We were all young once. Young and naive and idealistic. Yes, that was me way back in the day (<2 years ago). I was, a) a feminist (still am one) and b) someone who wanted to stay at home full time whilst her children were young (um, not so much). Unsurprisingly, then, I enjoyed getting on my feminist high horse about the ‘gendering of housework’.
“The problem is, really, that having children is largely shown to change the division of labour within a household; it gets skewed towards the woman, as if the role of mother somehow involves being cook, cleaner and laundry-woman! Whether a woman ‘works’ or not shouldn’t be the issue. I mean, child-care is a full time job, we pay other people a lot of money to do it, it should be valued as an occupation in and of itself…blah blah blah.”
Aaah, to be young and free! I now realise two things: 1) That pretty much all childcare workers – nannies, child-minders, nursery staff – do a crap load of cleaning. 2) If you spend your entire day with a child and do absolutely nothing domestic (i.e. picking up breakfast from the floor or clearing a pathway through the toys) then by 5pm your once lovely home will have disappeared under a heap of used baby-wipes, small wooden blocks and breadstick-crumbs.
Don’t get me wrong, by 5pm everyday my house looks like I’ve done absolutely no housework. What I have actually been engaged in all day is damage limitation. Oh and, you know, entertaining/feeding/soothing an actual tiny human being. So basically, lounging!
So I have come to accept that side of it; the clean-as-you-go efforts that keep your house looking messy rather than utterly rank. I can deal with that, it’s fair enough. The part that irks me is the strange thing that happens to my mind when my husband arrives home from work. I feel an irrepressible urge to explain the mess to him. “Sorry about all the pans. We were out all afternoon, and I had to leave right after lunch, and, I didn’t mean it, and, I’m gonna clean it up…”
Why do I do this? It’s not Hubs making me feel this way. He’ll usually just respond along the lines of “that’s fine love, you don’t need to explain.” Oh but I do, Hubs! I doooo! Because I am a mother now, and that involves being a cook, cleaner, laundry woman… Hold up! What has occurred in my brain? Dear Reader, I have become the very thing I once scorned!
Anyone who knows me will probably be reading this with an expression of glaring incredulity. I am not a domestic goddess. My house is never spotless and rarely thoroughly tidied (see image above). Yes, I cook the tea most nights but when I do Hubs washes up. Pretty sweet. I’d say I do 30% of the laundry, at a push, so really nowt to complain about there. I sweep the floors multiple times a day (#blamethebreadsticks) and am generally the resident toilet-cleaner but as households go, our division of labour is pretty darn healthy. In fact, I took the Woman’s Hour ‘chore wars’ survey and, although I am apparently a ‘Clean Machine’ Hubs is rated as ‘Super Human’. So, in my face.
So why do I still feel like a housewife?
Well, for a start, the whole ‘unpaid’ thing doesn’t help. Suddenly I am not even remotely the bread-winner. I win no bread, not a crumb, (Dear Editors, I will work for crumbs). And so it’s a bit like Hubs is paying me. Which is a bit like being a employed as a Stay-at-Home-Mum by your husband. Weird. Maybe that’s why I feel the need to show employee accountability and undergo professional development reviews: Over the past twelve months I really feel I have expanded my kitchen repertoire and am placing a lot more emphasis on surface-wiping than I used to.
No one is demanding this from me. No one is even really expecting it. But somehow it has become part of my identity. For all of my post-baby feminist ranting I have completely bought into the idea that staying at home with your kids means taking on more of the housework. And maybe it should mean that, whatever gender the care-giver is. But much worse is the flip-side of this idea: that if you don’t do this then you’re a lazy failure of a mother/wife/woman. I mean, I’ve only got one kid. It’s really not that hard. Shouldn’t I be baking bread and running-up curtains or something? *bangs head on keyboard repeatedly*
Many of us have fallen into the trap of measuring our parenting ‘successes’ based on, I don’t know, how many meals we’ve cooked ‘from scratch’ this week, or how often we mop the bathroom floor. But, hold up, isn’t there another exemplar of our hours of labour? (Pun intended). Don’t we have some pretty strong proof that we are doing something with our days?
That’s right people, we have children! Actual alive, looked-after, fed, read to, talked to, cuddled, tickled and loved children. Have we just come to think of raising kids as ‘what you’re supposed to do’? Is it somehow that bare minimum of daily achievement?? You know, I t’s in your genes and, therefore, you should be good at it. Don’t expect any bloody praise for bringing up the next generation of the human race. That be women’s work! *NB: we will simultaneously bombard you with so much contradictory advice you never feel you’re really good at it all. ha.*
Of course, it’s not women’s work. It’s human’s work. It takes a village to raise a child and all that. But, still, child-rearing exists in the collective imagination as a feminine and organic process, one that just sort of ‘happens’. Of course there’s lots of ‘oh she’s such a good mother‘ and ‘go mums!‘ stuff around but that’s usually more about being a nice person than the day-to-day tasks one has to perform as a primary care-giver.
If you stay home with your kids you’re more likely to be thought as ‘lucky’ because just get to do ‘one thing’ (try a bazillion tiny unquantifiable unnoticed tasks). In a way I am lucky that we can afford for me to do this, but I wouldn’t mind also being thought of as capable or creative or efficient. Okay, that last one would be inaccurate, but I stand by the first two!
I don’t know whether I have really been duped by the patriarchy into guilt-tripping myself about my domestic short-comings. Maybe I just need to shut up and get on with. (Incidentally Shut Up and Get On With It will one day be the title of my first self-help book, catchy, huh?)
Somewhere down the line, though, I fell into the thinking that being a ‘full-time stay-at-home mum’ was not enough. That I would have to prove my utility in other ways in order ‘be okay’. As if anything could please, or indeed impress, my family/friends/the world more than that gorgeous, hilarious, wilful little boy of mine. This is the problem; not the amount of cleaning I do but the obligation I feel to do it. I should do it because I am at home. I should do it because I am a mother. And the guilt if (when, several times a week) I don’t do any of it. That is not on. It needs to stop. Guilt doesn’t clean the loos. In fact, guilt belongs down the toilet. So there.
I’m going to keep on doing the housework, because it needs doing and I live in the house and make a lot of the mess. One day I’ll be employed again and hire a cleaner, so I can feel guilty about neglecting my womanly duties in that way instead. Them’s the breaks. That’s the patriarchy. Bleurgh to it all.
How do you feel about housework? Do you feel more responsible for it than your other half? Or guilty when you have a frozen meal for dinner? Get involved by commenting below, visiting my Facebook page, or tweeting me @aafew.