Sunday, 22 February 2015

A mother's work is never done

In the wake of the Mumsnet and Woman's Hour investigation of who does what in the home, I went on thinking about such matters, and ended up giving a short talk about housework at the wonderful Feast of Reason, a simultaneously laid-back and high octane Supper Club in South London.

The Chore Wars investigations, which took place in October 2014, strongly recalled Vanessa Engle's 2010 three-part documentary on the impact of feminism on women's lives — one episode of which was devoted to the division of labour in the home.

Engle revealed the not very surprising fact that little had actually changed for women, especially married working mothers, despite their apparent 'liberation' since the 1960s (whoopee! Such a long history!).

Women, according to Engle, had essentially won the choice of working outside the home, but not won the war of getting their menfolk to step up and do more in the home. Engle's documentary came out in March 2010 — I remember ranting about it at the time, because I had just started trying to write Motherload. Little did I know that five years later I would still be struggling to write that book, in the main because I was suffering FROM Motherload, when not actively fighting it.

For the talk on Housework at the Feast, I just put together the astonishing statistics that the 2014 Mumsnet survey came out with. These boiled down to two salient ones:
1. Mothers, whether they go out to work or stay at home with their children, do on average TEN HOURS of chores a week. And that is twice as many hours as their partners do. 
2. 66% of those surveyed — a full two thirds — said they didn't want their partner to do more around the house.
The latter notion was not something that had emerged from Engle's documentary — the absolutely incredible idea that most mothers do not want the status quo to change in their favour. Mumsnet concluded that either mothers are "comfortable with the current balance, because it suits them to do the chores themselves, or […] they believe that their partner would not perform them to the requisite standard".

This conclusion blew my mind as much as the survey finding itself. The requisite what was that? I felt like the Suffragettes must have felt when they realised that not every woman was on their side. Or like the middle class feminists constantly accused of not speaking for all women, and trying to impose their agenda on everyone. Requisite standard be blowed — it's ideology toying with our heads, is what it is. The ideology that whispers, "it's your job really you know, women, we're just making nice. Go on, of course you can have it all… as long as you do it all. Put the kettle on, love".

When I gave the talk at the Feast of Reason, I tried to draw people's attention to the historical facts: women's work used to have clear social status, back in the seventeenth century. If you go to the Geffrye Museum, you can see it for yourself, in its very own mausoleum. In the seventeenth century, the emerging 'middling' classes lived over their shops, and while the men were merchants, the women were vital business partners upstairs in the Hall — entertaining clients, and managing the accounts. OK, they weren't downstairs fronting the business, but they absolutely had status for the work they did.

It was only as the industrial revolution took hold that middle class women were pushed right out of the workplace, and end up locked in the drawing room playing cards and fretting about politesse — after all, working class women have always worked. It's just that they were working doing jobs that richer women didn't want to do.

When I was at university, wringing my hands about the plight of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ladies, with nothing to do but worry about marriage, the genteel daughters of vicars only able to be governesses, I entirely overlooked the class lens through which I viewed everything. Class, in the 1980s and 1990s, was so passé. Terry Eagleton was seen as past his prime, the hoary old Marxist.

During the questions after my talk, I began to feel distinctly depressed. One person asked what the 'demographic' of Mumsnet is. I don't really know, it's hard to gauge. Another said that women wanted to do a lot of housework 'to have some status'. Another questioned why I was doing so much washing, and whether it was really necessary. I don't think she can have read my blog… A fourth was incredulous at the Chores list itself — "does anyone actually do all this?" Yuh-huh, they do. They have to. There isn't anyone else to do it. All these people were women. After the talk, another woman came up to me privately, especially to tell me that she had chosen to stay at home with her children. My depression grew. Talking about housework, I think, is extremely personal, and makes people feel vulnerable and exposed (I certainly felt as if I was washing my dirty laundry in public).

I know very well that I derive exactly no sense of status from cleaning the house, or running our finances, or engineering all the chores which come with having two children. I do it because if I don't do it, it doesn't get done. That's not because I married some oblivious git of a man, I didn't, and he pulls his weight — I wouldn't have married a pig, I'm not stupid. He's lovely, and I love him. He works hard, and so do I. We share a lot. He thinks I'm always telling him he's not doing enough. I'm not.

It's just that there is so much to do, and I'm the de facto CEO.

I have looked for short cuts all the way through — I will happily clean the bath as I'm having a shower in it — but I draw the line at ready meals. I have ended up rearranging my entire working life so as to to be able to work from home, precisely to grab back that insane commuter time, which sucks two hours a day from our lives — two hours a day that I need just to keep our lives going, without keeling over with stress and exhaustion.

I was depressed all weekend after the talk, at the triviality of the fight I was trying to name — who the hell cares who puts the bins out? — and at the same time at the massive, passive impact 'housework' has had on my life since becoming a wife and mother. What's so difficult to get across to people who aren't in this position is the sheer relentlessness of tasks flying at you from the second you get up, as if you were on a trading room floor. But just not earning anything. In Pat Barker's novel, Regeneration, the psychotherapist Rivers finally works out what causes breakdowns in the trenches of the First World War. It isn't the shelling or spectacle of death per se, terrible though those things are, it is the utter relentlessness of it, and the fact that the men are as helpless and trapped as women in the home.

