Over the past year, I’ve been fortunate enough to build an incredible community of mothers on social media @mamalovesgrey. Through the endless conversations I’ve had with hundreds of mums, I’ve gained an insight into the front line of feminism and one of the biggest sticking points is how the household realm continues to be gendered. Here’s my round up of a year of being a freelance homemaker and why I believe it’s time we all became dramatically more honest about what’s going on behind closed doors.
Of the many (many) things I’ve struggled with since becoming a parent, it’s the fact that I’ve unexpectedly become a housewife. You’d think that as I had always planned to be mothering three days a week plus weekend, the penny might have dropped before my 9lb baby did. But no, it has come as a shock. Perhaps it’s because I am neither a wife, nor live in a house. Because I still work? Because I have a supportive co-parent in my boyfriend? Or maybe it’s far less personal, more universal and just something to do with the way we celebrate motherhood in society at large (and on social media as by extension)?
When I imagined my motherly duties pre-birth, it was always fuzzy edged tableaux of school plays and pottery classes; playing on the swings and reading night time books. Clearly I knew I’d be changing nappies, but I think I was more concerned about being able to breastfeed and nursery decor, because that’s what I’d seen mums talk about on social media. It definitely wasn’t doing three loads of washing in a single 24 period or making turkey burgers at 10.47am. It wasn’t acting as a human mule, carrying a daily shop of non-Ocado-able essentials up the stairs, or picking up micro broccoli sprouts which seem to reproduce themselves off the laminate three times a day. In fact, it had very little to do with the non-ending list of chores come with the job—chores which I’m doing while the rest of the world goes to an office and has an adult life.
If you like your clothes and shoes in drawers and cupboards, you may find a baby’s pull-it-all-over-the-floor attitude a wee bit challenging.
Looking back, I basically thought I was going to be the ‘primary care giver’ and primarily give care. What a hilarious euphemism that is for what so many of us are actually doing—in fact, let’s just take a moment to LAUGH OUT LOUD at it. The truth is that the caring part of the job takes up max 30% of my time. Max. Now, I obviously (obviously) understand why the housewife/homemaker job description has fallen out of favour. You can’t say it without feeling like you just stepped out of a time machine bang into 1959: it makes you sound retro, un-emancipated, a bit like your husband’s (or partner’s) servant and like you should be wearing an apron. But by modernising the role for the contemporary context, we’ve basically distorted what it’s actually all about. It’s a bit like calling a plumber an artisan pipe fitter. Yes, he or she may be fitting copper—but that doesn’t mean he or she won’t also sometimes be wading through shit for a living. The key issue is that mothering (or indeed fathering) has been separated from maintaining the household, as if they were two distinct jobs. Which unless you can afford a live-in housekeeper, they are sadly not. Mothering or care-giving certainly has a far higher status than housewifing, so in our bid to find identity in something that the rest of society values, it’s understandable that we focus on the soft play dates and cute wooden toys and don’t really mention the lowly housework except to our other halves at home in an exasperated whinge. But that has to change because ultimately we’re not just conning other women—we’re demeaning ourselves too and that can make us feel incredibly disenchanted with the reality of the often mundane day to day.
“The key issue is that mothering (or indeed fathering) has been separated from maintaining the household, as if they were two distinct jobs. Which unless you can afford a live-in housekeeper, they are sadly not.”
Because I still work, I somehow thought I’d be exempt from the life of a housewife. I want to tread extremely carefully here, because now I’ve had my baby I’ve learnt that looking after kids and managing a home isn’t a side hustle. It’s full-time graft which deserves union rules and I could not have more respect for women who decide to do the hardest job I’ve personally ever had 24/7 (this is not some cliché drivel, this is just fact). But before I had Grey, let’s just say I didn’t have the same level of respect for the job role. I was definitely raised—especially by the ethos of my onward-striving girls’ school—to see ‘women’s work’ as sub-employment and grew up believing the biggest horror that could befall me was to become a Stepford Wife-like stay at home mum. There were very strong feminist under and overtones made by my teachers over the years and you definitely got the feeling they didn’t respect a woman who chose a domestic life. In a Mona Lisa Smile reminiscent conversation, I can remember one of my science professors bemoaning the fact that one of her previous students had jacked in her research career to, ‘play house,’ rather than fulfilling her potential. ‘So sad,’ she said wistfully thinking of what could have been.
