It's Time To Clean The Toilets, Kids

I wrote this piece in 2015 and I was not quite sure what to do with it.  This post discusses toilet cleaning as a feminist, political act and advocates our teaching our children to partner with us in house cleaning, especially toilet scrubbing.  What could this possibly have to do with revitalizing our city?  Then, I got to thinking about Jerry Powers who spends a weekend cleaning out invasive weeds in Coes Pond or all the dedicated people who join the Regional Environmental Council for annual Earth Day clean ups.  I was thinking about my friend who carries a garbage bag and wears heavy rubber gloves to pick up trash on her daily neighborhood walks.  Going beyond the literal meaning of “cleaning”, I began to think of all the Worcester citizens who take the time to join boards or sit on city advisory committees or volunteer to be docents for Preservation Worcester or to run the café at the library.  They too are taking responsibility for “cleaning up”. In this way, I see even more the importance of cleaning at home as the foundational building block to encouraging our cleaning out in the street, the neighborhood, the city and beyond.  So, yes, I’ve now decided to share this mini-essay.  It’s relevant.

 I’m going to start by admitting my strange habit:  I check out the condition of toilets when I go to someone’s house.  One can tell a lot about a person by the condition of his or her plumbing. When I first went to what-would- be-my future husband’s apartment, I noted right away that his toilet was sparkling and that the brush stood in waiting nearby.  I left the bathroom with a dazed smile on my face.  Here was a man who took responsibility for cleaning up after himself.  Here was a man I could love!  In those dating years (and we have been going strong for over 20 years!), my man would turn to me and tell me that if this was ever going to work out between us, I had to know that he liked the toilet paper rolling over not under and that’s how it had to be.  So, I guess I just fell in love with him right then and there. Toilet bowl cleaning has emerged as a strong symbol of that household work most maligned and disdained as beneath so many people.  I even know people who have never, ever picked up a toilet brush and have no idea how to scour a toilet.  When I asked my cousin if she taught her daughters, she laughed, “Are you kidding?  I don’t even know how to do that!”  Ultimately, I believe that each person, if physically able, should be responsible for cleaning up his or her own figurative and literal “shit.” 

The tasks of home and hearth experienced a decline in recognition and status as our economy, primarily agrarian shifted to factory based wage labor during the industrial revolution in the 19th century.  Children were going off to school.  Men were earning wages in the industrial labor market. Women were left at home to do it all – cooking, cleaning and childcare.  Of course, women’s labor on the home front was not paid since it was after all, a “labor of love” for family.  Even early feminist suffragettes devalued unpaid housework, advising that women could only experience equality and freedom if they shifted into the wage labor sphere.  In 1909, Charlotte Perkins Gilman debated Ann Shaw, taking the strongly held position that American women at home were “unproductive parasites”(Crittendon, 61).  In her book, Women and Economics, Gilman stated that “there is no equality in class between those who do their share in the world’s work in the largest, newest, highest ways and those who do theirs in the smallest oldest, lowest ways.”  The only way for recognition and value was for women to escape the lowly tasks in the home.  Gilman’s vision was that families should live communally and hire out to provide meals, cleaning, childcare and laundry services. In other words, she was advocating for an early form of outsourcing unpaid household labor.

We tend to judge work in a dualistic fashion.  Some tasks (writing a book, running a board meeting, arguing a case in front of the Supreme Court) are seen as important or worthwhile.  Other tasks (cleaning a toilet, wiping down the table after a meal, picking up a child who has fallen down) are seen as peripheral and menial.  Even our Gross National Product developed in the 1930s, does not reflect the labor of the home.  Only the goods and services bought and sold for currency actually “count” in the GNP.  Our current capitalist economy completely erases the invisible labor in the home, the activities which have traditionally been delegated to housewives.   It is not that the household tasks such as child rearing or household cleaning are any less important or even skill based than other work tasks.  The expectation that this labor would be freely given traditionally by housewives has enabled it to be devalued so much that those who take on those duties for pay (daycare workers, house cleaners, elder care workers, for example) are at the lowest rungs of the status and pay pole. According to the 2015 United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, childcare workers make on average,$9.77 an hour, earning $20,320 a year.  Maids and full time house cleaners fare just as well averaging $22,990 a year.  As my grandmother would say, “why should you buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” She was talking about sex of course, but she could have been referring to toilet cleaning or baby raising too!

