Maid of the manor

Despite all our advances, men still dominate public life. But if they are so smart, asks Amity Reed, why can't they fathom how to do the housework?

, 30 August 2007

Whoever said “my idea of housework is to sweep the room with a glance” was surely a man. As the author remains unknown, we can only assume that he was killed by his other half, and unceremoniously buried under one of the many mountains of dust and clutter festooning the rooms he refused to clean. That or his wife was just like millions of other women and did the bulk of the housework day in and day out, regardless of whether she worked a 9-5 day job as well. And if the former is true, she likely let him live merely out of spite.

Our sisters from the disco decades must be wishing they hadn’t bothered burning those bras after all. To think, we could’ve been using them as dust cloths all this time.

If you pay attention to print media aimed at women, be it the monthly glossies, mummy blogs, chick lit, feminist websites, parenting books or the insipid ‘women’s interests’ supplements included in the Sunday papers, you will have seen countless times the words ‘juggle’ and ‘balancing act’ when referring to a woman’s harried attempts to maintain both a career and a reasonably-happy family life, complete with 2.5 children and a clean, inviting home. Other relevant terms like ‘walk the line’ or ‘lots of balls in the air’ makes one wonder: since when did striving for equality, in the home and in the office, become a sideshow act in a three-ring circus? Are we taming the lion, or just waiting for it to swallow us whole?

While we have undoubtedly made great strides in equalising ourselves with men in the workforce, we are still languishing at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to division of domestic labour. According to a recent survey of 17,000 people in 28 different countries, a woman’s increased status in the workplace has, effectively, done next to nothing for her at home. Men’s share of domestic work, even when their partners are in full-time employment, falls short of the egalitarian notion of splitting things down the middle as they still spend only 1/3 of the time women do handling chores and family-focused duties. British men placed 10th, completing 35% of their households’ domestic tasks. So, far from being more equal with our spouses and men in general, we find ourselves doing more than is really possible or good for us, often damaging our health, relationships, sex life, personal aspirations and sanity in the process.

Given that our male partners possess arms and opposable thumbs, one wonders why this help with the housework seems like a distant dream

There are many issues in the workforce that contribute to this problem, among them sexual discrimination and the glass ceiling, inadequate parental leave and childcare provision, inflexible working hours, and a social expectation that women must be the ones to take time off when little Johnny gets ill. Therefore, we are the ones effectively punished for not following the male model of ‘all work, all the time’. Even women who have no children suffer from this social constraint, as those of childbearing age are passed over for promotions by bosses who don’t want female hormones too near the inner sanctum of the boardroom and who arrogantly assume that visions of silk throws and babies dance in our heads as we march through our 20s and 30s to the unavoidable beat of our biological bass drums.

There is no doubt that office politics, government policies and procedural bullshit play a role in prohibiting women from advancing in the workplace, but what is really stopping them (and women who work part-time, or from home, or at home, raising children) from fulfilling their potential? Ask any woman, and particularly mothers – whether a high-brow executive or a full-time parent – what single thing would make her life easier and the answer is usually ‘help with the cleaning at home’. Given that our male partners also possess arms and opposable thumbs, one wonders why this help seems so elusive, a distant dream.

Fellas, you have some explaining to do.

What has changed for men since their wives went off to work, aside from making the shift from packed lunches to the daily M&S sandwich run?

According to a recent poll in which respondents were asked what constitutes a successful marriage, sharing household chores ranked above raising children together. This comes as no surprise when one considers that the current generation is the first in which the majority were raised by working mothers and have seen first-hand the stresses and hardships that they endured in doing both. Broken homes, a lack of male influence in children’s lives, an increase in juvenile health and behavioural problems, all have been blamed on the feminist movement and the associated guilt lain, like flowers over a grave, at mothers’ feet. Opponents of equality point their fingers in glee at statistics that show a breakdown in family life that coincides with the mass exodus from the oven to the desk.

But what’s wrong with this picture? As the media works itself into a lathered frenzy, deducing and theorising and blaming women for the world’s ills, we forget a crucial aspect to this story: the male protagonist. If life is like a play, husbands and partners seem to be largely missing from the cast. What, if anything, has changed for men since their wives went off to work? Aside from making the shift from packed lunches to the daily M&S sandwich run and perhaps slightly more wrinkled shirts, the answer is not much.