But this isn't news — women have been writing and talking about this for years now.

So why isn't it changing? Why aren't men stepping up? Why are women apparently happy to maintain the unfair status quo?

It certainly isn't because it makes them happy. It makes me extremely unhappy. I have a first class degree from Cambridge and a doctorate from Oxford, two children and no career or status. Dusting doesn't make me happy. I can feel a momentary satisfaction from a clean house and a fridge full of food. But that's not happiness. I don't care what other people think of me, but I know I'm supposed to care, and not caring doesn't stop the sneaky asides and comparisons. I find it depressing, on a daily basis, that the people I love most create the most work for me, however much I urge and train them to pick up after themselves. The residue is always there, and the underlying assumption is definitely that it is really my job.

I have to keep my emotions under permanent control, because giving way to them causes disasters — rows, upset, tears. It feels, every day, like cutting off half of myself. Obviously I realise self-control is a good thing. But amputating half of my affective life? In order to facilitate the needs of others? How is that caring?

In the end I was depressed after the talk because I'm sad that it's still an issue of any kind. Female drudgery was something I dreaded succumbing to all the time I was growing up, and yet I haven't been able to stave it off or change things, in becoming an adult. The difference between mine and my mother's life is that she had more money, and didn't have to work outside the home, and my father had already retired, and helped around the house a lot, so she actually had a lot less to do. It meant she was a better mother in absolute terms, than I am or can be.

Before I married and had children, I was an academic, and had a set of rooms in a Cambridge college. A bedder came and cleaned my rooms — she became a good friend in troubled times, and I still have the champagne glasses she gave me when I left the college. I was always hugely embarrassed when she came, but very grateful. She and I were both over the moon when I was pregnant. She was definitely a mother figure to me.

Now I am a mother and she is far away. I don't regret leaving academia or having my beautiful children. I just regret the fact that I am not a man.


litlove said...

Regret that we don't live in the extended family any more, with plenty of pairs of hands to help, or servants on tap. I think the problem is that we have never before lived in such an isolated fashion - and never before refused to make social changes in expectations and practices because of it. I think that's because those who stay home desperately need as much validation as those who go to work, and so Mommy Wars ensue and each side becomes entrenched in the battle rather than contemplate useful ideological change. I also remember reading Dan Gilbert's book on happiness in which he described how we cling to myths, such as having children makes you happy (hah!).

Another book I hugely recommend is Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz (best non-fiction book I've read in the past five years) in which she explains the enormous pressure on us all to conform to the beliefs of the group. If you feel depressed, it's probably because you feel rejected at some level by the social strata we live in. You can't think the way they do and therefore 'belong'. Well sod that - it's more important simply to acknowledge the huge amount of time and effort it takes to change ideology and understand you are not alone. We may struggle to be heard at the moment, but that's the most important time to keep on plugging the message. You're doing great stuff, and cannot possibly know how many people left your talk with a crack opening up in their old ways of thinking.

Claire King said...

This is a great blog post. One thing I learned from having children is that I am not the kind of person who could devote 20 years of my life to being the person my mother was - dedicated to the comfort and needs of everyone else in the family at the expense of her own desires. It would leave me feeling resentful of everyone I loved, I think. So I'm lucky in that I found a mix of some business work away at clients, some work i can do from home and some time dedicated to being the one at home, cooking etc. And critically, my husband has the same pattern.

What's been interesting about that is that we understand the ups and downs of all of it - being away from home and family/intellectually stimulating job; being home with and for the kids and all the home cooked food/not managing an adult conversation all day and cleaning the hob; trying to work from home despite distractions/being able to work from home. So in some ways it sounds perfect, right?

And yet, and yet...

One thing that you wrote that particularly resonated with me was this:

"That's not because I married some oblivious git of a man, I didn't, and he pulls his weight — I wouldn't have married a pig, I'm not stupid. He's lovely, and I love him. He works hard, and so do I. We share a lot. He thinks I'm always telling him he's not doing enough. I'm not. It's just that there is so much to do, and I'm the de facto CEO."

It's often exactly how I feel - despite the fact that on paper we share the division of labour completely, I am the one that organises it and makes to do lists and has to ask for jobs to be done (and face the big sighs associated with that). I'm the CEO, like it or not.

"But you just have to ask."
"It would be nice to to have to."

I don't know why that is, but as you say too, if you didn't organise it it just wouldn't get done. Which is fine for the dusting (at least fas far as I'm concerned, for months if necessary) but not for appointments, bills, and broken washing machines.

I would put it down to having married a complementary personality - less organised but also less frenetic - but from what I gather from all my friends - either working or stay at home mothers - is it's the same in their households too.

My question on this, since we agree our men are lovely and hard working is - is this because as adults we allow it to continue, or is it because of how we raise our sons?