At first, I thought I was a multitasking genius. Working from home had opened up a whole new world of efficiency to me. All those scraps of time I used to spend walking to the water cooler, or chairing an emotional-support group for colleagues who didn’t understand Westworld, I was suddenly using to take out the recycling and put a wash on.
I bragged to my boyfriend, with whom I share a flat, that now, when I went to the kitchen, I would take the opportunity to tidy up those random half-empty cups of water that always seem to appear around the flat. When I decided what I wanted for lunch, I also decided what we could have for dinner and made a shopping list for both, and oh well, while I’m at it, I might as well go and get everything, too.
Until, too slowly for me to have noticed, I realised that I was in a quicksand of convention. One housecoat away from being Betty Draper despite more freedom than I’d ever had, I was having a feminist existential crisis. I had become an accidental housewife.
A 2016 study found that women do 60 per cent more unpaid work than men. A Canadian study said last month that, in heterosexual relationships, regardless of the career or income of either partner, women consistently perform more household chores at every age group studied. Record numbers of us are working from home and, after women spent decades fighting to get out of the house, it’s hard not to feel somewhat regressive in returning to it, even with a different intent.
I was already navigating the tricky stereotype-infested waters of living with and being, if not dependent on, then partially reliant on a man who earns more than I do. It doesn’t affect our day-to-day spending, but I am well aware that I wouldn’t have been able pursue being freelance without the back-up of his salary. And now, added to an economic dynamic that makes me slightly queasy, there I was, in the middle of the day, doing the washing-up.
I wasn’t doing it out of guilt or a sense of obligation, it wasn’t expected of me and it was absolutely acknowledged and appreciated. But I was still doing it, unintentionally reinforcing gender norms that I do not subscribe to. And, after all, I suit a full-skirted 50s silhouette – perhaps I was destined to go the whole hog?
Of course, the logic of the situation is that I do extra housework not because I’m a woman but because I’m in the house all day, because it’s also my workspace and I want that space to be pleasant to work in, and because of the innate freelance need to procrastinate.
It’s so much easier to feel part of patriarchal structures when you’re physically exactly where the patriarchy would like you to be, ie in or at least near the kitchen
And it can work both ways. A friend who works in publishing was confused when her home seemed to be messier than usual: “I couldn’t understand why. I had literally changed nothing in my routine.” Then her boyfriend pointed out he had returned to working in an office after a period working from home.
When newly anointed Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro was writing Remains Of The Day, he and his wife Lorna made an agreement that, for four weeks, she would do his share of the housework as well as her own. It was a compromise designed to support one partner in a specific endeavour (I like to think that he would do the same for her), but the implication is that the burden of sharing domestic duties had stifled Ishiguro’s creativity.
But it is all too easy for women to bear the brunt of household labour and even more so when the domestic and work spaces are conflated. The relationship between women and the home has been so oppressive for so long it is not an easy or an instant adjustment to reframe it.
For a while, it became very important to me that a neighbour, whose flat overlooks our garden, and who sometimes waves at me when I’m feeding the cat, understood that I wasn’t just lazing about the house. When I bumped into him in the street, I was braced for him to ask what my “husband” did for work and ready to snap, “ACTUALLY, I’M A WRITER AND I WORK FROM MY HOME OFFICE” before he’d even finished the question.
In a recent essay for Harper’s Bazaar, writer Gemma Hartley pleaded for women’s emotional labour to be recognised – that it’s not just about who puts the bins out, but who thinks about putting the bins out. Hartley says: “I don’t want to micromanage housework. I want a partner with equal initiative.” I’ve considered my situation in reverse and it does not take much imagination to see myself coming home from the office frustrated that the draining board hasn’t been cleared, despite having no real evidence that this would be the case. In fact, I have to stop myself from starting an argument over who is fake-flaking out on the emotional labour.
The niggles I have felt about my new domestic dynamic feeling old-fashioned are because the reasons I had chosen to be freelance – independence, flexibility and a free rein – seemed at odds with how seamlessly I had absorbed extra housework into my routine. It’s so much easier to feel part of patriarchal structures when you’re physically exactly where the patriarchy would like you to be, ie in or at least near the kitchen.
And so I am on high alert. When I’m working from that corner of my living room, I’m going to remember that proximity to dustpan and brush does not necessarily mean I have to use them. And that the work I’m doing is just as valuable as it ever was, even though I am within reaching distance of the Hoover.
Sali Hughes is away on honeymoon staycation. Catch up with her columns here.