Maximum efficiency at maintaining professional standards

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

The computer screen is swimming in front of my eyes. I pull together every fibre of mental strength to finish my sentence: “. . . streamlining the governance structures of the organisation for maximum . . .” For maximum what? Accountability? Efficiency? Cabbage? Impact! Impact. Phew.

This is my first attempt to work since baby Moe was born. Isla, a former colleague who now has a high-up job in the arts, has asked me to help write an annual report. I get a decent day rate and I can do it from home. If I don’t mess it up, there may be more work forthcoming.

This is a cheering prospect, as we are crazily broke. My clothes are actually threadbare: the other day, I was chatting to some rather stylish mothers outside Larry’s nursery and only realised when I got home that my jeans had ripped right across the arse – and not in an on-trend way. Also, the fateful day on which we will have to renew the car insurance is looming. So I am definitely not in a position to look a gift horse in the mouth.

The problem is that baby Moe is still not sleeping properly. For a reason I have not yet managed to identify, he wakes up several times a night and often howls for more than an hour before, equally inexplicably, popping his thumb into his mouth and drifting off again. I have ruled out hunger, illness and teething. Cuddles work but only temporarily. Even Calpol seems to be losing its magic.

I am trying to implement a draconian sleep-training regime but it is difficult when you are so exhausted that you would gladly pawn your own grandmother for an unbroken four hours. Last night was particularly bad. At one point, I found myself semiconscious on the floor, with Moe draped across my face.

Anyway, here I am, a Writing and Editing Professional. I’m still in my pyjamas, yes, and smeared with porridge, maybe, but I’m nevertheless the Solution To All Your Editorial Needs.

“Er, I think he needs a feed.” Curly pokes his head around the door. He has been trying to keep Moe quiet in the other room so I can concentrate. I stagger across the room, crashland on the sofa and take Moe in my arms. As he suckles away, a delicious wave of relaxation sweeps over me. I lean my head back and close my eyes, just for a moment, until . . . “Babe, I’m sorry, I’ve gotta go.” Curly has his hand on my shoulder. I wrench my head from the cushions and stare at him uncomprehendingly. Go? But his course doesn’t start until seven. And I’ve only got to page three of the report. And the deadline is tomorrow. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to wake you up.”

He strokes my head. Moe, who after this marathon nap will definitely be awake all night, nuzzles innocently into my armpit. “Perhaps you should tell them you can’t do this work. You’re not ready.”

“I can’t pull out now!” I disentangle myself and run wildly back to my desk, my hair a mess. “I’ve committed . . . my reputation . . . have some standards . . . I’m a professional!”.

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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Leaving the cleaning to someone else makes you happier? Men have known that for centuries

Research says avoiding housework is good for wellbeing, but women have rarely had the option.

If you want to be happy, there is apparently a trick: offload the shitwork onto somebody else. Hire cleaner. Get your groceries delivered. Have someone else launder your sheets. These are the findings published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it’s also been the foundation of our economy since before we had economics. Who does the offloading? Men. Who does the shitwork? Women.

Over the last 40 years, female employment has risen to almost match the male rate, but inside the home, labour sticks stubbornly to old patterns: men self-report doing eight hours of housework a week, while women slog away for 13. When it comes to caring for family members, the difference is even more stark: men do ten hours, and women 23.

For your average heterosexual couple with kids, that means women spend 18 extra hours every week going to the shops, doing the laundry, laying out uniform, doing the school run, loading dishwashers, organising doctors' appointments, going to baby groups, picking things up, cooking meals, applying for tax credits, checking in on elderly parents, scrubbing pots, washing floors, combing out nits, dusting, folding laundry, etcetera etcetera et-tedious-cetera.

Split down the middle, that’s nine hours of unpaid work that men just sit back and let women take on. It’s not that men don’t need to eat, or that they don’t feel the cold cringe of horror when bare foot meets dropped food on a sticky kitchen floor. As Katrine Marçal pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner?, men’s participation in the labour market has always relied on a woman in the background to service his needs. As far as the majority of men are concerned, domestic work is Someone Else’s Problem.

And though one of the study authors expressed surprise at how few people spend their money on time-saving services given the substantial effect on happiness, it surely isn’t that mysterious. The male half of the population has the option to recruit a wife or girlfriend who’ll do all this for free, while the female half faces harsh judgement for bringing cover in. Got a cleaner? Shouldn’t you be doing it yourself rather than outsourcing it to another woman? The fact that men have even more definitively shrugged off the housework gets little notice. Dirt apparently belongs to girls.

From infancy up, chores are coded pink. Looking on the Toys “R” Us website, I see you can buy a Disney Princess My First Kitchen (fuchsia, of course), which is one in the eye for royal privilege. Suck it up, Snow White: you don’t get out of the housekeeping just because your prince has come. Shop the blue aisle and you’ll find the Just Like Home Workshop Deluxe Carry Case Workbench – and this, precisely, is the difference between masculine and feminine work. Masculine work is productive: it makes something, and that something is valuable. Feminine work is reproductive: a cleaned toilet doesn’t stay clean, the used plates stack up in the sink.

The worst part of this con is that women are presumed to take on the shitwork because we want to. Because our natures dictate that there is a satisfaction in wiping an arse with a woman’s hand that men could never feel and money could never match. That fiction is used to justify not only women picking up the slack at home, but also employers paying less for what is seen as traditional “women’s work” – the caring, cleaning roles.

It took a six-year legal battle to secure compensation for the women Birmingham council underpaid for care work over decades. “Don’t get me wrong, the men do work hard, but we did work hard,” said one of the women who brought the action. “And I couldn’t see a lot of them doing what we do. Would they empty a commode, wash somebody down covered in mess, go into a house full of maggots and clean it up? But I’ll tell you what, I would have gone and done a dustman’s job for the day.”

If women are paid less, they’re more financially dependent on the men they live with. If you’re financially dependent, you can’t walk out over your unfair housework burden. No wonder the settlement of shitwork has been so hard to budge. The dream, of course, is that one day men will sack up and start to look after themselves and their own children. Till then, of course women should buy happiness if they can. There’s no guilt in hiring a cleaner – housework is work, so why shouldn’t someone get paid for it? One proviso: every week, spend just a little of the time you’ve purchased plotting how you’ll overthrow patriarchy for good.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.