This. Three times a day. You’ll never know how sticky regurgitated can be until you try and get it off the floor three days after it was first eaten.
I’ve definitely been somewhat complicit in obscuring the reality of my days as a mum in that I haven’t been shouting about the power of colour catchers to keep your whites white, even on my motherhood focused account. I’ve spoken a lot about the mothering, hardly anything about the housewifing. Things are even more edited on my main Instagram feed. Six months ago I published a book and since, I’ve posted countless images of the pieces I’ve written in the press and shots of me on Sky News and Newsnight et al. A cursory glance at my main account would have you believe that I’m back at work with gusto and #mumbossing (kill me) a year after birth. But that jazzy stuff has been a mere fraction of what I’ve actually been doing with my time. Yes, I’m continuing with my career, and yes, I’m mothering, but the truth is that mostly I’m a secret housewife. Or more accurately, a flatgirlfriend. Or whatever the hell you want to call an unpaid domestic worker doing 80 hour weeks. So this is my public service announcement: unless you are very rich, if you want to be a ‘hands-on’ mother, you need to know that you’ll be doing the dirty washing too. Our understanding of mothering needs to include the nitty-gritty, and more than just that, it’s high time we elevated the status of all sides of child-rearing and not just spend our time discussing parental philosophies and organic weaning. I don’t mean going into how you clean (though seriously, colour catchers are a revelation). I mean more talking openly about the fact that we’re doing this work in the home and how we share it with our partners.
“Yes, I’m continuing with my career, and yes, I’m mothering, but the truth is that mostly I’m a secret housewife. Or a flatgirlfriend. Or whatever the hell you want to call an unpaid domestic worker doing 80 hour weeks.”
I know I’m incredibly lucky to be able to spend time with my little boy. Scratch that. I know I’m incredibly lucky to even have him and I count those blessings every day, I really do. But that doesn’t mean the weight of drudgery hasn’t sometimes left me rocking in bed at the end of the day wondering how my life ended up here. While this conversation is pertinent to all women juggling, I do think it has specific relevance to freelancers, business owners and any woman working for themselves. As the freelance economy explodes apace, many, many more of us have the opportunity to combine their previous line of work with parenting—something which lots of us have sought out (one of the reasons I left my staff role is because I wanted to create a more flexible working situation for a future family). And that means there’s a whole new generation of highly qualified women doing solid hours of in-house duties which they might not have been entirely expecting based on what they’ve seen on modern media.
Now it’s very easy to say, ‘be less of a perfectionist,’ or ‘let the chores go for a while.’ I think it’s even in the NHS booklet. But seriously, what happens when you’ve used all the bottles, the nappy bin is overflowing, all the babygros are covered in puree, you have no dummies or spoons, no milk or food for the baby to eat? What about when you’re looking for that shirt that makes you look capable, the red book for baby jabs, your bastard housekeys? I live in 50 square metres. If I don’t keep on top of things, you can’t the open doors between rooms. If I took the advice to give it a rest with the chores, I’d be sitting at home in milk-stained PJs unable to get out the door. There are so many things that need to be done to reach the bare minimum of creating a functioning household with a child and they are not some type-A personality option. If you don’t have any food in, if aren’t any clean clothes, or nappies, or wipes, or clean bibs and spoons and dummies, you’re left sitting in a hovel with a baby with cabin fever. It will literally smell like shit. Doesn’t sound appealing to me.
“We need to be very clear that caring is only 30% of the job. Not even a third of it. So when a woman goes away on a work trip, or a family hen do or takes a physio class, her partner understands that 2/3 of what they should be doing is choring.”
