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MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Wed 08-Oct-14 16:51:07

Guest post: Chore survey - why do women put up with doing the lion's share?

Mumsnet's recent chore survey found that mothers do the vast majority of household tasks even when they're employed outside the home - and that 66% wouldn't want more help from their partner. Here, Ingrid Kirkegaard asks why

Ingrid Kirkegaard

Dutch Courage

Posted on: Wed 08-Oct-14 16:51:07

(56 comments )

Lead photo

'I felt as if I had walked out of my own life and into the nineteenth century'

On Monday I met a friend for lunch. I'd put ‘Luncheon with Janet’ in the calendar, because it made us both laugh to think of ourselves as Ladies who Lunch.

As we were sitting chatting, my husband walked into the cafe, carrying a big bag of food shopping. He looked rather dashing, actually, all six foot three of him; he had on one of his dark work jackets, and those deep chocolate brown eyes were twinkling.

He wanted to know whether I had the car with me, so he could put the shopping in the boot and walk home. As he left the cafe, we flirted with each other, and he pulled an imaginary forelock, Clifford to my Lady Chatterley.

How are we to interpret this silly little anecdote? My heart burst with pride to see my husband in an unaccustomed context and to see him caring for the family, but the transaction still had to take place under the aegis of irony - I'm not really a lady who lunches and he isn't really my butler or my gardener. This was division of labour as stage show.

This week, Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour is exploring 'Chore Wars', while Mumsnet has published the results of their chores survey, which asked 1000 women who work outside the home how they share the chores with their partners.

It's fascinating stuff, if a bit depressing. Take Jonathan Gershuny of the Centre for Time Use Research in Oxford, making the point on Woman's Hour that women have been completely done over in the modern world: because you cannot expect marriage to last (statistically), you'd better keep earning, and you are still going to shoulder the majority of the unpaid work at home.

There was an expectation that I would do it all, in the home and outside it, and that 'sharing' was, impossibly, both a kind of failure and a kind of privilege. I shouldn't need help, and if I did, I was weak.


Gershuny's findings show that although some tasks like cooking (note: creative, occasionally enjoyable) have become more evenly shared, very few men pull their weight with tasks like laundry (note: mind-numbingly dull). The Mumsnet survey also reflected this: 77% of women who work outside the home are also responsible for the washing.

Of course, the advent of dishwashers and washing machines and hoovers should mean that women’s lives have got easier – but have they? I would argue that the way we use labour-saving devices has itself become laborious because we've made more work for ourselves. Washday is no longer just Monday, but every day - the chore of washing has multiplied, because it is no longer acceptable, in our image-conscious society, to wear two-day old clothing. Keeping your children looking presentable is just one example of the domestic expectations heaped on women – markers, like having a spotless home, that have become, apparently, necessary in order to register on the index of female success.

When I began my family, I had a good understanding of how tiring and intense parenting would be, but nothing prepared me for the domestic scenario that goes along with it: wall to wall female expectation that I would do it all, in the home and outside it, and that ‘sharing’ was, impossibly, both a kind of failure, and a kind of privilege. I shouldn't need help, and if I did, I was weak. I felt as if I had walked out of my own life and into the nineteenth century.

There's a constant sense of guilt and competition, the feeling that if you can't manage this 'thing' – the home, the family, the cooking, the children's needs, your partner's needs – as millions of women have done before you, and continue to do around the world, then you’re a failure.

It's fascinating to me that 66% of the women Mumsnet asked about chores said they didn't want their partner to do more around the house, despite the unequal distribution of responsibilities, either because they’re comfortable with the current balance, or because it suits them to do the chores themselves, or because they believe that their partner would not perform them to the 'requisite standard'. Could it be the case that we know we're getting a rough deal, but that the idea that women are ‘better suited’ than men to domestic drudgery is still so pervasive that we'd rather not upset the status quo, salving ourselves with: ‘they’d do a rubbish job, anyway’?

