A Woman vs. Her Roomba: The Battle for Biblical Femininity

Several months ago, my husband Alex made a peculiar suggestion for his approaching birthday: he […]

Charlotte Getz / 4.10.18

Several months ago, my husband Alex made a peculiar suggestion for his approaching birthday: he wanted a Roomba.

The notion was mildly annoying to me at the time (I wasn’t sure why), but I chose to brush it off as a disturbing lack of imagination on Alex’s part. You want a vacuum for your birthday? Okay, grandpa.

Several weeks ago the thing arrived, and I have never seen my betrothed operate with such rabid demeanor. Excitement and anticipation emoted through Alex’s every gesture. He darted around the house picking up any odd end that might get in the Roomba’s path. He flipped through the owner’s manual as if it were a stack of cash instead of a flimsy list of instructions. My children initially referred to the thing as “robot vacuum,” but over the following days it quickly came to take on the qualities of something more lifelike. “Robot vacuum” has now officially and affectionately been named “Jimbo.” Instead of “the dock where the Roomba gets charged,” they call it “Jimbo’s sleeping station.”

Alex and the kids trail the vacuum around the house in awe, muttering things like, “Which way will he go?” “I wonder why he went into this room and not that room?” “He’s so effective with the dog hair!” “I’ve never seen our house look this spotless!” At least several times a day, my two-year-old daughter pets the Roomba tenderly and looks up at me with tears in her eyes. “He’s so cuuute,” she gushes, as if Jimbo were cleaning the filth off our souls instead of our floors.

What began as an arbitrary birthday present is now morphing into a creeping resentment. We walk into the room where the vacuum is docked and if I make any abrupt sound, the kids turn at me frenetically with a finger to their lips: “Shhhhh, he’s sleeping…” I wonder if they’d be so concerned were it I taking a nap…

Last week, as the Roomba made its rounds, its dull hum of sanitation sent shards of frustration up my spine. Its bristled debris-extractor rotated flirtatiously like batting eyelashes, mocking me with a spiraling superiority. “It’s Friday night,” I said to Alex with a tone of buttoned hostility, “can’t we just watch Netflix in peace?”

“I don’t know if he will let us do that,” Alex said defensively. “I think he has to finish the job before he’ll go back to his station” — as if the Roomba were a paid housekeeper with a family and feelings instead of a mindless and invasive machine with a Power switch.


I had come undone.

Alex consulted the manual, pressed a few buttons and, of course, the thing began its shutdown process. Heaven forbid we carry it back to its charging dock — Jimbo had to get there on his own. “I wonder how he knows the way back to his sleeping station,” said Alex with the fascination of a scientific inventor. “How long do you think it will take him?” Several minutes later (too long if you ask me), a ding chimed from the dining room and Jimbo was back to his blessed resting place.

After such a biting reaction to the harmless efforts of our innocent robot vacuum, I felt compelled to do some soul-searching about my aggression toward this rotund machine. I pondered the adoring gazes of my children as they pass him sleeping in the hall, and then the thrill with which my husband sets him to work every week.

I quickly realized that the worst was coming to pass: I was being made obsolete by an A.I. named Jimbo.

Alex’s mere suggestion that we needed a cleaning robot had sent with it a subtle yet apparent message: You, unlike every other woman on the planet, are incapable of keeping a clean house for your family. You are not enough. And the sleek, black plastic exterior of Jimbo, the jerky to-and-fro of his eager dusting, is sexier than you. Not only are you not enough, you are not woman enough.

Jimbo is everything I am not: submissive, minimalist, shiny, efficient, dutiful, and he knows his place (his sleeping station under the dining room window).

Society, and often the church, have pretty clear (if frequently contradicting) lines about what a woman should be or do: long hair or short hair, pants or skirt, stay-at-home or career-oriented, chaste or loose, strong or soft, potluck or paralegal, Emily Post or Anna Wintour. Although we live in a time when there seem to be myriad acceptable variations of woman, I rarely feel those options are attainable or fully satisfied in and of themselves. I must be (want to be? need to be?) everything. I must be outgoing but not too outgoing. I must be a mother who also has personal aspirations outside of motherhood. I must be attractive but in a 30-something way, both strong and skinny. I must be interesting while humble, authentic while grateful. I must be funny but also tender and wise. I must be a modern woman who has time and energy to provide wholesome meals and a tidy home for her family. I must be a woman who entertains on a regular basis while still maintaining more intimate friendships. I must cultivate both a calm and a spicy marriage, while raising delightfully rambunctious yet poised and well-behaved children.

I must be all of these many, many things. And yet when I rely on something so small as Alex or his beloved Jimbo to clean the floors (as is perfectly appropriate), I suffer a queasy wave of inexplicable guilt. “I should be doing that,” I think, as I watch the Roomba effortlessly rob me of my identity. Similarly, when I am THIS CLOSE to selling my children for parts because THEY NEED ME TOO MUCH, I wonder in shame if both they and I would have been better suited for a full-time daycare/working mom routine.

And yet God’s vision for femininity and womanhood seems to come in broader and far more gracious strokes than the rigid forms painted by culture or the church. The first and fullest picture we get of this is in His essential and meticulous creation of Eve. Before the fall, God names Eve Adam’s “ezer kenegdo” — roughly translated as “helper” or, closer, “lifesaver.” Frankly, I think that’s a pretty badass calling that encompasses all manor of lifestyle and adventure. After the fall, though, this pure and perfect intent for woman seems (in my case) to have warped into all the suffocating traits of the Proverbs 31 gal. Although I like a clean living space, I mostly hate “helping” to that end, in the classically female sense of the role. I do it, for the most part, anyway. It is exhausting. I’d rather be doing anything else. And with me walks this hovering sense of shame, because I am not (or cannot) fully be this woman or that woman.

It’s a battle that does not have an end. All the laws attached to the numerous earth-side variations of woman are too much. And one thing’s for damn certain, I am no lifesaver. But once the kids are asleep and Jimbo quits his incessant whirring, I begin to see this ongoing battle as some sharply shaped blessing. I — we, I hope — am planted by my sin and shortcomings somewhere in the murky in-between: a helper who needs help.

Maybe this is exactly who God made me to be, a woman in a constant, embarrassing, and often dire state of need. Here is why a little law like homemaking might be a good thing — it betrays that I cannot do or be everything or everyone. Not even close. I am a human; but something like our family Roomba points me in the direction of my ezer kenegdo, a capital-H Helper, a capital-L Lifesaver, who is both human and divine.

While I remain suspicious of the robot vacuum and what it means for our future as a society (hello, Ex Machina), for now I’ve begrudgingly decided to kick up my feet and lean on Jimbo, which looks a little like leaning on Jesus, for relief…something like a helper receiving Help.