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The Pressure to Make Domestic Work Invisible
The extra burden of making it appear that labor didn't happen
This week, we’re talking about the extra labor of making household work invisible. On Thursday, I’ll share highlights from your conversation about pornography and presuming it abusive.
My family moved in late August, which means making all-new choices about where everything will live. We do our bookshelves by genre, and I’ve added a new non-fiction section “the narrowness of the ‘normal’ body” tucked in between the math books and the broader “history of science/medicine” section. (It is a lot of fun to have people try to guess the genre divisions by surveying the bookshelves).
The kitchen is its own challenge, constrained by which cabinets can be locked, and what we’re willing to let the toddler drag out to play with (or where we’re willing to let her store herself).
I tend to take a Taylorized approach to kitchen arrangements. I get excited when I move a pot and gain the ability to make coffee by standing still and pivoting—everything within arm’s reach. I may even have hummed “Think of the Time I Save” from Pajama Game while I celebrated the new, efficient arrangement.
And, as much as possible, I leave counters clear. Everything that sits out, I look at with suspicion, expecting it to justify the landscape it takes up. It’s partially a habit of cooking in New York apartments, where counter space was scarce enough that all dough rolling had to take place on the dining table. But it’s partially an impulse well summed up in Meg Conley’s recent essay “By Design,” sparked by a NYT piece on the trend for camouflaged fridges.
I doubt the very wealthy are asking for tiny freezers and hidden refrigerators because they are on the side of Big Bottled Beverage and Big Rot. Probably they just think it looks nice. Designers like Shannon Wolcack agree. She owns a design firm in West Hollywood where she works with clients like Hillary Duff. Why does the kitchen need to host its own persistent optical illusion? Wolcack says, “Kitchens used to be concealed. It had a door. That was where you had all your appliances. It was like the work space. And now, kitchens are more of a lifestyle. You want to make it pretty and seamless.”
And I guess this is where my brain finally exploded. Heaven forbid the kitchen feel like a work space. The work of the home isn’t really work, didn’t you know? It’s a lifestyle! It’s pretty and seamless!
That’s Meg’s jumping-off point for a long, thoughtful essay that examines the history of hiding kitchen work and the people who do it. But it was that opener that kept sticking with me.
What does a work space look like when the work is valued?
I’m curious about your own kitchens or home offices or simply the way you arrange your bundles of diapers and wipes for changes.
Are there parts of your home that feel like a work space and wear that identity proudly?
What work do you feel the strongest impulse to make invisible?
I never want a scruffy house to be a barrier to opening my door to others—I tend to feel like the desire to have work tools entirely away is an internal impulse. I want the space to make deliberate choices about what to work on.
It’s a similar approach as in the Montessori classroom that Beatrice attends—everything has a space to live, so that the tables are clear to focus on your chosen work. But everything is out and visible, so you can consider what skill you want to explore.
We know she’s come home with a strong sense of tidiness and order—she commanded one of our grown-up friends back into his chair when he began hovering during dinner. “Back! Back!” She knew where he belonged, and the following day was still happy to point to his chair and tell us he had been there.
Order can be a way of treating things with respect—I anthropomorphize and put pots back in their homes rather than away. But it’s a straightjacket if the goal is to make tools and labor invisible and embarrassing to be caught out at.