So, what's the solution? Chores need to get done, after all. After years of trying to do it all, I've learnt that sharing is crucial. I've learnt that chores are in large part self-imposed, turned into an instrument of competition and made much worse by contemporary expectations from schools about ‘parental engagement’. I've also learnt that chores are as demeaning for women as they are for men, and that a bit of hard work doesn't hurt our children either. After all, they're part of the team too.

By Ingrid Kirkegaard

Twitter: @kirkegaarding

mamato3luvleys Thu 09-Oct-14 10:00:21

I grew up in a one parent family and me and my big sister used to put the washer on daily and even iron our own clothes, we kinda grew up on ready meals as my poor mother was working all hours to pay the mortgage , bills , clothes and food etc. my own children are near to the ages we were at this time and do absolutely nothing in my house. I am at present not working and my partner works 6 days a week he does help abit but tbh i'd rather do it myself as he will leave things half done or the Hoover or sprays out just to show he's had them I say!
Obviously when our youngest son starts nursery/school I will be going back into work and this lot will have to change but for now I'll get on with it happy in the knowledge that my children and partner go out to school and work every day with clean ironed clothes on and come home to a fairly tidy house and nice food ( no ready meals in this house!) wink

TheHoneyBadger Thu 09-Oct-14 12:26:31

i think for as long as women know/feel/breathe the reality that if things end it's them who'll carry the entire weight then women have more to lose and more of a gradient in terms of 'this' or the alternative.

maybe at some level women know that putting up with less than a 50% partner is still less work than ending the relationship. whereas men realistically, if the relationship splits, will only have to take care of themselves.

married/partnered women compare 'this' with the reality of what it would be like to do it all solo whereas men compare 'this' with bachelorhood.

TheHoneyBadger Thu 09-Oct-14 12:29:04

(for context i'm a single mother who has been solo since the start so i know what doing it all means and that it is doable whereas for married mothers who have never been single mothers the discourse paints the experience as hell on earth and maybe it is compared to the idealised alternative of a wonderful, mutually supportive, genuinely sharing the load relationship but when you read the reality of most married women's lives it bears no resemblence to that ideal)

TheHoneyBadger Thu 09-Oct-14 12:30:13

so in simple terms - women have more to lose.

TheHoneyBadger Thu 09-Oct-14 12:33:40

sorry just read the first respondents post and find it depressing. even those raised by single parents assume being the domestic house elf = being a good mum sad good luck getting that to 'change' when you go back to work after having established a culture that suits everyone just fine thank you. be prepared for some resistance.

NeoFaust Thu 09-Oct-14 14:03:43

The only reason this hyper-tidyness obsession exists is due to society imposing it on women. The competition over tidiness and cleaning is just another way to keep women trapped in their role. If you abandon the imposed artificial standards and adopt the standards of those who have not received this programming (i.e. men) everyones lives would be a little more visually chaotic but emotionally much, much better.

bakingaddict Thu 09-Oct-14 14:49:56

I sometimes have to ask my DH's advice on doing the laundry as in the 16yrs we've been together it's always been his job. He better at sorting things into colour washes than me

Cooking and ironing of the kid's clothes is something that I predominantly do, everything else is equally done by both of us. I realize that I have a 'good un' but then I would find it unacceptable if a partner didn't pull their weight. Any person with a modicum of intelligence can learn to do housework so I never understand this 'Oh my partner just can't do it properly' mentality. Men like this do a half arsed job on purpose because they know that the woman is going to come and 'rescue' them from the mundane task

DieselSpillages Thu 09-Oct-14 16:07:20

I think a lot of women still do the "lions share" because they are fulfilling a need for efficiency.

I know that in my house there is always so much to do that I'm continually multi tasking whereas Dh and DC will do one particular task at a time.

If I'm cooking, I'm clearing up as I go. If I go upstairs my arms will be full of stuff to put away. If I wash my hands in the sink I'll give it a wipe etc.

