In the last two months of 2013, I found myself living on a building site. Wading daily through dust and rubble was almost as much fun as the dub-step kango hammering that rattled the whole house. For the bulk of this time, there was no actual kitchen, which meant nomadically cooking for children at my parents house, eating low maintenance food (forget tinned beans, hummus and crackers will be THE food of the apocalypse) or guiltily ordering take-out. Having no kitchen was disruptive, but I didn’t feel for a moment that I was liberated from my domestic shackles with no sink to chain myself to. No, instead I missed the washing machine. I pined for the tombola thud of the Zanussi. Especially when my mother handed back piles of immaculately folded laundry – including underwear that had actually been ironed.
Right there, was the metaphor for our intergenerational take on housework. Forget eating off the proverbial floor, my mother’s house is so clean you could probably use the bin lid as a plate. She dusts and tidies with gusto, while I’m a reluctant homemaker. Sure, I bash the hoover around when I have to, wash clothes, mop floors, but with a chin-up sense of obligation. On the irritation scale, housework hovers around the same percentile as Cillit Bang’s Barry Scott. This is the work no one notices or cares about, and yet it is necessary. As is the turkey-basting, sprout-peeling marathon of Christmas, where women work like Dickensian chimney sweeps only to have another 12 days of factory-line sandwich-making and organising the recycle mountain. Today, however, is Nollaig na mBan (Irish for “Women’s Christmas”), a day when women traditionally earned a day off as recompense for the Christmas slog. Pinnies were anarchically thrust off, feet put up and the rest of the household urged to fend for themselves. The tradition is stronger in Cork and Kerry and has been revived in recent years by younger generations and women’s organisations. In theory, it’s a great idea – time off for hard work – but why should women, who do the bulk of all domestic work be entitled to just one day off? For all its backbreaking drudgery, housework is important, yet no one values it. It is tiring, repetitive and a time drain that could be spent doing something more fulfilling, like playing with children or binge-watching Nashville episodes. A woman writer – I keep thinking it’s Anne Enright, as it’s the kind of thing I’d expect her to say – once quipped: “A woman with a clean house never wrote a good book”. Never mind writing one: between scrubbing scrambled-egg burnt pots and ironing shirts, most people don’t have time to read these days.
Every harrumph and eyeroll I feel about cleaning is best summed up by Google’s autocomplete search. Type in “housework is”, and the first three predictive options that appear are – like the most depressing feminist Blankety-Blank quiz ever – “what a woman does”, “depressing” (hell yeah) and “unpaid and invisible work”. This also implies in one generalising sweep (of a dirty floor) that just one sex is responsible, which is unfair to men who democratically scrub toilets and scrape plates. Yet in 2014, we still assume that the de facto cleaner-uppers/dinner organisers are women. Surveys – and man, are there surveys aplenty on this subject – suggest that while men are doing more in the home than their fathers, they’re not doing much more. Another crack lab team discovered that men who do more housework have less sex than men who don’t. Maybe they’re just too knackered after a day that resembles below stairs life in Downton Abbey.
Last month, the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie found herself in the spotlight, thanks to a TEDx talk, which was uploaded to YouTube. Her subject was “We Should All Be Feminists” and it’s as funny and informative as it is important. One person who obviously liked it (and I imagine her finding it after falling down a late-night Youtube rabbit hole) was Beyonce. The singer included a sample of Adichie’s talk in the song Flawless on her new album. In the TEDx talk, the writer discusses food preparation in Nigerian society, and refers to a couple she knows who have the same degree and the same job. When they come home from work, the woman does most of the cooking and cleaning. Adichie asks why two people of the same ability, status and income are only unequal in terms of the amount of physical work they do in the home. “Are women born with a cooking gene?” she asks. “No, but they’ve been socialised to believe that that it is their role”.
Women are often the domestic equivalent of one-man band with cymbals for knees and a bass drum on their collective tired backs, when all we really want to be is Beyonce, hiply sampling talks about housework and getting someone else to do the cleaning. In her 2003 book Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women, writer Susan Maushart famously quipped: “Men get one thing from marriage that women never do – wives”. In my home, the domestic work is both equally shared and equally loathed, as we’d both rather be doing something – anything – else. For Nollaig na mBan, I’ve had an epiphany: we’ll both put our feet up.