In a world where women can be whatever they want to be, why are so many capable, intelligent working women-turned mothers/homemakers feeling distinctly shaky about 'just' working in the home..?
In the past five years since having my two daughters and taking a career break I've spent more time than I ever thought possible, and no doubt more than is either healthy or productive, pondering the value of what I now do - as has every single one of my friends in the same boat.
In a former life I was a lawyer and more recently, a couple of years before having kids, had switched to journalism. What I now do is: all things home-related; and looking after my children. As of a few months ago, I am also trying to resuscitate my career whenever everything else allows, but at this point I still feel very much on the homemaker side of the fence. And let's be honest, there's a fence.
Do I feel valued? Do I deserve to feel valued? Am I valued or secretly resented by my hard-working office slave husband who swears that if the financial realities of our situation were different he would swap roles with me in a heartbeat - thereby implying that what I do is easier and/or more enjoyable than what he is forced to do to bring home the bacon. My next concern is whether I've lost the respect of my high-earning career-minded working mum friends (not that they would ever admit it to my face) by opting for these few years to be 'just' a homemaker. Or, in doing so am I in fact selflessly/heroically doing the hardest, most valuable (yet worst-paid) job in the world for the greater good of my family unit? Or is that just something I tell myself because the alternative is too soul-sapping to contemplate?
Frankly, my views on all of it depend on what day you catch me. Plus it's the sort of self-indulgent navel-gazing that gets short shrift from anyone in the generation above mine and merits nothing more than blank looks from my nana's 'Keep calm and carry on' crew. After being on the receiving end of one of her "you don't know how lucky you are" looks I am suitably chastened - but usually only for about an hour. Most of the time, I do still feel that I have good reason to feel undervalued.
Logically, I know that my husband must find great value in the fact that:
a) he hasn't had to set foot in a supermarket for close to five years (other than recreationally when on holiday - who doesn't love a foreign supermarket?)
b) the bins are always already out when he comes home on a Monday evening
c) there is always someone in for workmen or deliveries (he loves that one)
d) if ever the children are ill, he won't have to worry about taking time off as I'll always be there; etc etc.
But these conveniences are rarely acknowledged – day to day there's no real need – it's now my job. I also know that he takes great pride in having a well-kept home and two well-dressed kids, but still, it feels strange to have gone from being his equal-earning working partner to being first and foremost the childcare provider, cleaner, personal assistant, gift-buyer and general domestic help.
It's the unsettling shift in power that taking on this unpaid domestic role brings to the partnership that troubles me and the majority of my similarly placed friends most. It leads (at least in my case) to the indignity of feeling the need to point out daily domestic achievements ("Notice anything different about the living room darling?") within moments of his arriving home, lest - horror of horrors, hubby might think I've not "contributed" anything today.
My friend is a mum of four and maintained a career until it was physically impossible given her raft of family commitments to do so, which happened somewhere between child three and child four if memory serves. As you can imagine, she rarely stops, with the (always beautiful) home to maintain, four lots of homework to help with, meals to cook, uniforms to iron, activities to chauffeur for and so on. Yet at a family get-together not too long ago when asked whether she was working any more, her (highly-intelligent, lovely, thoughtful) fifteen year old daughter piped up: "No, mum does nothing all day, she's lazy." Cue crushing visions of the last ten self-sacrificing years of her life having been a complete waste of effort. She was probably just being flippant, but there was enough doubt in my friend's mind about people's appreciation of what she does for it to be a real issue for her.
Of course, feeling undervalued is hardly unique to homemakers. When I worked in an office I regularly felt down-trodden, under-appreciated, stressed and/or bored, but at least then I had a reassuringly fat pay cheque and the respect of the outside world for being "a successful person" with which to console myself in the wee small hours of my eighteen hour day. So would things be different if homemakers were paid a wage? For most women working in the home it's about respect - and feeling that they still have and deserve it despite their working lives as they knew them having been turned upside down, sometimes temporarily, but often permanently. So yes, perhaps creating a culture in which 'homemaking' is acknowledged as a job – defined as such by the fact that it is paid – would engender respect from others and therefore in ourselves. But frankly, even from my involved vantage point, I can see that there are far more urgent and easily justifiable calls on finite government funds. We need to learn to value our contribution all by ourselves.
I for one remember the pure joy of coming home from a long day at work to a newly-cleaned flat. Living in a good-looking space with a fully-stocked fridge and a reassuring supply of toilet roll ever present in the airing cupboard puts you in a completely different mood to existing in a tip. The work I do at home improves the quality of my family's life and you can't put a price on that.
Still, a couple of days a month I do always like to go on an unannounced strike – nothing unsanitary you understand, just maybe not bothering to rinse away all of those frankly vile post-shave hairs of my husband's that he claims not to be able to see, leaving half-drunk mugs of tea to fester – that kind of thing. Just to remind them all how grateful they should be to have me at the helm. Of course even in the midst of such planned militancy if a friend is coming round you'll find me cleaning for England – self-inflicting pressure and over-achieving to the last. Although obviously only the rooms she's likely to see – I'm houseproud, not mad.
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