When I had a baby everything changed, from my body to my bank account – but not my values by Chitra Ramaswamy
It occurred to me as I was unloading the dishwasher, flipping fish fingers under the grill, and placating my son with an episode of Thomas the Tank Engine while he beat his tiny toddler fists upon the high chair in a Mariah-sized fit of pique. I’m happy. I enjoy being the boss of this boring scene of domesticity. Forgive me Betty Friedan, but I love being a housewife.
Although, ugh, that word. We need a new name for this most superheroic of responsibilities, which like all work done by superheroes tends to be carried out in secret, unacknowledged by government and society alike. How about homechief, nesthead, or CEO of the hearth? More than 50 years on from Friedan’s revolutionary Feminine Mystique, which raged against the “life-restricting, future-denying” lot of the housewife, it is a term no feminist can love.
My take used to be the one espoused by Ann Oakley, the British feminist and author of 70s text Housewife: “Housework is work directly opposed to the possibility of human self-actualisation.” And yet here I am, a feminist homechief in her mid-30s. To further complicate matters, I’m married not to a husband but civilly partnered to a woman who brings home the bacon and does the dishes after I’ve cooked every night.
How did this happen? (Not the dishes bit – the experience of living with both sexes tells me this is probably because she’s a woman.) How did I go from being a full-time member of the workforce who did the housework in a half-arsed 30 minutes on a hungover Sunday, to this? To an unpaid, undervalued, yet curiously contented “human woman”, to borrow a Tina Fey-ism, who gets off on pillow plumping and knows where the vacuum bags are kept.
It both was and wasn’t a choice, as so many women’s so-called freedoms turn out to be. Eighteen months ago I had a baby and everything changed, from my body to my bank account. Everything, that is, except my values. I was a feminist woman: I became a feminist mother (and, amazingly, still a woman). I took a year’s maternity leave and when we realised the cost of childcare was as beyond us as sending the baby to the moon I took voluntary redundancy. I didn’t want to leave my son. I hoped that no matter how dull, frustrating, and lonely life might get, I wouldn’t regret it. We decided to live off my partner’s wage. I decided to become a housewife.
What I didn’t expect was to love it so much. To get satisfaction from a job that impresses no one despite incorporating every skill known to humanity. You may wonder what’s to love about work that gives me two hours off a day (until the night shift begins), yet the 2014 UK national wellbeing index revealed that mothers who stay at home have a stronger sense that their lives are “worthwhile” than the rest of society. Even so, fewer of us are doing it, either out of choice or necessity. Being a housewife is now seen as a frippery of the rich or an inevitable consequence of the drudgery of poverty. Only 2.04 million women in Britain are “looking after family or home”, marking a fall of almost a million since records began two decades ago. One in three mothers is now the primary breadwinner for her family. And my guess is she’s the primary housekeeper too.
There is no quantifying the joy of being with my son, even when it sucks monumentally. The slowness, sweet victories, and repetitive rhythms that make each day feel like an episode of In the Night Garden. The outsider mentality you must grow like an armour if you are to survive becoming an invisible part of society. Even the boredom has its charm, like the cosy feeling one gets watching a favourite film for the hundredth time.
I say this knowing how lucky I am to be a housewife in 2015 as opposed to 1955. Would I be enjoying it so much without washing machines, dishwashers, supermarkets or disposable nappies? Definitely not. My love of the job has nothing to do with a nostalgia for a past in which, for a start, my lifestyle was inconceivable, and women were going silently mad in their impeccably dusted homes. I can enjoy being a homechief without a supply of Valium precisely because I know it doesn’t have to be for ever.
Not that it’s a comfortable position. To decide to be a housewife does feel like you’re doing your grubby bit to uphold the gender roles upon which the patriarchy is founded. Choosing playroom over boardroom. Abandoning office for hearth. And even though my partner is a woman, we do find ourselves falling into traditional “male” and female roles. I do the cooking, she takes the bins down. She sees the world, I watch it go by from the window, or rather from the screen of my smartphone.
Two thirds of household chores are still done by women and that doesn’t even include childcare. We live in a society obsessed with the acquisition of houses yet we refuse to admit who is maintaining them. Cleaning has become a dirty secret.
There should be no shame in saying it gives me pleasure to take care of my family and home. It doesn’t make me less ambitious, intelligent, or less of a feminist. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to smash the system or see more women in top jobs. So it’s time to come out of the irritatingly tidy closet and say it. I’m a feminist nesthead and I’m proud.
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