The Modern Woman’s Guide to Housework

Housework is a feminist issue, but let me just kick off by saying that this blog isn’t about man-bashing. I get that not all husbands are shit at laundry, and that some boyfriends are putting up with women who are about as house proud as The Grinch. We’re all different, and that’s great. However, this blog is based on my own life experiences and those of the women I’m close to. So if it descends into wild-eyed rantyness and you can’t relate, well, just thank your lucky stars that you don’t live in my house.

Having said that, I should also point out that I’m lucky enough to have a great marriage. My husband and I have been married for 8 years and together for 15, and we still make each other laugh, support each other through bad patches, and love each other very deeply. But when it comes to domestic issues, sometimes I just want to tie him to a chair and give him papercuts with a nice sturdy A5 envelope. And then splash him with lemon juice.

Housework has been an issue between us ever since we moved in together back in 2004. It’s an age old story – I think I’m doing way more than my fair share, but he thinks he’s already pulling his weight. We’ve both always worked full time, so no difference there, but the one constant stress in our relationship was always the housework problem.

For several years we went through a destructive cycle that went something like this:
1) big argument
2) he agreed that he would do more
3) gradual decline in the amount he actually did
4) repeat.

I remember a phone call with my sister when we were living in London, with me whinging and moaning about the situation and looking for sympathy. Instead of doling out platitudes, my big sis turned on me.

“Stop being an enabler!” she barked. “He doesn’t do the housework, so you do it all – you’re allowing him to behave like this. You need to take action.” Shocked, I asked what she suggested, and she recommended that as a starting point, I should stop doing his laundry altogether. “That seems a bit churlish” I said. “I mean, I would actually have to separate all his clothes from mine, so it would create even more work!”

After a bit of discussion, we decided to start small, and I agreed to leave his clothes in the hamper once they had been washed and dried, leaving him to do the putting away on his own. Sounds pathetically easy, right?

I dutifully started the next day, doing all the laundry as usual, but instead of putting his clothes in the drawers, I left them folded in a plastic laundry hamper. And then I waited.
A couple of weeks later, he accosted me angrily in the bathroom one morning.
“Have you been secretly culling my socks?” he asked.
“Huh?” I grunted in disbelief, toothbrush in hand.
“There are no socks in my drawer. Have you been throwing them away?”

I took him by the hand and led him back into the bedroom. The laundry hamper was there just as I had left it, full of his clean clothes. Due to the compact and bijoux nature of our bedroom, there was very little space between the bed and the wall, and the laundry hamper was in it. Therefore, for two whole weeks, my husband had been climbing over it twice a day to get in and out of bed. Also, the hamper was red and yellow, so pretty conspicuous.

“Oh” he whimpered. “It was a test. And I failed”.

That was the first time I really started to understand the differences between us. My other half literally didn’t see the things that I saw. He was a creature of habit and routine, and outside of that not much entered his field of vision.

So like the nice, reasonable, fair people that we are, we had a good old chat about it. Worryingly – and despite sockgate – he was still pretty sure that he was doing his fair bit around the house. So instead of getting hot under the collar, I suggested an experiment. We made a housework chart, and mutually agreed a points system for jobs on a scale of 1-4. Washing the dishes was a 2, hoovering was a 4, putting laundry on was a 1 etc. At best, I figured that this would ignite his competitive streak, and he would start doing a bit more. At worst, it would give me evidence to back up my argument.

It lasted about two and a half weeks in total. In the first week, he did indeed get a bit more active, and our points totals hovered at around 60% / 40% with me doing the 60%. In week two, instead of being spurred on by his poor show in week one, he actually seemed to lose the urge to win and we slipped back to a 75/25 split or thereabouts. Now at the time I was working from home, so I accepted doing a bit more in the commute time I was saving, but hell, 75% more?

So now we get to the scary statistics bit. Lots of studies have been done on this, but as recently as November 2016 the Office for National Statistics reported that on average women do 40% more housework than men. The disparity is even greater in women aged 26-35. Guys – if you don’t believe me, read this. Furthermore, in studies men regularly estimate that they are doing a far greater of the domestic chores than time use studies corroborate. They have chore goggles.

So sisters – what the hell are we doing? No wonder we still have a pay gap – we’re too bloody exhausted from all the sodding hoovering to negotiate salary increases and chase promotions. In the twenty first century when many of us would consider our husbands to be liberal, modern men who believe in equality, why the hell are we putting up with this kind of unfairness behind closed doors?

In my opinion, it’s a big and complex issue, and everything from societal norms to linguistic tropes are stacking the deck against us. Every time the in-laws come round and we maniacally clean for six straight hours because we feel like a dirty toilet bowl will reflect badly on us, we don’t help ourselves. Every time we don’t correct someone when they say ‘Your husband’s great – he helps loads with the housework’ (as if it’s basically your job and you shouldn’t really expect much of him), we bang another nail in our own domestic choredom coffins.

