Read CHAPTER IV of The Nervous Housewife, free online book, by Abraham Myerson, on ReadCentral.com.

THE HOUSEWORK AND THE HOME AS FACTORS IN THE NEUROSIS

One of the most remarkable of the traits of man is the restless advancement of desire, and consequently the never-ending search for contentment. What we look upon as a goal is never more than a rung in the ladder, and pressure of one kind or another always forces us on to further weary climbing.

This is based on a great psychological law. If you put your hand in warm water it feels warm only for a short time, and you must add still warmer water to renew the stimulus. Or else you must withdraw your hand. The law, which is called the Weber-Fechner Law, applies to all of our desires as well as to our sensations. To appreciate a thing you must lose it; to reach a desire’s gratification is to build up new desires.

This is to be emphasized in the case of the housewife, but with this additional factor: that how one reacts to being a housewife depends on what one expects out of life and housekeeping. If one expects little out of life, aside from being a housewife, then there is contentment. If one expects much, demands much, then the housewife’s lot leads to discontent.

What is disagreeable is not a fixed thing, except for pain, hunger, thirst, and death. The disagreeable is the balked desire, the obstructed wish, the offended taste. It is a main thesis of this book that the neurosis of the housewife has a large part of its origin in the increasing desires of women, in their demands for a fuller, more varied life than that afforded by the lot of the housewife. Dissatisfaction, discontent, disgust, discouragement, hidden or open, are part of the factors of the disease. Furthermore there is an increasing sensitiveness of woman to the disagreeable phases of housework.

What are these phases that are attended with difficulty? 1. The status of the house work.

It is an essential phase of housework that as soon as woman can afford it she turns it over to a servant. Furthermore there is greater and greater difficulty in getting servants, which merely means that even the so-called servant class dislikes the work. No amount of argument therefore leads away from the conclusion that housework must be essentially disagreeable, in its completeness. There may be phases of it that are agreeable; some may like the cooking or the sewing, but no one likes these things plus the everlasting picking up; no one likes the dusting, the dishwashing, the clothes washing and ironing, the work that is no sooner finished than it beckons with tyrannical finger to be begun. To say nothing of the care of the children!

I do not class as a housewife the woman who has a cook, two maids, a butler, and a chauffeur, the woman who merely acts as a sort of manager for the home. I mean the poor woman who has to do all her own work, or nearly all; I mean her somewhat more fortunate sister who has a maid with whom she wrestles to do her share, who relieves her somewhat but not sufficiently to remove the major part of housewifery. After all, only one woman in ten has any help at all!

It is therefore no exaggeration when I say that though the housewife may be the loveliest and most dignified of women, her work is to a large extent menial. One may arise in indignation at this and speak of the science of housekeeping, of cleanliness, of calories in diet, of child-culture; one may strike a lofty attitude and speak of the Home (capital H), and how it is the corner stone of Society. I can but agree, but I must remind the indignant ones that ditch diggers, garbage collectors, sewer cleaners are the backbone of sanitation and civilization, and yet their occupations are disagreeable.

“Fine words butter no parsnips.” There are some rare souls who lend to the humblest tasks the dignity of their natures, but the average person frets and fumes under similar circumstances. In its aims and purposes housekeeping is the highest of professions; in its methods and technique it ranks amongst the lowest of occupations. We must separate results, ideals, aims, and possibilities from methods.

All work at home has the difficulty of the segregation, the isolation of the home. Man, the social animal who needs at least some one to quarrel with, has deliberately isolated his household, somewhat as a squirrel hides nuts, on a property basis. There has grown up a definite, aesthetic need of privacy; all of modesty and the essential family feeling demand it.

This is good for the man, and perhaps for the children, but not for the woman. Her work is done alone, and at the time her husband comes home and wants to stay there, she would like to get out. Work that is in the main lonely, and work that on the whole leaves the mind free, leads almost inevitably to daydreaming and introspection. These are essentials, in the housework, monotony, daydreaming, and introspection.

Let us consider monotony and its effects. The need of new stimuli is a paramount need of the human being. Solitary confinement is the worst punishment, so cruel that it is prohibited in some communities. We need the cheerful noises of the world, we need as releasers of our energies the sights, sounds, smells of the earth; we must have the voices and the presence of our fellows, not for education, but for the maintenance of interest in living. For the mind to turn inward on itself is pleasurable only in rare snatches, for short periods of time or for rare and abnormal people. Man’s mind loves the outside world but becomes uneasy when confronted by itself.

The human being, whether male or female, housewife or industrial worker, is a seeker of sensations. Without new sensations man falls into boredom or a restless and unhappy state, from which the mind seeks freedom. It is true that one may become a mere seeker of sensations, a restless and fickle pleasure lover who passes from the normal to the abnormal, exotic in his vain search for what is logically impossible, lasting novelty. Variety however is not the mere spice of life; it is the basis of interest and concentrated purpose as well.

