Women need to learn to say ‘what’s best for the family isn’t necessarily best for me’

Nicola Heath
Photograph: Maskot/Getty Images

It feels very personal, the fight you have with your partner about who does the laundry or cleans the bathroom.

But the second-wave feminists were right. The personal is political. The unequal division of labour at home is a systemic issue that needs structural social change to solve it. Housework, writes Megan K Stack in her book Women’s Work, is “a ubiquitous physical demand that has hamstrung and silenced women for most of human history”. The battle for equality, she writes, starts at home.

Like many heterosexual couples, it was the arrival of children that set my husband and me on divergent paths at home. I’ve been an avowed (and untidy) feminist since I was old enough to say the word. We were together for 10 years before the birth of our daughter – he knew his co-parent had zero aspirations to be a homemaker. So how did we end up so easily slipping into the prescribed gender roles that we’d dodged up until then?

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There are a few reasons that come to mind, such as structural issues like the lack of parental leave for fathers and the gender pay gap.

And then there’s social conditioning. It’s difficult to swim against the tide. Becoming a parent is already a huge transition. Your identity is reforged in the crucible of sleep deprivation and newfound responsibility. The pre-kid lifestyle of Friday night drinks, free time and sleeping in becomes a distant memory. In this period of chaotic readjustment, it’s easy to fall back on what we know. Even in this era of dual-income households, women take the reins at home and men … carry on pretty much as they always did, with less sleep.

The tired and outdated breadwinner model is just as limiting for men as it is for women

Who can blame them? When you have someone to take care of menial stuff such as running your life, there’s little incentive to change the status quo. It’s nice having someone wash your clothes and cook your food. When you don’t have to expend mental energy keeping track of grocery lists and family birthdays, you have the cognitive bandwidth to think about other things.

But the tired and outdated breadwinner model is just as limiting for men as it is for women. The pressure men feel to provide for their families means they work long hours and miss out on time with their children in the name of economic security. Women meanwhile become less independent and less employable because of time out of the workforce or a slower career progression as they spend an outsized proportion of their time performing unpaid (and undervalued) work outside the home.

A report by Deloitte put the value of unpaid work in Victoria at $205bn, half the gross state product, while PwC research from 2017 found that women performed 72% of unpaid work in Australia. Some women don’t want to work outside the home – and that’s fine. But others do, and for them pursuing a career can be an uphill battle as they try to manage paid and unpaid work.

If women want their partners to do more domestic tasks – which would free them up to do more work outside the home – it’s not going to happen without some uncomfortable conversations. Change is difficult. We’re asking someone to give up their privilege, a sticking point articulated by pioneering New Zealand economist Marilyn Waring in her 1988 book Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women Are Worth. “Men won’t easily give up a system in which half the world’s population works for next to nothing,” she wrote.

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For many women, this is a hard conversation to initiate. It requires saying, “my needs are important too, and what’s best for the family isn’t necessarily best for me” – something that goes against how we expect women to behave.

My eldest daughter is now six, and while my husband does a great deal around the house, I have never returned to working full-time. His career has forged ahead (to our collective benefit) while mine has adapted to the demands of childcare. ABC series The Letdown illustrates how difficult it is to defy this trend. Dual-income modern couples can take it in turns to focus on their careers, contend the main characters, Audrey and Jeremy. It’s not a convincing argument. “The woman’s turn usually involves primary caregiving and working full-time and sacrificing social life and sanity,” says their childless friend sceptically.

If we want women to flourish, we need to make some concessions. But the result – men and women better fulfilling their potential inside and outside the home – is worth it.

• Nicola Heath is a freelance writer