After smashing the glass ceiling, women must win the dirt wars
Even as women smash through glass ceilings, we still feel obliged to clean up after ourselves
Published 11/03/2014 | 02:30
My husband does the bottles. "To be fair to me," says Harry, every time the conversation turns to the subject of dreary domestic drudgery (which is often), "I do the bottles."
It's true, he does. No matter how late he returns from work, he always does the bottles. But let's look at what doing the bottles involves: taking two, maybe three, baby bottles, soaking them for a bit, then placing them in the steriliser for six minutes. So, if we are being really fair, it is the steriliser that does the bottles.
"I also do the bins," he points out.
But the bins are a once-a-week event, usually done as I feed our daughter her dinner on a Sunday evening. So he does the bottles and the bins. I really should give the man a medal.
Sometimes, when I am feeling particularly churlish, I let him know what I do around the house. He needs to be told this, otherwise he might actually believe that our flat remains immaculate all day, while the baby and I relax on the sofa watching The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. This is not the case at all.
During the average 10-hour period between his leaving in the morning and returning at night, our small, one-and-a-half-bedroom flat goes through the cleanliness equivalent of four seasons in one day: boxes of toys are emptied all over the living-room; clothes are cleaned and made dirty and cleaned once again; sweet potatoes are peeled and puréed, while fish-fingers are cooked and then flung on the kitchen floor.
He sees none of this. He doesn't see the umpteen outfit changes (for both of us), the twice-daily hoovering sessions, or the endless disinfecting of surfaces. He doesn't hear the constant whirr of the dishwasher and washing-machine and, though he says he does the bins, what he means is: he pulls them out on to the pavement for the council to collect. He doesn't empty them every day – I do.
Isn't it amazing that in the 21st Century, when women smash through glass ceilings, they still feel obliged, shortly after, to clean up after themselves?
A study published by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) found that women in Britain still do at least two-thirds of housework, even when they are the main breadwinner.
Yes, that is right. Although women fully expect equality in the workplace and not to be wolf-whistled at in the street, here we still do 70pc of the housework. Analysis by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) found that eight out of 10 married women do more household chores than their husbands, with only one-in-10 married men doing an equal amount of cleaning as his wife.
As Sarah Butt, who worked on the ESRC study, put it: "It may be that the unequal division of labour leads to tension in relationships because women accept it as their lot, even though it makes them unhappy. Or it may be that men feel guilty because they recognise they should be taking on more of the burden."
But do they? The American author, Stephen Marche, caused controversy last December when a piece he wrote for The New York Times suggested that it wasn't men who needed to do more housework, but women who should do less.
He also disputed the very value of cleanliness, arguing that it is highly subjective. "The ancient Romans would have found Renaissance Europeans disgusting beyond belief." But, as the American writer Jessica Grose pointed out in response, 200 million Renaissance Europeans died from the bubonic plague. Is it still okay not to bother with housework, Stephen?
Perhaps men's standards are just lower, but I don't think that's always the case. My father was – is – obsessively clean (sample remark to my mother: "You've lost your car keys? Maybe you'll find them where you leave everything else: on the floor."), and when Harry and I were plain old boyfriend and girlfriend, before we moved in properly and got married and had a baby, he was, if anything, tidier than me.
It was only once we had a child that I seemed to slip effortlessly – worryingly – into the kind of traditional gender role that might have been expected of me had I been born in the 1930s. Whereas once I happily left overflowing ashtrays on coffee tables and hoovered once a week (if that), now I freak out if I see so much as a speck on the carpet. Does motherhood do that to you?
Well sort of, says Dalia Ben-Galim, the associate director at the IPPR, which carried out the aforementioned housework study in 2012. "Couples are usually equal when it comes to household chores – until they have children, that is." She tells me that the "maternal pay penalty" – the situation that so often occurs when women take time off to have a child – often changes all of that.
"A lot of women end up taking on lower-paid work when they go back to employment after maternity leave. That creates all sorts of psychological boundaries at home when it comes to who is doing what. Women often feel guilty and feel they should be doing the household chores as well as their job."
She cites Norway as an example of how increased paternity leave can make a real difference to attitudes. There, 10 weeks' paternity leave was introduced in 1993, and it has been found that boys born since then do more housework than those born previously.
But that doesn't show the whole picture, adds Dalia. "We've found that, more and more, women are the main breadwinners and yet they still do most of the housework. They are also primarily responsible for childcare, not to mention elder care."
And that is interesting – because it isn't just mopping and hoovering that women take on. "Emotional work" is a term used to refer to non-hygiene-related household chores – sending birthday cards, for example, or organising social events. These are things I have also taken to with aplomb since having a child. I have to tell him 10 times to send a thank-you text – never mind a card – to my mother for his birthday presents. And if I am putting it mildly, that really irritates me. That isn't being "male" – it's being thoughtless.
My friend Lucy, herself a new mother, has similar frustrations. "The other day I was trying to put dinner in the oven while also attempting to unload the dishwasher and my husband, who had just got home, asked me if the washing was dry.
He was standing right next to the clothes rack at the time. I just lost it. I dropped the food on the floor and screamed, 'You're closer to the washing than me, so here's an idea: why don't you touch it, with your hands, and find out, instead of asking me?' Being married, having a family – it's wonderful. But times like those irk me."
I was thinking, the other day, whether all this cooking and cleaning and card-sending gave me a saint-like quality that I actually rather enjoyed. Siobhan Freegard, who started NetMums, has seen that played out in her research.
"We wondered if we should change our advertising slightly to appeal to stay-at-home dads," she says, "but all the research came back saying that even when women were going out to work and their partners were at home, they were still making all the executive domestic decisions. They were still running the house. I do think that, to a certain extent, it is part of women's nature. Or maybe it's their nurture. Either way, they can never fully let go."
Dalia says that "maternal gatekeeping" is a big part of why men don't do more. "A lot of women take full control of things – being a mum is their job. They don't actually want to let their husband feed or bath the baby."
Siobhan says that was certainly the case when her children were little.
"But then I think it is also the case that women are reclaiming housework. For so long it's seemed like a dirty word, a betrayal of the sisterhood. Now we're learning that it's okay to want to tidy, to be clean, to make a home."
And it is. It absolutely is. But as I write this, and the man I love sits on the sofa watching 'Extreme Fishing', I have only this to add: we should both want to make a home, and that takes more than just doing the bottles, darling.
'You have no idea how hard I have it!' she wails, as I cook dinner
So what does Harry Wilson, Bryony's husband, have to say for himself?
"It's funny that Bryony thinks I don't know how much housework she does during the day – because she takes great joy in telling me every night (usually while I am doing the aforementioned bottles).
"She sarcastically suggests that I deserve a medal for the small number of chores she believes I do, but you'd swear she was angling for a damehood every time she recounts just what she has had to do while I've been lazing about in the office.
"'You have no idea how hard I have it!' she wails, as I cook dinner for us. I would honestly rather go to work and then spend my evenings doing all the chores if it meant not listening to her go on about how tough she has it compared with me.
"There are many reasons I married Bryony – her sense of humour, her habit of singing Beyoncé terribly – but her ability to empty a dishwasher wasn't one of them. Before we had our daughter, B made a lot of mess – wine bottles here, ashtrays there – and I cleaned up after her. That was how I loved it.
"I feel sad that the advent of marriage has driven us into such predictable, prehistoric gender patterns, but I am sure that we will revert to normal once she has returned to the office after maternity leave.
"Until then I promise to clean out the toothbrush-holder and purée more baby food – if only to keep her quiet after I've had a long day at work."