Bringing socialism to the cleaning closet

Posted March 7, 2008

A lot of my friends have recently had or are about to have babies. It’s been something of a learning experience for me, in some very practical ways.

For example, I learned all about competing sleep theories from a friend with a bedtime-adverse 20-month-old. She and her husband spent considerable time developing a method that is a middle ground between letting the child cry indefinitely and rocking him to sleep every time he wakes up (which is every 2 hours). Other things I learned are that new cribs cost about $600, and that babies actually don’t get woken up by noise at all. So, contrary to popular convention, it doesn’t make you a bad parent to blast P Diddy while your newborn is sleeping.

This is another thing I learned: It starts before birth. If the price of baby furniture isn’t enough to make you crazy, the books that tell you that you absolutely must have a co-sleeper, bassinet and a crib are. I spent last weekend with someone who was battling the urge to buy a used fancy crib on Craig’s list. As a smart revolutionary, she knew that her desire was socially manufactured. She kicked herself for wanting it! But she still really wanted it! When I left that night she thanked me for helping her make the difficult but correct decision to not buy it. We hugged warmly and I knew I’d performed a great mitzvah. The next day she emailed me to tell me that she bought it.

For me this underscores a single point: people with babies really need socialist collectivity. Scratch that – anyone who takes care of other people, especially other people who need to be fed and can’t use the bathroom on their own – needs socialism. As the sister of a profoundly retarded person, I always considered my family completely unique. I still think we are (I don’t know anyone else whose 27 year old sibling needs their diapers changed) but I understand more than ever why even relatively privileged parents with healthy babies look bedraggled 90% of the time, let alone parents with tens of thousands of dollars of medical bills and brain damaged adult children.

So I recently I began to wonder more and more what good socialist models of home life would look like. When Solidarity’s Feminist Commission planned the feminist retreat, we addressed this question in some basic ways. Below are some things we came up with, none of them particularly new. It did feel new to me, however, as someone who grew up after the major wave of alternative living experiments in the 1960s and 70s. Here they are:

1. Collective commitment to childcare: we aimed to provide childcare throughout the entire retreat. The cost was built into everyone’s fee, which was imposed on a sliding scale. We attempted to provide good wages and transportation for the childcare workers, and children hung around the adults during the ample meal and free times. Many of the adult attendees took responsibility for taking care of and playing with the kids without being asked.

2. Collective cooking: We planned the meals in advance, packed a minivan with $750 of groceries, and successfully cooked 5 tasty nutritious meals for about 70 people. I was shamed by the fact that I had advocated for a weekend of pizza and cereal. People seemed to enjoy cooking (it was a great break from the heavier workshop conversations), the kitchen smelled nice, and there were always volunteers to help clean up. And here’s the thing: most people genuinely wanted to help. I think it made them feel important.

3. Lots of people sleeping in the same house and spending less time on personal hygiene: It’s instructive to see how much less time we spend on make up application and removal, armpit hair shaving, toe nail clipping, and so on, when we are sharing a bathroom with 20 other people. I didn’t brush my teeth for three days! Was one enthusiastic comment that was offered on a retreat evaluation conference call.

To be fair, we probably enjoy these events in part because they are so different from our regular lives. It’s easy to love not brushing your teeth when you know you’ll be raking your electric Oral B over your gooey bicuspids in 48 hours.

And I admit it: I am a hypocrite. I hate body odor (but only other people’s, my own is ok). I hate it when my houseguests squeeze from the middle of the toothpaste tube. I also hate it when people drape their wet towels over my shower rod. Can’t they see that it’s too unstable to hold that much weight? But when everyone’s arguing about the nature of post revolutionary sex, squeezing the last drop of toothpaste from the bottom of the tube seems less urgent. At the retreat, I was comfortable knowing that, if someone draped a wet towel over the shower rod and caused it to fall, it wouldn’t be my problem alone.

From nearly any ideological perspective—at least any legitimate one–it’s irrational for one or two adults to share near-exclusive responsibility for completely dependent people, whether the dependents are babies, other adults, the sick or the elderly. And similarly — but maybe more superficially — we can’t just rid ourselves of socially manufactured neuroses and desires by being aware of them. Whether it’s the fancy crib or a pristinely rolled toothpaste tube, we should be practicing new ways of living, not just feeling vaguely guilty about our current MO.

Socialism offers a way to think about organizing our lives fairly, not just in terms of workplace production, but in the basic tasks and interactions that fill our days. Is there such a thing as socialist garbage disposal? Socialist chore charts? A socialist toothpaste tube rolling technique? I’m not sure, but we owe it ourselves — to caretakers, to parents, and to everyone who does their own or others’ housecleaning — to find out.