Saturday, 19 November 2011

I clean the bathroon

Last week the fantastic Zoe Williams wrote with characteristic flair about women paying the price of this (second? Umpteen?) downturn and corresponding belt-tightening in her Guardian piece Jobs are a feminist issue.
As with most of her stuff it is really worth a read.

While I share most of her analysis, including the fact that now might not be the right time to argue whether women are drawn or pushed into the (more parent-friendly) public services or indeed whether they choose or are lumbered with much of the caring, this remains the unfinished business which risks scuppering all our conquests.
In fact it seems to me it’s never quite the right time to ask the real question, to address the fundamental issue that lies at the heart of feminism's failure to deliver equal outcomes in times of crisis as in times of plenty.

The past forty years have been about getting to a position where women are "allowed" to hold down often badly paid full time or part-time jobs and do all the reproductive labour (caring/cleaning).
But this is still (at the time of writing, although things are moving pretty fast in the world of international financialgeddon) a market economy. Women's position in the family (even just the assumption made by society at large about what their position is) chains them to endlessly lower returns, or what men would deem failure, and makes them the sacrificial lambs of every downturn.
US sociologist Linda Hirscham's fiery pamphtet "Get to work!" is most illuminating on this subject.

The conversation we have not had (distracted by the slow-seeping poison of "choice" feminism) is why aren't men shouldering half of that burden, paying half of that premium on parenthood.
Perhaps taking a break from all that hard core porn they are now allowed to enjoy for free without shame, as we have been trained to find it "liberating" and "ironic"...

This failure of feminism to change men, and to change radically enough the way women and men relate to each other in the private sphere, leaves traces big enough to be seen by the naked eye even in the most ‘equal’ of relationships – i.e those among professionals in full time jobs with no kids (after kids forget it, but I’ll come to that in a minute).
My long suffering feminist husband would argue he does his share. And he does. For one thing, he cooks. I cannot begin to convey what a mixture of tedium and terror the thought of cooking has always engendered in me. I can boil and drain pasta (al dente, of course) with reasonable ease and, if not pushed for time, deliver an expertly boiled egg. More than that you cannot ask of me.
My husband likes cooking and he has taken over that function (as well as intermittent, spasmodic bouts of hoovering) which serves us both well. But his enslavement to the cooker retains a languid "I actually enjoy doing this : it relaxes me" quality. He is not a working mother of three having to feed five hungry mouths at depressingly regular intervals with all the attending feats of food shopping and clearing up.
I’m not saying feeding me is totally unstressful. I am feral when hungry. On many an evening I can be heard roaring down the phone at him while munching on a brick of rice cakes: Where the heck are you? It’s 8pm!!!”. But he doesn’t have to do it when he doesn’t feel like it. There is take-out and tomatoes and mozzarella can always been sliced (even by me) into something resembling a salad.
Conversely I have taken upon myself the unglamorous jobs that really have to be done, whether one finds them relaxing or not, as there is no external delivery service that can step in at the last minute and if left undone would be dangerous to people’s health. Every few days I do the laundry and every week I clean the bathroom.
Have I been forced to take these jobs at gun point? No I haven’t.
Am I setting intellectual mild-mannered husband up to fail by assuming he won’t do the laundry frequently enough nor clean the bathroom thoroughly enough if left to his own devices, thereby enslaving myself into a cycle of low status, dirty chores? If the hoovering is anything to go by my fears are well founded, actually.
(Interestingly, when pushed on this point his take is invariably: “I lived on my own before meeting you and I was perfectly able to wash clothes and keep the bathroom clean. It’s just that you are fanatical about hygiene”. I visited his flat before he moved in with me. I think the whole of, uhm, two times. Case closed.)
Is my temperamental aversion to smelly clothes and dysentery in itself an irrational reflex, a hang-over from pre-feminist days, perhaps a genetic echo of my Mediterranean female ancestry? Quite possibly. But then again, I don’t see him philosophically objecting to clean clothes and a scum-free bath. It is not worth doing, perhaps, but it is certainly worth having it done for you.
Do I want to spend all of our waking hours arguing about cleaning? No I do not. I do the cleaning I need to live comfortably. He cooks lovely meals when he’s inspired and in the right mood. My mother probably thinks we live in a pigsty, his mother probably thinks she has raised a slightly put-upon angel.
Now add kids to this scenario. Do kids need feeding, like, every day? Yes. Are they sensitive to infectious diseases? Hm, yes. Do they in fact generate quite a heroic amount of dirt and mess themselves? Doh. Does the average family really have the luxury of all the time it would take to thrash out every attribution of responsibilities and attending logistical issues every single time? No.
So you can see how once they become mothers women might cut their losses and just get it done. If they work, they don’t have time to endlessly argue about it. If they do not earn a wage they are made to feel it is their job anyway. (Several studies have pointed to the amusing finding that new fathers actually do less housework not just than their wives but than single or childless men).
The -let’s call it -“female fanaticism” about hygiene and their irrational persuasion that it is their job to keep their children alive means women blink first.
If you are the daddy a clean house and well-fed, clean children are clearly worth having done for you, but they are still not worth doing.
Society/the market economy then smugly drapes itself around this tableau and draws its own merciless conclusions. Yes, someone needs to be able to get out early, to collect up a sick kid from school, take a kid to the dentist. But that’s not the someone who’s going to get the big job with the nice pay. And the person not doing the big job with the nice pay may as well cook and clean. I mean, their time is objectively worth less.
Let us recap: as a (middle class Western) woman you can attend a top university and train to fly a fighter jet. But once you reach the age of maturity and peak earning potential you still revert (or are expected to revert) to toilet cleaning, nappy-changing, fridge-stocking, milk-dispensing duties.
So what exactly have we achieved in the past 40 years, I feel compelled to ask? How deep do those achievements go?
I was not expecting much, not asking for gestating men or artificial wombs. I accept that if we want children women will have to physically carry them (my take on children, for the record , is that they may well be worth having them done for you but they are definitely not worth doing).
Let us just say I was hoping the rape stats would be a little less shocking, the pay gap a little less grim and that blokes would clean toilets by now. Even better, unprompted.

1 comment:

  1. Non ce la faccio a smettere di ridere. Unprompted. Haaaaaa. Fatinaaaaa