Tuesday 20 August 2019

Sarah Caden: 'A little help please, for the hand that rocks the cradle'

Irish-mammy complex can see us trapped in a wife's role - while the men take a back seat, writes Sarah Caden

Meghan, who was trolled for holding baby Archie incorrectly, while watching Prince Harry play polo. Photo: Getty
Meghan, who was trolled for holding baby Archie incorrectly, while watching Prince Harry play polo. Photo: Getty

Sarah Caden

Last week, results of a study entitled Caring and Unpaid Work in Ireland found Irish women do twice the amount of housework as Irish men.

That breaks down as just short of 20 hours a week for women, compared to nine hours a week for men, the study from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and ESRI stated.

These results will surprise few Irish adults. Not just because, over the years, study after study shows this to be the case, but because we live in Irish homes and Irish families and our own Irish psyches.

Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.

Log In

This study highlights that most women now also work outside the home. Yet we know well that, despite this fact, the bulk of the unpaid domestic work and caring is undertaken by the female of the house.

Men aren't doing enough. But maybe women aren't doing enough to make men do enough.

Something in this balance has to give, particularly as this report points out that the statistics are no longer skewed by the fact that far more men than women work outside the home. Women, it says, are doing the lion's share of the housework and the unpaid caring in the home, but more than half of them are also going out to a paid job.

Again, this comes as no surprise to us. Not really, but where we place the burden of responsibility for change needs to be doled out more equally.

We can roll out that old chestnut about how men will deliberately perform a domestic chore or a parenting responsibility badly, so no one will ever ask them to do it again, but that's not the full story.

To a great extent, in the division of domestic labour, there's a pair of us in it.

The flipside of that conscious-ineptitude 'joke' is the fun-poking way in which women speak of the men with whom they share homes and children, as if they are fools not to be trusted with anything bigger than a beer-bottle opener.

They often aren't allowed near dishwashers ("I can't believe you stacked it like that"); washing machines ("That's not where you put liquid detergent"); irons ("Did you put water in it?); children ("They won't eat that").

This sounds like an exaggeration, in a world where men have most likely lived apart from their mothers before living with female partners, but a degree of domestic regression and a degree of female complicity in this has to exist for the relentless statistics to make sense.

I am not saying women want to do the housework, or that we like the role of unpaid skivvy, but it is something of a comfort zone. And comfort zones aren't always healthy, but they're what we know. Maybe they're what we grew up with, possibly in homes where the mother did not also work outside the home, and maybe they were just fine, back then.

But maybe they were not just fine, even back then. Today's women are fully aware of how the Irish mammy reigned supreme in her domestic domain, but she had no money to call her own, no real status, nothing to show for it.

Often, and the legion Irish-mammy jokes are testimony to it, she ended up feeling left behind when everyone moved on, unappreciated, unthanked and, at worst, bitter.

Make no mistake, today's generations of women may also have the status and independent earnings that come from working outside the home, but last week's statistics suggest they have the old-fashioned Irish-mammy issues as well.

And if we don't force a situation where the men come up to meet us in the housework and the caring duties, then we must hold ourselves partly accountable for our thankless domestic role.

It's time we stopped acting like women just know, innately, how to keep house and care for everyone. It's doing no favours to either gender.

The whole mum-shaming culture relies on this perception, of course. When mothers are perceived to be getting it wrong, it is almost like proof of basic faultiness in a woman, as opposed to not knowing what to do.

For example, last week, when Meghan Markle was trolled for holding her baby Archie 'incorrectly' while watching Prince Harry play polo, it was in essence just about being bad at something she ought to be good at. The woman is entirely new to motherhood, but she's supposed to be instinctively able to do it perfectly.

No one would say that about Harry, you might say. And maybe they wouldn't, but a recent study into dad-shaming, conducted at the University of Michigan, showed that this specific criticism takes a different tack.

One trend that emerged from fathers' accounts of criticism of their parenting was that they were treated like ignorant babysitters.

A lot of dad-shaming, it seems, takes the position that men are in a child-minding, temporary role with their children and therefore to be treated like they require instruction. So they weren't bad people for doing it badly, they were just clueless fools.

Men are still regarded to be working at perfecting their domestic and caring skills, because they don't come naturally. This then, of course, feeds into this attitude to men of "Oh God, let me do it, you'll only make a balls of it".

One US academic said of last month's dad-shaming report that women can engage in "maternal gatekeeping". The women, he said, can shape and dictate the man's role in the family and household and part of that is the double-edged sword that is the demand that they do more, but then the criticism that they do it badly. Which serves no one.

Of course women will continue to do the caring and the housekeeping if no one else can step up to do it, but there is also a degree to which we struggle to make space for anyone else to step up.

Interestingly, a study earlier this year conducted by sociologists across several US universities, found that married women do more domestic labour than single mothers. This was not in any way saying single mothers are slovenly. It was instead highlighting how women "gender perform" in marriage.

The marriages where this occurred are of women married to men, it is significant to point out.

Once hooked up to men, this study stated, women tended to reach for the "appropriate behaviour for wives and mothers".

Who defines "appropriate" would be the next question, but the answer may be that it's not one gender or the other.

We're in this one together. Or separately, if we keep going the way we are.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss