Expat Life

House training

I have not received much in the way of house training. There’s a popular image of American children that has never reflected my reality as a Cuban child.

It’s the one where kids make their beds every morning, perform chores such as washing the dishes, taking out the rubbish, and mowing the lawn. Then they go away to college and move into a swanky apartment or house after landing a competitive, high-paying job after graduation.

Here’s a secret that everyone in Miami knows: Cuban mothers spoil their children our entire lives.

Growing up, I never had to lift a finger at home. I never made my bed, cleaned, washed the dishes, took out the trash, or mowed the lawn. I did go away to college, which was unexpected and difficult for my parents. I didn’t know how to cook or perform the most basic of domestic tasks and I can’t say I really learned then. After college, I moved back in with my parents and, once again, found myself not having to cook or clean. My mother takes care of all the housework. Life remained this way until I came to Melbourne a few months ago.

This is not unusual. Nearly all of my Cuban friends live with their parents until they’re married. Even marriage is no guarantee that a Cuban child will move out. Cuban Mom will just continue to cook and clean for Cuban Child and new spouse. When Cuban Grandchild comes along, Cuban Mom’s workload increases.

I’m generalising and stereotyping. Therefore, you know I’m telling the truth.

This kind of upbringing resulted in some conundrums. I love having a clean and tidy home, but I hate cleaning. I don’t really know how to do it and I’m not terribly interested in learning. I love good food, but don’t know how to cook. I’m interested in the art of cooking, but not the craft of it, and I don’t really have a knack for it.

When I came to Melbourne and moved in with Theo, I suddenly became a homemaker. It was something I had given zero thought to and has been one of the most difficult adjustments of my life. The chores have always been there – the bed has always needed making, meals have always needed cooking, clothes and sheets have always needed washing, every single room has always needed cleaning – but suddenly, I’m the one that has to do it!

I take no pleasure in housework. I am offended by the expectation that, as a woman, housework is my duty and that I should take pleasure in it. The idea of my identity being wrapped up in housekeeping disturbs me. And yet, I want a clean and tidy home that I can take pride in.

Of course, one solution to this first-world problem is to hire someone to cook and clean. Should I win the lottery, I’ll get right on that. Another solution is stop being so obsessive, compulsive, and anal retentive. The kitchen doesn’t have to be cleaned every single day (yes, yes, it does). If I win the lottery, I’ll get right on that with therapy.

Theo is immensely helpful. He doesn’t have any gender-related expectations about housework. He cooks and does it well. He cleans and is very thorough. He even gardens and has basic sewing skills.

Cooking is one area of homemaking that I enjoy more than others. It’s a huge learning process for me and I get it wrong more often than I get it right. My new adventure is making tortillas. We love Mexican food and while you can buy commercially-made tortillas, taco seasoning, and so forth, we prefer cooking with real, fresh ingredients. Tortillas are just flour and water, mixed, pressed, and heated. Sounds easy, right? It’s not.

Are you a domestic god/dess? Got any trade secrets for me?



  • Duane Hunter

    I too had to learn lots, when in the states I was the main bread earner, when I decided to move to Oz I knew with the visa (Visitor) I am on that I was not going to be able to work right away, I knew it was going to be hard but said ok, love does do that to us. I am a Cook by trade (21 Yrs in Navy) so I do have that going for me, the house cleaning no one wants to do. Yes when I grew up in S.C. we were made to clean and do our own laundry as get got older, and yes I still mix the whites with the color stuff 🙂 My partner works full time and I take pleasure in the fact that she comes home and does not have to worry about getting dinner ready, house clean and so on, at least for now I take this as my job and dont want her to have to do a thing, this is not expected of me by her and she makes sure she tells me to relax but really, it does not take me all day to clean the house, we do have a 11 yr old girl who has no idea how to pick up after herself but it still does not take all day, so I try to find things to do. I do have some good sites for cooking that makes it easy to cook if you want it let me know.

    • The things we do for love. Indeed. I need to come to your house for dinner. Thanks for the comments!

