I met with a very good friend of mine this week for one of our frequent 5 hour-long coffees at the weekend. We all have some form of this; the conversations where we put the world to rights, create a new democracy in our heads, discuss the immorality of capitalism and then pay for our several Starbucks. The irony/hypocrisy is lost on neither of us.
In this session though he talked about something his Dad refers to as the ‘Biscuit Tin Wife’ the old Fox metal tins with a picture on the front of a smiling mother serving up the roast, with the Dad looking on, probably wearing a suit and reading the paper – what men do. His Dad says this a problem. This picture is what people think ‘Families’ should look like and subconsciously that’s what people still aspire to (At least I think that’s what he said, I got too caught up in a daydream that went something along the lines of; “Biscuit Tin Wife, I remember those biscuit tins, Mum had loads, they used to have strawberry wafers in them, they should bring back strawberry wafers, I want one now, Starbucks should do strawberry wafers…” I have a very short attention span when someone mentions baked goods.)
Anyway, this became the basis of my conversation with my niece. We talked about wanting it all and trying to have it all. She talked about her mother and grandmother and the difference between them. My mother (her grandmother) is a strong woman, she has had to deal with a lot in her life, but if someone asked what she did they would call her a housewife. And she is. When I was growing up my mother was everything you would see on the front of those biscuit tins (although it wasn’t a roast obviously, it was a damn good curry). But she is, of course, much more than just this. My sister (my niece’s mother) is also the biscuit tin wife. But she’s also the man in the suit reading the paper. She has a 9-5 demanding job and then comes home, grabs an apron and gets the roast on. We were both exhausted just thinking about it. I have no intention of doing this, I will no doubt have a more than demanding job, but the rest can bugger off, that’s why they invented take outs, at least that’s what I tell myself. When I asked my niece what she wanted, she thought about it and said what I expected her to; “I want both, but I don’t think it will be easy.” No, it won’t be.
All of the women in my family are married and almost all have children (let’s bypass the conversations my mother and I have had about this, which usually start with ‘You’re not getting any younger..”) and all of them work hard to have both. All of them, often, look exhausted. But would they give any of them up or relinquish control? No. I used to worry that was a family trait, but apparently it’s not. It’s about meeting modern expectation. I would take the term modern with a pitch of salt though, it is laced in patriarchal tradition of what being a woman is.
Modern expectation of womanhood tells us to have a career, have a successful relationship and be home in time to feed the children. It sounds like walking a tightrope balancing weights for the rest of your life (Well, until your children leave home or you reach retirement). But, if I was to ask women what they would want instead, I don’t think many of them would be able to tell me. If someone asked me to pick only one of the above, I couldn’t. I too, want it all. However it’s difficult to separate out what I want or what I have been conditioned to want.
So how do we go about making these choices without feelings of guilt, feelings of not meeting someone’s (I’m not always sure who’s) expectations? Gender Equality. Obvs. 50% of all the tasks shared between partners (in this case I obviously mean in a straight relationship, as I am comparing traditional roles of men and women, but it could still be compared to same sex relationships depending on what roles are assumed within them). I was listening to Radio 4 (I know, that was mistake in itself) but the show was talking about parenting and a man called in and proclaimed his selfless fatherhood by always taking a Friday off to look after the children, so his wife could work 3 days a week. The hosts applauded him and told him he was a model for others. woo – frickin- hoo. What about the fact that the wife in this example only works a 3 day week so he can work 4? (Let’s do a little pay gap analysis on that shall we?) No one would applaud her, because she’s just doing what’s expected, right? WRONG. she’s being bloody superwoman. Well done. To all the working mums out there: well done, I can only imagine how difficult it is and I can only imagine how unappreciated it goes. Well bloody done. But go and chill out now, yeah? You’re making the rest of us look bad.
We are inching towards a very tired and very over worked female population, one that will continue to be more exhausted and more conflicted about it. Unless we keep striving to get the balance to 50:50. To get paid what we should for being part-time workers, for being appreciated when we’re at home looking after the children and for it not to be something so rare for a man to work part-time to be able to look after his kids and finally for society to not have such high expectation of us or of us to have them of ourselves. I want a biscuit tin where the husband and wife both have aprons on, or better yet, are both in suits (busy getting paid equally) and they’re opening boxes of chinese take out – consequently with obese children sitting at the table.
“So can or should we try to have it all then or not?” My niece asked. The conversation drifted because someone put cake in front of me.
Yes, we can, if we truly want it. But, only when we are in a place where society actually helps rather than hinders us having it. This means everything from equal pay to lowering the cost of childcare, from better paternity leave to supporting more part-time work and, importantly, removing the stereotypes of gendered behaviours – for men and women, and us, as women, being accepting of that change. So yes, but there’s work to do, in the meantime, please continue being tired.