Two months ago, I discovered that my daughter Shayna had lice. Not just one or two: a LOT of them. It was strange, because I spend hours every week brushing her thick curls and had never found anything. They apparently just bred, multiplied and matured overnight, like the plot twist of a bad Ed Wood film.
I've tried several times to write something positive about lice. About how it feels somehow cleansing to do five loads of laundry daily, change the sheets daily, vacuum the furniture daily, and bag up everything fluffy that we own in black garbage bags that pile up apocalyptically in her room. About how sitting down with my daughter for two to five hours every day in front of the Backyardigans and Yo Gabba Gabba, oiling and braiding her hair into over 30 tiny braids—and then re-opening those braids nightly to double check for nits, has led me to some share-ific epiphany about parent/child bonding. And about how the lack of sleep (for both of us), lost income and loneliness due to social quarantine has somehow strengthened our character. It has not. Contrary to what the perennial optimists insist, I don't believe every cloud has a silver lining. They don't even have "linings" at all. Clouds are not drag queens in glittery lingerie. They are functional… they rain.
I do want to spend more focused time with my daughter. If these nasty creatures have taught me anything, it's that. In Africa, I remember the unthinkably leisurely tasks of female-to-female care that took place daily in every family compound. Yes, I noticed that women did the bulk of the grunt work. They carry water on their heads, pound grains and tubers, wash babies, build fires, sweep floors, and often go to the market to sell their wares or have a full-blown trade on the side. But they also share time to bond with each other. In a way, the female imperative toward beauty is its saving grace in many cultures. It is culturally acceptable for a group of female friends or family members in West Africa to sit around for hours hennaing each other's hands and feet, or elaborately styling each other's hair. It is even smiled upon by the men—of course it's desirable that they look nice, and they are given the time and space to nurture themselves in a way many women in our own culture are not. Yet while the women are engaged in these seemingly benign personal grooming rituals, they are actually building community, at the molasses-slow pace necessary for these tasks.
The author (left) with two unidentified friends pounding fufu in Ghana, West Africa. Photo credit Jerry Leake.
Social bonding is an area that in almost every culture, is led by women—precisely for the same reasons they are considered "oppressed." The tasks that require the most social cohesion—pounding millet, braiding hair, stitching quilts, bathing children—utilize an entirely different area of the brain than complex mechanical tasks that require focused concentration. This has probably contributed to the myth, present in many cultures, of superior male intellect. Is this because of nurture (women being stuck with the more biologically convenient domestic tasks), or nature (actual hormonal/brain composition)? To me, the "chicken vs egg" argument here is pointless. It doesn't matter how we evolved to distribute labor between men and women. What matters to me is that at some point, it became enforced, segregated, and denigrated. And because of this, women rightfully rebelled.
What we have forgotten, though, in trying to completely equalize society, we've created a sort of politically correct neutrality that is anything but "equal" in its valuation of tasks. Often only the much-denigrated "little tasks" of life are the ones over which conversations can be heard. When everyone is competing to perform the higher-status "intellectually demanding" tasks that require an intense focus, no one has time to stop and laugh over a joke, nurse a child, or notice that someone is feeling depressed and needs help. There may be a day in which we have so completely forgotten the "little skills" of "women's work" we've so convinced ourselves to have transcended, that no one will even remember how to repair a sock or make a soup stock anymore. And if we do remember, we won't have the time. There will be an app for that, a canned or frozen version of it to pop in the microwave, an automated wizard to do it online. We don't even allow ourselves to read real books or listen to real albums anymore. Books are too heavy to carry on the train with us… and we're always on the run, too busy to decide which album fits our mood for the day. So we carry all our mental contents with us everywhere, packed neatly and invisibly into our mini digital alteregoes that, even in TV commercials, glorify themselves as extensions of our brains.
And ironically (not that this is a particularly original thought), what we thought would set us free and make more free time for us, will enslave us if we fail to respect, honor and de-gender-segregate women's work. If we do not do this, industry will replace the typical "husband" role of primitive society, and all of us will become 100% economically and socially dependent on it, as women once were on their husbands. We will all be wives of the Man. And our status will ALL be equally low.
Consumerism is a tremendous equalizer of society. However, it equalizes by creating dependency and social isolation—which begets more hunger for more products, more thrills, more interruptions and diversions in our dull routines. It's no accident that people (including myself) rarely smile at each other on the train anymore on the way to work—we're too busy staring into the depths of our iSouls, trying to fill in any speck of free time with more productivity. It's an endless river that keeps gaining momentum until it becomes a manic Niagara free-fall of material urgency. Our frantic schedules threaten to overtake us, drowning the finer emotions of life in this chaotic mess of fear and desire. The only thing that will put the brakes on this overflow is a renewed and universal exaltation of sharing-based, often typically "feminine" acitivities. These humble domestic tasks that seem comically unwieldy and quaint to many of us now, have always been cozy little dams that provide shelter, pools of sustenance inside our hunger and loneliness. We are so busy these days. We think, "I don't have time to… bake a pie, knit a sweater, play checkers with my son, plant a garden, have a drum circle with my friends…" I mean, who really has time to bake a pie anymore? (No cheating. I mean a real crust and from-scratch filling!) And why would we knit a sweater when we can buy a "Made in China" one for next to nothing from Walmart? We have our full-time jobs, each serving some corporation or other. And a good part of our earnings go right back to the government. But in the end, when we don't assert (and we need to actually assert) our time for these "antiquated, leisurely tasks" that factories and computers can do quite nicely these days, we give up on ourselves. We admit that we're not important. We actually don't give up ON ourselves… we give up OURSELVES. We align our priorities with something that isn't human. We admit that the things we really love aren't worth preserving. And we've forgotten why we even work in the first place.
