I’m all for a debate about housework. I like housework. (And I’m man in case the name does not give it away.) Housework is important to me – being a full participant in managing the home (and caring for the children) is fundamental for me. The idea of being the No.2, the “helper”, is abhorrent – I am far too proud for that. So running a beautiful household (small, but beautiful) is a project that the whole family – parents and children – enjoy together.
I am also a gender equality campaigner and I read the research. I know full well that the balance of care and housework between women and men on average is not a pretty sight. And I know this is a problem – when parents divide into separate spheres they are more likely to be miserable (note: “are more likely to be” – not “are”), and both the workplace and the children lose out on skills and knowledge and time. I know that a feeling of unfairness that many parents experience as they submit to social expectations is corrosive and I buy the fact that there is a lot of anger about – but the way the anger is directed is where I part company with the mainstream.
I loathe the debate about housework. As a man who has done what is supposedly required of men, I find myself completely alienated by it. When the subject comes up on the radio – particularly if I am doing the ironing – I hurl myself at the radio to turn it off. I used to listen and get angry, but then I realised that letting outsiders disrupt my private enjoyment in the home was handing them a victory they don’t deserve.
The debate about housework has become a proxy for a critique of men. But I don’t see that the problem with housework is just what men choose to do. I see the division roles as deeply embedded in how we – both women and men – feel about our role in the world. I don’t see housework as chores at all (though it would feel like that if things did not feel fair, I guess). I see housework as a positive – it is part of the expression of my competence and confidence in my role. I cannot believe that there are not other women and men who feel about it the same way, though I never hear them in the debate for all the complaining and mud-slinging.
The sharing of housework, part and parcel of the sharing of care of children and the elderly and the sharing of earning, is actually pretty difficult to do. It’s not the doing of the “other” role that is hard – it is letting go of the role to which we have an entitlement. Housework I can do, but I constantly struggle with letting go of the role of “chief money worrier” in the family. And in order to let me into a sharing arrangement, my partner had to make some pretty big and active decisions which society was telling her she need not make.
There is one thing that irritates me more than anything – the way boys and girls are brought up differently from each other in relation to housework, even in the 21st century. My daughter has observed at university how boys seem less prepared to look after themselves than girls. To me this proves a collusion between mothers and fathers and it does no favours either to boys or girls in preparing them for a more equal future.
Work Care Share is a collaboration of men and women who believe in equality. We respect and learn from each other’s perspectives and we are planning to launch a report on the cost to the UK of not sharing roles. If you would like to follow the campaign, please join us.