It is a formidable task to focus only on what we are responsible for but we’re only responsible for our attitude to this work and for asking for what we want. We’re not responsible for their reactions. We’re not responsible for their emotions about it. And we’re not responsible for the inconveniences that this reality check brings. Even though we often love these people we’re talking about.
In a world that proliferates with quick fixes, divisive language and short term gratification, long term societal change on this mundane level hardly rates a mention. But what we’re talking about, at the root of this, is a more functional home as the norm. If that isn’t something to strive for, I don’t know what is.
How do we adopt an attitude that promotes work in the home as ‘a normal part of life’?
By putting all our energy into transforming our own relationship to unpaid work in the home so that our ambitions can take a front seat.
Every family will have a different distribution of things that people do in the home. If you’re happy in a traditional gender role or you’re in a phase of life where it makes the most sense, I’m not speaking up as an assault on your way of life. If you’re stuck in a situation where there is no way to do the things I’m advocating, I’m not speaking up to make your lot in life harder. I’ve been there and I get it.
This attitude change is not about prescribing a particular way of dividing work in the home. It is about how we rationally and successfully adjust things when there is one person who feels that they do an unfair proportion of the work at home. It is about encouraging people to override traditional roles if they want to, because we can.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell discusses work satisfaction. He says that for work to be meaningful it has to have autonomy, complexity and a clear link between effort and reward. I realised that finding personal ways of unhooking gender from unpaid work in my home makes the role of unpaid worker into a meaningful one for me.
Who would you be if you weren’t caught up in the Bermuda triangle of dishes, laundry and meal prep? I know I’d be much further along in my book. I’d also be more myself, happier and less stressed. To have autonomy in this work we have to realise we do actually have a choice to do this work to an extent and in a way that suits us and our current energy levels for it.
I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to become more organised before I was ready to drop my standards. Today I’m in a situation where I have streamlined my chores enough that I have the entire school day free to write. I did this by caring less about things that weren’t essential, becoming more efficient and delegating tasks to everyone else in the house.
This required radically dropping my expectations for myself in the home and getting honest with myself about what I really wanted to do with my one wild life. As I put it to a writer friend, “would you rather be able to say that you had a clean kitchen all year or that you finished your book this year?” Or, as Tiffany Dufu says it in her book Dropping the Ball, “I expect far less of myself and far more of my husband than the average woman.”
The men I’ve observed are skilful at identifying what work around the house they are willing to call their own. It is about identity and we can learn from them but first we have to untangle who we are from what we do in the house. Even if we’ve become very good at it and society tells us it’s what we should be doing – our unpaid work is not our identity.
This then gives us the necessary distance to decide like men do, what we want to do in the house and to negotiate it. Managing teamwork is an inherently more complex task than letting life be a groundhog day of chores over and over. But it isn’t possible to do this until we know in our guts that the state of the house is not a reflection of our worth.
The state of our homes is actually a reflection of our progress in establishing a new social order on a microcosmic level. No one said the revolution had to be tidy.
We’ve all resorted to ‘I’ll just bloody do it myself’ and I don’t blame us, because it can seem like an impossible change to make. But if we want things to change we have to give up that response. We have to steady ourselves for standing our ground otherwise our families will always call our bluff.
They will never have a reason to make an effort if they know you’re going to swoop in if they do it poorly enough. Instead we have to train ourselves to stand seeing things undone about the house. We have to accept the challenge of reminding people of their tasks. We have to get skilled at deflecting the tasks we’ve decided are no longer ours.
The smartest thing I did in my resistance was to keep the jobs I really cared about seeing done well, for myself. This made me much more patient with the societal change I was bringing about in my house. It didn’t bother me that much if the quality of the work I did hand over to them was affected while they got used to doing it.
Earlier this year, I completely lost my cooking mojo after doing it single-handedly for 16 years. So I stopped. I bought a heap of frozen food and easy food to make and I stopped. I knew my husband would cook if he got hungry. I didn’t mind that he over-seasoned the food at first because I cared more about not having to do it. Gradually, he learned and improved.
It takes time and patience but the rewards from this kind of effort in the home is so much more satisfying than the momentary pride of having all the rooms in the house clean at the same time for exactly 30 seconds before it gets messed up and you have to start all over again.
When our kids get better at doing things they didn’t do before, the first time they do it without complaining, or being reminded, is a huge step toward building the kind of world we want to live in.
When your partner adjusts and begins to see it as no big deal, or when someone else in the house learns to cook because you’ve stepped back it’s a satisfying feeling of support and camaraderie.
When you fall ill and for the first time everything continues on pretty much as normal without you needing to bark instructions from bed, it is sweet relief.
When you call out that it’s time for a family cleaning blitz, switch off the screens and turn on the music, and everyone seems almost convivial about something that once elicited loud groans – it really is worth the effort to train them to see housework as a normal part of life – for everyone.
Stepping back, biting my tongue and making myself obsolete in the house, one little task at a time, to the point where I could actually leave for a few days without stressing out about what will happen at home, is a worthy trade-off in my mind.
The greatest reward, to me, is in knowing that one day all my children will be carrying forward this attitude. That as a direct result of my training, less women in the future will be expected to do, or expect of themselves, ridiculous levels of unpaid work in the home.
A movement to unhook gender from household work
“A movement happens when people are inspired by somebody, but they do it themselves. You don’t wait for someone else. You do it yourself. I think we just need each other’s company and support. I don’t think we need one person. We need a cell. There’s always a certain number of people who are thinking the same thing you are, so it kind of coalesces. And they can’t fire me! So this is a good thing. Movements need a certain number of people who can’t be fired.”
~ Gloria Steinem for Esquire Magazine
There is a lot that needs to change in the world. But if there is one thing whose time has come, it is a movement to unhook gender from household work. I started moving in this direction in my own home because I had a burning desire to write. But it was also because I knew if I didn’t shift some of this stuff off my plate, it would extinguish my fire. Permanently, I feared.
In theory, most people agree with equality. But in our homes, we know it still remains women’s work for the majority. People will argue with this and this is great because it leaves them with two options. They can either do more household work and make sure that wily feminists can’t claim that it is still women’s work. Or they can argue that it actually should remain women’s work and prove why this post is in no way redundant in 2017.
Our job now is to overcome this burden on the micro level and we’re the only ones who can. We are the circuit breakers. If there is a place where we have the power to interrupt this cycle of women’s work, it is in our homes. This isn’t something we can take to the streets and protest. This is a more refined protest. It is a nuanced mission requiring patience and steely determination.
We hold the power to change this world where assumed servitude puts out the fire of women while pitting loved ones against each other over bin night.
We’re the ones who can build a different world where families are team members working to shape functional members of society who go on to make more functional families.
That is a question I am on fire about finding answers to. This is why I wrote this manifesto. I wanted to share my thoughts with you, but also, to make sure I don’t forget.
I want household work created by the people of the house done by the people in that house.
That’s it! That’s the tweetable! No biggie.
‘You won’t know yourself!’
Oh but you will and that’s the whole point.
The revolution is not yet complete.
Women still accept this state of affairs where it matters: in their homes.
When people find out we’ve managed to barter a bit of time to do something with our lives, we still laugh amicably when they warn us that we won’t know ourselves.
We still accept this unspoken warning that to know ourselves is risky, selfish or dangerous to the status quo.
The warning is correct: it is risky, selfish and dangerous to the status quo for women to know themselves.
But if status quo is shit for us, why would we continue propping it up with our very lives?
To begin to fix this broken system, one microcosmic home at a time, what we need the most is women who are clear on the value of what they do all day and supported to burn bright with the fire of their most personal ambitions.