Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Are males really just congenitally unsuited to housework?

I grew up in a family where my brother (the only son) was exempted from kitchen duty when he was writing matric because ‘he had to study’ – which he didn’t; he lay on his bed and listened to music.

When I wrote matric the following year, this rule had inexplicably been expunged from the family statute books. ‘But I have to study!’ I whined to my father (I had no intention of studying, of course – I wanted to lie on my bed and listen to music), and he said, ‘You’ve had all afternoon to study, my girl, now get those dishes washed.’

While my parents weren’t narrowminded enough to refuse to let their three daughters be educated – and I write that because I actually had female friends whose fathers refused to pay for their university degrees because it would be ‘a waste’, since all they were going to do, ultimately, was ‘get married and have babies’ – there was, in our family, a strangely oldfashioned notion that men ‘didn’t have to’ do housework.

When I look back now and try to make sense of this, I can sort of (sort of) see why my father expected to be waited on hand and foot: he earned the money, my mother ran the house. That his job had set hours and my mother’s was 24/7 never really entered into it. That’s just how things were in those days. (My father did occasionally cook – and my mother, when she cleared up the disaster area he left afterwards, always said she wished he didn’t.)

But my brother? Why was he exempt? Why were my sisters and I forever being commandeered to hang up or fold laundry, or help my mother when she prepared elaborate lunches or dinners for multitudinous guests (which she did often) or get stuck in with the polishing on a Saturday morning, while my brother went off to soccer practice or jolled with friends or lay on his bed and listened to music?

So with my kids – I have a son and a daughter – I determined that duties would be gender-non-specific: whatever had to be done would be done by whomever was closest to hand. (Usually me, but that’s another story.)

The thing is (and I write this with all the love in my heart), my son is just useless at domestic duties. I don’t know how many times I’ve shown him – actually shown him, step by step – how to hang up laundry, how to pack the dishwasher, how to make his damned bed. He just doesn’t get it. The laundry he hangs up comes in with still-damp sleeves folded in on themselves and crumpled pockets and peg marks in all the wrong places; whenever he packs the dishwasher, something comes out broken, or he’s done it so awkwardly that half of it doesn’t wash properly; and let’s not even begin on the state of his bed. This is a young man who, despite having a wastepaper basket in his bedroom, throws his used tissues into a corner ‘because I pick them all up at the end of the week’ (he doesn’t).

And it’s not only that: he just doesn’t see stuff that has to be done. While my daughter will, while chatting on her cellphone, clear the kitchen counter and maybe even (on a good day) give it a once-over with a wet cloth, my son will find it perfectly okay to make a small space in the day’s debris, just big enough for his late-afternoon snack of peanut-butter toast and cup of tea, which he will consume – and then leave the used plate and mug exactly where it is. It drives me dilly.

I shared a house once with a very progressive young man (he liked chick-flicks and often cried in them; he used moisturiser long before David Beckham did; his favourite author was Jeanette Winterson) and his bizarrely slovenly wife. K, the husband, was a good cook, was great with children and could talk openly and honestly about his emotions for as long as you wanted (and sometimes beyond); M, his wife, had no interest in the kitchen, was a self-confessed hater of housework, and her favourite pastime was to stay in bed with a book all day.

You would think, then, that K would understand the mechanics of housekeeping, no? No! He never saw the used coffee mugs lying around, the shoes abandoned in the living room, the dustbunnies gathering under the sofa. M, on the other hand, for all that she didn’t do much noticeable in the way of contributing to the functioning of the household, was typically female in that she was forever ‘clearing away’ – plates to the kitchen, dirty laundry to the hamper, a quick broom across a dusty floor. I would rather, any day, have 10 Ms living with me than one K.

Which brings me back to the question: are men really simply congenitally unsuited to housework? I’d hate to think so, but my evidence tells me otherwise.

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