Our house witnessed the birth of a new mother. After almost two days of labor, the doctors decided to cut open my abdomen and stitch it back together. That’s how my son was born. My body never recovered, it remained thin and underweight. My small frame grew thinner during pregnancy because for months, I suffered from vertigo—like my world lost its balance and all I could do was throw up. I grew angry with the new responsibilities, my stitches burned with pain all the time.
Nanay, my mother, never recovered from the trauma of her childhood. She had to be a mother at 8 while Aurelia, my grandmother stayed in the city for days to sew sheets and curtains for a living. Aurelia’s husband left them so Nanay had to look after her younger sisters and 2-year-old brother. Nanay had to take care of their small house, cook rice and fish in soy sauce, wash their clothes as she studied for her monthly exams. She would pin her notebook in the clothesline to memorise her notes while she hanged their clothes to dry.
At 16, she had to look for a job and lie about her age. She worked at the movie house so that her siblings can study at the university. She never went back to school. They moved from one house to another. At 28, she felt like she was getting old. Nanay married a decent-looking man who grew up thousands of miles away from Manila. After 14 years of marriage, she had to separate from him. She devoted her entire life to her four children, to housekeeping, to taking care of her mother and all the gruelling, unpaid labor in between.
Her sisters bought her a permanent house. And another one for when they retire from overseas work. Mother kept these houses clean all the time. Religiously paid the bills, sprayed pesticide to keep roaches and rats away, scrubbed the house and her children clean, burned her fingers in detergent soap and bleach. Nanay struggled to budget her money to feed her daughters and send them all to private school in sparkling white, ironed uniform. She was always angry, livid with the amount of work.
I never understood her anger when I was a child. I would tremble whenever she started banging and throwing things. Then, she would begin her litany. Every week, she would gather her children to tell us how tired she was. With our heads bowed, we would listen to her chant the long prayer of ironing, the pile of dirty clothes she had to wash with her hands, the dishes she had to cook, the regular trips to the market as she scrambled for materials for school projects, the mildews in the bathroom, the countless knickknacks and dust that littered and soiled her sanity. The floor that needs constant sweeping and mopping, the heavy sheets and pile of undergarments she had to hang, fold, separate and return to our cabinets. We tried to do our chores but we were never helpful enough.
I used to be her sidekick, spying on my sisters and telling on them as I massage her ailing feet. The house heard all the rumors that I would tell my mother and heard my sisters talk about my mother. The house listened as the narratives evolved. I grew older and started talking back, turning the narratives against her, shouting at her.
At 23, I got pregnant but never understood motherhood. Motherhood then meant sore nipples, postpartum depression, painful abdominal stitches, sleepless nights, expensive vaccines, hospital visits, endless chores, correcting your child, teaching him, playing with him and wishing you could write but never having enough time or energy. I learned the weight of the litany my mother delivered.
The house that my aunts bought was a hundred square meters wide, with two floors. There are two bathrooms and five rooms, a terrace, a garage, a dirty kitchen cum laundry area. A dining room and living room. We’ve grown older but we never learned how to clean the house her way.
It was only a hundred square meters but because Nanay cleaned the house everyday, her exhaustion grew into a mansion. I tried to understand her anger, university helped me realize the multiple burden she was carrying. But because I’ve seen homeless mothers, I could not accept that she can never be truly happy that she was given a house of her own. I’ve seen landless mothers struggle for land where they can build a house that could withstand typhoons, met peasant women who would sacrifice their lives so the next generation of mothers could till their lands and build a home.
We had a house and it has kept us warm. It has sheltered us and that is all that matters. But to Nanay, the house was her. It was as if the dusts under the sofa felt like dirt in her skin, if they are not vacuumed and aired, bugs will start hatching in her pores. It was as if the house must be scrubbed clean or else she will smell. As if the unkempt shelves and rooms cluttered her mind. As if the house spoke through her litanies.
I never understood her anger but like her, I was always angry. I managed to turn the childhood-trembling around and make mother tremble with my words. I could soil and smear the house with memories she did not want to remember. Anger can be abusive.
One Saturday, as I was washing my son’s clothes, I realized that houses are meant to be unkempt. Maintaining a house is a full-time job that leaves your feet swollen and spine abnormally curved. There were five of us cleaning a two-story house. Because her children had full-time jobs, cleaning and maintaining became the burden of the “jobless” and unpaid. Nanay looked after my son and managed the house— two extremely relentless roles.
That afternoon, my sisters were cleaning their room, I was washing my son’s school uniform while waiting for the tamarind soup to boil. Mother was changing the curtains and my husband was cleaning the garage. The house still looked dishevelled. I saw the impossibility of the task and its feudal tendencies. Nanay is now 60 years old. If we compute all the hours she spent cleaning, we might end up with two decades. That’s 1/3 of her life spent merely scrubbing, washing, organizing. It was imperialist and abusive. But cleaning is essential, I’ve tried not-cleaning the house when she went away for weeks. Bed bugs appeared from nowhere, we nursed skin rash for days until we decided to do exactly what Nanay did: clean thoroughly and regularly.
Nanay is not the house, the dusts do not crawl unto her skin, and she is not scrubbing the floors lest she smell. Nanay was being a parent, a mother, and cleaning the house was an expression of a difficult love. A burden working class mother carry all their lives. Draining and exhausting, patriarchal and thankless. My feet never stopped aching when I became a mother, my fingers show signs of arthritis and my varicose veins have swollen as I begin to understand the malediction of housekeeping.
Nanay was 8 when she started scrubbing the floors. That afternoon, I saw how young and small she was as she tried to reach for the impossibly high curtains.
Rae Rival teaches arts-based research and creative writing at the Philippine High School for the Arts. She co-founded Gantala Press, a feminist literary press, and does volunteer work for Rural Women Advocates (RUWA), a group that pushes for genuine agrarian reform.