On Christmas Eve, I sat on the sofa and watched my boyfriend run audio cable around our living room so that he could hook up the speakers (under our projector screen) to our stereo (behind the sofa). I thought briefly about helping. I reasoned that he knew more about stereos and speakers than me. The act of attaching cable to the wall with the cable clips was easy, I could take over… I thought of all the times I’d cleaned the bathroom and sat watching him crawl around on the floor instead.
I thought I was winning in that moment by maintaining balance. That was a lie. What I was really doing was maintaining a safe status quo where I did most of the home chores in exchange for my boyfriend tackling the jobs he enjoyed and that I worried would make me look stupid or arrogant. My boyfriend is only partially to blame. Of course, he could suggest sharing out tasks or sometimes just up and doing them, but then I think that maybe he is as oblivious to the dynamic we have as I was.
The really dumb thing is, I didn’t don’t (who am I kidding…) enjoy this system that I’ve created but it feels so engrained and so extensive that I’m not sure where to begin changing it. I am absolutely a feminist, I want equal rights for every individual but I’m also at a loss when it comes to untangling what is learned behaviour, what is my personality, what is my specific relationship with my boyfriend, what is down to physical circumstances (tired, hungry, cold), and what is built into our language.
I know that the times I’ve tried to climb out of the hole I’ve dug for myself have resulted in terrible knock-down drag-out arguments. I am definitely to blame for this. When I started seeing Andy, I was so shocked at discovering my self-sabotage and my own sexist behaviour that I tried to over-correct. I got suddenly furious about things that hadn’t bothered me the day before, I was convinced that he was going to treat me badly, mislead me, and think that I was an idiot. I was defensive, unpredictable, enraged.
I am an idiot but mostly for thinking that I could rush into fixing a problem that is so interwoven in our lives that sometimes I’m not sure what words to use or what colours I like. And, to continue with the radical honesty, I’m scared of the new ideas that would result from changing the dynamic. For example, I’ve learnt from society that some of my attractiveness as a woman is tied to seeming helpless and ignorant in traditionally masculine domains. Would I still seem attractive to my boyfriend if suddenly I learnt which audio out cables we needed?
When I first read about ‘emotional labour’ or ‘the mental load’, just a year ago, in Emma’s famous ‘You should have asked!’ cartoon, I think you could hear the clang of the penny dropping several streets away. Everything about the description rang true and yet, although I felt the truth of it in my guts, I had never seen it clearly before that moment. Suddenly I felt like the camera had flipped to ‘Terminator’ view and everything that I looked at was overlaid with calculations: quantity of washing up liquid left before I need to buy more, how much washing needs to be done, when is the best time to put the washing on, what do we need to buy for dinner. Ad nauseam. I’m sure that many of you have the same running monologue and you’re probably way ahead of me- you heard it long ago.
I think 2017 was a year in which many people, of all genders, felt like they suddenly saw the mutable nature of structures and dynamics that had existed around them and between them for years but that they thought were unchangeable or natural.
As Rebecca Traister reports, it’s a ‘seeing the matrix moment’, and, as she goes on to say, ‘women, of course, are doing our own accounting, attempting to classify moments from our pasts to gauge how they fit into the larger picture.’
In May 2017, Theresa May said in an interview with her husband on The One Show that there are ‘boy jobs and girl jobs in the home’. She was, of course, immediately criticised for her sexist view of gender roles, notably, as The Independent reported, by Kezia Dugdale a Scottish MP. I can see why. Aside from the division of labour that May was advocating, her casual laughing tone seemed to imply that this was no big deal. For most women, including me, who feel that their portion of labour is overwhelmingly larger than that of their male partners, this was like a red rag to a bull. These small everyday chores make up our lives, they determine our attitudes towards larger issues, if you believe you have an assigned role in the home, how much easier is it to believe that you have an assigned role outside the home? How she dare she laugh this off, as female Prime Minister she needs to set an example.
Equally, I can understand those that reacted by saying that they were too busy dealing with more important problems to be offended. This was an offhand comment about May’s family life or even May’s opinion of gender dynamics. I know that I feel weary, frustrated and resentful; I’ve had more than my fair share of circular arguments about cleaning the bathroom sink. I don’t want this to be what I argue about anymore than you do. I have to be more honest though about how I act and how I think.
So for the sake of honesty, here is the list of things I currently consider ‘boy jobs’:
-setting up the stereo
-deciding which stereo/speakers/TV to buy
-rewiring plugs (even though I know how to)
-drilling holes to hang pictures (even though I enjoy drilling)
-going to investigate weird noises
-sharpening kitchen knives
-deciding which restaurant to eat at (this is just me I think)
-changing a tyre on a car (even though I know how)
-carrying large furniture up or down stairs
-de-icing a car
-sawing anything (this includes cutting tiles)
-preventing a fight
-making custard (this is entirely due to my Dad who loves custard)
I am more than happy to catch spiders, open jars (or champagne!) and choose wine, counter to my gender’s usual stereotype. My list used to be even longer but as I get older, I’ve gained some confidence. I started making a list of ‘girl jobs’ but when it went over two pages, I realised it wouldn’t fit here. I can highly recommend you do this at home, it was embarrassing but completely EYE OPENING. To be clear, I am not saying this is how we should divide jobs or how you divide up jobs, I am only looking at my own mental triage and realising that I am part of the problem. I have taken ownership of so many things without any critical thought.
I can’t believe that for so long I smugly thought that I had built an equal relationship, that I was leading the way in a new generation of women who knew better and did better.
Sometimes I am stunned by my own stupidity or arrogance or ignorance? I was still trying to be a perfect 1950s housewife and also a 60s feminist and a 90s cool girl and a millennial multitasker. I think that a lot of this confused identity began in my twenties, like many young women, I confused pleasing my boyfriend with drawing boundaries. I brushed off help or kept quiet about the tasks I took on so that I didn’t rock the boat. I didn’t want to be seen as trouble. I was scared of not being loved. I am still constantly surprised by how much of life is about that fear.
In the last few years, I have learnt a lot about accepting messiness in my life. A lot of that has been down to a few great friends and my relationship with Andy. Strong relationships and more experience have shown me that everyone lives in an uncertain, unfinished place and that doesn’t make them unloveable or even unlikeable. I’ve become a little braver at speaking my mind and questioning how and why I do things.
Just like Julia Roberts in Runaway Bride, I’m trying to figure out how I like my eggs. That gives me hope that we can find new ways to behave and interact with and despite gender preferences. We really are going to have to be more honest though, and willing to admit we were wrong, and open to new ideas. And we really need to start looking at how we design our world in binaries.
P.S: Now that you’ve finished reading this, and before you go and write your ‘boys jobs and girls jobs’ list- read this article by Moira Donegan on The Cut about how and why she created The Shitty Men in the Media list.
Top photo vintage 50s ad found on fineartamerica.com, cartoon extract from ‘You Should’ve Asked!’ by Emma, Terminator image source unknown (if this is yours, let me know!), fluffyrock comment from this article in The Evening Standard.