Marina Benjamin’s elegant memoir uses the everyday tasks of cooking, cleaning and caring to reflect on different stages in her life.
“All my days begin and end in this kitchen,” Marina Benjamin writes in her elegant and elegiac memoir, which explores different stages of her life through the lens of housework.
Benjamin uses the everyday tasks of cooking, cleaning and caring to travel through her parents’ Iraqi-Jewish roots, her childhood in London, the juggle of career and new motherhood, and caring for her ageing mother. She shows the reader that this invisible work is vital work. She also shows that these seemingly personal acts are deeply political, with women around the world doing the bulk of unpaid or low-paid labour in homes.
As a journalist with several non-fiction books already under her belt, Benjamin’s sparse and evocative writing is the star of this book. She captures how housework and caring are tasks that are never finished, beasts that are never sated. If you dislike doing the hoovering, this book will give you very eloquent ways of saying so.
“Housework is an activity that erases itself…the success of housework turns on its invisibility, on the quiet conspiracy of women who do it and then hide the fact of its doing,” she writes.
Benjamin uses her memoir to reflect on the “economy of care”, in which she and all the women she knows are active players. She notes that women, in order to go about their own lives, must first address “vital questions” over who in their household needs care, who will provide it, whether it will be paid for, and if so how much.
She also sees how this creates an uneasy hierarchy between women. She recalls the cleaner in her childhood home – and how her mother looked down on her to avoid being likened to her. She talks about feeling guilty around her own cleaner as an adult: “When Carlotta is around I feel compelled to work…I tap uncomfortably at my laptop. But all I am really signalling is that my work is more important than her work.”
As Benjamin’s memoir moves onto her adult life, she faces an experience familiar to many working mothers: the juggle. She has not had to make a stark choice between a career and a family, as her mother did – but instead she has to find enough hours in the day for both. Even with paid cleaners and carers, there is always more to do. Her partner pitches in but he isn’t conditioned to notice tasks in the same way.
“Cobwebs and dust devils do not cast a shadow over his days,” she writes.
Benjamin expands the memoir beyond her own experiences by weaving in other artists’ and thinkers’ views. She cites the Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich, who uses the phrase “shadow work” to show we undervalue care work. She cites the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, who feels that “housekeeping is the worst kind of Sisyphean torture.”
This enriches the book but, at times, the tone feels too melancholy, especially regarding women’s lot. It is, of course, true that the endless demands of housework and caring prevent many women from pursuing other goals. But how do people who are uninvolved in their homes miss out, albeit in different ways? And how do we define well-spent or wasted time?
Benjamin takes care to acknowledge that both women and men are stifled by the status quo – she recalls her father’s “unspoken, perhaps unspeakable, desire” to be a home-maker, while her mother’s was to have a career. She also can’t help but feel satisfied as she cleans a grimy kitchen, even though the grime will soon return.
In the book’s final pages, Benjamin challenges de Beauvoir’s assertion that women who spend their days doing housework do not truly get to live. Instead she wonders: “But what if this perpetual present, full of busywork and unpaid labour, of dirt, decay, and inevitable entanglement with others, is life itself?”
It seems that the truth is, well, messy.
Author: Marina Benjamin
Publisher: Scribe publications
RRP: from £12.50 (hardback)