The rest of the family will do specific tasks but without me playing the part of continual house elf, the house really quickly becomes really messy.

batgirl1984 Thu 09-Oct-14 21:08:56

Why do women put up with doing it? Because they are the ones who are judged on it. When visiting the house of a hetero couple, the assumption is that housekeeping is done to the standards of the woman. Because there was a strange postwar period when the feminist gains that had been made during the wars were halted, as the men needed jobs, so housekeeping became women's job.

WotchOotErAPolis Fri 10-Oct-14 08:00:17

Here's the difference:

as a single Mum you can just get on with it without being judged. Single women do just get on with life. It keeps them busy and allows them to decide for themselves if and when they do the chores.

As a married/co-habiting woman, you get the whine that I get from mine about "why don't you spend more time with me dozing in front of the TV with my feet up, after all the washing up, dusting, hoovering, laundry magically does itself doesn't it". No hint of "can I help you with the chores and then we can both sit down".

Someone has to do it so in my house I allocate chores to DH and my 3 DSs and they are written on a whiteboard in the kitchen. My DSs do their chores (albeit after a bit of nagging) but DHs list is exactly the same as it was 3 months ago when I started it whilst recovering from major surgery.

WotchOotErAPolis Fri 10-Oct-14 08:06:54

Baking addict - I'm with you. Chores are boring because they are repetitive and easy to do. This fact implies that men can learn to do them - they aren't hard to understand.

So why do men generally think it's ok for the woman in their life to spend her time doing boring repetitive and mind-numbing chores to keep a tidy and organised house, while they watch TV, which is also mind numbingly boring but achieves nothing.

I don't actually mind doing chores, if he is also busy doing something eg the DIY which I'm rubbish at. It's when I'm constantly busy whilst I'm listening to him snoring in front of another antique show, that I get angry.

TheHoneyBadger Fri 10-Oct-14 08:14:23

but the question is why do you put up with it?

bbqr Fri 10-Oct-14 11:20:16

I'm currently at home finishing my doctoral thesis (and not earning any money!) and am happy to do the lions share of the house/children stuff - although he kitchen is entirely my husband's department as I would happily live on toast alone.

However, once I go back to work, all the chores will be split down the middle - no way will I accept more than 50% of the home-work! Plus, both my DS are having early training in pulling their own weight in domestic duties - hell will freeze over before I am one of those mothers that does everything for teenage sons!

I agree that if you don't like it - don't put up with it. It has taken ages to train my husband to put his clothes in the laundry basket for example, by simply ignoring all his dirty laundry unless it is in the basket - doesn't take many days with no clean pants before they get the idea! sure my husbands cleaning is 'sub-standard' and sure his organisation of the children is at odds with my own, but if I have to chose between it been done by me all the time well, or by him some of the time badly, I know what I would chose!

melw74 Fri 10-Oct-14 16:26:03

I like a tidy and organised house. I do the majority of the chores if not nearly all because i am the one who is here all day.... so its my Job.

My husband works full time so its different for us.... he earns the money outside, and i look after everything inside.

Not saying my husband is a lazy bum, he does do things, hes not as slob ( much ;) ).... But i like things done the way i do them, and at least if i do them then i know they are getting done properly, but i do know that if i stopped then the house would not be as i want it to be and i would not be able to stand it.

There are 6 of us here tho, so I think if i was to stop it would turn into a bombsite.

Littlebluebutterflies Fri 10-Oct-14 16:30:04

batgirl is right. The female partner is judged if standards of housekeeping are poor. If my dM, Dmil or female friends come and see my house a mess they won't think Gish Me Butterflies isn't pulling his weight, they'll think Mrs Butterflies isn't coping with full time working and a family.

morethanpotatoprints Fri 10-Oct-14 16:33:55

I am a sahm and dh is the sole provider in terms of woh, however, he has higher standards than me so I do the basics and he does the extra bits.
The kids muck in as well and all do a bit.
For me as long as a house is cleanish and tidyish it doesn't matter.
As for all the expected mentioned, well more fool you if you put the pressure on yourself.
If you have a dh who you don't think pulls his weight, then tell him.
I can't see where the problem is.
Maybe I am missing something.

batgirl1984 Fri 10-Oct-14 16:47:21

butterflies Thank you!
morethan I think you are missing something. I'm going to try to articulate what it might me. I think its the bit about the woman having to tell the man he isn't pulling his weight. There would be a different cultural reaction to a man telling a woman the same thing. The posters from the fwr board could articulate it better, or my new interpreter butterflies.

