Unlike millions of other people, I did not read Marie Kondo’s book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” when it came out.
At the time, I was the sole provider for a family of four, so something had to give, and it was being tidy. And reading books, come to think of it. But it’s not like I didn’t see the benefits of uncluttering, so when I saw my social media feeds filling up with comments about the new Netflix show, “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo,” where Kondo visits people and helps them implement her method, I decided to give it a whirl.
In addition to tips about tidying up, the show provides an excruciating window into something that has a much bigger impact on the lives of women: The American husband. Or, to put a finer point on it, the American father.
There’s something about parenthood that has a way of reinforcing gender binaries. This is partly because it’s baked into various systems that mothers come into contact with. It begins in the pregnancy process — since male doctors took over the process in the early 1900s, it has been one in which women are infantilized and rarely listened to; a problem that gets exponentially worse as you add layers of racial and class discrimination.
You can find it in the American labor force, too. It’s the mother who has a greater chance of receiving parental leave. That makes her the primary parent and the go-to caregiver right from the start. Of course, there are very real physical and psychological reasons to take leave, but when mothers are the only ones to do so, it sets a path toward gendered parental and household roles.
Kondo’s show is, of course, not a show about families or feminism, but in some ways it really is. The show introduces us three different families with kids. All three women illustrate this phenomenon in their own way.
We first meet the Friend family. The husband, Kevin, works 60-or-so hours a week, including weekends, and he is visibly annoyed that his wife, Rachel, does not keep a tidy house in addition to partially putting her career on hold to raise the children they both, as she tells it, “wanted and planned for.”
His eyes light up at the prospect of her spending her days folding laundry while trying to make it a fun game for their children. At the end of the episode, Rachel tells Kondo conspiratorially, “Kevin’s been so much sweeter to me. He says the cleaning is sexy.” Kondo replies that this is “so American,” to which Rachel smiles and laughs, even though it’s not a joke or a compliment.
You know what’s sexy? Husbands who lift a hand or don’t complain when their wives are juggling two toddlers and trying to keep just the slightest hold on their own lives. Instead, Kevin points to his wife’s now-half-empty closet and says, “If you buy a bunch of clothes to fill that up again, we’re gonna have problems.”
Next, we meet Douglas and Katrina Mersier, who have moved with their two kids from Michigan to California, downsizing from a four-bedroom house to a two-bedroom condo. Early in the episode, Douglas brags about never cooking and joins the kids in a “just let mom handle it” conversation about housework. Katrina echoes this, saying that, as the mom, she feels like it’s her job to do the laundry, grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning. With her house in disarray, she feels like she is failing.
Douglas is quick to see the error of his ways after being gently prompted by Kondo, who asks Katrina why she has to do everything. “Really everyone in the family should take some responsibility for the space,” Kondo says. Katrina realizes she isn’t failing, she’s just taking on (or being tasked with) too much, and Douglas and the kids also see how unfair that is. They decide to divvy up chores and pull their weight around the house. She’s not only less stressed, but also feels like she’s doing a better job at another key mom role: preparing her kids for adulthood.
Next, we meet Sanita and Aaron Mattison, and their two kids, Ashton and Natalia. We don’t get much of a window into how they divvy up housework, but we do get to see Aaron attempt to exert male dominance a lot. Sanita was born and raised in Pakistan but has lived in America for decades and has been married to Aaron for 17 years.
At one point she opens a drawer full of traditional Pakistani scarves and clothing and he says, “Do you really need all those?” She explains that they are a tie to her culture, one of the last ones she has.
When she’s hesitant to get rid of kid stuff because they’re talking about having a third, he sighs exasperatedly.
When she wants to go over some boxes of books one last time before they go, to make sure she’s not parting with something that has meaning to her, he gets out the camera and makes a video of it to mock her. At one point she cries in a late-night solo video about how this was supposed to be a collaborative process.
And finally, when she comes around to his way of thinking, he says, “Good, I feel like we’re finally on the same level now, the same plane.”
Parenthood brings with it an additional familial role that women are still often expected to shoulder alone. I’m not talking about the actual parenting part. These dads all seemed reasonably involved with their kids, and American fathers across the board spend more time parenting than they ever have.
I’m talking about that nebulous second-shift stuff — the keeping of the house, the feeding of the family, the remembering and facilitating of doctors’ appointments, and the brain burden that Sarah Ruddick calls “maternal thought.” Somehow, we’re still doing this thing where men are allowed to continue being men when they become fathers, but women are mothers and wives and rarely, if ever, women.
While watching the first Tidying Up episode on the Friend family, I cracked that Rachel should perhaps ditch Kevin if she was going to get rid of items that don’t, as Kondo says, “spark joy.”