8 August 2020

The heterosexual division of labour: for men to step up, women must step down

| Elka Wood
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Two women sitting in stairwell.

It’s time to put down the toilet cleaner and have a seat. Photo: Pia Lardi.

The stats on the gendered division of labour have been clear for years. Women bear the brunt of household work, including being managing director.

I’m happily married and feel like I’m in a partnership but it doesn’t stop my husband and I arguing about who does what around the house.

Our situation is nothing new – women have been asking for balance in the household for decades. We’ve rallied, written and sung about it and in every house around Australia, a woman has begged a man to notice that the bathroom needs cleaning or the sheets need to be changed.

But what I’ve noticed is how hard it is for women to walk away from household responsibilities – and our place of control.

As women, we often get to control how things are in the house, from what condition the kids’ clothes are in to which plumber to use and what we eat for dinner.

So what can we do to restore balance in the house?

We can’t change history, or the behaviour of men, but we can go on strike.

As long as we keep doing the work, there’s no place for men to step up. As long as we go on pretending that men are no good at parenting, or cleaning, or remembering to buy panadol, we’ll have to keep carrying the load.

We need to go on strike because competence is its own punishment.

We’re all familiar with the mid-century ideal of a hard-working husband being handed a drink and a newspaper by his wife. It’s high time women get their turn in a plush armchair, while their man makes dinner and soothes the children, but guilt and social expectation often mean that even when we have the chance, we don’t take it.

My husband is often the primary parent. Although it’s been like this since our kids were weaned, it doesn’t stop me feeling mildly uncomfortable on the days when he does it all – from lunchboxes to pick-ups to organising parent-teacher conferences and new hats.

The social expectation that I should do this work, coupled with the feeling that he won’t do it as I would, can make walking away a challenge.

It seems that women want men to step in to replace us; to do household chores to the same social standards we labour under.

I remember my husband taking our son, then aged three, away while I was heavily pregnant with our daughter. They went to a festival with some friends who also had kids and I spent a heavenly week going to the movies, walking on the beach and catching up with friends.

When they came back, our son was wearing muddy size-five pyjama pants tied up with string.

“I didn’t pack him enough clothes so we borrowed those,” said my husband, cheerfully.

I was momentarily mortified at the sight of this apparent negligence – but I couldn’t argue with the results, with our son safe and happy.

Going on strike is not easy for most women and we often feel uncomfortable, guilty or angry when we walk away from ‘our’ responsibilities.

For some women, leaving their kids with a male partner is not a safe choice. For those women, other adults must make ourselves available so she can practice walking away.

The other day, two friends and I went for a walk after school, leaving all eight children with my husband for a few hours. As we snuck out of the driveway, giggling, there was a distinct feeling that we were ducking out of our responsibilities.

It’s an unspoken understanding that many of my friend’s male partners wouldn’t put up their hand to look after the kids, or that the women wouldn’t trust them, and this makes it hard for my women friends to get together or take time for themselves.

Although it can be challenging at first, the more we can become socially acquainted with the image of a hard-working woman taking a break, the easier it will be for women to step down regularly.

We can be each other’s role models.

Will men step up? Or will bathrooms fester and pantries be bereft of anything but boxes of Weet-Bix crumbs?

We don’t know for sure, but I suspect men will. I see that they are.

And if yours doesn’t, you won’t care as much when you’re out with your friends, far from the mouldy bathroom and dirty kids.

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Nienke Haantjens8:01 pm 12 Aug 20

wonderful, thought provaoking article again Elka. Thank you!

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