People of course vary greatly in what they regard as variety, and this is often a constitutional matter as well as a matter of education. What is new, striking and interest-provoking to the child has not the same value to the adult; what is boredom to the city man might be of huge interest to the country man. A person trained to a certain type of life, taught to expect certain things, may find no need of other newer things. In other words people accustomed to a wide range of stimuli need a wide range, while people unaccustomed to such a range do not need it.

The most important stimuli are other persons, capable of setting into action new thoughts, new emotions, new conduct. We need what Graham Wallas calls “face to face associations of ideas", ideas called into being by words, moods, and deeds of others.

It is this group of stimuli that the busy housewife conspicuously lacks. “She has no one to talk to,” especially in the modern apartment life. It is true she has her children to scold, to discipline, to teach, and to talk at; but contact with child minds is not satisfying, has not the flavor of companionship, is not reciprocal in the sense that adult minds are. There therefore results introspection and daydreaming, both of which may be of slight importance to some women but which are distinctly disastrous to others.

If the married life is satisfactory the daydreaming and introspection may be very pleasurable, as they usually are at the beginning of marriage. The young bride dreams of love that does not swerve, of understanding that persists, of success, of riches to come, of children that are lovely and marvelous. And the happy woman also finds her thoughts pleasant ones, and her castles in the air are mere enlargements of her life.

But the dissatisfied woman, the unhappy woman, finds her daydreams pleasant and unpleasant at the same time. She is constantly coming back to reality; reality constantly obtrudes itself into her dreams. The daydreaming is rebelled against as foolish, as puerile, as futile. A struggle takes place in the mind; disloyal and disastrous thoughts creep in which are constantly dismissed but always reappear. The profoundest disgust and deënergization may appear, and fatigue, aches, pains, and weariness of life often results.

One may compare interest to a tonic. How often does one see a little group, who for the time being are not interesting to one another, sit sleepy, tired, bored, yawning, restless. Then a new person enters, a person of importance or of interest. The fatigue disappears like magic, and all are bright, energetic, sparkling. The basis of club life is the monotony of the home; man uses the saloon, the clubroom, the pool room, the street corner, the lodge meeting, as an escape from the unstimulating atmosphere of wife and family, the hearth. But for the housewife there is usually no escape, though she needs it more than her husband does.

Furthermore the non-domestic type, the woman with especial ability, the woman who has been courted, petted, and sought for before marriage is the one who reacts most to the monotony of the home. There are plenty of women who consider the home a refuge from a world they find more strenuous, more fatiguing than they can stand, or who find in housework a consecration to their ordained duty. Which type is the better woman depends upon the point of view, but it is safe to say that feminism and the industrial world are making it harder and harder for an increasing number of women to settle down to home-keeping.

The housewife is par excellence a sedentary creature. She goes to work when she gets up in the morning, within doors. She goes to bed at night, very frequently without having stirred from the home. A great many women, especially those who have no help and have children, find it next to impossible to get out of doors except for such incidental matters as hanging out the clothes or going to the grocery.

It is true that some women so situated get out each day. But they are possessed either of greater energy or skill or else own a less urgent conscience. At least for many women it gets to be a habit to stay in. If there is a moment of leisure, a chair or a couch, and a book or paper, seem the logical way of resting up.

Now sedentary life has several main effects upon health and mood. It tends quite definitely to lower the vigor of the entire organism. Perhaps it is the poor ventilation, perhaps it is the lack of the exercise necessary for good muscle tone that brings about this result. Though the housewife may work hard her muscles need the tone of walking, running, swimming, lifting, that our life for untold centuries before civilization made necessary and pleasurable.

With this sedentary life comes loss of appetite or capricious appetite. Frequently the housewife becomes a nibbler of food, she eats a bite every now and then and never develops a real appetite. Nor is this a female reaction to “food close-at-hand”; watch any male cook, or better still take note of the man of the house on a Sunday. He spends a good part of his day making raids on the ice chest, and it is a frequent enough result to find him “logy” on Monday.

Furthermore, in the household without a servant, the housewife rarely eats her meal in peace and comfort. She jumps up and down from each course, and immediately after the meal she rarely relaxes or rests. The dishes must be cleared away and washed, and this keeps from her that peace of mind so necessary for good digestion.

An increasing refinement of taste adds to these difficulties. If the family eat in the dining room, have separate plates for each course, and various utensils for each dish, have snowy linen instead of oilcloth, then there is more work, more strain, less real comfort. Much of what we call refinement is a cruel burden and entails a grievous waste of human energy and happiness.

An important result of the sedentary life is constipation. Woman, under the best of circumstances, is more liable to this difficulty than her mate, just as the human being is more liable to it than the four-legged beast. Man’s upright position has not been well adjusted by appropriate structures. Childbearing, lack of vigorous exercise, the corset, and the hustle and bustle of the early morning hours so that regular habits are not formed, bring about a sluggish bowel. Indeed it is a cynicism amongst physicians that the proper definition of woman is “a constipated biped.”

