Sisyphus by Franz von Stuck

The mythical Greek King Sisyphus, shown here in the 1920 Franz von Stuck painting, was condemned by the gods to push a rock up a hill every day, only to have it roll back down before he reached the summit. Parents, we've all been there, right? 

I was stooped over a dustpan lamenting my lot in life when I remembered something the French existentialists believed about struggle: not that struggle would redeem us, but that it was the only sane response to an absurd world.

Hey, parents: We've all been there, right?

My wife and I had spent our previous evening sweeping, mopping and organizing our house, a modest mid-century home with hardwood floors and a brick fireplace that drips every time it rains. We were Marie Kondo-ing the place, more or less: taking stock of all our accumulated possessions and getting rid of the stuff that didn't "spark joy" in our lives, as the self-help creed of our time would put it. Not that a toaster ever brought me bliss, but I respect the basic premise of living simply.

I hazily remember surveying our territory late at night and feeling a twinge of pride. We lacked the time and energy to wax the floors or re-paint the chipped door frames, but the place felt tidy, composed and under control.

Paul Bowers headshot (recurring) (copy) (copy) (copy)

Paul Bowers is a father of three living in North Charleston.

We slept hard and woke to the sound of our three children rifling through the cabinets for breakfast. My wife left for work. I stepped away to brush my teeth and wash my face in the sink.

In five unsupervised minutes, our children managed to open their self-serve container of Apple Jacks cereal and dump the contents out on the couch. They threw the dusty crumbs onto the floor, shoved entire fistfuls into their mouths, and chased each other around the house spitting half-dissolved sugar bombs at one another. They were cackling with glee.

I may have lost my temper when I walked in on this scene. I summoned my best impression of The Dad Voice and told them I was disappointed. I told them their choices were either to go to their room or help me clean. They chose to clean.

Anyway, that's how I found myself caked in green- and peach-colored snack pellets, broom in hand, silently cursing a universe that said nothing in return.

The French novelist, feminist and existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir knew something about what I was feeling. In her 1949 book, "The Second Sex," she compared housework to the curse of Sisyphus, a king from Greek mythology who was condemned by the gods to roll a boulder up a hill every day, only to have it roll back to the bottom every time he neared the top.

"Few tasks are more similar to the torment of Sisyphus than those of the housewife; day after day, one must wash dishes, dust furniture, mend clothes that will be dirty, dusty, and torn again," Beauvoir wrote, as translated from the French in 2009. "The housewife wears herself out running on the spot; she does nothing; she only perpetuates the present; she never gains the sense that she is conquering a positive Good, but struggles indefinitely against Evil. It is a struggle that begins again every day."


Simone de Beauvoir in Tiananmen Square, 1955. 

I realize the precariousness of my argument here, quoting Beauvoir to explain the struggles of fatherhood. Beauvoir was writing at a time when housework was largely seen as the work of women. Thanks in part to the feminist movement she helped foment, attitudes have changed in some Western countries, but not much.

On an average day, American women spend twice as much time cooking and cleaning as men, and three times as much time doing laundry as men, according to 2015 survey data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Women reported spending an average of 2.3 hours a day on household tasks, compared to 1.4 hours for men.

I'll admit I have not always done my share around the house. My wife has traditionally done more of the shopping, laundry and cooking than I have. But since having twin daughters, and especially since having a son, I have been making an effort to model a more egalitarian division of labor.

I've found myself in a Zen state while doing laundry, awakening from my trance surprised to see that the hamper is empty. Glory! Then my children get undressed for their bath, and here comes another wad of soiled Technicolor dream tutus. The boulder rests in the valley, waiting.

Albert Camus probably wasn't thinking about housework when he penned his essay "The Myth of Sisyphus" in 1942, but he did believe that there can be something ennobling in our toil, even if it is ultimately futile and meaningless.

"The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart," Camus wrote.

When the day is done and the laundry put away, my wife and I are frequently too exhausted to do much other than watch an episode of "Vanderpump Rules" and crawl to bed. Tired as we are, with four hands to lighten the load, our respect for single parents continues to grow.

In the final accounting, a home is made of the people inside it. As to the physical work of keeping the house habitable, sometimes the best we can hope for is to make peace with our surroundings.

Beauvoir included in her book one account from a poor woman in the American South, raising seven children in a shack like the one Dolly Parton grew up in. The woman said she did her best to make the place beautiful.

"But the hovel remained a hovel, and Mrs. G. said with tears in her eyes, 'Oh, I do hate this house so bad! Seems like they ain't nothing in the whole world I can do to make it pretty!' Legions of women have in common only endlessly recurrent fatigue in a battle that never leads to victory," Beauvoir wrote.

I would propose that every home, from a double-wide trailer to a gilded McMansion, is just a scale model of that hovel. Parents, I leave you with this grim benediction: Cleaning your house will never bring you joy.

But sharing the burden — with your partner, with your children or even with your roommate — can help keep you from the pit of despair. Happy cleaning, everyone.

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.

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