Thursday, 9 October 2014

Chore Wars II: and another thing....

Professor Jonathan Gershuny of the Centre for Time Use Research in Oxford was making depressing and familiar points on Woman’s Hour this week (‘Chore Wars’). Women have been completely done over in the modern world, he said. Because women cannot expect marriage to last (statistically), they'd better keep earning, plus they can still expect to shoulder the majority of the unpaid work at home. 

This isn't news to me, but it's depressing to hear a Professor say it. I found it a little simplistic: what about how women cop the unpaid work at work as well? All those emotional dynamics, the presenteeism, the bringing in of fattening cakes, and, frankly, the menial paid parts of jobs. 

Be that as it may, Professor Gershuny's argument was that domestic labour has been progressively 'feminised', through labour-saving devices like boilers, dishwashers and hoovers. He argues that men used to lay the fires in the average home. Domestic jobs for the boys have been replaced by machines. Men at home are, in this account, and rather oddly, the Romantic victims of the Industrial Revolution. He also didn’t comment on the class issues involved in domestic labour — in fact it seems to have become taboo to mention class in relation to motherhood or the family. I don’t think upper class men laid their own fires, and even very average families often had a maid. The issue of who does what in the home is at least as much a class as a feminist issue. 

When I was growing up, my older father had already retired. I remember him doing masses around the house, as well as the DIY. My mother did not go out to work. Picture the one-time mechanical engineer mending the toilet flush in his pants. My mother quietly devoted her time to us and to cooking, gardening and weaving. I inherited the double expectation that partners in a marriage share domestic labour, and that mothers are there for their children. I wish I had understood how lucky I was as a child, how impossible it would be to provide the same kind of attention to my own children, and just how bad I was going to feel about this. 

I got my husband to do the Mumsnet Chores Surveyand by and large he was realistic. He only over-estimated his contribution a little — and in fact, at the moment, he is doing the lion's share, because I'm the one working, so we take turns. Domestic drudgery goes in waves and phases for us. Yet when you look at the results of the Mumsnet survey, the way we share just isn't representative of what's going on in the British home. I would gladly relinquish all housework — I really don't care about it — if I thought that I wasn't going to be judged and forced to justify myself about it

I find it impossible not to care (even though I don't care) what people think of my mothering/domestic actions, because the dominant assumptions are so… dominant. It's the lack of alternative models for living that I find truly suffocating. In my own life, my husband and I have abandoned mainstream ways of doing pretty much everything, because we thought a lot of those assumptions were marriage-endingly unfair on me. But we feel in a minority for doing so. 

I still iron his shirts, and love baking (I have won prizes for my cakes!), but I want to do it on my terms. The trouble is that there seems so little room for this at the moment. There's no space in which to iron your man's shirt out of love, or practicality, without being judged a feeble stay-at-home, and no space in which to refuse to iron your man's shirt without being judged a hard-faced cow. But why should this be, when women are supposed to have been liberated from all these stereotypes? The answer, of course, is that they have not liberated themselves or each other. We are afraid to let go of the stereotypes, because we don't know who we would be without them. 

My husband still does the irritating deferral of every domestic decision to me, and I have to train him constantly to think for himself, but he thinks he's just practising 'good communication' (by asking me 'whether or not son needs a packed lunch'). So sweet. I've accepted the idea that I'm the family leader, which has its pros and cons — essentially the family is much happier when I'm in charge of absolutely everything (and so am I). 

BUT. It is also my job to delegate well so that I don't fall over with the stress of it all, and so that my son grows up to pull his weight, and my daughter grows up to know she's entitled to live a balanced life.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Mumsnet: The Chore Wars

Yesterday, Mumsnet asked me to write a guest post for them on their current Chores Survey. You can read the post here, and I've added it for convenience below. Enjoy!


"On Monday I met a friend for lunch. I'd put ‘Luncheon with Janet’ in the calendar, because it made us both laugh to think of ourselves as Ladies who Lunch.

As we were sitting chatting, my husband walked into the cafe, carrying a big bag of food shopping. He looked rather dashing, actually, all six foot three of him; he had on one of his dark work jackets, and those deep chocolate brown eyes were twinkling.

He wanted to know whether I had the car with me, so he could put the shopping in the boot and walk home. As he left the cafe, we flirted with each other, and he pulled an imaginary forelock, Clifford to my Lady Chatterley.

How are we to interpret this silly little anecdote? My heart burst with pride to see my husband in an unaccustomed context and to see him caring for the family, but the transaction still had to take place under the aegis of irony - I'm not really a lady who lunches and he isn't really my butler or my gardener. This was division of labour as stage show.

This week, Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour is exploring 'Chore Wars', while Mumsnet has published the results of their chores survey, which asked 1000 women who work outside the home how they share the chores with their partners.

It's fascinating stuff, if a bit depressing. Take Jonathan Gershuny of the Centre for Time Use Research in Oxford, making the point on Woman's Hour that women have been completely done over in the modern world: because you cannot expect marriage to last (statistically), you'd better keep earning, and you are still going to shoulder the majority of the unpaid work at home. 
There was an expectation that I would do it all, in the home and outside it, and that 'sharing' was, impossibly, both a kind of failure and a kind of privilege. I shouldn't need help, and if I did, I was weak.

Gershuny's findings show that although some tasks like cooking (note: creative, occasionally enjoyable) have become more evenly shared, very few men pull their weight with tasks like laundry (note: mind-numbingly dull). The Mumsnet survey also reflected this: 77% of women who work outside the home are also responsible for the washing.

Of course, the advent of dishwashers and washing machines and hoovers should mean that women’s lives have got easier – but have they? I would argue that the way we use labour-saving devices has itself become laborious because we've made more work for ourselves. Washday is no longer just Monday, but every day - the chore of washing has multiplied, because it is no longer acceptable, in our image-conscious society, to wear two-day old clothing. Keeping your children looking presentable is just one example of the domestic expectations heaped on women – markers, like having a spotless home, that have become, apparently, necessary in order to register on the index of female success.

When I began my family, I had a good understanding of how tiring and intense parenting would be, but nothing prepared me for the domestic scenario that goes along with it: wall to wall female expectation that I would do it all, in the home and outside it, and that ‘sharing’ was, impossibly, both a kind of failure, and a kind of privilege. I shouldn't need help, and if I did, I was weak. I felt as if I had walked out of my own life and into the nineteenth century.

There's a constant sense of guilt and competition, the feeling that if you can't manage this 'thing' – the home, the family, the cooking, the children's needs, your partner's needs – as millions of women have done before you, and continue to do around the world, then you’re a failure.

It's fascinating to me that 66% of the women Mumsnet asked about chores said they didn't want their partner to do more around the house, despite the unequal distribution of responsibilities, either because they’re comfortable with the current balance, or because it suits them to do the chores themselves, or because they believe that their partner would not perform them to the 'requisite standard'. Could it be the case that we know we're getting a rough deal, but that the idea that women are ‘better suited’ than men to domestic drudgery is still so pervasive that we'd rather not upset the status quo, salving ourselves with: ‘they’d do a rubbish job, anyway’?

So, what's the solution? Chores need to get done, after all. After years of trying to do it all, I've learnt that sharing is crucial. I've learnt that chores are in large part self-imposed, turned into an instrument of competition and made much worse by contemporary expectations from schools about ‘parental engagement’. I've also learnt that chores are as demeaning for women as they are for men, and that a bit of hard work doesn't hurt our children either. After all, they're part of the team too."