We Seem to Have Lost Suction: Marriage and Chores in Our House


I need to report a breakthrough in our house. Related to chores.

As we all know, there are certain vacuums in the marketplace that promise never to lose suction. Those claims would be wrong, they DO lose suction. And thank God for it.

Like many married couples, we have issues. These issues fester because we do not discuss them. Resentment, guilt, anger, frustration . . . things that occur when you have lived alone for more than eighty percent of your life and then find yourself bound to someone else for the rest of it.

Our preferred method of resolving issues is to wage passive-aggressive wars over chores.

“While I was out, I noticed you didn’t take care of everything that is remotely possible, so now I have to step in and do it for you, and I resent you for that because I’m really mad at you for something else, which I won’t talk about.”

“I emptied the trash”

“I picked up that dust bunny!”

“I threw out the stale milk!”

Like with each action we’d saved each other’s life. One time we tallied up just how much we had sacrificed, culminating in him taking credit for “not going outside in his boxers” and me taking credit for “sleeping in so he could have the bathroom first.”

We’re generous, the kind of generosity which results in selfish gifts that no one wants. Except, no one wins this war. We shouldn’t be fighting. We should be working together. 

And talking.

It’s not that we resent having to do housework (OK, a little). It isn’t that we are keeping score (but we are). It is that we have other unresolved issues that play out on this plane: I’m tired. I’m unappreciated. I’m feeling taken for granted. Value me!

We’re not stupid. We know this. We just didn’t invite this truth in our daily life. How do you get from knowing what you should to, to doing it? Buy a Dyson and break it.

This past weekend, my husband spent an inordinate amount of time cleaning our Dyson handheld. Cleaning the cleaning device.

The vacuum was my Christmas present. We arrived in the UK with an American vacuum but it was like pushing around a golf bag.

Our Dyson handheld is extraordinary. Cordless, handheld, light . . . and other things a vacuum must be which I didn’t know until I owned it.

Except, it sucked at sucking.

My husband spent an hour on it, muttering, “I just think things should work properly.” Quaint. Back these vacuums that never loose suction: what they mean is they will not lose suction “in the normal course of vacuuming.” They will, however, lose ALL suction if you deign to mop up a Christmas tree. Which we (I) had done. It had sucked at sucking ever since.

So my husband spent hours cleaning the vacuum. I was alerted to this process when I heard shouts followed by “Ellen, what is wrong with the vacuum?” Followed by “What is the longest, thinnest thing we have in this house?”  

I ignored him; he often narrates what he’s doing to the air around him. The air responses as I do – by moving out of the way.

He walked past with a coat hanger, a flashlight, tweezers, my husband was fine.

He laid out his gear. His surgical-like technique consisted of peering into the pipe with the flashlight between his teeth, stabbing around with a coat hanger, and finishing with light banging against the side of the table. 

He looked like a bear at the zoo trying to get food out of a toy. But, a few rounds of flash, rummage, bang, and things began to loosen and dislodge.

It was grotesque. Dust bunnies had been there so long they’d formed a warren. Every time he removed hair, he gave me a steely eye. I pointed out that his hair was falling out faster than mine. I got two steely eyes.

The real culprit, however, was our Christmas tree. Or, to be precise, the needles from our Christmas tree. They had formed a wad around which nothing was allowed to pass. Pine needles are a completely impenetrable material. I need to start flogging this stuff during hurricane season.

We had a Scotch pine this year. It molted. A perfect opportunity. I vacuumed the tree directly to see if the suction would remove the needles. It did. Whatever cyclonic separation (colonic irrigation?) is, the Dyson handheld just worked properly!

There had been needles stuck in the machine, but I shook it a bit and figured it was fine.

Not fine. Enter husband. 

He was progressing.

He was at the point in the procedure that called for less rummaging and more banging.

Between bangs he asks, “Didn’t you notice it wasn’t working?”

“No. Well sort of, now that you mention it.”

“Why didn’t you clean it?”

“I don’t know. I thought whatever was in there would disintegrate.” I hadn’t really thought that, but it seemed probable. Not probable that it would happen but that I would think it would happen. It sounded like something I would think.

He didn’t want a real answer anyway. He had just wanted to say, “Why am I doing this and not you?”

“Well, I know how much you like to fix things. Like that time you removed the candle wax from the tablecloth or got the dirt out of my dress when I sat on the ground.”

“I do sit on the ground a lot. But that wasn’t fixing, that was laundry. I like to take care of the things we own.”

“Wait. Do you actually like laundry?”

“I’m good at laundry. You suck at laundry.”

He was right.  I put the detergent in the wrong slot, can’t read the settings, produce batch after batch of clothes that smelled of dirt and flowers. I just didn’t care if my clothes smelled like dirt and flowers. That’s why there is Febreze.

“And ironing, you suck at ironing. Wrinkles don’t just ‘fall out,’ Ellen.”

Give them a few hours, and they do, but I kept silent.

“ Yeah, but you would let the mold in the bathroom grow until it started sending out invites for a housewarming party.” 

 “So, what’s a little mold. It adds color.”

“That is vile. And you suck at dusting.”

I, however, I adore dusting. It is the only time I pay attention to the massive amounts of stuff we own.

“And I hate emptying the trash. It smells so fucking awful,” I added.

“It’s your super nose—I can’t smell anything.”

A few minutes later, we had divided up the chores. We talked about how we felt the other person didn’t notice what we were doing. How hard we worked, and what we cared about. It was really cool and new.

“OK, all done!” He handed me the Dyson, triumphant like he had just invented it. I thanked him for his hard work. He continued, “Now you can vacuum again.”

“Vacuum what?” I asked, hesitant.

“Oh, there are a bunch of pine needles in the other room. I made a mess when I got the vacuum out.”

And this actually made sense to me. I cleaned them up with the broom.

Specialization, division of chores labor is genius.

But it’s not that simple. Our deeper issues would have been played out in another non-chore arena had we not faced them head-on.

We realized we had commonality because we actually talked. We expressed vulnerabilities and frustrations and got to a new place. It changed how we communicate. I hope. Well at least our house is a bit cleaner.

Thank God for this vacuum that did —in fact—lose suction.



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