Why are women expected to care about a clean house?
OPINION: I recently spent the afternoon in a park with a friend and our kids. It was a lusciously sunny and warm day, the first in a long time after such a cold winter.
It was the kind of day that you want to prolong, so we decided to do exactly that and headed back to her house to drink wine and watch the sun set.
While the kids set about destroying the house on arrival, I asked my friend if I could use her bathroom. "Sure," she replied. "Just give me a second to make sure it looks OK."
I waited while she dashed in to make sure there were no suspicious marks in the bowl (or on the seat) or a forgotten flush. She came out a minute later and gave me the all-clear.
I knew this was what she was doing, because it's exactly what I do when guests ask to use my bathroom. I also apologise automatically for the general mess of the house, for any dishes that might be left dirty in the sink or food crumbs strewn across the counter.
I do all that despite the fact that not only do I not care about the state of any of my friends' houses, I also loathe the gendered expectation that these are things women should care about, along with making sure everyone in the house has healthy food to eat and the kids' clothes are neatly ironed and stain-free.
Like many women – and feminist women in particular – I'm interested in what perpetuates this sense of obligation even in households populated by people who are arguably aware of the existence of these pressures and the essential inequality of them.
Why do we feel that a dirty toilet will reflect badly on us alone, and not also on the people we live with (particularly if those other people happen to be men, whether partners or housemates)? I suspect there is a residual fear of being perceived as filthy ourselves or inattentive to the filth of those men, whose domestic harmony we're expected to take responsibility for.
Still, I'm far from the first woman to write about the gendered division of labour. By now, only the most obstinate and wilfully ignorant of people are in denial of the fact that women perform the bulk of the world's unpaid labour, even in the countries these same people love to believe are matriarchal dictatorships.
Just recently, Gemma Hartley wrote about women's emotional labour in the domestic sphere for Harper's Bazaar. In reflecting on the example she and her husband were setting for their children (one girl and two boys), Hartley wrote: "I find myself worrying about how the mental load bore [sic] almost exclusively by women translates into a deep gender inequality that is hard to shake on the personal level.
"It is difficult to model an egalitarian household for my children when it is clear that I am the household manager, tasked with delegating any and all household responsibilities, or taking on the full load myself. I can feel my sons and daughter watching our dynamic all the time, gleaning the roles for themselves as they grow older."
Hartley is just one of many women in heterosexual partnerships who feels obliged to "manage" not just the workload of the home she shares with at least one other adult, but also the way her home is perceived by other people.
I'm speaking generally here (and before I go further, let it be known that I acknowledge there are always outliers to every situation, which means of course there are house-proud men out there), but I've rarely, if ever, encountered the same level of domestic embarrassment in my male friends in hetero partnerships as I have in my female ones.
They don't give the toilet a quick once over to check for rogue floaters, nor do they offer apology for presiding over a living room that actually looks lived-in.
And it isn't just that men who partner with women suddenly give up on doing the domestic workload they performed rigidly before. Let's just say that of all the men I slept with in my 20s, not a single one of them ever apologised for the fact that they were clearly sleeping on sheets that had never been washed and definitely smelled like it.
Meanwhile, the majority of western women are conditioned to apologise to potential paramours for egregious crimes like having unshaven legs. (And if you don't think that's true, think of the Swedish model who recently posted a photograph of herself with hairy legs and received a slew of rape threats.)
Emily Shire nails it here when she writes that women are judged more for having messy houses and unkempt children than men are. In fact, I would wager the average person wouldn't even think to implicate husbands and fathers in either of these things, because the cultural stereotypes around both still hinges on a woman's worth or lack thereof.
So what's the solution?
In my own home, having open lines of communication has been hugely rewarding. My partner and I have ongoing conversations about how we can model equality to our son, from having set weekdays in which we both act as primary parent to making sure he sees both of us doing things like vacuuming, washing clothes and cleaning the kitchen.
We each do our own laundry and often cook or organise our own dinner, both of which stop these jobs from being naturally assumed to be my responsibility. I'm not afraid to have endless discussions about our domestic dynamic, even though I find it boring and frustrating most of the time.
Because this seems to be largely why women in hetero partnerships just throw their hands up and conform to gendered domestic expectations – it's too tiring and dull to keep having the same conversations over and over, so we just end up giving up and doing it.
I'm not saying we should stop doing the toilet once-over when guests arrive. But start questioning your partners if you notice they never do it. And for goodness sake, stop washing men's clothes for them.