6 Oct 2010, Comments (14)

“As for me, I have learnt to keep my mouth firmly shut”: Blaming women for the domestic load imbalance

Author: Helen

Another post on the topic of equitable domestic load-sharing – and Sarina Lewis again. You may recall I had a go at Lewis on the subject of domestic load-sharing before. No, I haven’t finished with the poor woman yet. But she had not one, but two, articles on that page of the Sunday Life magazine, the second one retailing a particular story that we hear repeated from time to time: Men would “help” more around the house if women weren’t so damn fussy and control-freaky! (And, Fairfax, what’s with the “own worse enemy”? Bring back the sub editors, please!)

Screenshot of part of the article, showing the byline, "Own Worse Enemy".

Watching my husband and three-year-old son get ready for their weekly ritual of watching live Saturday-afternoon football, I couldn’t help but question my husband’s choice of clothing for our son. “He’ll be too hot,” I blurted out.
Calmly stopping mid-jumper-pull to address me, my husband said in a polite voice tinged with steel, “This is my time with him. Leave me to do it how I do it.”
It is a scenario familiar to clinical psychologist Victoria Kasunic. Women appreciate domestic help, yes, but are they able to loosen their hold on the household reins?…

…As for me, I have learnt to keep my mouth firmly shut, the payoff being a five-hour block of solo time each Saturday afternoon, mine to do with as I wish. The reward for tolerance? Priceless.

Polite voice tinged with steel? My mouth firmly shut? and she’s the controlling partner here? OK. Anyway, we’re here to examine the urban myth behind this story.

I’m sure you’ve seen this one yourself, in one form or another. In this Just-So story, the popular suggested solution is for the female partner to lower her too exacting standards – the implication being that we’re a bunch of obsessive Hyacinth Buckets who, as one LP commenter HILARIOUSLY put it, iron the cat.

Here’s another example from Rebecca Huntley, H/T to Leslie Cannold.

Aussie men may make worse husbands than their counterparts in the US or Britain, but according to one social researcher, women have no-one to blame but themselves…
…Dr Rebecca Huntley, who is speaking at Sydney’s Dangerous Ideas Festival this weekend, says women tend to be martyrs and control freaks when it comes to household duties, thus embracing their own domestic slavery.

See? You, female reader, are to blame, as usual. I think this Just So story is a bit of clever framing which some (not all) men have gleefully taken to their hearts because it lets them off the hook. There are two things hiding behind this popular trope. One is that as a society we still see women’s work as inferior, and therefore a no-brainer requiring no training at all. Surely it’s impossible for there to be a right and wrong way to do something like dishes or laundry? Two, we are perfectly fine with listening respectfully to men showing us how to perform manual tasks, but not to women.

Think back, oh ye older ones, to the 1970s or 80s when we were baby feminists and we wanted to do jobs which were coded male for ourselves: changing tyres, or the oil in the car, let’s say. I can’t speak for younger people, but people of my age were most likely taught by a father, brother or boyfriend to do these things.

These people most likely taught you that there was a wrong way and a right way to do things, didn’t they? After all, you create problems, expense and extra work if you use the wrong oil, for instance, or forget to put the oil cap back on the engine head, or leave the handbrake off when you’re changing the tyre. If you’re learning to do something, whatever it is, it’s beneficial to listen to the person who does it every day. And the way in which you carry out household tasks does make a difference. You can cost a working person a lot of unnecessary money by stuffing up the laundry.

This is not women being control freaks. This is the perception that “women’s work” is no-brain stuff with no degree of difficulty, so it’s not necessary to be taught. Also, men explaining stuff to women (or, as above, simply disagreeing about the best way to carry out a task) is normal, but women trying to instruct men is control freakery. Furthermore, as usual, you’re not going to win whatever you do. Notice that the first writer is recommending that we keep our mouths firmly shut, while the other is taking us to task for not discussing enough.

This just-so story helps to justify the continued imbalance of male and female contributions to the household load. We’d do it, but you lot are just never satisfied. See? I TRIED OH MY GOD HOW I TRIED, but just because your would-be respectable clothes are all covered with tissue snow, now you want to TELL ME TO CHECK POCKETS. And just because I left oil and food scraps on the cooking pots you want me to SCRUB THEM instead of just wiping them. My dignity is offended. I’m all in favour of equality, but no woman’s going to tell me what to do!

Update – Just noticed this wonderful post by Spilt Milk on the same theme.

