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The chore economy

Sally Howard’s The Home Stretch and the politics of housework. 

My husband groaned when I said that I was reviewing The Home Stretch, the journalist Sally Howard’s book about why women still do more housework than men: “Oh God, are you going to write about me now?”

In recent years, housework has gone from being a non-issue in our home to a frequent source of tension. We were once both flamboyantly, unapologetically messy. Then we had kids and this, like everything else, changed. Housework is higher stakes now that we have a toddler who rampages through the flat shedding pen lids and tiny figurines, and a crawling baby who seeks out choking hazards with the speed and destructiveness of a precision-guided missile. More than that, I didn’t mind being judged as a maladjusted adult, but it would devastate me to be considered lacking as a mother.

And so for the past seven months of maternity leave I have spent my days washing and wiping and tidying and cooking and puréeing and washing again – and still an unexpected visitor would be greeted with a flat that looks like a branch of Toys “R” Us after a magnitude-nine quake. For the first time, mess stresses me out. It has become symbolic of some greater sense of failure.

Between six and seven in the evening, the witching hour, my husband will return home from work. He will coolly survey the hellscape and gamely accept the one or two small children I thrust at him, and beneath my relief at his return there is the simmering resentment that he is so at ease as the devoted dad, reporting for duty, while I have become some floor-sweeping, bum-wiping, finger-painting lunatic.

Something shifted after our first child was born, and continued even after I returned to paid work. I became the household manager: I keep track of when we need to buy more nappies or children’s clothes; I plan meals and organise our diary; I book doctor’s appointments and liaise with nursery and arrange playdates. I am the default parent, the one phoned if our daughter is sick and needs an urgent pick-up. My husband is eager to do his fair share, but somehow the pattern has been set and so he waits for his tasks to be assigned.

If housework and care work is economically overlooked, this kind of management – Howard calls it (wo)management – is invisible to all but women (womanagers?) themselves, who are keeping a mental inventory of the contents of the fridge, and the composition of the laundry basket, and the family diary for the next three months, and wondering why they always feel so tired.

Home Stretch was inspired by this puzzle: Howard and her partner Tim were committed to domestic equality and yet within months of their son’s arrival, Tim had resigned domestic administration to her and she had “accepted that this was the natural order of things”. According to the Office for National Statistics, women spend on average 26 hours a week on unpaid work, including household chores and carework, while men spend 16. Infuriatingly, this gender gap has grown since the late Nineties, having narrowed in the decades following the Sixties. Second-wave feminism understood that the personal is political, and that equality begins at home. The “wages for housework” movement of the Seventies drew attention to the way capitalism depends on women’s unpaid reproductive and domestic labour. Why were these arguments sidelined?

Howard believes that one reason was that professional women started to hire cleaners and nannies, shifting their housework – or as Howard likes to call it, their shitwork – down an economic and racial hierarchy. Disputes over who does the dishes came to be seen as minor compared to issues such as equal pay or sexual harassment at work.

The Home Stretch presents an impassioned and compelling case for why housework is fundamental. Consider, for instance, this sobering statistic: 30 per cent of the domestic violence incidents that bring women to the refuges of the charity Women’s Aid are provoked by domestic labour. Who does the housework reflects power imbalances at home and across society, and it also perpetuates them: it could help to explain why motherhood reduces a woman’s earnings while fatherhood tends to boost men’s. It reveals the powerful, deeply rooted ideas we inherit or otherwise absorb about femininity, masculinity, and parenthood. Another maddening fact: men tend to do even less housework in homes headed by a female breadwinner, as though seeking to compensate for the perceived emasculation of being out-earned.

The complaints voiced by affluent white women are practically and conceptually linked to the hardships of less-privileged women – not least the multitude of undervalued, underpaid women who help raise their children and clean up their mess. Howard’s often funny and always absorbing exploration of the housework gender gap begins with her own experiences but expands outwards. She interviews working mothers and Chelsea yummy mummies, stay-at-home dads and professional cleaners, as well as the feminist separatists and gender non-binary couples who are challenging conventional ideas about who does what at home.

