As the daughters of second-wave feminist women have become mothers, the issue of housework has re-entered the fray as a major feminist issue, alongside equal pay, paid maternity leave, flexible work and access to childcare. In the Australian, columnist Emma Tom recently let fly on the perennial problem of how domestic labour is divided between heterosexual couples, revealing that many of her women friends were shocked to discover that having kids is still ‘such a gendered affair’. Young women, raised to be independent, career-focused and with an expectation of equality, suddenly find themselves at home all day with small children, drowning in domestic chaos and wondering when they agreed to all this.
With the so-called ‘mother-wars’ dominating the feminist debate in recent times, it seems mothering has emerged, at least in the West, as the movement’s final frontier. In a young childless couple, there may be arguments about housework, quibbling about who takes responsibility for the shopping or who forgot to pay the gas bill – people of course come to depend on each other and lives become intertwined in myriad ways – but prior to having children, a couple can still consist of two people leading independent lives.
How rapidly those couples who have become parents, even those that had every intention of holding fast to a model of equality, find they have collapsed into conventional roles. As writer Hope Edelman puts it: ‘I don’t remember the conversation where I asked him to support me financially in exchange for me doing everything else.’ Softly, imperceptibly, the cards divide and fall. Even if there’s child care involved, someone has to coordinate the lunches, the drop-offs and pick-ups, the relationships with carers. It is still, by and large, women who are confronted with the question of whether they want to hand their children over to hired professionals in order to return to work. Few mothers I know consider institutionalised child care the only or even best answer to the ongoing problem of equal opportunity – but the ongoing pay gap and lack of workplace flexibility usually make it the only answer. That, or staying home themselves.
In her article, Tom argues: ‘One of the downsides of feminism is the way females have ended up as wage slavers in addition to (rather than instead of) all their old duties as house-workers and child-raisers.’ And yet it is not that women see child-rearing and house duties merely as ‘old duties’ so much as necessary duties for anyone who eats, wears clothes, uses a bathroom and procreates. Research shows that only a minority of heterosexual couples have managed to accomplish an equal division of domestic labour, with one recent survey in Australian Social Trends, a quarterly analysis of Australian society based on ABS statistics, finding that while women have enlisted in more paid work, they still take on about two thirds of household tasks. To get specific, women are spending almost six times as much time on laundry as men, and more than three times as long on other housework, such as cleaning.
When my now eight-year-old was about a year old, my partner and I agreed to both work part-time. We lived as frugally as possible, and we shared in the care of our son. For a while it seemed we were approximating the ideal, the only downside being that we were always skint. My partner got a full sense of what it meant to be at home all day with a baby, the stamina required far exceeding the demands of any job either of us ever had, though we’d both worked long hours – or so we thought. He understood the circular routine ruled by a baby’s need for food, play, poo, sleep – preferably but not necessarily in that order – and why it can take two hours just to get out the door. Best of all, he and our baby developed the easy intimacy that comes of sharing daily life; and our son saw both parents engaged in work and domestic life.
And then I became pregnant again, and soon there seemed no choice but for my partner to go out and earn a living that would support us all. We now had two children to keep warm and nourish and entertain, and we wanted them to be brought up primarily by us (which now, it seemed, meant me). It wasn’t feasible to ask my partner to step back down a rung or two and return to part-time domesticity when our second baby was old enough to do without me for a day or two. And, to add weight to the case, while I’d taken that time out from the workforce, his earning capacity had overtaken mine. It didn’t seem like anyone’s fault – there just appeared no other way but for me to become the one who did ‘everything else’.
This didn’t mean I avoided becoming consumed by what felt like a whole history of rage about the injustice of the situation, not just for me but for all women, across all time, who have accommodated and compromised and sacrificed in order that men and children thrive. Motherhood is no longer considered a woman’s one social and biological destiny, and yet it is proving to be the point at which many contemporary women understand what feminist author Naomi Wolf meant when she described babies as enemies to equality.
With this new separation of roles, when I asked my partner to do something around the house, I found myself requesting ‘help’, as if any domestic work he did was now an act of generosity. Any paid work I did only added to my already significant workload, and the child care fees cut my income in half, but it helped me retain some semblance of autonomy and intellectual engagement.
If I felt I had been denied the truth about parenthood, it wasn’t the realities of giving birth, or the potential for hellish breastfeeding troubles, confronting as they were. It wasn’t even the permanent lack of sleep, or the constant dealings with bodily fluids, though at times the house seemed overrun by milk and vomit and shit. Living creates mess, of course – and within this, the kids are (mostly) delightful – but nothing could have prepared me for the enormity of the domestic workload that comes with raising a family.
When I mentioned to a writing mentor of mine that I was writing an essay on the subject of housework, he said: ‘Housework? You mean that thing you do on Saturdays?’
‘Saturdays? Saturdays!’ I exclaimed. ‘You mean all day, every day.’ As a parent, your existence is controlled by the routines of your children and the demands of relentless household maintenance. Such was housework’s power to engulf me: I felt the integrity of my life at risk. My obsession with the sheer volume and monotony of the domestic work that had suddenly become my lot was like a black hole whose edge I clung to, lest I be sucked into its permanent vortex. It is almost impossible to describe to non-parents the way a whole day can be spent doing little more than picking things up off the floor, only to find yourself worse off than when you started; or to count the fact that you managed a shower and a cold piece of toast as the morning’s biggest achievements. My relationship with my partner seemed defined by our constant negotiations over who would do what, when. As feminist blogger Blue Milk has described it: ‘Contemporary family life or death by a thousand negotiations.’ Or, in Leonard Cohen’s words: ‘The homicidal bitchin’ / That goes down in every kitchen / To determine who will serve and who will eat.’
