Housework by the book?

Excuse the mess, but we live here.” — Roseanne Barr

IMG_2347When we moved into our first apartment in 1980, my architect husband and I rarely discussed the delicate issue of housework. Newly married and devoted to our business careers, Doug and I left early for work every weekday morning, tripping over mounds of unfolded laundry and dust bunnies as we headed for the door. We rushed through domestic chores on Saturdays, never quite sure who was responsible for emptying the trash or disinfecting the toilet bowl.

All of this came tumbling back last summer, when I discovered some old books on housekeeping at a second-hand bookstore. Blowing layers of dust from their covers, I was rewarded with some fascinating glimpses of early Americana.

First published in 1924, Good Housekeeping’s The Business of Housekeeping, by Mildred Maddocks Bentley, was a veritable textbook on the domestic arts. Its mildewed, yellowing pages reminded me that household management was once taken seriously. Speaking to young brides, the book covered such topics as “Managing Servants and Housekeepers,” “Dishwashing Three Times a Day,”  “Sprinkling and Folding,” and “The Chemistry of Washing.”

As the book’s title suggested, Mrs. Bentley meant business:  “The good housekeeper must bring to her task of housekeeping every one of the qualities that make for a successful executive in the downtown business world.”


Another artifact, Housekeeping Made Simple (The Homemaker’s Encyclopedia, Inc.), was published in 1952, two years before I was born. Editor Miriam B. Reichl revealed that, after WWII, women had lightened up a bit and were looking for labor-saving methods. The average housewife, after all, no longer employed domestic help.

Reichl’s book contained some amusing black and white photo-illustrations. One showed a woman smiling broadly (and, yes, wearing high heels and pearls) as she demonstrated several ways to use a vacuum. Another shot featured an attractive woman doing laundry in a satin evening gown. Male models were conspicuously absent.

Back in the late ’70s, when I was single and rented my first apartment, books devoted to home economics (or “Home Eck” as my girlfriends called it) were rare — although my friends and I could have used a few tips on stocking a pantry or planning balanced meals. We left housework to the cleaning fairies.

Even today, few men or women admit they enjoy doing anything remotely domestic, unless it makes them as rich as Martha Stewart. Homemaking is messy business, after all — something we’d rather hire someone else to do if we can afford it.

“You keep a house, but you make a home,” observes anthropology professor Mary Catherine Bateson in Composing A Life (Plume/Penguin). “As we free the ideas of home and homemaking from their links to old gender roles, we can now also draw on metaphors of home to enrich our perceptions of the world.”  Home, after all, is where everyone begins.

Of course, I’d never welcome another era in which women have few career options beyond vacuuming. And I’d hate to see ironing raised to an art form. But I agree with Bateson when she suggests that we lose our sense of place — the foundation that keeps us grounded — when we neglect the home front. The driveway becomes a mere parking lot; the house exudes an atmosphere as impersonal as a chain motel.

Lately I’ve noticed a new crop of home-care guides in local bookstores. These books are saturated with a deep yearning for the comfort of roots and shelter. Unlike their predecessors, they’re refreshingly devoid of sexism, though women will most likely buy them. Whether or not younger Americans will embrace a homemaking revival remains to be seen. Right now, we’re still arguing over whose turn it is to clean the bathroom.

–Part of this essay is excerpted from my column collection, Writing Home, now available in Kindle and print editions on —      

Bathing Suit Season.

To the people who love you, you are beautiful already. This is not because theyre blind to your shortcomings but because they so clearly see your soul.” — Victoria Moran

BeachIt’s barely spring here in southeast Michigan, but magazine editors are positively frantic about Bathing-Suit Season. My god, there’s not a magazine cover on the stands that isn’t warning me to tighten, tone, and self-tan my ugly winter-white thighs. And of course, I won’t “look hot in that bikini” unless I try another new diet. Right now.

This still scorches like a bad sunburn.

In high school, I spent hours poring over Glamour and Seventeen magazines, desperately seeking validation for my own looks. I never found it. In the early 1970s, the coolest cover girls – Cybil Shepard, Cheryl Tiegs, Patti Hansen – were as blonde and leggy as the Malibu Barbie dolls Id barely outgrown.

I was never blonde enough, tall enough, or tan enough to pass for a California Girl. My face was too freckled; my dark auburn hair was too thin; my legs were too short. Given my genetics, I could have posed as a back-up singer for the Irish Rovers, at best.