  • I spent years resenting the expectation that society placed on me that I should be a ‘good’ wife – that is, always look beautiful, have my husband’s clothes clean and ironed and keep my house tidy and pristine. I hated housework, failed at cooking and the ironing never failed to get away from me. If the house was a mess, even my girlfriends saw it as my failing. No-one ever said, ‘wouldn’t you think her husband would clean the house once in a while.’ That still irks me. However, looking back, I know my perfectionism was a major player in my inability to achieve it all and that led to the endless stress of too-much-to-do. I wish I could go back and approach the task with less anger. Now, I do all those jobs well enough.
    Take away the energy expended in anger, and let go of the need to be perfect, and it all gets easier. Of course, I know the hardest part is doing a job less than perfectly. Good luck with that.

    • You are very right about expectations and perfectionism. I work on accepting “good enough”. Thanks for your comments.

      • Duane Hunter

        I agree, never understood it myself, I always looked at it as in its our house so we both clean it, even Trish wants to do the dinner dishes because she says I cooked so she can do the dishes, so what ends up happening we both do the dishes so we both can enjoy eachothers company more and have fun, of course I like to crack a joke or two which makes it take longer, btw I love her smile and try to make her smile as much as possible. Back to the subjuct, I know that she cleans a differnt way than I do, and she also knows I try so that helps, I dont sit around all day watching tv like some I have seen. Before I left the states I was seeing more and more men not working for what ever reason and just sitting around expecting the women to work and clean, not going to happen here that is for sure….. and I hate playing Xbox 🙂

  • Duane, I like what you have said about your method of cleaning is not that of your partner’s but that you do try. This reminds me of teaching children, i.e., making their bed. Their job is never as good as their parents’ but redoing their job causes the to feel inadequate and incapable. My husband did not insist that our boys help with the chores, in fact – he wanted to do it himself because he thought he could do it better and faster. When it came to changing the oil in the car, he never got the boys to help. Therefore, many years later, my son had to take a course to learn how to maintain his car. I worked hard in the house, and insisted that our boys help, but because of the conflict between the parents, neither one of them are interested in keeping the house tidy (my theory). One son has already had conflicts with a girlfriend – his method did not meet her ‘standard’. He said he tried, but he felt that she had a high expectation and he honestly said that he just does not see it if his job is not perfect – he said he thinks he has a ‘wire loose’ on that level, and I believe him. Having said that, my boys are adults now, and I am getting older; when they are around, I would expect and appreciate it if they would pitch in and help or take over but they don’t. This attitude saddens me because I realize that my teaching did not impact them, and I suspect that their father’s way contributed to their slovenly lifestyle. They are wonderful, intelligent, educated and hard-working in many ways. Housekeeping is not on their agenda, and in defense of one son, he is in the midst of finalizing his PhD at Cal Berkeley (Bio-Engineering), so he really does not have time. I can’t say as much for my other son. Cosette, I wonder if your mother felt offended that her identity was attached to taking care of her family, but I suspect she did it out of love. As a mother, I do get much pleasure in serving my children, but it is unfair if and when I am taken for granted, and as I age, I need more help.

    • Sharon, your observations are so dead on.

      There are a few reasons my mother did everything for us. One is that my parents had a traditional conservative marriage where my dad brought home the bacon and my mom cooked it. Another is that they felt that our only job as kids was to go to school and get good grades. But another reason is something you touch on – my mother liked the cooking and cleaning done HER way. Like your husband, she could do it better and faster, and nobody could meet her standard. When she once complained about not getting help with the housework, I told my mom she doesn’t accept help. Being my mother’s daughter, I inherited some of this and that’s what I was referring to earlier when I mentioned moving away from perfectionism to good enough and learning to accept help even if it’s not exactly the way I would do it.

      To some degree, my mother did feel offended that her identity became wrapped up in homemaking and felt trapped by it. She regrets that in 30 years of living in the U.S., she never learned to speak English, never learned to drive, and never really had the chance to experience working outside the home. My father encouraged education and independence in my sister and I, but not in my mother. It’s probably no surprise that my mother wanted some of these things too and their marriage disintegrated.