While it is a lay habit to ascribe overmuch to constipation, it is also true that it does definite harm. For many people a loaded bowel acts as a mood depressant, as illustrated by the Voltaire story. For others it destroys the appetite and brings about an uneasiness that affects the efficiency. Whether there is a poisoning of the organism, an autointoxication, in such a condition is not a settled matter. But the importance of the constipation habit lies chiefly in its effect upon mood and energy, in its relation to neurasthenia.

These factors, the nature of housework, monotony and the results of sedentary life bear with especial weight upon the woman of little means. It is absolutely untrue that nervousness is a disease of wealth. There are cases enough where lack of purpose and lack of routine tasks, as in the case of wealthy women, lead to a rapid demoralization and deënergization. It is also true that the search for pleasure leads to a sterile sort of strenuousness that breaks down the health, as well as inflicting injury on the personality.

Poverty is picturesque only to the outsider. “It’s hell to be poor” is the poor man’s summary of the situation. There are serious psychical injuries in poverty which will demand our attention later, and still more serious bodily ones. In the case of the housewife, poverty on the physical side means (1) never-ending work; (2) no escape from drudgery and monotony; (3) insufficient convalescence from the injuries of childbearing; (4) a poor home, badly constructed, badly managed, without conveniences and necessities.

That there are plenty of poor women who bear up well under their burdens is merely a testimony to the inherent vitality of the race. A man would be a wreck morally, physically, and mentally if he coped with his wife’s burdens for a month. Either that or the housekeeping would get down to bare essentials. If a man kept such a house, dusting and cleaning would be rare events, meals would become as crude as the needs of life would allow, ironing and linen would be wiped off as non-essential, and the children would run around like so many little animals. In other words an integral part of what we call civilization in the home would disappear.

Perhaps men would reorganize the home. The housekeeper of to-day is only in spots coöperative; her social sense is undeveloped. Men might, and I think likely would, arrange for a group housekeeping such as that which they enjoy in their clubs.

This digression aside, there are debilitating factors in the housewife’s lot which need some amplification. We have referred to the insufficient time for convalescence from childbirth. There are sequelæ of childbirth, such as varicose veins, flat feet, back strain, that render the victim’s life a burden. The rich woman finds it easy to secure rest enough and proper medical attention. But the poor woman, not able to rest, and with recourse either to her overbusy family doctor or to the overburdened, careless, out-patient department of some hospital, drags along with her troubles year in and year out, becomes old before her time, and loses through constant pain and distress the freshness of life.

It is impossible to separate the psychical factors from the physical, largely because there is no separation. One of the aims of a woman’s life is to be beautiful, or at least good looking. From her earliest days this is held out to her as a way to praise, flattery, and power. It becomes a cardinal purpose, a goal, even an ideal.

Unlike the purposes of men this goal is attained early, if at all, and then Nature or Life strip it away. The well-to-do woman or the exceptional poor woman may succeed in keeping her figure and her facial beauty for a relatively long time, though by the forties even these have usually given up the struggle. For the poor woman the fading comes early, household work, bearing children, sedentary life, worry, and a non-appreciative husband bringing about the fatal change.

I doubt if men see their youth slipping away with the anguish of women. To men, maturity means success, greater proficiency, more achievement, means purpose-expanding. To women, to whom the main purpose of life is marriage, it means loss of their physical hold on their mate, loss of the longed for and delightful admiration of others; it means substantially the frustration of purpose.

And I have noticed that the very worst cases of neurosis of the housewife come in the early thirties, in women previously beautiful or extraordinarily attractive. They watch the crows’-feet, the fine wrinkles, the fat covering the lines of the neck and body with something of the anguish that the general watches the enemy cutting off his lines of communication or a statesman marks the rise of an implacable rival.

Popular literature, popular art, and popular drama, including in this by a vigorous stretching of the idea the movie, are in a conspiracy against reality. This is of course because of the tyranny of the “Happy Ending.” While the happy ending is psychologically and financially necessary, in so far as the publishers, editors, and producers are concerned, what really happens is that the disagreeable phases of life, not being faced, persist. To have a blind side for the disagreeable does not rule it out of existence; in fact, it thus gains in effect.

To say that housekeeping is looked upon essentially as menial, to say that it is monotonous, that it is sedentary, and has the ill effects that arise from these characteristics, is not to deny that it has agreeable phases. It has an agreeable side in its privacy, its individuality, and it fosters certain virtues necessary to civilization. That I do not lay stress on these is because novelist, dramatist, and scenario author, as well as churchman and statesman, have always dwelt on these. The agreeable phases of the housewife’s work do not cause her neurosis; it is the disagreeable in her life that do. Or rather it is what any individual housewife finds disagreeable that is of importance, and it is my task to show what these things are, how they work, and finally what to do about it.