Women: equal at work, still unequal at home?
Christina Hopkinson’s sparkly new novel has been read as a privileged mum’s moan about cleaning. In fact it raises more than a few awkward questions about domestic drudgery.
‘You and Joel could be asking really interesting questions about what the heterosexual marriage means in the twenty-first century, you could be reinventing the institution entirely. But instead, you’re bickering about the washing-up. It’s so retro.’
So Becky, the lesbian best friend of the frazzled mum-of-two protagonist in Christina Hopkinson’s novel, sums up the central theme of The Pile of Stuff at the Bottom of the Stairs. Society has made major strides in terms of sexual equality, women’s careers, reproductive choice and marriages built more on sexual attraction than social convention. But at the level of domestic work, nothing has changed. It pisses us off, it grinds us down, and nobody ever really talks about it as a major problem.
At a time when the obsession with ‘parenting’ implies that the only task of family life is how you play with your children, Hopkinson’s novel attempts to bring domestic work back into the debate. The main character, ‘Scary Mary’ to her colleagues, works four days a week as a TV production manager. She has two young children, some richer friends, memories of a past life when she had free time and a career that seemed to be going somewhere, and a husband (Joel) who’s a bit of a loveable slob.
Mary’s frustration with the constant ‘sweeping, tidying, house admin and wiping’ that consumes her physical and mental energy leads her to create a spreadsheet (‘The List’) where she logs all her husband’s domestic misdemeanours. Her fantasy is that when Joel clocks up a certain number of points, his slobbery will be confirmed and she will have grounds for a divorce. Far-fetched? Absolutely. Totally implausible? Sadly not.
The Pile of Stuff at the Bottom of the Stairs is a disconcerting blend of faintly comic ‘mummy lit’ and a sociological critique of modern family life; the main character is both easy to identify with and uncomfortably unsympathetic. So it’s a tricky book to get a handle on, and will no doubt raise some hackles. But the novel also raises some interesting questions about the culture surrounding modern family life, at a time when ‘parenting’ is a central political preoccupation yet when other aspects of the problem of the family have disappeared from radical discussion.
For example, Mary’s obsession with domestic work is borne out of her resentment with the fact that so much of it exists at all, and the unfairness of the fact that it falls to her, as the woman, to do it. ‘Nobody talks about cleaning. Why would they? It’s bloody boring to do and even more boring to talk about, but it’s there’, she rants, in an attempt to justify her ‘hated hobby’.
Mary experiences the burden of housework as particularly heavy because she works outside the home as well. But as she admits, ‘I’m angry that I work; I’d be even angrier if I didn’t’. Exhausted by the demands of juggling paid work, young children and domestic work, she would rather like to wish that Joel earned enough that she could stay at home – except that she is mindful of how central her career is to her own sense of personal identity. And, as she reiterates throughout the book (in an accurate reflection of the way mothers really do whinge), of course she does not want to wish away her children.
So that leaves the housework. Yes, Mary has a cleaner for a couple of hours a week – which does nothing to mitigate the daily shopping, cooking, wiping and washing that goes with young children. The only way she can see to reducing this burden is by her husband doing more of it; the rage that he doesn’t even see it consumes her to the point of inventing the fated List.
Much of the media discussion of Hopkinson’s book so far has focused on the question of why middle-class, career-minded women are so obsessed with having the perfect home. Mary’s obsession with cleaning has been interpreted as a nice problem to have – that is, it’s only the privileged who have the luxury of wanting to keep up with the ideal homes of their glamorous neighbours – or as a retrograde, anti-feminist retreat away from the life of the mind towards an unhealthy interest in scatter cushions. This seems to me to ignore the bigger questions that Hopkinson’s book tries to raise, which are to do with feminism and whether there is any point complaining about a woman’s lot when broader social alternatives are off the agenda.
In pitting Mary and Joel against each other on the question of housework, Hopkinson has clearly drawn on sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s influential study of housework, first published in 1989. This showed how among dual-earning couples in the US it was always women who took the lion’s share of responsibility for childcare and housework, resulting in a ‘second shift’ when they got home.
From this finding, Hochschild concluded that modern societies are experiencing a ‘stalled gender revolution’ – women’s equality has given us the ability to have careers, even the expectation that we should have careers, but it has not made commensurate gains in encouraging men to do more around the home. So, as Mary says:
‘Nobody talks about cleaning except my mother, and lord how we despised her for it. Jemima and I didn’t do cleaning, you see, because we were feminists. The funny thing about feminism is that it hasn’t actually decreased the amount of washing to be done and surfaces to be wiped, nor does it seem to have increased the amount of time men spend doing it, either.’
A version of Hochschild’s ‘stalled gender revolution’ thesis is widely promoted today among those – British deputy PM Nick Clegg among them – who advocate a philosophy of ‘equally shared parenting’ as the way forward for modern families. In this view, the only resolution to the problem of domestic work is to incite men to do more of it.
As I have argued before on spiked, such a proposal might be fair – but only in the way that it would be ‘fair’ to make everyone live on two pounds a week. ‘Equally shared parenting’ does nothing to relieve the absolute drudgery of domestic work, and dragging men more into the domestic sphere risks creating an ‘ambitions divide’ between families and non-families, where the only people allowed to have proper, full-time, fulfilling careers are those without children. It was bad enough when only mothers suffered on this front – to push fathers into taking the same four-days-a-week, get-back-for-the-childminder ‘mummy track’ career path is a recipe for increasing resentment.
Hopkinson’s novel gets this – but because the only possible solutions to the problem of domestic work are assumed to lie in the way couples negotiate it, the battle over ‘the Pile of Stuff at the Bottom of the Stairs’ ends with a therapeutic compromise, which is almost as depressing as the war itself. This seems to be a rather accurate reflection of where feminism has got us: being unable to go beyond blaming men for the problem, and forcing them to feel our pain.
But does that mean that Scary Mary should just calm down, shut up and get on with it? I find that pretty unpalatable, too. As long as there is the aspiration to do more creative things with our lives than wiping up wee, there is at least the possibility of finding more imaginative solutions to the problem of domestic work than have been concocted by feminists and Nick ‘New Man’ Clegg. If we talked more about cleaning, we might just find ourselves less obsessed with it.