It does seem appropriate that my son’s current favourite nursery rhyme is ‘The farmer wants a wife’, as that is precisely how I was feeling at 9:00 pm last night.
The background: my husband left yesterday for a week-long conference/collaboration exercise in France (not Sweden) yesterday afternoon. In about an hour I will be heading downstairs to register for the Social History Society conference where I am giving a paper tomorrow morning. This will be my first conference paper in about 5 years (I have given seminar papers, but the audiences have been fairly small), and the first on my new research. I am terrified (not helped by the fact that the paper appears to be coming in five minutes too long). On top of this, I now have a month to write two further 20-minute papers on two entirely different topics, and I am in the process of applying for funding and advertising a workshop. Work is busy at the moment, to put it mildly.
So while my husband battled with a delayed flight and the language barrier of speaking minimal French, I spent yesterday evening doing the following: cooking dinner, feeding dinner to both children accompanied by my son’s interminable monologue which rather gets in the way of eating, getting both children undressed, bathed, redressed in night clothes, milk drunk, teeth brushed, stories read and into bed, putting on a load of washing, cleaning up the dinner table, washing the dishes and hoovering the floor. I then managed to read through my conference paper (still coming in too long), tried to edit it down and read half an article. At which point I realised my son was still awake (at gone 9) so I went and confiscated his globe, to much complaint.
Now, this isn’t a complaint about my husband’s relatively easy life. For a start, it isn’t that easy as he hates travelling and the weather has made it more complicated and stressful than it need be. Plus, when he is at home he pulls his weight on the domestic front (he does all the laundry for a start) and he will find himself in my position, trying to juggle domestic duties with paid employment, in a few weeks when I go on yet another trip to a distant archive. Rather I want to record my personal experience of a very old observation, to whit, that someone who works outside of the home, whatever their sex, needs domestic assistance if they are to do their paid job and run their home properly. And I don’t just mean help with the cleaning or the childcare, but rather holistic assistance with household management. In other words, a housekeeper or, indeed, a housewife. As I say, this is not new. Many professional women have, over the years, argued that they need a wife in the home as much as a secretary at work to enable them to keep all the balls they juggle personally and professionally in the air. Some feminists have argued that domestic labour should be paid for and valued as highly as any other, given the support it provides to the smooth running of the economy. And, indeed, the work of the housewife as a support to her husband’s career has, increasingly, been acknowledged in recent divorce settlements of self-made men in Britain. But coming from a home where domestic duties fall on both partners relatively evenly, as does the support given to both our outside jobs, this week looks set to be a valuable reiteration of the importance of the partnership I have with my husband in maintaining an even keel, both domestically and professionally.
In addition to a renewed realisation of the importance of the keeper of the home to productive employment outside it, my admiration for single parents has also reached one of its periodic peaks. I discovered this morning, for example, that we have half a tank of petrol in the car, so now I have to think about where to find a petrol station with pay-at-the-pump facilities because I will have both children in the car whenever I am driving this week. This is precisely the sort of detail that having a partner or assistant to share the burden of domestic tasks (if not take them over entirely) ensures is not forgotten. We are at the start of the week. I am just hoping that the end of it doesn’t find me and my children sitting by the side of the road somewhere between home and the university, desperately seeking assistance with moving a petrol-less car!
So what conclusions can I draw from my labours? Nothing very original. I know there are plenty of households with far more demands on their time and energy and far fewer resources than I can call upon. But as the British government finds itself in the midst of debate over how to support working women through childcare subsidies it is perhaps worth reiterating that domestic labour is both time-consuming and vital. It extends beyond being with children in their early years to ensuring the comfort, health and well-being of all members of a family, whatever shape that family may take, nurturing the energies and abilities of both of the economic producers of the present and of the future, as well as the comfort and happiness of citizens of all ages. It needs to be valued as a public good, rather than dismissed as a private arrangement. Debates over childcare are a start, but only a start and not a terribly helpful one if they alienate those who provide the domestic labour.
Now, what did I do with my daughter’s clean clothes for nursery?