“Am I the household manager?” is a question women in heterosexual relationships around the country are no doubt asking their partners or spouses, day in, month out.
It’s a rhetorical question, usually prompted when their other half says something innocent yet irritating, like “Where are my shoes?” or “We’ve run out of milk.” (The fact that women might always know exactly where the shoes are, or have milk on the shopping list, is often taken as a matter of course.)
Now we have very solid proof from a reputable body – the Institute for Fiscal Studies – that shows women are indeed the unpaid, but very efficient, household managers.
The only situation where men do more of the household and childcare duties during the coronavirus, according to the research, is where the man is furloughed, and the woman is in full-time, paid work.
It seems shocking in 2020, but given the role of women at home and in the workforce only really began to change – mostly in the middle classes – in the last 50 years, it’s not really that surprising.
But I’d argue this domestic inequity starts in relationships years before having children.
I remember once when I asked a man I lived with to wash the muddy curtains. At 10pm, or thereabouts, I asked, are you just going to leave those curtains soaking in the sink? At which point he took the curtains, without wringing them out, placed them in a plastic bag, brought them through to the bedroom and flung them over the windowsill, leaving water to pour down the outside wall and most likely into the below neighbour’s open bedroom window. I then stuffed them into the washing machine and made a mental note to do it in the morning.
Most women have their equivalent anecdotes.
But why do I care so much about the curtains? Are my standards “higher”, or am I trying to exert control in a chaotic life? Or is it the case that we women seek – unwittingly or otherwise – to fulfil the very deeply engrained ideal of the woman being the homemaker, because otherwise we become redundant?
Homemaking and fostering co-dependence do little to cultivate an exciting, stimulating relationship – in fact they do the exact opposite – yet some women feel it’s expected of them, even if that pressure is coming from themselves. Or the task at hand won’t get done as well by somebody else. (Just look at what happens when you outsource the organisation to a man – you end up being packed into a car and driven 260 miles to Durham by someone who was worried about his eyesight.)
I have seen plenty of instances where both the man and the woman set up roles for themselves and happily fall into them, because they think that’s what works best. The provider and the homemaker. The child carer and the protector. The instructor and the person who follow the instructions.
We claim to fight against it. Some of us try out cleaning rotas, or writing lists of tasks, or splitting the jobs into ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ categories à la Theresa and Philip May. But none of those strategies eliminates the fundamental, overarching role of who has responsibility for this seamless operation. The one who reminds the others about important dates, and the need to book train trips, and who is going to take this old DVD player to the recycling centre?
The virus has exposed the cracks in relationships and gender disparities, and many of them are far more serious than the ones I’m describing.
There is absolutely no doubt that women, and especially black and other ethnic minority (BAME) women, have been hit disproportionately hard by the virus – due to the fact that women make up the majority of low-paid work and will therefore be most affected by the ensuing recession, as well as being more exposed to the virus through jobs such as nursing, teaching and social care.
There is also no doubt that childcare is inadequate, and that women often have to sacrifice their jobs or careers to raise children, because daddy is better paid and only gets two weeks paternity leave. Instances of domestic violence have also increased during lockdown.
They are all very disturbing issues which I am not talking about here.
I am talking about the fact that the virus probably gave many of us a chance to do the spring clean in March, and it was likely the woman who organised it.
So yes, now we have evidence that women do the bulk of childcare. They are most likely the household managers, too. But I’d wager that latter element started to creep in before kids were even in the picture.
Once lockdown is over, some of us might want to reconsider the burden of obligation and caretaking, at least in situations where we can afford to do so, and especially in child-free relationships. In fact, shedding that burden may be one of the biggest ways to emancipate ourselves – and our partners.