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Mary Kenny

Why women who hate doing the housework should just do less of it

Mary Kenny


Opposites attract: Felix and Oscar in The Odd Couple

Opposites attract: Felix and Oscar in The Odd Couple

Tony Blair

Tony Blair

Opposites attract: Felix and Oscar in The Odd Couple

Tony Blair, the former prime minister, has been in the headlines again recently for a controversial confession. What was that about? Iraq? Brexit? His role in the Good Friday Agreement?

No, he admitted, openly, frankly and shamelessly, that he did no housework during the lockdown period (passed in his Buckinghamshire manor). Hoovering? No. Cooking? No. Laundry? Hasn't loaded the washing machine since 1997 (Cherie says "1980"). Shopping? Nope. Cleaning the loo? Absolutely not! He, sort of, has a bit of a tidy of his own room, but the wife and kids do everything else. (During lockdown his two sons, plus pregnant daughter-in-law and two young children, have shared the stately home.) Tony has enjoyed this family time, he told his interviewer, Decca Aitkenhead, which included sharing streamed church services.

Quite the Victorian paterfamilias, eh? Tony's usually presented himself as a cool type of chap, but now he's out of the closet as distinctly not a New Man. Men today, even if they're in their sixties, are expected to say that they believe, totally, in chore-sharing; that it's a holy tenet of equality and that they skivvy away happily in the kitchen whenever required.

Only, during lockdown, it emerged that women were doing far more housework and childcare than men. A study was published (by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and University College London) which examined the responses of 3,500 families confined to the home during lockdown and it concluded that women were still the main carers and cleaners at home. Where a couple were both working from home, professionally, the man availed of three hours' uninterrupted work time for every hour available to a woman.

There were even claims that women were being driven back to the status of 1950s housewives, preoccupied with shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundering and hoovering. And often with the sole responsibility of childcare.

But isn't attention to housework a choice? As a bad housewife myself, I'm constantly astonished by the high standards of fastidiousness of so many homes I've visited over the years: spotless surfaces, immaculate shelves, airing cupboards neatly arranged, sheets actually ironed, not a speck of dust or dirt anywhere. The slobs (like me) who leave the dishes piled up in the sink overnight, or consider a few cobwebs rather a charming confection of nature, seem quite rare.

A well-ordered home is a pleasure, but it comes at a price. The price is that somebody's time and energy have been spent keeping it that way. That's fine, if it's what you want to do, and if an immaculate environment is important to you. But if it's not a priority, then don't do it.

The rule of housework in any collective household - spouses, partners, family members or flat-shares - is that the person who cares most about it usually ends up doing more of it. In Neil Simon's immortal movie The Odd Couple, two divorced men, Felix and Oscar, share an apartment and become parodic examples of the organised housewife and the untidy slob. Felix cares desperately about keeping the place clean, so he's a demon with the vacuum cleaner. Oscar would rather play poker with his equally messy mates. You don't have to be of different genders to have different attitudes to domesticity.

Women who've complained about doing the lion's share of the chores during lockdown should just have done less of them. Childcare is different: children have to be cared for, although it's not that long since children were expected to make their own contribution to family duties. We had an au pair from central Europe who was minding the goats from the age of three.

Why should Tony Blair do his own laundry? He doesn't have to! Cherie says that Tony "thinks whatever he does is more important" than doing housework. Then, he'd hardly have got to 10 Downing Street thrice if he'd been focused on the pinny and the duster.

But then I was married for 40 years to a man who refused to wire an electric plug. "Why should I do an electrician's job?" he asked. Referring to his own speciality in Balkan history, he added: "I don't ask an electrician to speak Serbo-Croat!" The whole of civilisation had progressed according to the division of labour: you specialise in what you are good at.

It's said that younger men are now much better at chore-sharing: Cherie Blair may speak for many in noting that her sons are a great improvement on their dad. Yet lockdown probably did put extra strain on many households and perhaps there was a reversion to more traditional roles.

Conflict arose in all kinds of households, anyway. A friend of mine learned that "no kitchen is big enough for two women" when she found herself under lockdown with her adult daughter - they bickered daily about cooking methods. Personally, I'm fed up to the back teeth with the sight of my own kitchen: even a bad housewife has to do some skivvying. Liberation from the pots and pans can't come soon enough!

Belfast Telegraph