The mother of all battles


Housework is a nightmare to most men - leaving women to do the lion's share, as Susan Maushart's book shows. But men will never be enthusiastic about housework until they feel they can star at it. And the birth of child can offer that opportunity, writes Victoria White

The writing of this article began like this: "Will you do the clean-up tonight?" A tight-lipped, "Yes." "Dry and put away as well as wash up?" A furious, "Yes!" Then the whole bit: "Why are you so defensive?", "Because you assume I won't do things", "Because you don't", "Yes I do" . . . The three children wailed by way of backing track.

It was a scene which could have been scripted by Susan Maushart for her book, Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women, an exposé of the unfair division of work in marriage. I hated reading it, and not just because of Maushart's blunt Aussie-American style, but mostly because almost every word rang true.

Here are a few statistics: a 1997 study of Australian marriages found that, on average, wives do 90 per cent of the laundry and 82 per cent of all indoor cleaning and tidying. Figures from the US were similar, with employed wives still managing to do 70 per cent of all housework. A British study published in 1999 found that a husband creates eight hours extra housework for his wife every week.

But wait, there's worse to come - current US research indicates that women still do about 80 per cent of the childcare, or as much as they did in the 1960s. They estimate that the arrival of a child increases a woman's domestic labour by 35 hours a week. One US study in 1991 found that the increase in a woman's domestic labour with the arrival of a child was 91 per cent - while the father's did not increase by a single minute. Recent studies in the US and Australia have shown practically the same difference in the amount of leisure time enjoyed by fathers and mothers of small children: 15 hours more for men than women in the US and 16 hours in Australia.

Well, we've heard those statistics before. But what's new about Maushart's book is that she's tried to find a reason for them. She's taken a Darwinian view of marriage and surmised that "wifework" was what women traded with men so that they could have their protection while constantly being pregnant or breast-feeding. They needed men to ensure their own - and therefore their children's - survival.

Without the seductive allure of all that wifework, men might just have run amok, inseminating gaily, as did the current record-holder, who fathered 899 children.

Before you discount the theory, think of the edge of fear or, at least, the strong sense of duty in our mothers' generation when it came to husband servicing. My unconventional mother, whose mantra was always: "I never felt I had to do it", noticed I didn't iron my husband's shirts, and offered to iron them herself. As for the cries of wonder when my husband mastered the sticking down of disposable nappy flaps - let's not even go there. Let's not even remember my strangled comments about how I was holding down a job similar to the one her husband once held down, except that I had no wife . . .

Maushart suggests that women's control of their own fertility has rewritten the Darwinian script. Now the birth of children is likely to incapacitate them for very little time, and they need men far less - not enough to justify all those hours of slogging. The statistics indicate they've copped it, too: it is estimated that by 2020 a quarter of all women will stay single, while in the Western world, nearly three-quarters of divorces are currently initiated by women.

Patriarchy, dealt a death blow by the arrival of reliable contraception in the 1960s, is crumbling in the West. Not surprisingly, husbands can't keep up with the change in their wives' expectations.

Here's another scene from my life scripted by Maushart: a week before my marriage, I finally brave our jointly-owned new home, in which my husband has been living - no, camping - for the previous four months. Minutes later I retreat, clutching my hand-made wedding-dress to my breast like a child rescued from a burning building. It takes hours of tea and sympathy with gay men in a local café and the ritualistic buying of a Hoover before I can return.

I bring the subject up with my excellent new mother-in-law, and she admits it's probably her fault because she has lived by the motto that "it's far quicker to do it yourself".

What interests Maushart more, though, is the fact that women - including herself - have not cottoned on to the fact that they don't need men that much any more. Just like Naomi Wolf did last year in Misconceptions, she highlights the really painful part of wifework, the responsibility itself, which, she says, "consumes untold gigabytes of a woman's intellectual hard-drive". She had to stop herself congratulating a man for responding to her child's birthday invitation, and then she realised why: she had thrown 500 or so parties for her three children down the years, but this was only the second time a man who was still married to his partner had répondez-ed, s'il vous plait. And that other man's wife had been recovering from a stroke.

It's the scheduling, planning, organising that makes a woman feel like a "Mummy" and sound, to her husband's ears, like his own "Mummy". "I married my mother," my husband jokes, and my response, as I think of the shape I put on our lives, is a bitter one: "It was part of God's plan."

His mother may have cause to be fuming by now, but my mother will be ablaze, because they both know I got a good one: a committed husband and a wonderfully enthusiastic father. (Maushart nibbles away here too - wives always tell themselves and everyone else how great their husbands are - my one really is, I swear!) Maushart's book is not quite fair on men: it is triumphalistic about women's "superior claim" as bearer and breast-feeder of children one minute, then dismissive of this period of women's greater adaption to child-rearing as brief.

Men can't be expected to be lackeys serving the great Mother.They will never be enthusiastic about housework until they feel they can star at it. They get that opportunity when a woman is bearing and breast-feeding children and the male protector/nurturer is sorely needed. Both men and women should be supported by State and society during that very short period during which their roles in the home should still, after the contraceptive revolution, be defined by their gender. His role during that period could form a model for a man of a whole lifetime of nurturing and caring.

Maushart is twice divorced, but her pained honesty in describing the negative effects of divorce on her children almost overcomes my dislike of her. She is convinced that marriage is good for children, and that its survival is worth fighting for. So maybe the battle is worth it after all.

So, the article's finished. And the dishes?

Washed, dried and put away.

Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women is published by Bloomsbury, £10.99 in UK