truly messy. They don’t normalize the reality that most of us live in and feel bad about.
What’s missing from this landscape is someone to help us accept messiness and find a new way to think about and distribute the burden of housework. I’d like to offer up Lydia Davis as the patron saint of the messy mom. Davis’s stories show us what it really looks like when you’re struggling to be a writer with two children. And she provides a model in which the responsibility for maintaining that life, messy though it may be, is evenly distributed to all the adults involved.
Many of Davis’s stories use a first-person plural narrator—a “we” narrator—which has the effect of forcing shared responsibility of domestic duties on Davis’s characters. The narrator of “St. Maarten,” shares house-caretaking duties with another, unnamed person: “We” is the pronoun used throughout:
We hardly knew what a clean house should look like. We would begin to think we were quite tidy, and then we would see the dust and clutter of the rooms, and the two hearths covered with ash. Sometimes we argued about it, sometimes we cleaned it. The oil stove became badly blocked and we did nothing for days because the telephone was out of order. When we needed help, we went to see the former caretakers…The old man came by sometimes, and when he saw how the grass had grown so tall around the house, he scythed it without comment.
The failure to clean and take care of the house is just a fact. There’s no remorse expressed and no fretting. It’s a collective problem, just like the baby who fell off the bed. No word on who was watching the baby when he fell: their bed, their baby, their responsibility. Shit happens, the baby survived, let’s get back to work.
On a societal level, we tend to give men a pass when it comes to mess—as in that study where a man’s mess seemed less messy than a woman’s. But men are just as capable, and just as culpable. When Davis writes “we” it shifts that culpability to right where it should be: from her shoulders over to theirs. They both carry the yoke and therefore share the load. These problems belong to all of us that live in this house. If a mess doesn’t often distract from a man’s work it cannot be allowed to distract from a woman’s work.
James Wood once wrote about Lydia Davis, “You could say that selfishness, in every sense of the word, is Davis’s real theme: the overbearing presence of the self, the insistent internal volume of the self, the dunning inescapability of being who one is.” I’d argue that the focus on the self is what allows Davis to detach from her messy house and detach from the undue pressure women feel. We think the answer is to give up more of ourselves for our family and our children, but when we allow ourselves to be equally important and our work to be equally important—if not more important—than some of the household tasks, and even the work of our husbands, that’s when we’ll find true gender equality. And that’s when we’ll find the time to get our work done.
What Davis offers is validation that the work is worth it—that the work her female characters are doing is more important than the dust and the onion skins. That a woman’s work is valuable and necessary is never questioned, never called up for reconsideration. And that’s what we most need to be influenced by, for ourselves and our daughters. It doesn’t really matter if my daughter has chicken nuggets for dinner again. It doesn’t really matter if my baseboards are dusty and my bathtub has gray soap scum around the drain. But it will matter, and matter a lot eventually, if my work is not complete. It will matter to me and to my daughter. The example I set for her will guide the way she lives her own life, and perhaps influence the guilt over housework she does or does not carry when she is grown up. I want her to live comfortably with the idea that she can let some of it go, without remorse, in the service of something greater.