      • Yes, I understand your mother’s position – we do not operate like that in our family, but by our cultural mores, our marriage is fairly traditional as well. I worked outside the home with my husband for 10 years. That period of time was tough on all of us. Once we got to New Zealand and the boys were 11 years old, i was able to spend more time at home. Fortunately, my husband is not a ‘clean-freak’, I am more of a perfectionist in that way than he is. Both he and I pitch in now and help each other. We too had your parents’ attitude – I often told my boys that it was my job to look after them and their job to make good grades. I do have to say that that concept can be taken advantage of, and was at times. 😉 Cosette, I am sorry to hear that your parents marriage disintegrated, I assume by what you have said they are no longer together. May I offer your mother encouragement? I have a sense she may be my age or younger, it is not too late for her to study English, and I’ll bet she knows more than she realizes! Driving is easy – from the looks of things, ANYONE can get a license! 😉 Give Mommy my best.

        • You’re too kind, Sharon. My parents are in the mid-60s and they have a friendly relationship and live next door to each other. They did split up many years ago, but they never went very far. They’ve both always remained committed to our family, in their own way. I’m very proud of both of them. My mother has really come into her own and over the last couple of years has learned to use a computer, the internet, and even asked me to register her on Facebook last month (she does it all in Spanish). My father has mellowed and cleaned up (he’s stopped smoking and drinking, which also contributed to their problems). Life is pretty peaceful at home in Miami.

  • So I have to ask… if Cuban children, including the daughters, never have to learn to cook or clean because their mothers do it all for them… then where did the mothers learn it? 😀

    I’ve never been a big fan of housework, either. I hate it and I resent it. Part of that is because being the oldest child in a very large family, I was doing a ton of housework every day. Not only did I have to make my bed, I had to make the beds of my younger siblings. I did at least three loads of laundry, usually by myself, every day after school. I traded off every other night with my mom doing the dishes, which was a LOT of dishes when you’re feeding a small army. I even mowed the entire lawn (a decent sized one) by myself with a push mower from the time I was 10. So I pretty well know how the routine goes.

    And like you, I like having a clean house. I just don’t like that I’m the one who has to keep it clean. My biggest issue is clutter. I can tolerate having floors that should have been vacuumed yesterday or a shower that could do with a scrub down, but I hate having things not put away. Because clutter makes it that much harder to clean. I don’t have any cleaning routine. I just do things as I see they need doing. If the windowsills are really dusty and gross, I’ll spend five minutes cleaning them, for example. This way I’m not spending a whole day doing chores and the house remains habitable, though not totally spotless.

    As for these things being my responsibility, well… Since I’m not bringing home any money and G works hard all day long, I don’t see any reason why these things shouldn’t be my responsibility. I’m home. I have the time to do it. I’m not contributing in any other way. And if I get these things done, it leaves more time for us to spend together doing things we like when G isn’t working. He always helps if I ask him to and he did a good job with the cleaning while I was sick, but I don’t think it would be fair to expect him to go to work and then come home and do all the chores, while I sit around being lazy all day.

    Fortunately, we both like cooking and we usually do that together, so I’ve never felt like that was a chore. I’m generally in favour of any activity that results in me getting to eat something yummy. 😀 And learning to cook is not hard! My mom didn’t do much in the way of real cooking because we could only afford cheap canned stuff. I taught myself to do real cooking with a Betty Crocker cookbook. If you get a cookbook with lots of pictures and good instructions, it’s very easy. The one I have even shows pictures of what foods should look like when they are cooked right and when they are cooked wrong and explains what happened to make it come out wrong. Very helpful for the novice chef.

    • So many good points here. To your first question, the paradox, it might be a generational thing where my generation is just more spoiled than the previous. I remember my mom telling me once though that when she got married at 18, she didn’t know how to do anything either.

      I HATE clutter! I too can deal with some dirt, but clutter drives me crazy.

      I don’t have a cleaning routine either. Sometimes I think it would be better if I did, but Theo’s schedule is all over the place so I try to work around his instead.

      I’ve bought a few excellent cookbooks and have been slowly learning from those. I have some weird kitchen phobias I need to get over such as my irrational fear that I’m going to slice my digits off with the knife.

      • Knife skills are something that you need to practice a fair bit. I’m not especially adept at it, but G is a whiz. He chops things so fast, so a lot of times, I just let him do all the chopping because it takes me ten times longer than it takes him. But he’s been doing it since he was a child.

        Here is a good video on knife technique: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arOHmHYhEaY

        If you skip ahead to around 2:50 where she talks about slicing, she’ll show you the proper way to hold your guiding hand so that it’s impossible for you to cut yourself. It feels awkward at first, but it is safe and will keep all your fingers intact.