Comments (14) »

  • Deborah says:

    Hah! I have been on the receiving end of that one a few too many times. The one that really PISSES ME OFF is rinsing plates off before they go into the dishwasher. If one does this, one is not creating needless work: one is ensuring that one does not have to do the whole f%#ken job all over again.

  • kate says:

    In our house the rule (cheerfully agreed to by the Bloke) is that you have to live with how you’ve done the job. So if he forgets to pack the kid’s spare pants for childcare, for example, he will be the one who has to take time out of his day to take new pants if they’re required. If I don’t stack the dishwasher properly I will be the one re-washing. I reckon the reason many women I know are particular about the way things are done is that they know they will be the one who has to deal with the clean up/extra work associated with someone else not doing it properly in the first place.

  • Kath Lockett says:

    I’m blushing in shame now, because I remember (idly) reading the Sunday Life piece thinking that maybe she had a point but forgetting about it the second the page was turned (as is the case with most of the weekend inserts)

    If YOUR article had been printed the week after, I’d have sat up, read it, read it again and then thought, ‘Why doesn’t Fairfax print this writer instead of Mia and Sarah all the time?’

    Brilliantly thought out, explained and summarised.

  • Helen says:

    Why thank you Kath. I stumbled upon your very good AGE article on public education and I have it in my mental queue to be blogged for another public ed post (it’s time I think!)

  • Kath Lockett says:

    Thanks Helen (our mutual appreciation society must start up soon). Trouble is, the following week someone (who had clearly misunderstood a key point I was trying to make) wrote in and called me a racist, so anyone who hadn’t read the paper the week previously is now apprised that I am, in fact, a honkingly great paid-up member of the Flemington KKK branch.

    Facebook was the same – a FRIEND (of sorts) called me a bigot. Funny to think that she’s living in London on a huge salary and I’m (checks watch) about to deliver Greens leaflets and pick up rubbish at the Debney housing commission flats…

  • genevieve says:

    Oh dear, I missed that article of Kath’s so please blog it or at least link…!!
    Beautifully explained, Helen, and I had a terrific example chez moi when you tweeted about this, of how important it is to listen to anyone giving instructions – person who will not be named and shamed damaged a fairly crucial cooking item and ruined his meal, due to hastiness and impatience.
    However I’d much rather work with him because he and his son do listen (other males I’ve known have been less inclined, shall we say, to take instruction…)

  • Lisa says:

    Thank you for putting that so eloquently. That second article troubled me when I read it, but couldn’t articulate why.

    We had a relatively successful handing over of the laundry responsibilities earlier in the year when my husband dropped back to part-time work. I didn’t think about it in such terms at the time, but one of the reasons it worked was because we both acknowledged that over years of doing it I had built a level of knowledge about fabric care what you can get away with compared to what the label says, and that this needed to be passed on. So, for the first couple of weeks I would get chat messages at work asking what to do with particular items of clothing, but that didn’t last long.

    I did have to let go of some things, like the order that I thought th loads should be done and the ‘right’ way to hang various items. But we quickly realised that these were just preferences that could be varied rather than things that actually made a difference to quality of the work being done.

  • Helen says:

    our mutual appreciation society must start up soon

    Wednesdays, 2 pm in the broom cupboard on the second landing.

  • I was here earlier, leaving 3 passionate paras which Telstra dropped at the ‘Submit Comment’ juncture, so will now just echo dear Kath –
    ‘Brilliantly thought out, explained and summarised.’

  • Kath Lockett says:

    Oh okay Genevieve, seeing as you’re hassling me so much:

    ….can’t locate any online links for the ‘racist’ letter though (which is probably a good thing!).

  • […] pretty much goes without saying that I would recommend that you read whatever The Blogger On The Cast Iron Balconey is writing and this time what she has written is also about sexism and domestic labour, (and as an aside, I […]

  • Ann O'Dyne says:

    Confession #312 at True Wife-Confessions Blogspot

    If you refer to watching our child as babysitting one more time when you talk to your friends; when I get home I am going to pay you and ask you to leave.
    You aren’t babysitting you are parenting!!

  • Helen says:

    Oh thanks for that most tempting link!

    that one really annoys me too.

  • […] from Helen at Blogger on the Cast Iron Balcony: ““As for me, I have learnt to keep my mouth firmly shut”: Blaming women for the domestic load imbala…“ […]

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