TheHoneyBadger Fri 10-Oct-14 17:39:26

still though it is a choice whether to bow to that pressure or confront it. still the question remains why women put up with it and why they accept being judged for it or choose to allow that judgement to influence them to slog away like skivvies beyond their share of the work.

things won't really change till women say fuck off! i'm not bloody skivvying around the house whilst you sit on the sofa.

of course there is pressure but life is full of pressure and women would not have made the progress we have thus far if we hadn't been willing to resist that pressure and rebel against expectations.

if one person is willing to run around doing everything clearly there's no real motivation for the other to pull their finger out and do their share.

yes there is pressure and there are cultural expectations but we are capable of sticking two fingers up at those.

we seem to have come right back around to needing to focus on consciousness raising. i don't think the whole cath kidston cup cakes and bunting backlash has helped.

slightlyglitterstained Sat 11-Oct-14 16:58:00

Why should it be women's responsibility to not put up with it?

alemci Sat 11-Oct-14 18:44:48

i agree about the constant tidying, always on my mind and no one else cares.

my dd wants me to do family party. don't mind but i know i will get stressed out because she will come home from uni with bf plus yd plus bf then will make mess.

the stress of trying to have 13 people over will be too much and feeling judged.

TheHoneyBadger Sat 11-Oct-14 21:57:40

why was it the responsibility of workers to form unions and demand worker's rights? why was it the responsibility of the suffragettes to battle for the vote?

reality is that is how it is - the privileged don't tend to wake up one day and surrender their privilege.

TheHoneyBadger Sat 11-Oct-14 21:58:07

or maybe the suffragettes should have just not bothered on principle that it wasn't their responsibility to change things hmm

Pointlessfan Sun 12-Oct-14 07:47:10

I disagree that laundry is dull, it's a job I love! Especially ironing which is a good cover for watching a couple of hours of tv. DH does almost all the cleaning in our house and some of the cooking even though I am on maternity leave at the moment. Since having DD we have both lowered our standards and consider spending time with her more important than having a sparkly house. Yesterday we cleaned for the first time in about 3 weeks, do I care? Not really, so long as the kitchen is vaguely hygienic I think life is too short to spend on housework and I can't really see the obsession with it.

cogitosum Sun 12-Oct-14 08:05:33

Interesting. This is not the case in our household at all. I do all the cooking but my husband does most of the cleaning. I tend to do more laundry but only because I work 3 days and it's easier to do it on a day off rather than after work or the weekend when we tend to be busy. For me laundry is simply bunging a load in the machine and emptying and hanging. I don't even seperate colours let alone iron! In fact we don't have an iron!
That being said I recognise I'm a minority. I think our situation is for 2 reasons. 1. My dh cared for his mum who was dying of kidney failure for many years so became accustomed to doing everything. I'm under no illusions that if if weren't for this sad fact things would be the same as his mum would've done everything for him otherwise. 2 I grew up with a df who I love dearly but who holds chauvinist views and does nothing around the house. I was determined not to end up like my mum in that respect so refuse to shoulder the domesticity. I have fairly low standards anyhow and I think that can sometimes be why women end up doing everything. My dh cleans to a much higher standard than I and were it to fall to me it would not be nearly as clean! My attitude is that if he wants it to be that clean he can do it! I'd imagine that's shared by many men! In the same way he'd be happy with very simple food that he could do himself but I like more extravagant meals so I cook them!

It's also worth noting that even in our set up the lion's share of responsibility for ds is on me. If I'm out I have to leave fairly detailed instructions for preparing his food for the cm the next day, bath temperature etc. I wonder if that's something I have very high standards on which makes me 'picky'.

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