  • Tyler Fenix

    What a great article! I am glad to see you writing about this subject in regard to Cuban Mothers and not shying away from saying it is a generalization and a truth at the same time. I have observed this very thing within the Cuban males, and I think they may be spoiled just as much, if not worse in some cases. I know because I have DATED them! In my own life, being from mixed heritage and two parents from very large families, there was only my sister and myself. We HAD to do chores, and dishes were a part of that as far back as I can remember. My sister would wash – 7 yrs older than me and I was too young to understand about germs or care enough about scrubbing properly when it came to skillets, not to mention I could hurt myself – so my job was drying and putting away. We spent that time with my sister telling stories and making me laugh. Mom spent that time upstairs being alone. Thursdays were house cleaning days and there was absolutely no way to get out of it. Not even homework could help you!
    When I went to live with Dad and step-family…still chores! One time, while leaving the house to go out with buds, my Dad asked if I’d done my chores and I lied by saying I had. I returned home at 10 pm, my Dad smiled at me and said goodnight, and I went to bed…only to find a seeping pile of dirty dishes in a trash bag IN my bed! No getting away from chores in my family.
    My Mother is a strong ( at times too strong if you ask me), independent woman who would hand me coins and tell me to go downstairs and do my own laundry. My Dad is a man who respects women. They instilled a great sense of responsibility and respect in us and we had to do our chores. They divorced. We grew up.
    What is my point in relation to your story? Well, I hate chores! I hate cleaning and the expectation that I have to do it! I wanted a Mother who did the laundry and cleaned my room for me. I want a maid too. But, I have a partner who is understanding and does not push because he knows the minute he does, I will revert to the feeling of being a slave and rebel. Just because my parents instilled good values with chores and responsibility about cleaning does not mean I will automatically LIKE… or WANT to do it!
    So…is it really about cleaning, or is it about our interpretation of it? To me the most important thing about it, is that I am grateful for a partner who grants me understanding in relation to my character defects, and that I just show my gratitude in return by picking things to do in support of OUR household. I will never have to LIKE chores! I will have someone hired to clean…one day.
    BTW, I am sooooo happy for you! Relationships are all learning curves. There are no grades…only endless chances for growth and self realization. I’m done with the bubbliness now! Big kiss

    • The result on Cuban sons is even worse. They just never cut the cord.

      It’s definitely a strange dance. Some days I don’t mind doing chores and I’m happy to do them. Other days, it feels like slavery. I think housework is wrapped up in a lot of baggage.

      Thanks for your kind words, Tyler 🙂

  • Ah, housework. Hate, hate, hate it and though I’m not lazy in other areas of my life, I just HATE washing dishes (no dishwasher here in our quasi-kitchen). Also, I am messy by nature, so put me, my husband, our dog and a whole bunch of stuff into a 1 BR apt that is way too small for us and you get a disaster. Add to that the lack of storage space here and, well, you get the picture. Makes it hard to clean when you can barely see your bedroom floor due to boxes and suitcases everywhere. I think we need to move!

    • Ha! Yes, moving sometimes seems easier. I’d love to hear more about your home. I’ve heard living spaces can be pretty small in France compared to what we’re used to as Americans.

      • Yea, let’s call it my “living space.” I wouldn’t say it’s my home haha. I moved in with my husband into his 1 BR apt he had before we even met. Since we’re not sure where we’ll end up, it didn’t make sense to splurge on a move into a bigger place in the beginning. But now I’m thinking maybe that would have been better!

        Kitchens in France don’t come furnished like many do in the US. You get a sink hookup with a little cabinet and that’s about it, so all the appliances need to be purchased and if you want cabinets, you have to install them. When you move, you take your fridge and washer, etc. with you. I think in general, spaces are smaller in France, no huge bedrooms or bathrooms, but they can be found if you look. And want to pay. I’d be totally cool with a small house or just a “real” kitchen. But we rent, so no big changes planned here. I think once we know what we’ll be doing in the next couple of years in terms of location, a change will be in order. Hopefully for a place slightly bigger!! But I can’t complain too much, I lived in a tiny (but amazing) NYC apt so I can cope w/this. 😉