Household Tasks are Complicated

Sometime in the last month I had a conversation with a friend where we were commiserating about how often we feel like failures. She said something along the lines of “Yeah, I got grocery shopping done today. That’s it.” I don’t really remember the rest of the conversation, but that sentiment (and the self-critical tone she used to say it) have stuck with me.

As a society we seriously underestimate the value of household tasks such as grocery shopping and laundry. I’m not just talking about how we don’t pay money for this work, we also speak of these things as if maintaining a functioning household is so simple that every adult should be able to do it without stress. That is simply not true. Many household tasks are very complex, we just lose sight of that complexity because they are so familiar that some of them have become routine for us. Anything we practice becomes easier for us to accomplish, but that does not make the task itself easy.

Take grocery shopping for example. It requires the ability to inventory food currently stored at your house. Then you have to plan for future eating based on your past eating experiences. You have to evaluate rate-of-use on foods to decide when is the right time to replenish a particular item. You also have to calculate how much money you have available to spend, which might require a review of your budget. You have to look at your schedule to figure out when you have time to make the trip, which requires a knowledge of how long grocery shopping usually takes. You have to arrange for transportation of yourself to the store and back with the groceries. Even if you have a car readily available to you, that adds an entire set of tasks to keep the car functioning so that it may be used at a moment’s notice. Once you are at the store, you have hundreds of micro decisions to make. If you didn’t bring a list, you have to remember what you have at home and select based on that memory. Whether or not you brought a list, you have to navigate the store to find the items that you need. This requires a knowledge of what items are usually grouped together and where this particular store puts that particular grouping of items. While in the store you are confronted with hundreds of items which tempt you to purchase them. You have to decide, on the fly, whether or not you should. This involves thinking about budget, space in cupboards/fridge/freezer, and also an evaluation for whether this tempting item matches the diet or lifestyle that you want to have. Each micro decision makes your brain a little bit tired, rendering each subsequent decision fractionally more difficult than the one before it. When your cart is full or your list complete, you face further micro decisions: which line to check out, how to stack things on the conveyor, and paper or plastic. Or if you use a self-check option, then you need to navigate the system of ringing up and bagging your own groceries. When you arrive at home, all the things you have purchased need to be relocated to their appropriate storage locations.

Grocery shopping is far from simple. It is a hugely complex task and it is only one of many household tasks that require regular attention to keep things running. Yet we tend to discount the time, effort, brain necessary to make sure these tasks happen. If you add in tending to the needs of pets or other people, the level of complexity multiplies. It is all valuable work. Yet so often we (I definitely include myself in this) arrive at the end of a day full of household tasks feeling like we accomplished nothing important. Which is funny, because for people who lack basic necessities, these “simple” household and life maintenance tasks are of primary importance.

Adulting is hard. Most people struggle with some aspect of it. I’m watching my adult children as they learn to navigate all the household management stuff, and it reminds me how complicated it really is.