Change may be coming, albeit slowly and unevenlyby Hephzibah Anderson / December 9, 2019 / Leave a comment
It’s more about managing my own expectations,” I recently overheard one woman sigh to another in a café. She was juggling a grizzly baby on her lap while trying to sip a cup of rapidly cooling tea. They hadn’t been talking about the mythic sleeping-through-the-night or the messy prank that is baby-led weaning, they’d been discussing housework. More specifically, their other halves’ participation—participation apparently being an overly generous description.
Most couples seem to muddle along, learning to tolerate if not love their partner’s domestic flaws and foibles. It’s the arrival of a genuinely helpless new being in their midst that tends to bring things to a head. Though nothing can adequately prepare first-time parents for an infant’s ability to consume entire days, nights and adult selves, on a smaller scale, the Sisyphean tasks of wiping, washing, folding and mopping are continually staggering. And while for male partners domestic drudgery may be a badge of enlightenment, for women, it’s like being dragged back into prehistory, or at least to our grandmothers’ era.
But the real reason why heterosexually-coupled women feel like they’re pulling more than their weight on the home front is simple: they overwhelmingly are. ONS data from 2016 showed that British men reported putting in an average of 16 hours a week of domestic toil, including childcare, which was up massively from the 1971 average of an hour and 20 minutes, but still falls woefully behind the 26 hours a week that British women spend labouring to keep things running smoothly. In America, men contribute seven hours a week to women’s 17, and in France it’s 10 hours to women’s 20. Pity our poor Portuguese sisters, whose 22 hours are supplemented by a measly 3.5 hours of male assistance.
No wonder my coupled new mum friends seemed just as haggard as solo-mother-by-choice me when our babies were born. I had a sense of what I was signing up for, not to mention the blessing of a hands-on mum of my own living five minutes away. My friends, meanwhile, were wasting precious energy feeling miffed when their partner headed off to the office every morning, leaving them with a wailing baby and a mountain of laundry.
In ascending to the ivory tower and bedding itself down in theory and semantics, feminism by and large became too grand to engage with the daily realities of its core demographic’s lives, leaving the domestic revolution that Second Wave feminism attempted to ignite 40 years ago woefully unfinished. As Sally Howard writes in her forthcoming book, The Home Stretch: Why It’s Time to Come Clean About Who Does the Dishes, “the blitheness with which we celebrate feminism’s achievements masks myriad stubborn realities behind the closed doors of family homes.”
Until their son came along, Howard had always believed her partner shared her ambition to be a “truly fair family.” After all, he could knock out Jamie Oliver 30-minute meals in 45 minutes and would even smooth the sofa cushions at night. Yet she found that not only was she doing more of the physical labour, she was also shouldering the “emotional and mental labour” of ensuring that their little family thrived, adding what sociologist Arlie Hochschild dubbed a “third shift” to the already notorious second.
Reading this, I thought of the fury washing around the table at a recent reunion lunch with old university friends. Now in our early 40s, of those of us who wed, half are coolly eyeing divorce and for the same reason: deep disappointment over how (male) spouses had performed at home. Two men on a nearby table cast nervous looks our way as another bottle of wine was uncorked and my friends warmed to their theme.
Their husbands were no Jacob Rees-Moggs—all had changed plenty of nappies, though one had apparently thought appropriate exercise for his young daughter meant hopping in the car and having her trail him on her scooter. But it was the gap between reality and their expectations that rankled.
Howard’s book belongs to a raft of new titles broaching that final frontier of feminism, family life, joining the likes of Milli Hill’s Give Birth Like a Feminist. Yet as she explains herself, women aren’t blame-free when it comes to the household gender gap. For a start, there’s the “mumsplaining” she finds herself doing before leaving her son with his father for any stretch of time. Then there’s cleaning obsessive Mrs Hinch, whose female fanbase has made her Instagram’s answer to Mrs Beeton, and the fringe but frankly creepy “tradwife” movement.
Still, change is coming, albeit slowly and unevenly. The Parental Leave Acts seem to be making a slight difference, though a culture in which it were more acceptable for men to take up those rights would obviously magnify that. Of course, there will never be any getting away from the fact housework is just not fun, never mind what the “cleanfluencers” preach. Aside from lowering your muck threshold, I have one other suggestion: should you happen to have a toddler in your life, involve them. Everything is more fascinating when seen through a three-year-old’s eyes, and vacuuming is no exception.