Friday, 4 October 2013

Housework - whose job is it anyway?

Housework by Pascal

The division of labour within the household is something that seems to vary astonishingly between modern families, not necessarily along the lines that you would expect. It amazes me that some women I talk to are still entirely responsible for the kids, the washing, the cleaning, the cooking, the appointments, the maintenance and all the other things which go along with running a family home. Occasionally this seems to be because their other half refuses to lift a finger, sometimes they assume he won't, or more often it is because he works such long hours it is physically impossible for him to do anything other than eat and sleep when he makes it home during the week.

When I was growing up, both my parents worked full-time at universities but my feminist mother still certainly took on the lion's share; cooking most nights and doing piles of washing on the weekend. My father would attempt to keep the kitchen tidy and do the DIY, while spreading books, papers and coffee cups around the place when doing his research or marking at home. At various points we did have help - cleaners or au pairs. I think it was my mother who justified this by pointing out that cleaning is itself a proper job; it is an insult to women who have slaved away for centuries to keep their houses spick and span to pretend that it is just something you can take for granted, that it somehow will get itself done.

Although I find a clear, shining table top as satisfying as the next person, personally I find cleaning a thankless task, especially with young children around. All your hard work is immediately undone as soon as you have finished, if not during the attempt! Furthermore, as I have never had children who will sleep for that mystical 2 hour nap, sadly there has never been that moment when I choose between polishing the silver and washing the floors or laying myself on a chaise longue with a gin and slim and a Marie Claire. During an episode or two of Mr Tumble, I manage a quick sweep and wipe, get the laundry on, the fish fingers in. There is no chance of a "deep clean".

I must admit that it is for this reason that we got some help with the cleaning - mainly because my husband finds a messy, dirty house so stressful that he would rather pay to have it look ok just once on a Friday evening so he can relax, before it all gets wrecked again over the weekend by our son emptying the cupboards, our daughter turning our bed into a den. It seems more acceptable for parents now to hold your hand up and say, we need help; because a new baby has arrived or for the sake of marital harmony or before someone trips over another piece of lego and breaks their neck. Of course, this all depends on if you can afford it and whether it is worth prioritising. Soon I hope to enlist my destructive toddlers as mini-cleaners who will get paid a penny a day for their labours in some kind of The Waltons-esque scenario. You know, no fun until you've done your "chores" (said in American drawl).

A a parent, there are two things which I have discovered about housework. One is that cleanliness is all a question of perception. It depends on whether you are a little bit OCD or prepared to accept that your house is never going to look like a show home or an advert for Cillit Bang. In an interesting book my Dad gave me, entitled Dirt: The filthy reality of everyday life, it suggests that cleaning has gone from a practice of rigid routine to an endless quest for perfection. Rather than the washing Monday, ironing Tuesday, wash the floors Wednesday etc type schedule that our Grandmas may have subscribed to, we expect our houses to look like they do in ads for cleaning products - shiny and spotless. The continued battle against the invisible - germs, bacteria, viruses - means that we are eternally armed with some Dettol spray and kitchen roll, ready to swoop down to eliminate and exterminate. Clutter is unacceptable - show homes don't have piles of bills to be paid, junk mail, nursery newsletters and shopping catalogues and neither should we. In Purity and Danger, the anthropologist Mary Douglas suggests that, in fact, our attitudes are all entirely cultural - dirt is simply matter out of place. If you can loosen up on your definitions of dirt or clutter, you will find keeping the house in order much less stressful.

Secondly, who does what should always be up for debate. There is no biological reason why a household task should be labelled male or female, be it putting out the bins or washing the floor. In my house, I am very protective over the laundry. Only I am allowed to touch the washing machine and dryer. This is because I don't trust anyone else to know when the label really means hand wash and which cottons need to be done at 60 degrees and who is allergic to fabric softener. If something is going to get shrunk or turned pink, it may as well as be me who takes the blame. This stance has turned out to be a big error. Laundry is the worst burden in a house with young kids because it is never-ending - not only are they vomiting and weeing all over their own clothes, but all over yours as well so we all get through several outfits a day. Once the washing and drying are done, there's the sorting and the putting away and then putting the next load on. It becomes imperative to cut corners - in a sorting frenzy, clothes are thrown into drawers rather than folded and put away, ironed shirts and matching socks are frankly a luxury you are just going to have to do without!

I think cooking would be far preferable. Unfortunately after I have cooked for the children and then spent an hour cajoling one to eat it while the other practises his bowling arm lobbing food around the kitchen, I am exhausted and dispirited. I have no interest in cooking again. My husband, home from work, will whip up something yummy for us to munch on the sofa or, occasionally, have a proper dinner. Cooking, unlike laundry, has an air of creativity, glamour and is usually appreciated. When I am determined to cook, my husband becomes a bit protective about it, it has become his domain. He is also the DIY man. I have never picked up a drill in my life, but hey, there's a personal development goal right there. It is purely my own gender stereotyping that has prevented me.

It is so easy for habits to become entrenched - actually we should be able to share all these tasks, both just doing what needs doing when it needs to be done. Fundamentally, I don't want my son and daughter to grow up thinking of housework as "women's work" or DIY as "man's work" and happily my husband agrees. I want them both to be competent at all the tasks that go along with keeping a household running, be it sewing labels on uniforms or putting up shelves. I won't lie, this is an ideal, but worth working towards I think.

In feminist terms, here is my household manifesto - and something we vaguely adhere to in my house:

1. Just because you are the kid's lackey, doesn't make you the house lackey

2. Just because your other half works 60 hours weeks, doesn't mean he gets 108 hours off while you, in your role as full-time carer, work 24 hours/day, 7 days a week.

3. There is no such thing as man's work or women's work.

4. Our children should grow up seeing household tasks as everyone's responsibility, one day they may be more likely to get involved themselves.

5. Right now, clean enough and tidy enough is the best we can aspire to. When the kids have left home we will have nothing to do but polish surfaces, hang up pictures and file paperwork and then we will miss them!



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