True, men who participate in premarital cohabitation are more likely than their fathers’ generation to take part in domestic chores and declare equality with their partners, but once a man is married, studies show that he usually reverts to type. Something about wedding vows, even for self-proclaimed sympathisers of the feminist fight, causes some men to take their Neanderthal stick and draw a line in the mud between themselves and their spouses, when it comes to matters of home and hearth. Do men really see dirt differently from women, as I’ve heard many of my acquaintances claim, or have they been conditioned by their upbringing, schooling and the patriarchy to live in selfish denial? My personal experiences make me lean towards the latter, but with a pinch of the former thrown in, just to add to the confusion.

Hot tears of disappointment and disbelief coursed down my cheeks in silence as I scrubbed the tub before filling it

Last October, I took a flight overseas. It wasn’t the first time I’d flown without my husband but in that instance I was making the trip with our six-month-old daughter in tow. I made a conscious decision not to remind him about cleaning while I was away. After months of weary bickering, which I put down mainly to ‘new baby stress’, I decided to take a step back and see what he did on his own. Recalling the saying that if you’re treated like a child, you tend to act like one, I scolded myself for not allowing him to be an adult and do things his way in my absence. A gentle reminder that I would love to come back to a reasonably clean and tidy home was all that was spoken.

Upon my return, after several hours of stressful air travel and no sleep, with a fussy baby and a pompous arse for a seat-mate, all I wanted was to fall into a hot bath and then a lovely, soft bed when I got home. Loving and eager to see me as ever, dear hubby showered me in hugs and talked of how he would pamper me all day and treat me like royalty (but without all the covert inbreeding and tiara-wearing). When I walked into the flat and saw the filthy bathtub, crumpled sheets, empty refrigerator and grimy floors, I almost walked straight back out. That there were fresh flowers on the table didn’t mean anything to me. If anything, it seemed like a cheap shot, a desperate attempt to distract me from reality with pretty colours. Hot tears of disappointment and disbelief coursed down my cheeks in silence as I scrubbed the tub before filling it. And there he was, so happy to be with his family and smiling like a giddy schoolboy, oblivious to my anger and making me feel horribly confused about whether his (non)actions were done with malicious intent or with well-intentioned blinders on. Looking back on it now, I would guess that exhaustion may have played a part in my emotional state as well, but the fact remains that I had a legitimate complaint.

At that point, my knee-jerk reaction was to skin him alive and shout obscenities that would make even the most hardened thug blush. But my heart, the one that loves him fiercely and hates to argue, hesitated as I weighed the consequences of my dilemma: stand up for the sisterhood or live the quiet life? And it was precisely that moment that highlighted what a quandary I face, that we all face, as we strive for the myth of domestic bliss with an equal partner.

As it is, current trends indicate that droves of women are reverting to the more traditional roles of homemaker and stay-at-home mother in response, perhaps, to their own childhoods spent as witnesses to the fallout of trying and failing to have it all. Determined to have more organised homes, better behaved children and more successful marriages than their predecessors, these women have thrown themselves into their careers as wife and mother with as much vigour and determination as the ladies from the 80s with their power suits and briefcases. Announcing the return of femininity, a retro embrace of traditional gender roles, knitting, floral patterned pillows, cooking from scratch and attachment parenting have become de rigueur. Turned off by the excesses and demands of a life spent at the top, more and more are using their education, intellect and skills to pave a path that diverges greatly with the norm. Recognising the money-making potential, various industries have targeted their needs and flooded the market and media with the message that domesticity is trendy again. Polka-dotted biscuit tins, vinyl aprons with the words ‘Hot Housewife’ emblazoned on the front and all-natural, all-organic recipe books that require a mortar and pestle for the grinding of home-grown wheat are all the rage.

You would think that after the third instance of frantic lovemaking on the kitchen floor he just mopped, a guy might have a light bulb moment, but I suppose that memo never reached his inbox

To certain feminists, this movement is abhorrent and a rejection of women’s 20th century achievements. The collective unease with more women choosing to stay at home stems from the concern that if we lose our foothold in the office, we automatically hand the power we’ve amassed straight back to our male counterparts, undoing the work of Emmeline Pankhurst, Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer, et al. But if advancement in the workplace isn’t really the core problem (as discussed previously and proven by the fact that as women have advanced, their domestic duties remain the same), the real hurdles lie in the daily running of a home and how much energy a woman expends either doing these chores herself or taking on the mental burden of coordinating the labour force (i.e. her partner and older children) needed to complete them.

