Sisterhood Blog

Repudiating My Inner Balebuste

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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The title of Elissa Strauss’ essay in the Forward, “Embracing My Inner Balebuste,” caught my eye. Perhaps it’s a reflection of what I assume are a few years of difference in our age that I find the term “balebuste” loaded with provocative associations and Elissa can embrace the title with pride. On the other hand, maybe it simply reflects what housework meant in our respective homes, growing up.

My mother didn’t know much Yiddish, but she would have cringed at being called a balebuste, as do I except on those occasions when it’s applied with affectionate irony.

True, I don’t enjoy housekeeping the way Elissa apparently does. Fluffing pillows “just so” is far more satisfying for her, and laundry is without a doubt the bane of my existence. When I win the lottery, first thing I’m doing is hiring regular household help to do it for me. One of the many pleasurable aspects of having my three children away at the same time this summer for the very first time has been the lack of dirty laundry piling up.

I like a fairly neat house, and with three adolescents and tweens as children, attaining that alone is accomplishment enough. I’m content if the comforter is on the bed with the corners in approximately the right places and if the kitchen table gets cleared of mail, newspapers and schoolwork every couple of days.

As Elissa correctly alludes, feelings about being a homemaker for women today probably have more to do with the way we’re nurtured than our basic natures.

In Elissa’s family, balebuste was an honorific of the highest order. While my house, when I was growing up, was always clean and tidy, the message communicated without words was that it was something that had to be done, but nothing to be particularly invested in.

In fact, my mother was clearly suffocated by the role she was forced to play as a woman of her time and place. When she was a young woman, nice middle class Jewish girls became teachers or nurses (she became a teacher). Ambition was limited to marrying well and getting established in a nice suburban house, with children, of course, to follow.

My parents married in 1962 and my mother was caught right at the crux of the sexual (roles) revolution. She was starved for change, but as a young mother in an unhappy marriage to a man who liked the conventional order of things, she was stuck in a role that never completely fulfilled her.

And so the main message to my sister and me, if articulated only as what was between the lines of our mother’s frustration, was not to get stuck like she did. Keeping house was part of where she was stuck.

Clearly Elissa, as an accomplished writer, is not stuck in the role. Thanks to the tremendous work my mother and the feminists of her generation did in making gender roles more flexible, we moderns have the privilege of far more choice about where we wish to put our energy.

So it’s her choice to be a proud balebuste, not something she must be. That makes all the difference.

I am happy to be married to a man who is far more balabustish than I, a guy who loves to cook and who isn’t able to rest until he’s swept the kitchen and dining areas each night. (Who knew, when I married a guy whose apartment kitchen was equipped only with two mismatched plates, a chipped coffee mug and a few forks with bent tines that things would work out this way?)

When I throw a dinner party, I do enjoy planning and executing the menu, and get pleasure from the compliments reaped from our guests. But cooking on a daily basis is for me simply a chore. I’d far rather spend a spare hour or two working on a short story or meeting a friend for coffee.

So Elissa, if you have time to kill, I’d be happy to have you over at our house. There’s a pile of laundry that needs attention!


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