Shayna, age 3, confronting the challenges of pie-baking
If I learned anything from having my life rearranged by scores of tiny, persistent little parasites, I've learned that it shouldn't take a health crisis for me to stop and braid my daughter's hair. And no one can tell me I don't have "time" to do these "little things," these "unimportant" details of women's work that have oiled and braided the fabric of society into elegance since the beginning of time. Why should women's liberation revolve around the appropriation of historically male-dominated work, which is generally less about sharing and more about earning, winning, and advancing? What is the point of working so hard if you can't come home to a nice home-cooked meal, a beautiful home, and people you can share this with? Ultimately, the historical oppression of women had less to with the value of their labor, than with its enforcement. And the enforcement of the heterosexual, nuclear family unit. I believe that the feeling of "sharing" that typifies a family can take on many forms, and as long as the roles are flexible and creatively applied, it's all good.
I consider it a far more daring and feminist act (by either gender) to embrace that which we historically called "women's work"—which is, in all its many forms, inherently shareable—than it is for a woman to climb to the top of any corporate ladder. To assert the value of the hours spent in activities our culture defines as "unproductive," like braiding hair or sewing. But defending typically social, archetypally feminine tasks doesn't require any defense or complex political rhetoric. And it certainly doesn't require force. It just requires that one person—woman OR man, gay or straight, single or partnered—decides to do things a little differently. Less "efficiently." To take the time and involve others in the loving execution of "little tasks" that could easily be automated, and which slow us down to what feels, in our digital age, like a grinding halt. In this era of perfect, cheaply produced grocery store food, even deciding to plant a garden instead of playing Farmville is a revolutionary act.
By Bengt Nyman, from Wikimedia Commons
I feel like even writing about lice, taboo subject as it is among parents, is an act of sharing. Maybe even "oversharing," as we politely label any personal disclosures in our culture of privacy. It's also an acknowledgement of our forever status as animals. No matter how "far we've come, baby," we still have to deal with these Paleolithic critters that have been getting in our hair since our simian relatives sat around grooming each other in trees. And they stop us in our tracks. My entire life, for six weeks, was put on hold as I was forced to slow down and examine, one at a time, the hairs on my daughter each night, and devote my entire life to the "little tasks" of cleaning and sanitizing. As paranoid as we already are in America about spreading germs, lice are a tangible and repugnant visual symbol of the dangers of "oversharing." We give kids mixed messages: we teach them it's important to share their toys, but to be careful holding hands, hugging, and touching heads. And of course, with good reason. Who wants to deal with flus, coughs, or even worse, lice? We teach them to be friendly and trusting, but to mistrust and fear strangers—also with good reason. Still, it must be very confusing for a small child to negotiate our complex social maze of appropriate and inappropriate sharing.
I believe the entire balance of civilization rests, right now, on the ability of ALL of society to judge what is important and what is not. It is not simply a matter of recycling and taking the train to work. We are willing to recognize our abuse of Mother Earth, and to acknowledge the widespread history of women's oppression. But are we willing to acknowledge the dirty little fact that no one really wants to take up the tasks that women left behind in our liberation from drudgery? The tasks we used to call "women's work," are now performed by emotionless machines, computers, and abused laborers in Third World countries. Have we really found our equality, or simply displaced the inequality?
Mattel Factory photo, Daily Mail (UK), August 15 2007. (http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/news/article-23408572-mattels-real-toy-story-slave-labour-in-sweatshops.do)
I don't believe true equality—or peace—can ever be found unless we're willing to slow down and UNIVERSALLY exalt and exult in these "little tasks" that were thrown along with the bathwater of social justice. They are not just "little tasks." They are the reason we are alive. We have done a tremendous disservice to ourselves by believing we aren't worthy of spending an afternoon canning fruit with our friends instead of going to McDonald's, or playing songs together instead of watching TV. Sharing, typically "female" activities may take time and care out of our goal-centric lives, but they make our lives worth living. For both women AND men.
* Footnote: If any parents (or affected adults) want to know what finally ended my six weeks of misery, I want to also share a tip: LiceFreee. (http://www.licefreee.com/) It was the one thing that worked, and it is completely natural and homeopathic (made from pure salt). It not only removed the lice, but the nits as well. I had tried everything, from neem oil, coconut oil, nightly combing, the horrible chemical shampoos, and conditioner smothering. Nothing worked… they kept coming back. This ended the problem in one sitting!