★ ★ ★ ★
By Lorna O’Hara
It was last Christmas day in my sister’s house and we were all sitting at the table, having just partaken in the traditional over-indulgence so characteristic of the day’s festivities. We were all in our respective food comas, when my sister began to clean up, and naturally we all joined in to help. Well…not all of us. It was then that I noticed that at some point between the end of dinner and the beginning of the clean-up, all the men had slipped off into the sitting room, where they were now dozing peacefully on the couch. I looked around the kitchen and realised that it was only the women in the family that were helping with the clean-up, and naturally I was pissed off. I opened the door to the sitting room and shouted in: “Eh I just happened to notice that it’s only the girls who are cleaning up…I thought we had equality, hmmm?” My brothers instantly jumped up and came in to help, apologising profusely and claiming they had simply not realised. Now, to be fair to my brothers, they’re normally very good at this, and growing up they were probably a lot better at helping out with chores than I was. But it did make me wonder about how these scenarios play out in other homes at Christmas? Who is left to do the cleaning up? Who is left to do the cooking? Or who has been the one doing the majority of the preparation?
Division of labour in the household still seems to be a huge sore point. It continues to be one of the main areas where clear inequality between the genders persists. In the past few years I’ve lived in many different flats and houses that I’ve shared with men. Perhaps I’ve just been phenomenally unlucky, but I’ve noticed a rather unpleasant pattern of it always being me (and the other women in the household) who have ended up being responsible for the housework, be that doling out the chores or simply doing them (or in many cases, both!). Dirty dishes left out with food encrusted into them, food just thrown into the sink in the summer time, attracting fruit flies, no cleaning of communal areas, and sometimes even bald-faced lies about having done their chores as outlined in the infamous German Putzplan. It was enraging, and it honestly makes me seriously question if I could even live with a potential partner, because it just bothers me that much more when a man doesn’t clean up after himself. I already find it really difficult to maintain a friendship or any kind of relationship with a person who won’t pull their weight in the household, who won’t help out, or expects you to take care of every little thing. For me, it shows a real lack of respect and devalues the fact that housework is real work: it’s just as time-consuming, exhausting and requires a great deal of mental energy.
Now, you might think that perhaps my experience of this is unique, but the statistics speak otherwise. Several studies have shown that it is still women that carry out the majority of housework. A Canadian study published in 2017 showed that women consistently carry out more housework than men and that this pattern remains the same at each life stage. Another study carried out two years earlier, in 2015, by the UK Office for National Statistics showed that women carry out 60% more unpaid work than men: spending significantly more hours on housework, childcare, laundry and elder care. You might be forgiven for thinking that those statistics must be focused on older generations and that surely younger women and men should be better at balancing out the burden of housework, but in fact the age group of women carrying out the most housework were those aged 26-35 years old. Despite the fact that more women than ever are entering the workforce and climbing the career ladder, we are still the ones left doing an inordinate amount of housework. How can this still be the case? Equality in the household has been one of the most basic demands from feminists since the 1960s. How can it be that almost 60 years lately we’re still fighting to free ourselves from the tyranny of housework?
And it’s not just the physical act of carrying out the household chores, but also the fact that we have to ask for them to be done. We have to micro-manage the housework, to have the additional burden of having to think about what needs to be done, when and by whom. We often have to be the one that reminds our partner/flatmate to pick up the toilet roll, to keep stock of the milk, because no one else is going to do that. It seems like the minute you take your hands of the wheel, the whole place turns into a tip where you’re drinking tea out of a gravy boat, swirling the last teabag around with a fork because all the spoons are dirty or MIA. And then when things start to fall by the wayside, you have to complain or point out the issue, and if you’re anything like me, you end up feeling like a stereotypical “nag” – an incredibly gendered role. It’s not a position anyone wants to be in, and yet I’ve been repeatedly forced into this very position by men that I barely have an emotional relationship with, not that it’s in anyway better or easier if you do.
So what can we do? I’m afraid I don’t have the answer to this one. Admittedly, I’ve retreated into just living with women. Of course, that’s not to say female flatmates are always clean, but I definitely don’t feel it’s as hard to have a conversation about cleaning and responsibility with them if it needs to happen. But neither should it be impossible to have such a conversation with the men in your life, be they your flatmate or your husband. I think everyone needs to recognise that housework is serious work, and they need to be constantly reminded of that fact. Not only that, but we need to remember that cleaning and maintaining a place, in this case your home, is an act of care not only for yourself, but for those with whom you live. Let’s try and all remember that when we’re lying about after eating too much turkey this year.
Lorna O’Hara is a doctoral student and feminist activist currently living between Berlin and Dublin. Her writing and research focuses on feminist activism and art, in particular similarities/differences between international feminist groups and artistic projects that have a focus on increasing awareness about/changing violence against women and the control of women’s bodies.
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