I come from a traditional English family. My mom didn’t work when we were little; she was wholly responsible for the running of our household. She did all the childcare; she did all the grocery shopping, cooking, and cleaning. My dad worked very hard in his job and looked after the yard and other ‘man’s work’.
After I went to school, my mother set up her own business, with a friend. They were self-employed, dedicated, and she showed me that I could do anything I wanted to. By the time I was in my teens, she was working a full-time job, and she was good at it. And she did have ‘help’—we had a cleaner, an ironing lady, and a gardener. But it was still assumed that as the woman, she was totally in charge of it all, and these people were ‘helping’ her out, rather than helping the family out.
I’m not criticizing my parents in the least. My mother is an inspiration to me as a workingwoman who put her family first. They were amazing parents; I had the happiest of happy childhoods. They were following the social norms. But as I moved out on my own, it struck me that my mum (and, I often think, her generation) had, in a way, been tricked. They had been expected to give up work to have the kids, and, as a part of that, had taken on everything at home. Then, when the children started to grow, and they ended up working full-time, they were still expected to do all those household tasks, just like before.
I was sent to a girls’ school, primarily because of the quality of the education. In some ways it was what you imagine an English girls’ school to be like. We were always addressed as ‘Girls!’, by the very upright teachers, who sported tweed skirts and wore their hair like Princess Anne. I didn’t notice it at first, but once our class turned sixteen, we were suddenly referred to as ‘Ladies’ as if a mystical transformation had happened in the space of the eight-week summer break.
I was taught Chaucer and Shakespeare, I studied algebra and trigonometry. The education really was first class. But also, during school hours, we were taught other things. I remember a one-hour lesson on how to apply make-up. We had a tutorial on how to pluck eyebrows so you looked neither angry, nor permanently surprised. Because we were expected to go far in our careers, we were taught how to shake hands with conviction at a job interview—by a serving British Army Officer, no less. We were shown how to take a suit jacket off during a meeting without straining the shirt buttons across our chest. I received instruction on how to get out of a car in a skirt without allowing anyone to see anything I didn’t want them to see (imagine one hundred seventeen year-old ladies in a school hall, sitting on chairs in imaginary cars, perfecting the ‘closed-leg swivel’. I could definitely teach Britney a thing or two).
But although all this ‘training’ seems out-dated, the overall theme of my education was simple: You Can Do Anything. I had no doubt, and I still don’t, that I can be anything I want to be. Ok, maybe my chance at being part of the pro-tennis tour is behind me, and I’ll never be President of the US by virtue of my birthplace. But if I wanted to be Prime Minister, and I worked hard, I think I could do it. When I wanted to launch my own business I knew I could. I didn’t need anyone’s permission. And a man was definitely optional.
So my education, though seemingly very traditional, was actually quite feminist. And I decided that I would do things differently from how my parents had done it.
When it came to looking for love, I was picky. I was confident, independent, self-sufficient. I had no doubt that, if I didn’t meet the right person, I could live a perfectly happy, productive, and fulfilled life on my own. So when I eventually did fall in love, I was equally surprised, and practical. I had expectations, both of myself and my boyfriend, and if they weren’t met, well, he simply wasn’t the man for me.
Six or seven years into our relationship, he got down on one knee (see above, about my being rather traditional) and asked me to marry him. Of course, I said yes. (Admittedly after a little confusion, including, ‘What are you doing down on the floor? Are you looking for a contact lens?’)
We started to look for a house together. And right on schedule, out came my practical side.
I explained that I would not assume responsibility for the running of the household simply by virtue of being born with a uterus. I said that before we lived together, we needed to sort out who would be doing what at home. I did not want housework to be a source of arguments, nor, which is worse, did I want to spend my life nagging him to ‘help’ around the house. (Hint: it’s not ‘helping’. Cleaning up, cooking, and doing laundry is not helping, it is simply ‘living life’.)
We set about dividing the tasks necessary to run a household. I enjoy cooking, so I volunteered for that. I’m not so keen on grocery shopping, but since I was going to use the ingredients, and knew what I would need, it made sense that I shopped for them. My husband enjoyed cleaning. Perhaps not so much the act of it, but the satisfaction of a job well done, and the gleaming kitchen afterwards. So he was to take on all cleaning.
Other household chores were divided up by who wanted to do what. No account was taken of gender, although we did look at who worked longer hours outside the home, and apportioned other work fairly so that neither of us felt overburdened.
We are lucky in that we enjoy opposite tasks, but of course there were a few jobs that we both vehemently didn’t want to do. The main source of tension was changing the bed linen. We both dreaded doing it when we lived separately. Finally, we agreed we would do it together. We now have a system for it that is quick, and dare I say, quite fun.
We don’t argue about whose turn it is to do what, because we both know. He doesn’t always clean to a standard I would like, but if I mention the windows look dirty, he’s on it. Similarly, if I’m feeling tired, he might get cereal for dinner, and I apologize, not because I am here to serve him, but because I’ve let the team down, just a little.
We’re not overly rigid about it—if I’m wiped out, he’ll boil us some pasta and mix it with sauce; if he’s having a bad week and I can see the bathroom needs a wipe, I’ll do it. But I love knowing I’ll never have to clean another sink unless I feel like it, and he enjoys never having to think, ‘what am I going to make for dinner?!’
I think the key to implementing this was that we did it before we lived together. I set the expectation that the running of a household is the responsibility of all who enjoy its benefits. And as our circumstances change, I’m sure we’ll reassess our arrangements.
My friends tell me I’m ‘lucky’ and that, ‘he’s a keeper!’.
But actually, luck had nothing to do with it.
Had he objected, I guess he just wouldn’t have been the man for me.
Photo by: Jessica Schilling Photography