Howard’s astute analysis is not always matched by her reporting, which can feel a little shallow. It is evident that she is more comfortable moving in some worlds than others. “What do you take when you’re invited to dinner at a non-binary house share?” she muses, settling on carrot cake. These amusing asides reveal her honesty and good intentions, but they don’t always give the reader faith in her perspicacity.

To experience “first-hand the dirty realities of handing… shitwork down a raced and classed female line” she spends a day shadowing her Lithuanian cleaner in south London. She discovers a tampon stuck to the bathroom floor with some mystery substance (toothpaste? gum?) and learns more about her cleaner’s life story – but I was desperate for her to dig deeper. For example, she mentions in passing an organisation called Kalayaan, a charity for migrant domestic workers, many of them survivors of abuse and modern-day slavery, which is raising political awareness within their community and campaigning for better legal protection. I have no doubt they could have offered Howard new insights into the worst consequences of what the sociologist Arlie Hochs-child calls the “global heart transplant”, the transfer of care workers from the global poor to the rich, and also helped her answer a question central to her book: is hiring  domestic help inherently exploitative?

The book brought to mind Women’s Work, the former LA Times war correspondent Megan Stack’s unflinchingly honest memoir about early motherhood and the Indian and Chinese women, mothers themselves, who helped her raise her boys and made her writing career possible. “I paid her well. I tried to treat her well. I helped her when I could. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that I bought something from her that should not be for sale,” Stack writes of one of the women.

Howard identifies a “parent labour trap” – the tendency for women to take on the bulk of the extra housework after a child is born – but there’s another problem too: it’s almost impossible for two full-time working parents to care for their small children without outside help. We still frame conversations about mothers returning to the workplace in terms of individual choice or empowerment when the reality is that our professional careers are almost always built on the under-recognised labour of other women, who work just as hard for less money. The modern workplace operates on the assumption that workers are supported by a stay-at-home wife, and if you don’t have one you must try to buy one.

Later this year I will return to work, and for all my sadness and lingering maternal guilt it will feel like a liberation of sorts. My “wives” are the teachers at our local day nursery, and each morning I will entrust them with my daughters, my whole world, and go about my working day as though none of them existed. Both Stack and Howard draw attention to the need to start talking openly about who does the housework, and about the economic relationships, with partners, with cleaners, nannies and care workers, that have made women’s emancipation possible. It made me wonder how refreshing, how potentially transformative, it could be if instead of asking successful people – men and women alike – to describe their morning routines, or their techniques for leaning in, or whether they “have it all” we asked: whose work made your career possible?

The Home Stretch (like Women’s Work) is the kind of book you’ll want to pass between friends, to swap notes and discuss the conclusions. Howard argues that to close the housework gender gap women must refuse to do the work until men step up, and she suggests policies that could help close the parent labour gap, including use-it-or-lose-it paternity leave, a four-day week, more state-subsidised childcare and changes to how welfare is distributed. She argues forcefully that we need to change how we talk about and value care work, and underlines the importance of standing in solidarity with domestic workers striking for better pay.

In a postscript, Howard describes the changes her family made while she researched the book, including their conclusion that they could not morally justify hiring a cleaner, regardless of how much they paid them, because of the “feminist implications of handing our shitwork down”. I puzzled over this logic: would they hire a babysitter, or a nanny, or a carer for a sick relative? Is it so much worse hiring someone to clean your home than it is hiring someone to cook your dinner, or do your shopping, or clean your office, for that matter?

Could it be that another reason the housework labour gap has persisted is that what appears a straightforward issue – who does the washing up? – quickly raises questions about how work is valued, and how workers relate to one another, until you wonder whether the only real solutions involve radical change. 

The Home Stretch: Why It’s Time to Come Clean About Who Does the Dishes 
Sally Howard
Atlantic, 336pp, £14.99

Sophie McBain is a special correspondent at the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor. 

This article appears in the 06 March 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Inside No 10