Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Wifework

Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women

A few years ago, I was dining with a group which included a clearly exhausted woman; she was nodding off at the table. I asked her why she was so tired. 'Oh,' she said, 'by the time I got home from work yesterday, cooked dinner, fed everyone, put the kids to bed, did the dishes, vacuumed, tidied, did a load of washing, put it through the dryer and ironed my husband's shirts, it was 3am.' Needless to say, while she was ironing his shirts, he was sound asleep, recharging for the next day at his busy job - her frantic juggle of paid employment, childcare and housework notwithstanding.

His excuse – and hers – was that his job was very demanding. It was. It was also possible for him to slip out and grab a coffee in the morning, eat lunch in a cafe, share a joke with adults in the staffroom while fixing himself a cup of tea, and go pee anytime without a child tugging at his leg. His work began and ended at fixed times, and he could read the paper on the train on the way home. Such freedom is unimaginable to those caring for young children.

It would be easy to make fun of this woman ironing at 3am – how could she let herself be such a doormat? – but her story is common. I have certainly heard it enough times from all sorts of women. The woman whose husband looks after the kids so she can go out occasionally; she returns to water in the bath, nappies on the floor, dishes in the sink and a total pigsty because he doesn't perceive cleaning up to be part of the care. The women who tell me their husbands are great at looking after the baby – after they run the bath and set out the towel and the clean clothes and go fetch him, he'll bathe the baby; then the women clean up. The many women who have reeled in shock when they realised my husband was changing a nappy off his own bat; I hadn't even asked him.

I recently thought of this state of affairs as I read Susan Maushart's Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women. Maushart's observations, drawing from great swathes of sociological data, are simple: despite the gender revolutions that have taken place over the last few decades, most men still do vastly less around the home – physically and emotionally – than their wives, even when their wives work full-time. Women still do the bulk of cleaning, cooking and housework; the bulk of planning household tasks and social activities; and the bulk of the emotional work which glues the family together and makes men feel good about themselves. Worse, men defend their lack of participation by trivialising the work of the household; and women defend their men by infantilizing their husbands and living in denial.

Maushart argues that unless men and woman find ways to share the load more evenly, there is little incentive for many women to enter into marriage or to remain married. This certainly rings true in our society, where the divorce rate is high and the majority of divorces are initiated by women. In the words of one exasperated friend, 'I have three kids at home. One of them is in his late forties and he won't cook, clean or even chuck his damn socks into the washing basket. I don't know why I bother!'.

Yet despite our acceptance as a culture of no-fault divorce, Maushart reminds us that it is not so straightforward. Her survey of decades of research shows that, except in cases of abuse, divorce is rotten for kids. Like it or not, sociologists have found that an emotionally arid father is better than no father at all; a brittle empty marriage better than no marriage at all – for kids, at least. In what is a radical statement from a divorced feminist socially liberal researcher, she reminds us that marriage is primarily about children, not adults; and she calls for a renegotiation of marriage which recognises the priorities of children, equips men to become co-caretakers of the household, and encourages women to allow their husbands more room in the house, so to speak.

This work will be hard, yet she points out that marriage is hard: research shows that the rewards of marriage tend to be experienced in the first couple of years, then after fifteen or so years. In between, it's a slog. She suggest that if we can get our heads around this, then we will have a better chance of staying married – shocking stuff in an age of instant gratification.

Women might be able to manage this by demanding both less and more from our husbands. That is, Maushart suggests it is unreasonable for us to expect our marriage partner to fulfil every need (lover, parent of our children, breadwinner, best friend, confidante – the latter roles should be served by our friends, and breadwinning may be better shared); yet we might demand more physical contributions to the household.

For their part, she suggests men should take responsibility for some of the business of running a home: not just cooking, but shopping beforehand and cleaning up afterwards; not just putting clothes in the machine, but hanging them out, bringing them in, folding them up and putting them away; in other words, not just helping, but taking ownership of the jobs. Research across the English-speaking world shows that the average husband adds five hours' extra housework each week which is picked up by their wives; Maushart rather warmly suggests that men could instead become net contributors to the labour of running a household and raising children, rather than net beneficiaries.

As I have come to expect from her, Maushart is passionately engaged and engaging. While not every observation she makes about marriage and male-female relationships rings true for me personally, she is certainly making acute observations about the general state of affairs. Time and again I found myself nodding in agreement, recognising elements of my own marriage or that of friends.

One small observation – that the time men spend with their children tends to be fun while the time women spend with their children tends to be functional or disciplinary – brought me to tears; this is certainly the case in our household, where my partner, a very present, responsible and proactive member of the household (he washes children's hair, buys milk and changes nappies and never has to be asked or praised), is always the one who gets to have fun with the kids. I'm too busy peeling vegetables or loading the washing machine.

Wifework is full of such insights, uncomfortable but true. Maushart articulates many of these rough spots in marriage, and it's helpful to have them named. The book is a terrific conversation starter; I would recommend it for every couple with children. It provides a starting point for a couple to critique their relationship, and encourages a thoughtful examination of gender roles. It may even lead to a new form of marriage, where running a household and caring for children are understood to be the work of all householders, male and female; and where men take seriously the emotional and sexual needs of their wives.

And if, in the renegotiation, men find themselves with a more important role in their children's lives and living with much happier wives – then what more could they want? Change might involve a difficult and somewhat painful process of trial and error, but the long-term rewards will be abundant, indeed.

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