In his ashram in India, Mahatma Gandhi insisted that everyone including his wife take on the rotating tasks of cleaning the latrines.   Since there were no flush toilets, this task would involve regular emptying of chamber pots into cesspools and then scrubbing the pots.  Once, a young man from a wealthy family joined the ashram to assist the noble cause of nation building in India.  When Gandhi assigned him the task of cleaning latrines, he returned again and again to request more important jobs to solve the social problems of India.  Over and over again, Gandhi had him return to the work of latrine cleaning in order to teach the young man the lesson of humility, ridding the ego and the utmost value of work others have deemed “menial”.  He was equating the shit work of latrines to the same status and prestige as eradicating illiteracy, organizing a protest, running a country. 

Gandhi chose to call those at the bottom of the Hindu caste system whose main occupations included latrine cleaning, harijans or “children of God” instead of the name, “untouchables”. Do we honor those who perform the jobs society deems as most menial? Am I the only one who feels uncomfortable walking into a public restroom in a hotel, restaurant, airport or train station to encounter a woman, usually a middle age woman of color busy cleaning up?  I notice other patrons ignoring the woman and rendering invisible the labor which reminds us of our class and race privilege.  I like to offer my verbal thanks and direct eye contact to the woman, “Your work has made coming to this bathroom so much more pleasant”, I tell her, “Thank you.”  “She works hard for the money,” Donna Summer used to sing.

If a civil society want to prosper and advance, it will only happen when the contribution of every citizen is acknowledged and honored and when every citizen in turn recognizes and performs with honor and a sense of duty even the most menial and insignificant looking tasks.
— Tushar Gandhi

I like to think I am a good role model for my children.  Whether I am writing a dissertation or preparing a lecture or scrubbing the toilets or chopping the carrots or wiping my child’s nose, I am present in that moment.  There is nothing more important than the job I am doing right then even if the latter tasks are often devalued in our society.  We simply need to reframe the doing of chores as the foundation of all else.  This radical revaluing of currently devalued unpaid household labor starts with evaluating how we even talk about unpaid work and the spirit in which we approach this work – the work of rearing children, cleaning, mowing the lawn, preparing meals, food shopping.  The base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs focuses on the fulfillment of physiological needs – sleep, food, water, shelter, air to breathe.  Superimposing Maslow’s hierarchy onto the macro economy, one can see how these unpaid tasks provide the foundational grease and base for all that happens in the larger economy.  Stop taking care of kids when they are sick, fail to bring home the food and cook it, never clean another dish and one will see how quickly the other paid work is no longer able to be accomplished.  The economy gets a “free ride” on all the unpaid labor happening on the home front.  Ultimately, the gains of highly educated, middle class woman in to professional careers (law, medicine, academia, government) since the 1970s post second wave feminist movement have been won on the backs of the invisible labor of poorer women who fill in the gaps on the home front.  I’m sure Sheryl Sandberg who urged women to “lean-in” is not going home to clean the toilets! 

Feminists have advocated for years that the answer to women’s inequality is for women to have equal access to work out in the world and to cut through the glass ceiling keeping women out of leadership in so many professions.  I’m talking about cleaning toilets.  I can see my being accused of sending women from the boardroom backwards into the bathroom at home.  What kind of feminist do I think I am?  Working women have the almost impossible task of succeeding out in the world of work and also keeping full responsibility of the home tasks.    Women may be able to have more equal, though not full access in the world of outside work.  Even if there has been progress with women entering professions of law, academia, medicine and government, women still make 70 cents to a dollar earned by a man and often encounter the glass ceiling or even more likely a “maternal wall” in rising to leadership positions.

There has not been a similar revolution within the home, still considered to be the responsibility primarily of the woman even if she too works full time.  Add in the additional hours of childcare for working mothers and it is not surprising that so may well educated, professional career mothers have decided to join Lisa Belkin’s “opt out” phenomenon to gain some sort of balance and sanity.  Arlie Russell Hochschild details the stress of women having to have a second unpaid job at home, what she refers to as “the second shift”.  According to the American Time Use Survey, women are working more unpaid hours in the home compared to men.  Indeed only 19% of men in heterosexual households did any kind of household cleaning.   Is the answer to the stress of a “second shift” really to hire low income, possibly undocumented women to pick up the slack at home?

I know families justify the hiring of home help with the answer that they are doing well by providing jobs, but what kind of jobs are these home jobs commonly with minimal non living wages, no job security, no health insurance, no vacation and no retirement benefits?  What kind of messages do we send our kids when we outsource this toilet work because “we have more important things to do!”?  Why should someone else do our dirty work?  I’m just asking the questions here.  If we want to see any future change in everyone (male and female) taking responsibility for the second shift, we need to start looking at how we approach these tasks in an everyday way and teach our children.  Our children are watching and learning from us.  

