Originally published: 14.04.17
A quick post, in irritation. Today, I read in the Guardian that women should expect more of their partners, and less of themselves. Not terrible advice (though not really a revelation either). The article is a puff piece for a book I never plan to buy, written by new mother and bringer of epiphanies to the oblivious, Tiffany Dufu. In her book, so we are told, Dufu describes her revelatory experience navigating the return to work after her first child’s birth, and her growing realisation that her partner would have to do some of the work around the home, since they both had full time jobs. The experience that brought on this revelation sounds depressingly familiar. Back from a full day of work, while struggling with breastfeeding difficulties, Dufu heard her husband return home to the meal she had prepared, past the dry-cleaning she had picked up, only to dump his dirty plates in the sink for her to clean.
I sympathise with Dufu. As I have sympathised with, quite literally, dozens of friends who’ve talked about variations on this theme. It’s the subject of Susan Maushart’s brilliantly incisive, well-researched book Wifework, which discusses the imbalances of male-female work around the home, backed up with some interesting statistics and studies. But, where Maushart mostly analyses and uncovers, Dufu – or, at least, the author of her puff piece – falls back on a cloyingly upbeat set of conclusions. Women who work too much around the home – conditioned, by their upbringing, into ‘Stepford wives’ (I really wish this term would die a death, incidentally) – should take lessons from (who else?) their husbands. Apparently, once called upon to act, Dufu’s husband turned out to be practically a domestic superman, marshalling children to school in perfect order and discovering clever short-cuts to domestic work Dufu had never found out. The article confides:
‘One of the big lessons she learned was that when you drop a ball and your partner picks it up, you have to let him pick it up his way.’
In Dufu’s case, this meant letting her partner cook the same meal for a week, which doesn’t sound terribly like picking up the ball to me. It sounds more like fucking up. And fucking up is, of course, occasionally absolutely fine. We should probably all be better at doing a half-arsed job and cutting ourselves a break for it. But let’s not pretend it’s the same thing as, well, not fucking up. Shall we? Because one imagines that, in the end, eating the same meal for a week is actually not a great thing.
I’m irritated by this article, not because I don’t recognise that both it and the book it promotes, speak to a genuinely hard choice a lot of women face: the pinch between social pressure to be superwoman and the knowledge that their partner (whether deliberately or obliviously, whether through lack of ability or firm belief in the triviality of domestic tasks) will only step up to do a fraction of the work that is needed. I’m irritated because this revelation is still presented as something women need to learn – and moreover, something women need to learn from men.
Dufu refers to what she was struggling with as ‘home control disease,’ as if the problem in her life were a virulent organism poisoning her, from which her saintly husband saved her, with his panacea of half-arsed domestic help. It would be nice to think that, every now and again, we could look back to our feminist foremothers, who diagnosed a very different disease, and prescribed a very different solution, which didn’t involve requiring women to blame themselves for the pressures on them.