Up until that time, my partner and I had both worked, studied, played and shared in domestic duties – if not always harmoniously, then with few places to hide our deficits. With our daylight hours now so divergent, and with no blueprint for how this new arrangement should operate, I recall asking a fellow mother: ‘If our partners are working full-time and we’re at home, does that mean the housework is now our job?’ Her answer was so mind-blowingly sensible I have never forgotten it. She told me: ‘If there’s housework to be done, every house member available and old enough to do it should be doing it until it is finished, at which point everyone can relax.’
So why is it never as simple as this? Why are women finding that there is still a large gap between the lip service paid to equality and what’s happening on the ground?
Are we talking about a problem of gender hardwiring or learned behaviour? Are younger people still struggling to overturn the blueprint handed down by previous generations? Is it chiefly a structural problem, with government policy not doing enough to address historical inequities in household work and child-rearing? Are men, consciously or unconsciously, still operating with discriminatory assumptions? Or does some of the responsibility lie with women themselves, unable to loosen the reins on their conventional sphere of power in order to let men step in and do it their way?
Every time I mention the housework issue on my blog – a forum largely devoted to motherhood and related issues – I attract more comments from my female readers than on any other subject. Similarly, if you walk in on any playgroup session, kindergarten foyer or school playground, you will hear repeated over and over, women united in frustration at their partners’ domestic negligence: ‘He doesn’t do anything unless he’s asked’; ‘He just steps over the mess like it’s not there’; ‘He washes a few dishes but he doesn’t touch the rest of the kitchen’, and so on. And that’s just the cleaning. Then there’s the administrative almanac that is a mother’s brain, cataloguing who needs to be where when, whose immunisations are due, what to cook for dinner, whether the lunchboxes have been emptied, the permission notes signed, the uniform clean and the birthday present bought…
So it was an easy decision when blogger Clint Greagen, aka Reservoir Dad, asked me to be one of the judges for his self-consciously daggy – but important – contest to find ‘Australia’s Most Mentally Sexy Dad’, which celebrates men who are committed to mucking in around the house, without perceiving it as a threat to their masculinity. A stay-athome dad himself, Greagen came up with the idea after hearing about a survey of several thousand heterosexual couples, where women felt resentful towards their partners because they weren’t participating equally in household chores and child-wrangling, regardless of whether she was working outside of the home or not.
Much to Greagen’s own amusement, what started as a local rivalry between mates (his dads’ group, to be precise) has tapped into a growing cultural debate about what constitutes a contemporary model of family life, and has gone on to feature in a host of radio and television features, from Weekend Sunrise to Channel Ten’s The Circle, with ABC Radio National’s Life Matters program following the competition across several weeks.
It is an oft-heard comment from women that the sexiest thing their partner can do is grab hold of the vacuum cleaner. Or, as one contributor to recent Radio National talkback on the issue put it, ‘It’s like I tell him: you call it washing up, I call it foreplay.’ Research indeed shows that men who do more housework have partners who are more interested in sex. When men do their share around the house, women take it as a mark of care and respect – proof that they hold their partner’s interests on par with their own. It also just means less work, and together these things can play a big role in warding off those supreme libido-killers for women: stress, fatigue and resentment.
This contest, though, is not about using sex as a reward for doing housework. Rather, Greagen is making the point that couples who negotiate an arrangement that feels equitable, and in which both feel appreciated and engaged in a common goal, are more likely to have an intimate and rewarding sex life.
His ideas could be seen as a positive antidote to social commentator Bettina Arndt’s latest notion that women who have lost interest in sex should just ‘put the canoe in the water and start paddling’ – an occasionally useful approach but one that ignores why women have lost interest in the first place. If your wife is forced to crawl into bed after 11pm, half-dead with exhaustion and consumed by resentment at having spent the entire night folding washing while you nursed a beer or two in front of the telly, you’re going to have a hard time convincing her that she wants to then turn around and have sex with you.
Essentially, this is what the Most Mentally Sexy Dad competition is all about. The idea is not to ‘exceptionalise’ men who have a collaborative approach to their relationship; it is to recognise and showcase those who are already taking on the full catastrophe. These men aren’t ‘babysitting’ the kids or ‘helping out’ around the home; they are fully engaging in the realities of keeping the family juggernaut afloat, emotionally and practically, so that everyone has more free time. Some of the entrants work full-time, some are stay-at-home dads; whatever the configuration each family has settled with, the shared features are a commitment to ‘mutual responsibility’ and ‘work–life balance’.
In this way, the Most Mentally Sexy Dad competition might be proving the most powerful campaign yet in calling on men to move beyond lip service and to act on their egalitarian beliefs, unrestricted by outmoded ideas or gender role stereotypes. Not for some abstract ideal, but because it is meaningful to the women and children they love, and gives their relationship a better chance at long-lasting passion.