Suddenly Suburban and the Case of the Sad Hydrangeas

In 2017, thinking only of the picturesque, I bought a house on a beautifully quiet street in a beautifully quiet suburb of Minneapolis. I pictured myself sitting on the patio in summer, looking out to the acre of woods behind my house. In winter, I planned to curl up with a book beside a first floor window. I thought, maybe I’ll glance up to find a deer looking in on me. (It happened.) I thought of getting a dog. I did not think about how much more cleaning a three bedroom house requires, compared to the one-bedroom apartment I’d occupied for so long. I did not think about the fact that I’d cared for one house plant in my entire life— which thrived under my care for a year before I re-homed it— or the possibility that I was biting off far more than I could chew. Flash forward to 2020, and my yard is an embarrassment to an otherwise pristine neighborhood. My front lawn is shaggy and brown. I’ve surrendered my back yard to the woods. No grass remains, only a mixture of creeping Charlie, moss, and garlic mustard. (This summer, I let a weed grow as high as my shoulder, only because he seemed to have such gumption.) I don’t mind the back yard’s wildness. That’s behind the house, where nobody can see it. The front yard, on the other hand, fills me with shame. 

It only took a year under my care for the evergreen bushes in front of my house to die. We’re talking dead. We’re talking, a landscaper named Organic Bob standing in my front yard with his arms crossed, saying, “I’ve actually never seen any this far gone before, and I’ve been in the business twenty years.” 

Needless to say, I hired him. 

Two weeks later, Organic Bob and his crew planted oak said, wild Ginger, something pretty with little purple flowers, and Annabelle hydrangeas. I thought, “this is the beginning of some thing. Now that we’ve set things right, I can do this. I will have a garden.”

This was the end of June. Then we had what felt like the hottest July in the history of Minnesota. Temperatures in the nineties, day after day after day. The heat stressed the hydrangeas. The transplant was apparently a shock, but I did as I was told. 

“Whatever you do, don’t over-water. You see them struggling, you want to water them, but over-watering is just as bad as under-watering,” I was warned. 

Okay, so: just water the exact right amount. Got it. 

I spent most of the month outside in the blistering sun, agonizing over whether or not to water. I don’t have any intuition for when they need water or when they don’t. (One house plant, remember?) And I’m thinking: everyone can see these. I am responsible for these lives, and I am failing. I am a terrible gardener, a failure as a homemaker, and probably all of my neighbors are driving past my house thinking that I’d be a terrible mother. 

If you’re thinking: What? How did we get here? You are not alone. A meltdown in front of my husband led to similar questions.

My neighbors’ lawns are chemically treated and perfectly edged. More than a few yards have gorgeously maintained flowerbeds that they sprinkle with dehydrated coyote urine to keep the deer from eating every bloom. A desire to keep up with the Jones’ would be understandable. But a failure as a homemaker? A terrible mother? These are loaded phrases that leapt from my mouth before I understood I felt them. Those are not keeping-up-with-the-Jones’ terms. 

Much to my surprise, I hold the belief that failure to keep my house in order is just that: a failure. I thought I didn’t care about or consider, but apparently I do. Oh! And also, it’s my job, not my husbands, and not our shared responsibility. When friends drop by (or when they did, before COVID Life), the first thing I do is apologize for the mess, even when the place is fine. I tell my mother-in-law that her son has taken over vacuuming duty, because if he didn’t, it would never get done. I make self-deprecating little jokes, so everybody knows that I see what I ought to be doing and have opted out. Which I almost have, except that I still see the choice to read a book instead of dust my baseboards as a sort shortcoming that I ought to apologize for. I feel guilty— just not guilty enough to change. 

I’m in a sort of purgatory. I care, but I don’t. I hold the belief that my house should be spotless, that keeping it just so is my job, somehow and also: I know that this belief is bullshit, and my actions reflect that knowing. If he cares more about vacuuming than I do, let him do it. I happen to be a very diligent laundry folder. Our dressers are fully Marie Kondo-ed. 

These hydrangeas, though, were out there for all to see, and their failure to thrive under my care was somehow worse than bushes, which died by neglect. My hydrangeas were dying when I had opted in. I was actively trying. To try and then to fail signifies a lack of aptitude. It’s one thing to have opted out of those perceived obligations, but to be inept? And gardening is more than just housework. It’s housework and nurturing rolled into one laborious, time consuming slog. I cannot emphasize enough how ashamed of myself I felt. 

This belief did not spring into my mind out of nowhere. It’s part of a cultural message that women have been getting for generation. As a child, when company was coming, my mother— the one with the badass resume, who raised me as a feminist— would run around the house like mad. Tidying, cleaning, hiding any evidence that people actually lived in the house. She inherited the message from her own mother who inherited it from hers, and so on. The generation before me changed the narrative. These women held two conflicting ideals: the ideals taught to her by women whose choices were limited, and her ideals as a woman who could have it all. A generation later, I thought I’d evolved beyond this thinking. It turns out, I just lived in an apartment. I hadn’t had to think about it.

I spent August watering like mad, and those hydrangeas perked up, only to be eaten by deer. My lawn is still a mess. I think it always will be, though I’m learning. I’m learning to water the grass when it’s dry. To pick the weeds. To prune. I know I’d like to care a little bit less what my neighbors think. I know I’d rather live in my house than keep it, but sometimes my instinct to maintain a certain standard, as if keeping a house is a sign of moral fiber, takes over. 

What is it they say? The first step is admitting you have a problem? 

Cheers to self awareness, friends. 

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