Today I’m conducting a very personalised social experiment. Today I am not going to do any job for anyone else other than myself. Apart from taking the kids to school and picking them up again. It hasn’t been as easy as it sounds.
The Reasons Why
The decision to undertake this radical shift in how our household is run is due to three separate events:
The first was that yesterday morning I engaged in a typical ranty moan with my friend on the walk to school, concerning our offspring and their ability to create mess where’er they roam.
‘My daughter just flung her clothes into her bedroom’, she said. ‘My child left their cereal-flecked toothpaste spit all over the sink’, I complained.
We agreed that they’re not doing these things to spite us, but because they inhabit their own little worlds.
Then, that evening, on a rare outing to see a non-kiddie film, I went to see Suffragette with two girl pals; a film documenting a group of activist suffragettes in 1912. Maud Watts, a (fictional) young wife and mother, works in a laundry in Bethnal Green and has done since the age of 7. She works a long day, comes home, and does the washing at home. Her husband, Sonny, a product of his time, just wants things to carry on as they are, with Maud doing everything for him, and he ‘looking out for her.’
Lots of other things happen, including her son being given up for adoption because her husband has thrown her out and is incapable of looking after him (cue copious sobbing from three tired mothers in the audience). However, the moment that I keep thinking about is, after getting back exhausted from prison she asks him apologetically, ‘Have you had your tea?’ and he replies resentfully, ‘Mrs Garston’s done her best.’ That is, a neighbouring woman has fed him as well as her own family, but that’s not good enough, because it should have been his own wife feeding him. That scene kept repeating in my head, because it was her role to care for him and without her he was helpless and had to turn to another woman to take her place. Food ties us to our care-giving role, and I’m afraid to say, that’s very much true for me, over a hundred years later.
The other factor is that there has been a recent spate of articles (due to some study somewhere) about how we’re bringing up pathetic, risk-averse children. ‘Let your children gambol near the edges of cliffs’, it suggested. ‘Let them speed down hills on homemade go-carts with no helmets on as in carefree days of yore’ and lots of other similar nostalgic suggestions. The thing is this is a step too far for parents of our generation. We’re bringing babies into the world and then surrounding them with a thousand health and safety related gadgets, and the a few years later we’re meant to hurl encouragement at them as they shimmy up into the treetops…my children don’t even walk to school on their own yet, let alone carry out break-neck stunts.
But I understand the sentiment. Let them go, let them make mistakes, graze their knees, fall over. If we don’t they’ll never learn to trust their instincts AND they’ll live at home until they find someone else to look after them.
These three things together made me stop and think. So I decided to consult my union of one, and call a mini-strike.
My Role in the Home
Encouragingly, the children were delighted with the idea, my husband nonplussed. ‘I’ve never forced you to make me tea every morning’ he said defensively. No, that’s true.
I am not repressed, my husband doesn’t tell me that I’m his wife and I should do as I’m told. He’s supportive and a believer in equality. But I’m also a mother at home, and have been for ten years now, and part of that role has always been that I am the homemaker. All the creative, domestic touches are mine, most of the decorating decisions, the washing, the cleaning (until very recently), the clothes buying (for me and the kids), the shopping, being the cupboard fairy, breakfasts, packed lunches, lunches, teas, suppers, cake baking, jam making. All of it.
And no one else has made me do it. I could have said no to it and got a job, a long time ago. So partly I’m doing all this because I enjoy it. It’s my home, my kitchen, my children and I like being in control of everything that goes on in it.
It’s also partly learnt behaviour. I do all these jobs because my mother did, and she did because her mother did. Part of that learnt behaviour, is that just like she did, I am the day-beginner. I pretty much always get up first, out into the cold and dark and empty the dishwasher, wipe the sink area, or any of the other endless repeating jobs that women everywhere do. I always finish this stint by taking my husband a cup of tea in bed. ‘Oh sorry…’ he habitually moans as he thanks me for the tea. I take him up the cup of tea because I want to, because I like looking after him, and because he wasn’t up and I was.
The other thing I do is become a human clock. I go around for two hours every morning telling the children what the time is:
I start with, ‘It’s time to get up’ – usually quite sweetly, in a fond way.
Then, ‘Come on, it’s quarter past, time to get moving’ – tone now slightly brisker.
And, ‘You’ve got two minutes to get downstairs!’ – shouted from another room, or up the stairs.
Finally, ‘We should have left 5 minutes ago, we’re going to be late – what are you doing???!!!’ – roared from the hall.
This morning, while I was engaged in my strike, I heard my son call up the stairs to his sister, ‘We need to go in 5 minutes!’ I was sitting quietly typing on the computer, thinking,’ this is a novel experience’.
The Benefits of Changing my Role
It isn’t just me that will benefit from me stepping down from chief dogsbody. My husband never asked me to be a slave to housework and he will have a happier, less resentful wife, who has more time to commit to her own projects and hopefully generate more income for the family. The children will realise that a clean house and organised schedule doesn’t happen by magic, someone has to do it, and if they start taking responsibility for their own belongings and lives now, they’ll grow up to be useful independent citizens, rather than selfish individuals.
The next thing is to have a TO-DO list of how to change our little family from a Mummy-dependent trio, into an inter-dependent awesome foursome.
- Get alarm clocks for every other member of the family so they can work out when to get up.
- Implement cooking lessons for husband and two children (not just my daughter).
- Make it clear that while I’m happy to do jobs for the whole family, such as washing etc, the children also need to take on jobs for the whole family too, because that’s what people who live together have to do.
- Remind myself not to habitually follow the kids around tidying up after them.
- Remind myself not to remind them to do everything and if they forget things, then maybe, just maybe, they’ll learn something from it.
There are loads of other things I could add to the list, but it’s a start. Because watching that film woke me up. Due to the sacrifice of thousands of women, today I have the vote and choices in my life. Thanks to them, the only person responsible for chaining me to menial tasks is myself. I have decided to set myself free.