I found myself saying this to my husband this morning. I’d dropped the kids at school but they needed something I hadn’t brought; my husband was going into work a little later than usual today, so would be driving past shortly. Of course, it made sense to ask him to drop it in on his way past rather than me heading out and making the journey again, so I asked him. ‘Can you drop a bag into school for me, on your way past please?’ We work together as a team, right?
The problem here is the ‘for me’. They are his kids too. He also has a responsibility for their education. We set out on this parenting journey declaring we would share the responsibility, the work. He works one day more than I do, so the actual childcare was always slightly tipped in my favour. The emotional work has continued to be largely my responsibility, though. I get frustrated with this, the idea that I have to ask him to do the things that need doing. I want him to take responsibly for noticing, for working out what needs doing and then doing it so I don’t have to always be the responsible one, in charge all the time. And, from my work with women, it seems that I am not alone.
So, where does this unequal division of emotional work come from? Are women simply better at this stuff, genetically? Do we just naturally notice all the things that need doing because it is in our nature? Or are men bred to expect to be looked after, all the family needs met without them having to worry about it, while women are trained to look after everyone around them?
From what we now know of the nature/ nurture argument, it would seem to be largely learned rather than inherited. Of course, character will play some part in this – we all know someone who just loves organising, cleaning, nurturing others without resentment – but there is no reason to suppose it is a clear gender divide.
So, how do we, as women, contribute to the status quo? Back to my original question – we ask our partners, husbands, soul mates to do things around the house, chores, things for the children – FOR US. We add in that little caveat ‘for me’ all the time.
Can you empty the dishwasher for me please? Can you pick up the dry cleaning for me please? Can you empty the bins for me please? How many times do you say it? Do you even notice you’re doing it?
The other one I hear all the time is, ‘Can you help me in the kitchen please? Can you help me sort the clothes out please?
By using this language – unnoticed, habitually – we are putting ourselves in charge of the household labour. We are stating that the responsibility is mine so please help me to do these things, do them for me.
I get how hard it is to change these unspoken, learned-from-birth habits. For me, and for my husband. We slip into these roles, these ways of working within our family without noticing until suddenly the frustration builds and I’m fed up of it.
But then I perpetuate the unspoken, unconscious responsibility by using this language. By stating and re-stating my ownership of all the household and child rearing work.
I have got so much better at accepting that I notice things that need doing around the house that he doesn’t; I have changed my language to start asking him more if there are things that need doing. Now, my next step is to start asking him without stating my ownership of the chore.
Can you drop this bag off at school on your way past please? Can you put the laundry away please?
See how simple it is? And even better, your partner will appreciate the simplicity of being asked to do something. Without the smouldering resentment coming from your underlying guilt at asking/ frustration at having to ask him, that simmers away beneath the surface and really, really freaks him out because he has no clue what it is.