Trying to mirror what I saw in fashion magazines, I began experimenting with Summer Blonde, which, given my Celtic heritage, turned my hair bright orange. I sunbathed without sunscreen, burning my freckled skin to the point where Id eventually develop basal-cell skin cancer.

Not surprisingly, the real me got lost under layers of costume and make-up. It took years to find her again.

In her new book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, sociology professor Brene Brown devotes several pages to the topic of women, shame, and self-image.

Listing what she describes as the 12 categories of shame — including addiction and money — Brown lists “appearance and body image” right at the top. “After all of the consciousness-raising and critical awareness, we still feel the most shame about not being thin, young, and beautiful enough,” she writes. While women in our culture are expected to be perfect, Brown adds, it’s also shameful to look as if we’re “trying too hard.” We can’t win.

These days, fashion and beauty editors give lip service to the concept of “aging gracefully.”  But who’s really buying it? If there were nothing shameful about wrinkles, under-eye bags, and sagging skin, there wouldn’t be countless products marketed to “fix” them.

Now, in addition to worrying about how we look in our bathing suits, we’re advised to conceal every hint of experience on our faces. (Pantene even has products to correct “aging hair,” for crying out loud.) Periodically, fashion editors throw older women a bone by featuring a “mature” model with silver-streaked hair, or a gorgeous grandma in plus-sized clothing. For the most part, however, even the older models in magazines geared to my demographic rarely look my age.

But the self-assured woman defines beauty on her own terms, insists Victoria Moran. Writing from personal experience, Moran is author of Lit from Within: Tending Your Soul for Lifelong Beauty (HarperSanFrancisco). A rarity among beauty advisors, she reminds us to look beyond mirrors and magazines to find our radiance.

Moran claims that miraculous things happened when she finally stopped obsessing about her weight and wardrobe. “To my utter amazement,” she writes, “I started looking a whole lot better – and worrying about it a great deal less. I started thanking God at night for the good in my day, and although I stopped asking to be thin and gorgeous, I sometimes asked if I could be strong and helpful.”

Moran reminds us that authentic beauty, at any age, requires depth of character and a yearning to live in grace. It demands that you spend more time revealing your truth than shopping for a plastic surgeon or a better eye cream. Its all about respecting your inner worth.

Take a dive, Malibu Barbie.


The art of reinvention

Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit is.” — H. Jackson Browne

IMG_0007Feeling like your second chance is long overdue? From time to time, everyone “burns out” or gets stuck in a familiar rut. As I learned several years ago, a midlife career crisis can be an opportunity for personal growth or a chance to explore a hidden talent.

My new column in Michigan Prime magazine also includes tips on reinventing your life from Birmingham life coach Betsy Hemming. To read “The Art of Reinvention” online, click on the Oakland County edition, then flip to page 6. Click here to get started.

If my column inspires you to dig deeper, look for these guides on burnout recovery and career reinvention at your favorite bookstore or public library:

Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live, by Martha Beck. (Three Rivers Press)

Fried: Why You Burn Out and How to Revive, by Joan Borysenko, Ph.D. (Hay House, Inc.)

Getting Unstuck: A Guide to Discovering Your Next Career Path, by Timothy Butler. (Harvard Business Press)

The mom I used to have

 Caregivers are forced to let go of a loved one little by little, again and again, sometimes over a span of many years.” — Leeza Gibbons, Take Your Oxygen First

Crafted from fine cotton yarn, the black cardigan sweater became a staple in my spring wardrobe after my mother bought it for me 10 years ago. Rediscovering it in the back of my closet last week, I suddenly recalled a happier memory of Mom – a time when I wasnt overwhelmed by what social workers describe as “caregiver burnout.”


And then came an unexpected flood of tears.

Its not like me to fall apart over a sweater while Im reorganizing my closet. Usually, I welcome the chance to shove my winter-weary woolens back into storage and replace them with the lighter fabrics of spring.

But then again, my mother hasnt been herself for several seasons, either.

Things began to unravel after my son left for college — just when my husband and I earned the freedom of our newly emptied nest.

First, we noticed Mom was repeating her favorite stories more often than usual. Then her friends would call to report that she’d forgotten to show up for club meetings and lunch dates. She’d drive herself to the ER during her panic attacks, which started occurring with alarming frequency. Not long afterward, her doctors told me to confiscate her car keys.

