She gave me that look.
As if to say, what are you doing?
At that moment my hands were elbow deep in the kitchen sink. Washing up.
And she and her husband were visiting. As part of a house inspection. We were selling up and going to Queensland.
And clearly she disapproved me carrying out so-called “women’s work”.
My first thought was, “It’s not. Really?”
My second and much angrier thought was, “What if you were sick? Would your husband bring in the mother in law to help? Or wouldn’t be so much easier if he could do the washing up himself?” And yes I could obviously see that her culture clearly has women subservient to men. But cups and plates, pots and pans, even cutlery too have neither gender, religion nor culture.
It’s all the same work to me although I didn’t realise why.
And yet each year there’s yet another article detailing the housework gender divide. How men still don’t do most of the housework. How women carry that burden and the emotional one of being effectively a family project manager, accountant and troubleshooter as well. And neither Covid nor the increase in the numbers of women working have had much effect.
Occasionally there’s a story about how this or that guy publicises how he’s such a good and helpful father because he once picked up a baby bootie off the floor. So what? And backed by those marriage manuals that detail how men doing housework receive more sexual favours. So what? How transactional is that? Who knew that the secret of a happy marriage relied upon a well-kept spreadsheet?
And occasionally this article by a man who realises that half is not enough…
Enter my mother. It’s late Sunday night. She has covered the dining table first with a blanket and then a sheet. She’s hooked up the iron and is in demonstration mode: ironing a single shirt and then another trouser. Her last for us forever. Afterwards she instructs first me and then my brother how to iron all of our shirts and trousers.
And why? Because tomorrow he and I are moving out and this is the last thing we need to learn before we can live by ourselves. There was no way she was doing our washing or ironing ever again. And rightly so. Unfortunately, to this day, I still hate ironing but I love that I get to select the soundtrack.
She simply did not see housework as gendered and told us so. And it wasn’t until that look I received at the house inspection that I realised what she’d done. I had heard men talk of the household tensions that applied when their working partner was also doing most, if not all of the housework.
Consequently my experience of shared housework has been quite different. The only housework I didn’t do was cook on weekdays. And yes that did change when I repartnered meaning I had to level up: learn more to contribute more as did my partner.
But it never occurred to me not to contribute. And while listening to men who believe and argue that working full time and/or doing yard work entitles them to extra and complete idleness, I’m so struck just how much hard work it takes not to learn and contribute. Because it takes real effort to keep yourself small. And impart that role model to your children.
Yet (as some men would argue as leaders in the workplace (not all men😏)), learning and contributing makes life easier for everyone. And yet they don’t bring that attitude home (see the much vaunted manager who publicised his schedule which included nearly no family time).
So why not treat all work as non-gendered work regardless of location?