A Look at Life: Housework

18th September 2015

The Hostile Homemaker

Heather Harris

I have a dilemma: how to stay sane when faced with housework – every day, 365 days a year (ironically with twice as much on Christmas Day). I have reached the end of my – picked up off the floor, washed and ironed – tether! This October I celebrate 25 years of cleaning up after my husband. A polished silver jubilee of domestic bliss – and chores.

Actually that’s not strictly true. Before we had children we shared the housework. Not with each other, but between two lovely Polish ladies who came in once a week and turned our two bedroom flat into a dwelling fit for humans. They emptied ashtrays (an item now threatened with extinction), they removed wine bottles from the back of the sofa along with assorted marmite toast crusts (still our late night snack of choice but now at 10pm not 3am) and they hovered, dusted and even cleaned the bathroom. For this we paid them handsomely out of our two wage packets.

But then I – sorry ‘we’ (I often forget he was involved) – had twins. As the number of people in our flat doubled overnight – the dynamics shifted, along with the two Polish ladies. Suddenly, as I began working from home and swapped a business suit for a drool-covered muslin over each shoulder, I also took on the role of ‘homemaker’. My husband meanwhile – fuelled by his ability to father not one but two children – turned into Neanderthal man. With his testosterone overflowing he soon became incapable of doing anything menial unless it had macho connotations – which basically boiled down to bins and barbecueing. And thus it has remained.

As we moved to a larger house and inexplicably had another child (apparently to call him a ‘mistake’ can be psychologically damaging), the housework increased but the number of people doing it remained at one. Such martyrdom is not unique. On the contrary, according to a study by clean and shiny think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), ‘eight out of ten married women do more household chores than their husbands, with only one in ten doing an equal amount of cleaning as his wife’. Frankly, I am amazed that it’s not a clean sweep across the board – I want the two married men who do an equal amount to come out of the closet they’ve just tidied and reveal themselves to the nation.

But now – in our house at least – the rubber gloves are off. I am breaking through the glass ceiling and not even hoovering the bits up after me. I have drawn up a rota dividing the daily workload into five. I left it out for the teenagers as I headed into the study to do some work – resisting the urge to put a white wash on, wipe down the cooker and rearrange the European training shoe mountain left by the back door before I began.

Emerging two hours later, I discovered that the house had either been burgled, or the three teenagers and friends had woken from their pungent lairs, played a game of ‘how many breakfast items does it take to cover every flat surface?’ and gone in search of someone else’s house to mess up. My rota I found stuck to the bottom of a half-eaten piece of marmite toast (taste buds are indeed genetic). I know I should have left it but I do have to do the bare minimum; it’s not that I’m houseproud, just scared of reintroducing the plague back the UK. Dalia Ben-Galim, associate director at the IPPR, explains the desire to keep the house notionally hygienic thus: “A lot of women end up taking on lower-paid [in my case freelance] work after maternity leave. That creates all sorts of psychological boundaries at home when it comes to who is doing what. Women often feel guilty and feel they should be doing the household chores as well as their job.” And that’s what it boils down to (that reminds me what am I going to cook for dinner?): guilt. Once again, the ‘g’ word is what drives us and our duster onward and upward.

The only thing that does make me feel better is that the survey revealed that 87% of women do seven or more hours a week of housework. I know women whose houses are that clean. In their houses you can eat off the floor – in mine the dog does. I did actually show the survey to my husband – as he busied himself cleaning the barbecue, “The trouble with housework,” he said, “is that you do it, then a few minutes later it needs doing all over again. Where’s the satisfaction in that?”

Find Your Local