Over the weekend, I argued with my husband about the housework. Afterwards (in a post-row huff), I read a long article in The Guardian in which Zoe Williams reviewed three new books on feminist themes. There was lots of meat there but I particularly liked Williams' description of "the awkwardness between...parents, the tightrope between being put-upon and beholden".
I know what she means. I work (very) part-time and look after our 19-month-old daughter. My husband works (very) full-time. I want to be at home with our daughter and wouldn't want to be the one bringing home most of the bacon. But I still struggle to reconcile myself to this role. I sometimes miss the time and freedom to throw myself into paid work in the way he can. I also find it hard not to resent the domestic chores that accompany being a "stay-at-home mum", even though I know they are part and parcel of caring for my family.
I am not sure whether the feminist arguments I have read answer this quandary. It has always seemed to me that feminism has been overly concerned with how to rid women of the burden of children, whether having them in the first place (abortion rights) or looking after them (the right to free or subsidised childcare). All roads seem to lead to the paid workplace, as though that is the only arena in which women's lives can have meaning.
When you look back at how few choices we had in the past, it's not hard to see why. Nobody would argue that women should not be able to choose the way they live. The problem is that in seeking freedom from childcare, feminist arguments have undermined, and even implicitly devalued, those women who stay home with their children. "Housewife" has become a dirty word amongst young professional women – ironically the same generation that covets the material trappings of 1950s domesticity.
I admire this generation and its insistence on the right to social and intellectual freedom. But bombarded as we are with the message that our only value lies in what we earn and what we can buy (we are all "workers" and "consumers" now), are women making choices that genuinely fulfil them? Or have we just absorbed the belief that childcare and cleaning the house is what lesser-skilled (and lower-paid) women do while those who can pursue more interesting goals? Even thirty years ago, it was common for women to sideline work to care for children until they went to school. Now it's far more common for children to be sidelined in favour of work (in 1981, 24 per cent of women returned to work within a year of childbirth; now it's 76 per cent).
We often ask why our society seems unable to properly care for the vulnerable – the young, the old, the disabled. Feminism isn't to blame. But its obsession with women's status outside the home has helped to devalue the concept of caring. In her soon-to-be-published divorce memoir Aftermath, Rachel Cusk – one of the writers reviewed by Williams – makes this observation: "Help is dangerous because it exists outside the human economy: the only payment for help is gratitude." Caring work is messy, emotional and often thankless. It takes place "indoors" and is therefore also largely unseen. Paid work offers the rewards of money, status and recognition. No surprise then that women find it hard to value their caring roles. In such a society, the answer to the following question seems self-evident: why stay home and look after your family when you can pay someone else to do it?