Accepting the reality that the majority of my time is spent not unlike Betty Draper’s, Bree Van der Kamp’s or, hellishly, a Stepford Wife’s has required me to drop a lot of prejudices and assumptions about other women. The work is lonely, repetitive and taken for granted by pretty much everyone. The hours are long, physical and oftentimes stressful; there are no gold stars, promotion opportunities or digital reminders of your job anniversary. And for me personally it doesn’t result in the same feelings of fulfilment that a day in the office used to. But with acceptance has come something else which is a sense of pride. All the time I spent pushing against it made me feel miserable through my often long days at home. But now I approach it with logic. If I wanted to put Grey in a nursery I could try and find a full time job to pay for it, or else park our plans to move. I could make other financial and professional decisions and try to make it work another way. And while I might not be pumped with endorphins from a less than exciting day at home, I have, over time found a lot of contentment in the slower, calm pace of my days as a housewife. (Sometimes that really worries me and make me think I’ve lost my ambition, but I think that may be yet another con we’ve been sold—the truth is my ambition is now split between two jobs, each as equally valuable as they are unequally demanding. I’m still massively ambitious, just half of that energy has migrated into the personal sphere. This could be a whole other piece…)
It’s also not my boyfriend’s fault that he’s in a full-time job and can’t make turkey burgers at 10.47am. That is just the annoying way the cookie has crumbled. He is a great secondary care giver, but just like me hadn’t been informed that’s not the job role he’s meant to be covering. When men parent it seems they are a bit like a crap office cover who does the just enough to keep a job ticking over. Or just does the bits that will earn them brownie points. What we all need to be very clear about is that caring is only 30% of the job. Not even a third of it. So when a woman goes away on a work trip, or a family hen do or takes a physio class, her partner understands that 2/3 of what they should be doing is choring. When I complained about the issue above on social media, I received SO many messages in solidarity. However, I also received a lot of messages saying, ‘it’s just how it is, that’s men.’ And other messages saying that I should be pleased that my baby is bonding with his dad and leave it at that. Just in case you were wondering, hell will be freezing over before I leave it at that. This is exactly where the real fight is. But I totally take on board that nagging is not the answer. Instead, we need to change broader perceptions of what parenting actually means and its status in society and start saying these things out loud. A crap father isn’t just one that isn’t there for his kids. That is the base line, just like it would be for a mum. We need to see a crap father as one who sits back and watches his partner do all the housework. Or lets the house fall apart when she goes away. ‘He’s such a good dad,’ should mean he’s great at Marie Kondo folding, clearing up the micro broccoli sprouts and that he shares the burden of the mental load of organisation. Not just that he’s a great tickle monster.
At times in the coming year I may up the amount of time Grey spends in childcare. So far, I’ve found that two days a week leaves me feeling like the home is my main realm, while three days a week seems to make me feel more like a member of the workforce. Three days a week also makes the washing falls behind, but seems to put me on more of an even footing with my other half, which cannot be a bad thing. No matter what happens, the most important thing is that I have personally come to terms with my new life. I have massive respect for myself and what I do and when I step aside from my role, I’m now working on clearly communicating what I expect my backup partner to do (with or without handover notes hopefully as time goes by). And now the rest of the world has to respect me too. Which is why I think it’s high time for us to rebrand the housewifely/primary care giving role with something far more representative of the actual job. Something which encompasses the childrearing and house maintaining, is modern and status deserving. After long consideration, I’ve decided to update my Linkedin with a newly created position: CHO – Chief Household Officer. Not actually, because I have a mortgage to pay and people look at Linkedin, but you get what I mean. If we could be honest about what the job is, first time mums wouldn’t have such a shock. If we could be honest about what the job is, when men cover for us, they’d understand they don’t just have to primary care give—they have to do the rest of the CHO’ing too. A CHO is genderless, senior and includes the word chief. It’s badass and can be understood by millennials. It would also mean that we could all be explicit about what we’re buying into. So from now on it’s CHO, bitch—make no mistake.
(Written February 2019)