It’s been nearly a decade since I presented a boyfriend’s mum with burnt cupcakes on Easter Sunday, but my toes still curl whenever I think of it.
I’m not one for making cupcakes, you see. But, as this was my first visit to my boyfriend’s family home, I wanted to present myself as absolutely a functional human, and definitely not a liability to their beloved son – particularly to my boyfriend’s mother, a lifelong grafter who’d never met a problem she couldn’t solve pragmatically.
Meanwhile, I’d never met an egg I could boil without first googling “boil egg how long”. I wasn’t a fully functional adult.
I mean, I could get up, get dressed, and complete a day of work – but when I got home I’d still be messy and rubbish, and never know which bin to put out on bin day. When I lived alone at the age of 19, I dealt with everything by slapping on loud music and blitz-cleaning and batch-cooking for one day a month.
I’m still vaguely traumatised by the look of horror that settled on the face of a different boyfriend’s mum, who – upon our first meeting – proudly handed me a scrapbook of her son’s recipes (that she had laminated herself), and was horrified when I revealed that her son did most of the cooking. You know, on account of all the burnt pasta.
And since then, with every square foot and human person I’ve added to my household, I seem to have become less able.
“Not being domestic” has come with an intense side-serving of shame throughout my life – I have secretly believed my lack of household skill means I’m somehow “not a real woman”. And often, I still feel this way today – as a working, married, mother-of-two in my 40s. My husband, as I’ve written about before, is the domestic one. We both work and split the parenting; he’s in charge of the driving and the cooking, while I try to look after the house.
But I still struggle not to dress exclusively from my “floordrobe”; or be overwhelmed by mess, upended schedules, lost keys in lost bags under the bed, and forgotten washing mouldering in the machine all week. Recipes fall clean out of my head. My house is always a tip, despite its fortnightly professional clean. There are toddler fingerprints on the walls, outcrops of laundry on the floor, haphazardly stacked items threatening to burst out of every household cupboard, and the constant sense that, at any moment, everything might tip over into entropy.
“There's the constant sense that, at any moment, everything might tip over into entropy.”
And the shame is a black, burning gulf of humiliation inside me, that deepens each time I visit a friend’s home and see a system in place. Or if they – trying to help – make a suggestion I can’t even comprehend, like “Look, it’s a simple recipe; you just need to begin with a roux…” or “Well, what’s your current schedule?”
I want to be better. No one who belongs to this many Facebook groups dedicated to the various uses of household disinfectant Zoflora wants to be rubbish at housekeeping. So I concentrate what little homemaking ability I have on my children, so at least they are clean; they have routines; their clothes are put away and their bedroom – for the most part – is spared from the unresolvable mess.
Recently, two big realisations made an enormous difference to how I feel.
Firstly, my late ADHD diagnosis meant I had unknowingly spent 42 years being neurologically unable to organise myself. Secondly, it took an embarrassingly long time for me to ask where, precisely, it says women have to be good at domesticity.
We’ve been sold a lie as a gender – just because some of us have the plumbing to bear and nourish babies (although obviously we’re not obliged to use that plumbing) – we don’t generally come with extra hands for broom-wielding and pot-stirring, or a set of hoover attachments.
The talents required for household management – time-management, patience, and the emotional stability to change a king-sized duvet cover without chucking your bed out of the window in a rage – are distributed among genders, not assigned to one of them.
Accepting that domesticity is learned and not innate to gender has been freeing. Feeling guilty for not being domestically inclined purely because I’m a woman is like believing I deserve to pay for the PPI I was missold. And I’ve since discovered other women who have felt this – and are coming to terms with it.
I now know these are skills I can learn under the right conditions – even here, in my 40s – it’s very empowering.
Here are the baby steps I’m taking to become a functional human, rather than a “real woman”:
- Keeping a diary of how I spend my mornings, afternoons and evenings for a week, so I can see the shape of my day and what time I have available
- Tracking my family’s activities through the house for a week to understand our daily “paths” and try and predict what we need for them
- Walking around the house noting down the areas that make me feel the most rubbish about myself, and prioritising them for cleaning
- Learning to cook one new dish every few weeks, and cooking it weekly until I have it down pat – to give you an idea of how basic my skills are, my current dish is “pancakes”
- Reading up on the very gentle Fly Lady cleaning method
- Sharing household ideas/news via a shared spreadsheet with my husband, so we’re both on the same page.
Oh, and the cupcakes? Well, I burned them because I grilled them – the numbers on my cooker had rubbed off long before, but I used it so infrequently (because I was too nervous) I didn’t know that. And when I presented them, at last, to my boyfriend’s mother, she wordlessly went and got her own cake tin, which she opened to reveal a collapsed homemade Easter cake that had broken into bits.
That boyfriend ended up becoming my husband, and his mother ended up being my extremely beloved, and now late, mother-in-law. I loved her very much, and she passed on some of her domestic skill to me. Mostly, though, she passed them onto her son – and I’m most grateful to her for that – especially as he makes brilliant cakes.