While scrubbing the heck out of the hard water buildup on the doors of our shower, I had some time to reflect. Am I now just a “Kitchen Woman”?
On my second day in Astana, Reed and I went to a store which sells IKEA products, but is not an actual IKEA (quite a bizarre shopping experience, but we got a lot of stuff to make the apartment more like home). Getting there required an Uber ride. Our driver, once learning we were American, was very keen to talk to us even though we don’t speak Russian and he had limited English. He learned Reed was a teacher/professor at the university and thought this was very good. He turned his attention to me asking, “You teacher?”, to which I replied, “Not right now.” He then said, “Ah, you kitchen woman! Very good! Man work, woman in kitchen.” I was so surprised I laughed, and we tried to explain I am not working right now (hopefully in the Fall), but he kept insisting that I was “kitchen woman.”
I know he was just trying to understand and learn about us, but it hurt a little because it tapped into concerns and insecurities I’ve had about my future in Kazakhstan. Never in all my years did I ever imagine I would not be working and be dependent on someone else. As some of you may know, I am a very independent person and have been mostly self-reliant since my freshman year of college (don’t get me wrong, I have wonderful and generous parents, but I wanted to fend for myself as a matter of pride). The idea that I am not working, even a little bit, and relying solely on my husband’s income feels like a personal failure in many ways. It feels like earning my PhD was for naught. I hate that I am not bringing anything to the table—other than my winning personality, of course!
What can I do to alleviate this shame and guilt? Since my husband is working and I’m relying on his income to stay at home, it would seem natural for me to pick up more of the domestic duties as a way of contributing, right? Since the start of our relationship, Reed and I have divided domestic duties evenly. I view us as a team; we work together to get through the day-to-day. I have never once thought it was my responsibility to primarily handle the domestic aspect of our lives. I can attribute that to my working mother (who I never recognized was such a feminist until recently because she never actually used the word itself, but rather showed me what it was to stand up for myself as a determined and opinionated woman) and both my father and step-father (who both actively participated in helping with cleaning and various domestic activities around the house). And there is nothing wrong with helping on the home front – it’s a lot of work to manage a household! So why am I apprehensive?
Increasing my domestic role bothers me for several reasons: 1). It upsets the dynamic we have had for seven years; 2). The feminist in me is flipping her shit – he would need to do these things if I wasn’t here, so he should still help with them when I am here! 3). If I concede to this now, will this be temporary or will this be the new pattern that will be adopted for the rest of our lives? 4). Did I spend six years in graduate school to manage our household—does this mark the end of my career? and 5). It feels like the end of my independence and that I will forever after be a “kitchen woman.”
I should state that this sense of shame and guilt are all on my end. Reed thinks it’s great that he can offer me a break from work and does not expect me to take on additional housework just because he is the current breadwinner; this is ALL self-imposed because of my own pride and preference for independence.
What can I do to not feel guilty then? I can take advantage of this free time to the fullest extent possible. I can view this time as my first sabbatical. I can figure out my career path and do things that will directly help me succeed in the future. I can finish editing a book I’ve been working on. I can get my dissertation into book format. I can write or at least outline a few articles I’ve been wanting to write for two years now. I can use this time to better my odds of a career in academia. I cannot waste this opportunity. Accomplishing these things has value even if it is hard for others to see. Maybe I will be a “kitchen woman” for the next six months, but I’ll also be a writer and scholar.