I first started thinking about the importance of housework about two years ago at a conference whose theme was thinking about the future work – one of the keynote speakers discussed how technology was changing how we think about work and what it means and yet throughout his talk he never once mentioned housework – which seemed odd and yet also unsurprising considering how little we discuss looking after the house in the context of work.
I started to think more and more about how we divide up labour within households. More often than not, women do the majority of the housework – not just the cooking and the cleaning, but the household management as well: organising the kids activities and homework, managing the family diary and doing all the organisational and administrative labour that goes into making sure that lunches are packed, food is bought and childcare is arranged. Recently, The Guardian reported that women academics were suddenly submitting far fewer research papers since the coronavirus outbreak, while men were submitting much more. It seems that, in lockdown, women are somehow saddled with more domestic responsibilities while men, somehow, have fewer.
Because we often don’t often talk about domestic work (and how to divide it up fairly) it often ends up being done, almost behind the scenes, by women. Men aren’t expected to do housework the way women are – we don’t tend to buy toy kitchen sets and baby dolls for little boys. Women still tend to be thought of as natural multi-taskers, hard-wired for housework – a series of jobs which amount to a complex cocktail of administration, manual labour and leadership responsibilities: as illustrated wonderfully by the French comic artist, Emma, with her comic “The Mental Load”.
On the other hand, housework is often also viewed as something almost unnecessary – sometimes characterised as only important to highly strung individuals who must have everything ‘just-so’. But this is just another way we stigmatise the topic – it’s partly a result of the way we as a society have belittled the work traditionally done by women and, conversely, belittled women for doing! As a society we see paid work as more important. But letting women into the world of work isn’t enough to resolve sexual inequality – we need to change how and why we value different kinds of work. Having a career you enjoy and that provides is important – equally, housework, particularly for busy families, is crucial – without it, there is no clean laundry or nutritious meals, or playdates or clean, hygienic surfaces (something we’ve all gained a new appreciation for recently!).
The fact is housework is very hard! It’s such a challenging, multi-faceted collection of tasks that it barely makes sense to lump them all together under a single heading. They are all activities which, contribute to making your house a healthy, welcoming and comforting place for you and your family. So, let’s start talking about this work – and more than that – let’s start celebrating it.
Who does the hoovering in your house? With so many of us confined to our homes, housework is more important than ever – tell us your lockdown, housework stories.