One argument I frequently come across is that the mess and dirt doesn’t bother the man as much as the woman, so why should they tidy as much. Well, there are a few possible answers to that one, such as a) if it matters to me, and you love me, then just get off your lazy arse and do it, and b) nobody likes botulism.

In the end, after one particularly heated debate, my other half and I agreed to get a cleaner. This was a life-changing moment. I love our cleaner. Her name is Lyn, and she is one of the most important people in my life. I live for her visits. I buy her extravagant birthday gifts. I’m not saying that she’s more important to me than my husband, but if my life depended on choosing just one of them, I’d need to have a very good think about it.

Having Lyn in our lives has improved things, but not completely solved them. We have been left with a number of issues:

Blue vs pink jobs

We own a very old house which we’re gradually renovating, and this involves an enormous amount of DIY and decorating. Invariably, at the weekend, we can be found working on some kind of project or another. However, if left to his own devices my hubby would do a lovely job on the carpentry, but our daughter would be found crying dirty-faced in the garden around 8pm because she was tired and she hadn’t been fed for 8 hours. He’s not great at time management or switching between tasks, so I generally end up planning, preparing and tidying up after three meals per day as well as all the other random parenting tasks (tangle teezing, pretending that I’m an elephant, and attending at least one birthday party per weekend), which leaves precious little time for improving my own woodwork skills. That pisses me off.

The thinking work

Even with a cleaner, there is still plenty to do around the place. Food shopping, cooking, daily cleaning, endless loads of laundry, arranging childcare, organising holidays, and an ongoing cycle of shopping for birthday cards and gifts, and then wrapping and delivering them. Now, whilst he’s generally happy to do a bit of cooking when needed, he’ll always ask me what he should cook. If he’s popping into the city centre he’ll have no problem with picking up a children’s birthday gift, but then I’ll be quizzed over what he should buy. He doesn’t understand that 80% of the strain of these domestic tasks lies in the intellectual labour. It’s the same with most of the women I know. The men take the bins out and wash up, but the women do all the thinking work required to keep a family fed, clothed, and in the right place at the right time.

He’s messy

I work abroad sometimes, and when I get back, it generally takes me a good half a day to tidy the house and put everything back where it belongs. Neither husband nor daughter seem to care when the hairbrushes are all in the lounge, nobody can find their trainers, and the cherished teddy bear is in the fridge. It’s the small things that really get to me though, and over the last few years I have been trying to train him out of them. He used to leave his chair out every time he left the dining table. It got to the point where I would text him a photo of it at work to try and make the point. Eventually we fixed that, but then he started leaving his wardrobe doors open every morning. I’ve recently managed to cure him of that (by almost taking them off the hinges when I slam them), but now he has started forgetting to put his plate and mug in the kitchen when he finishes breakfast – he just leaves it on the dining table. He’s like Homer Simpson. You teach him a new bit of information, and it pushes something old out.

Now this may all sound trivial, and you may be sitting there thinking that I’m bloody lucky to have a husband and a daughter and a dining table. And I agree. The problem is that all these things make me feel like the hired help. I work full time too, and yet I follow in his wake closing doors, pushing in chairs and clearing his breakfast things from the table. And that’s not OK.

I think one of the things that I struggled with until recently was the N word. I didn’t want to be a nag. I didn’t want to be the kind of wife who cared so much about having the beds made and the dishwasher emptied that she would disrupt the family harmony and start arguments. I didn’t want to be the bad guy, the no-fun-mum. In some parallel universe I’m living in a commune with blue and purple hair preaching free love. However, in this world, I’ve come to realise that I really don’t want to live like a student anymore. So I’ve embraced the nagging, because it feels like the only way forward for me. I’m no longer scared of the word nag, because you know what? There are worse things to be than a nag.

So where do we go from here? How can we ensure our daughters have a fairer division of domestic labour than we do, and that our granddaughters don’t even see it as an issue? I have to say, I think mums of boys have a lot of responsibility on this one. Please don’t molly-coddle them, please don’t expect more of your daughters than your sons around the house, and give them room to grow – once they are old enough to do their own washing and make their own dinner – teach them, and then let them. And parents of girls have a role too. Teach them about fairness and equality, and teach them to expect it in their relationships. The best way to do that is to give them a relationship role model which is as equal as possible. This may take a bit of nagging.

But overall, I’m optimistic. 89 years ago women weren’t trusted to vote. 45 years ago women weren’t allowed into King’s College Cambridge. 10 years ago it was common for household cleaning products to be marketed almost exclusively to women. We’ve come a long way in a fairly short time, and each generation has different ideas and expectations of what equality will mean for them. I hope that we can all – mothers, fathers, sons and daughters – do our bit for progress, so that in another generation or two, the gender disparity of household labour will very definitely be a thing of the past.

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