Mom was 79 and had been widowed for 16 years when she was officially diagnosed with vascular dementia in 2009. She was also battling heart disease and severe hearing loss.

Her only child, I was handed full responsibility of her medical care along with a checklist outlining her worrisome diagnosis.

“Start researching senior housing with memory care – now — so youll have choices,” her primary care physician advised. The doctor also asked if I had durable power of attorney (which I did) and reminded me to get all the legal documents in order.

At the time, Mom lived alone in a condo near my house. She refused to consider any type of senior housing, regardless of the fact that she’d been in and out of William Beaumont Hospital half a dozen times, and averaged 45 medical visits annually for countless illnesses, real and imaginary. (I took her to every single one.)

Facing the reality

More than anything, I wish my mother would have helped map the course of her own future. But no matter how tactfully I approached the topic of assisted living — and offered to schedule tours of the best facilities — shed look at me as if Id asked her to move to the Outer Hebrides with nothing but a toothbrush.

Regardless, I researched several senior housing options on my own. And just as the doctors had predicted, the decision was made for us — after yet another trip to the ER with Mom in December of 2011.

The research Id done earlier made our next step a little easier. While my mother recovered from heart surgery at the hospital, my husband and I put a deposit on a studio apartment at an assisted living residence near our home. We moved her there the day she was released from rehab.

By this time, Mom’s dementia had progressed to the point where she couldn’t remember that she’d had surgery and spent weeks in the hospital. I tried to preserve her dignity while sugar-coating the progressive dementia issue. I reminded her that her health and safety were our biggest concerns. Through it all,  she insisted she was “perfectly capable” of caring for herself at home.

And how could I blame her for denying reality?  Lately, I wish I could rewrite the whole scenario, too.

The grieving process 

Momand me1Saddest of all, dementia robbed Mom’s interest in almost everything she once enjoyed — Early American history, needlework, reading, lunch with friends. And clothes shopping.

In her prime, Mom had elevated bargain shopping to an art form, taking pleasure in scouting for gifts for people she loved. Even when I reached middle age, she’d insist on purchasing a new item of clothing for me whenever the seasons changed.

Which brings me back to the black sweater I mentioned at the start.

Ten years ago, Mom knew Id been hunting for such a sweater — a classic black cardigan that would bridge the seasons. I’d shopped at several stores in two malls — but with no luck. Id nearly given up when I discovered a T. J. Maxx shopping bag hanging from the side door of my house one afternoon. In it was the perfect black cotton sweater, which Mom had found on sale at one of her favorite haunts.

When I rediscovered it last month, my unexpected tears released a tsunami of mixed emotions.

Until then, Id been raging inwardly at the dementia that had devoured my mother’s mind and rendered her incapable of making her own decisions. I hadn’t fully realized that I was grieving the loss of my “real” mother — the woman who had shared her wisdom and recipes, encouraged my career, babysat my son, and took delight in buying me new clothes.

Facing the unfixable

The ongoing nightmare of dementia is hard to explain to others who haven’t walked through this dark tunnel with a parent or a spouse. Whether you’re talking about Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia, helping a loved one with a memory loss disorder isn’t the same as nursing a heart condition or a broken limb.

“With memory loss disorders, there is no comfort to be found in hoping for future recovery or improvement,” writes Leeza Gibbons in Take Your Oxygen First, an excellent guide to caring for a loved one with memory loss.

“If we don’t grieve for what we have lost, we can’t experience what we have now,” Gibbons goes on to explain. “In the end, life isn’t about choosing what happens to us; we only get to choose how to respond to it.”

As I write this, Mom is in a nursing rehab facility after fracturing her back at her assisted living residence last month. Her team of physical therapists can’t determine, at this point, if she’ll learn how to walk again. She is twice as fearful and confused. I do my best to remain strong for her, though I’m often exhausted, hopeless, and resentful — and ashamed for feeling that way, too.

In my better moments, I learn everything I can about my mother’s health problems and advocate for her 24/7. I’ve also learned to guard my own health — and my time — knowing that I’m not the only one who depends on both.

Meanwhile, the black sweater serves as an emblem of my mother’s best years; a tangible reminder of her former self. But I doubt that I’ll wear it again. It doesn’t wrap around me as well as it did when Mom first gave it to me — as if to remind me that I’m not the same woman I was 10 years ago. — Cindy La Ferle

For tips on dealing with caregiver stress from the Mayo Clinic, click here