Some women, who also identify as feminists, ask why it is considered admirable to compete and excel in what has traditionally been a male-dominated business world (and which seems to have stagnated a bit after 30-odd years of revolution), but not in the home, where women still perform legitimate, worthwhile duties such as child-rearing and household management. They wonder if it is not degradation to ourselves and to our very biology to deny that we are different from men and that these differences can be celebrated without setting ourselves back a century. It also raises the question of whether we have hoisted the ideal of outside employment onto such a pedestal as to completely devalue domestic work, which has caused the pendulum to swing far the other way and against the happy homemaker or stay-at-home mother. Many women raising their offspring at home feel guilty and embarrassed about their role, and have become the new butt of jokes at dinner parties, often asked “What in the world do you do all day?” with a sneer.

Making those who choose to stay home feel as if their worth is wrapped up entirely in how much money they earn or how far up the career ladder they’ve managed to get takes away the very things we have worked so hard to achieve and only serves to divide us. Devaluing the work of housewives and full-time parents means our choices have actually been limited, not expanded. Isn’t feminism about creating more choice everywhere, and for everyone, giving them the freedom to be happy, not simply doing what the majority dictates?

Why should we have to remind the other adult in our shared home that he does not live in a hotel?

The issue that has the most potential for a positive change in women’s lives – irrespective of employment, marital or parental status – comes back to the division of labour in the home. People may laugh at the notion that women find the sight of a man cleaning to be a turn-on, but it’s true for many. It does seem preposterous and very strange to think that a man washing a dish or a window could be the equivalent of a romantic weekend away or ten shots of tequila (aka ‘liquid knickers remover’), because it means that you feel actual joy when you behold this most unusual sight that means a) he cares, b) he listens, c) he really isn’t just a toilet-trained ape, as you’re sometimes guilty of suspecting and d) it’s one less thing for you to do, which allows you to let your guard down and relax. Why men haven’t gotten the message that cleaning = hot sex is beyond me. You would think that after the third instance of frantic lovemaking on the kitchen floor he just mopped, a guy might have a light bulb moment, but I suppose that memo never reached his inbox.

Down to the nitty gritty: how to actually make this equal division (or at least a more equitable version) happen. Well…um, you see…it’s just that…you might try…

Yeah, I have no idea either. I can tell you that cajoling, pleading and threatening to part your spouse from his testicles have no real lasting effects, though it will make him wince in fear every time you reach across him on the sofa for the remote. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

One of the chief complaints from men about women and cleaning is that women expect them to ‘read their minds’ and know what chores need to be done and when. They insist that, if asked, they would happily do whatever is requested of them. In my experience, this is only true some of the time. But even then, why should we have to remind the other adult in our shared home that he does not live in a hotel and that whatever chocolates are left on the pillow are purely accidental?

The thought that men capable of so much intelligence and innovation in the world need to be asked every single day to wash their supper dishes, or to not leave sweaty socks on the floor, or change a nappy that anyone within a five mile radius possessing nostrils could smell… well, it’s ludicrous and insulting, really. Is this act of playing dumb is a well-kept secret amongst men (who must be indoctrinated into the cause at age 11 with a special ceremony in the woods involving mud, tribal chants and the warts from three dead toads)? Or maybe there really is something so fundamentally different between the sexes that nothing – not nature, not nurture and definitely not nagging – will ever break the cycle.

There are women amongst our ranks who have already given up on this generation of males and have begun work on the next one. If you’re parenting sons, please tell them this: we are not maids, nor are we martyrs. We are merely people, looking to live in peace and harmony with the men we love, despite their tendency to giggle at flatulence and pump their pelvises suggestively during karaoke renditions of Y.M.C.A. We don’t enjoy nagging but we won’t ever give up on the hope (or the legitimate expectation) that one day our partners will clean the bathtub without any hand-holding or the promise of a gold star on their sticker chart. We are not Super Nanny, and our partners are not children.

No matter how you decide to fight the battle, choose your weapons carefully. Striking the right balance between playing happy families and getting the help and respect you deserve is key. An electric cattle prod wouldn’t go amiss either.

Amity Reed is a 28 year old freelance journalist and mother of one. She hopes to hire a maid one day. Or an assassin, if all else fails

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