Here is my radical proposal:  Every parent should teach his or her child to clean especially the bathrooms.  To bring about a revolution in the home with more equalized participation of men and women in the important work of unpaid home work, then we must begin with the micro interactions of how we socialize our daughters and especially our sons.  If we want adult men to participate more equally and responsibly in the household, then we must prioritize teaching our sons who should be the first to scour and scrub.  In order to restore the dignity of this work, we parents must enable our kids to value of it all – the diaper changing, the toilet scrubbing, the laundry, the cooking.  These tasks are dignified and important.  As we undertake this sacred everyday work, we teach our children humility and responsibility for the environment where they live. No maid (whether it is mom or someone paid for little more than minimum wage) should have to pick up your socks, wipe your spills off the floor, wash out the sink where you just spat. As we sit on our knees, scrubbing with our children, we teach the importance of equality and justice, and can engage in frank discussions about living wages, global labor, sweatshops, fair work for a fair pay.  We can tell our children the stories about organizing domestic workers (95% women and 46% immigrants, possibly undocumented) in this country to advocate for fair labor and wages in a field that is often invisible and unregulated. The National Domestic Worker Alliance has made strides in passing bill of human rights for domestic workers in a handful of states including Massachusetts.  As we scrub with our children, we tell them about what is just and fair.

My grandmother taught me everything she knew about cleaning and cooking.  Almost every weekend, she came over to our house to babysit, put a load of laundry in and scrub our red, linoleum kitchen floor.  She’d take a bucket of soapy water and a scrub brush and get down on her hands and knees.  She told me that the mops could never get the floors as clean as her live elbow grease on the floor.  She taught me the importance and the honor of cleaning up after myself.  Some working parents might push back to claim it is just easier to pay someone and outsource these household tasks.  Who has time to clean on top of everything else?  And how do we fit in schlepping our kids to soccer games or dance lessons or whatever extra-curricular activities are on our agenda?  Maybe it is time to ditch one of these extra-curricular activities or even shut off the computer for a spell.  It’s amazing how much time is taken up by mindless internet surfing and social media use.  My family of four can do a good, basic cleaning (vacuuming, dusting, bathrooms) of our 2000 square foot home each week in not more than an hour.

I’m arguing that teaching our kids to join us in house cleaning provides some of the most important life lessons they could ever learn – that cleaning tasks are crucial and honorable.  By doing these household tasks, they internalize deep humility, responsibility, egalitarianism, fairness and the value of hard, physically based work. Instead of shuttling them to another planned activity that they feel entitled to enjoy, we take this time to drink in these lessons.  And here is another important lesson my children master:  After we eat another meal, we have to sweep under the table again.  The dishes that are so clean will become caked again with food and that toilet, next week it will have to be scrubbed yet again.  The lesson is: we always will have to clean up.  Things get dirty again and that’s just how life is.  Cleaning (and our responsibility for cleaning) will never end.  I can’t think of any more important life lessons in that one hour we take as a family (ALL OF US!!), vacuuming, dusting, tidying and scrubbing toilets. 

I want to design a bumper sticker that sports an image of Gandhi carrying his ashram’s chamber pots and that proudly declares, “I clean my own toilet.”

I want to design a bumper sticker that sports an image of Gandhi carrying his ashram’s chamber pots and that proudly declares, “I clean my own toilet.”

 My daughter learned the phrases for performing household chores in her Spanish class this year.  Senora did not believe her when she declared in Spanish that yes, she cleaned “el bano” in her house.  No one else in the class admitted that they scoured their household’s toilets.  “How did that make you feel?” I asked her.  She looked at me squarely, declaring that she was proud that she did these tasks and surprised that she felt a form of satisfaction after the bathroom was clean.  The work was not as disgusting as she thought it would be. I think my daughter does an amazing job cleaning up inside our house and someday, I believe that this child will go out and take some responsibility for cleaning up the world in some fashion.

Suggested Readings:

Belkin, Lisa. "The Opt-Out Revolution." New York Times Magazine. October 26, 2003. Web. 5 May 2014.

Crittendon, Ann. The Price of Motherhood: Why The Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2001. Print.

Ehrenreich, Barbara and Arlie Russell Hochschild, eds. Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy. New York: Henry Holt, 2002. Print.

Hochschild, Arlie. The Second Shift: Working Families and the Revolution at Home. New York: Penguin Books, 1989. Print.

Moe, Karine and Dianna Shandy. Glass Ceilings and 100 Hour Couples. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press 2010. Print.

O'Brien Hallstein, Lynn and Andrea O'Reilly, eds. Academic Motherhood in a Post-Second Wave Context. Canada: Demeter Press, 2012. Print.

Sandberg, Sheryl. Lean In: Women, Work and the Will To Lead. New York: Random House, 2013. Print.

Slaughter, Ann-Marie. "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." The Atlantic (July/August 2012). Web.

Slaughter, Ann-Marie. Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family. New York: Random House, 2015. Print.