There’s nothing quite like the arrival of children for bringing out the latent inequalities between men and women. Before my sons were born, I worked full-time in an office and felt equal in every way to my partner (to avoid the slightly self-conscious clunkiness of that term, let’s call him Bob). I’d like to say that we shared household tasks fifty-fifty but, even if that’s not quite the case, at least I felt entitled to object if he failed to take on his fair share of household drudgery. We frequently went out together for dinner or to the cinema. I also made my own, separate social arrangements, often at short notice, and felt no obligation to consult him before doing so.
Fast forward a decade, throw in a couple of kids, and things look a bit different. I now work part-time in a job that fits in around school hours. I am responsible for supervising the boys’ homework, booking their numerous after-school activities and arranging their social lives. On the rare occasions when I can’t collect them from school, it’s up to me to arrange childcare. I do the shopping, cooking, washing and tidying; sort the recycling and put the bins out; organise plumbers and builders; buy birthday and Christmas presents; and pay the household bills out of our joint bank account. And when I want to go out with my friends, I effectively have to ask permission, because it’s assumed that I’ll be at home in the evenings unless otherwise stated.
Bob, meanwhile, has taken on the role of provider, working in a stressful, intellectually challenging job that frequently demands long hours. His work fulfils a useful social function and lots of people depend on it, so I can understand that it sometimes has to take priority over our family life. In fact, Bob focuses almost exclusively on his job during the week, knowing that I’m here to deal with the children. If paperwork has to be done at the weekend at short notice, he knows I’ll be there to take the boys off his hands. And whatever time he comes home, there will always be dinner on the table.
Most couples I know fall into this traditional set-up, or something quite like it, once children arrive. It’s an arrangement that often breeds resentment. The women feel undervalued and complain about their husbands’ ineptitude when it comes to doing the housework and organising the kids. One friend, frustrated by her husband’s failure to wipe the table after their toddler had eaten breakfast, scrawled ‘Weetabix + time = concrete’ on the kitchen whiteboard. Another tells of the occasion when her husband, on lone childcare duty one evening, forgot to give their small daughter her dinner and sent her to bed on an empty stomach.
These conversations with women create a sense of solidarity and allow me to give vent to my own domestic issues. On the rare occasions when he rolls up his sleeves in the kitchen, Bob specialises in partial washing-up, inexplicably leaving a small selection of crusty plates and greasy saucepans for someone else to sort out later. It almost goes without saying that he never wipes the kitchen surfaces. When I’m in one of my more curmudgeonly moods, it occurs to me that if he did his job in such a half-arsed way, he wouldn’t last five minutes.
Now that the family’s social calendar has become my responsibility, one of my particular frustrations is that it’s almost impossible to pin Bob down in order to fix dates. I have been known to chase him through the house clutching my diary, pointing out that, although it may suit him to make arrangements on the hoof, life doesn’t work like that when you have a young family. And I can’t help but notice that he’s very good at carving out leisure time for himself – the Saturday morning bike rides that are apparently essential for his physical and mental well-being, and the mind-expanding evening classes that take place while I’m hanging wet washing and packing schoolbags.
Bob and his friends, no doubt, would say that they feel under scrutiny by their wives when they attempt any household tasks; that nothing is ever good enough, so it’s no wonder that they eventually stop trying. They might point out that their partners seem to find plenty of downtime themselves, sipping lattes with their friends while the children are at school, and slipping away to pilates classes in their Boden sweatpants. I normally find it remarkably easy to ignore such accusations, but in a recent exchange of words with Bob, when I was berating him about his domestic failings, something he said brought me up sharp. He said that he envied my life and asked, ‘Would you seriously want to do what I do?’
And I have to admit that, no, I wouldn’t. The stress, the long hours and sleepless nights, and the pressure to earn enough money to support a family I’d see for only an hour or two at breakfast and bedtime? No, thanks. I’ve sometimes sensed a slightly disapproving attitude towards the mothers at my sons’ school who work full-time and send their children to after-school club. But those women aren’t doctors and lawyers, who largely work by choice and can afford nannies. Many of them are public sector workers – teachers, midwives and social workers – struggling to fund a decent family life on a relatively low dual income. Some are single parents. And most of them look knackered.
The fact that I don’t have to do that – that I can keep my work within reasonable limits, be here for my children most of the time, and take an active interest in their daily lives – is an enormous privilege. In fact, I’d say that, between Bob and me, I’m the one who has the better end of the bargain. There, Bob – I’ve finally said it. Let’s just hope you don’t read this blog post.