It was just International Women’s Day, so I have decided to write on the topic of cleaning toilets.
It comes from the fact that I am going to have to do this job for the first time in years. (Unpaid! No one should have to do such a thing unpaid!) And that is due to the fact that my cleaning lady has pneumonia and can’t come again tomorrow. Please get well soon, Judy!
Now, I will stipulate that there are probably millions of men around the world who do or have done toilet cleaning too. Many out of necessity in their college apartments or bachelor pads. But I am willing to bet that the vast majority immediately assumed they no longer had to do this work the minute they began co-habitating with a female.
(Am I being unfair?)
This was just one of many unwritten rules that confronted me after my immigration to Austria and the start of a relationship with an Austrian man. At the very beginning of our romance, I was once at my future husband’s apartment and watched as he packed to go home to his parents for the weekend. He was stuffing dirty laundry into a bag. I asked,
“Oh! Do you do your laundry at your parents’ house?”
“No. My mom does it.”
I started to laugh. My (then boyfriend) stopped what he was doing and stared at me with a quizzical look. I stared back.
“What is so funny?” he asked.
“Well, you were joking, weren’t you? I mean . . . you are 25 years old. Your mom still does your laundry??”
My question seemed to surprise him and it took him a moment to respond:
“She . . . she . . . likes to do it!”
That was my first hint at what might be expected of me if I were to marry an Austrian. I had no intention of being a housewife and luckily, my husband turned out to be very enlightened. When we moved into our first apartment together, we divvied up the big household jobs – he took on the cooking and I took on the laundry. He vacuumed and shopped. I dusted and mopped. He took care of the heating and I ironed. I don’t remember who cleaned the bathrooms. There were some adjustments over the years depending on who was working more hours at the time and whether or not we currently had a cleaning lady.
What neither of us could control was how others would view our household arrangements. Raised eyebrows and second-hand reports of critical comments were not uncommon. In those moments, I channeled my film heroine, Maude (as in “Harold and Maude”) and reminded myself that “You can’t let people judge you too much.”
Of course, this is also a generational thing. My young university students often scoffed at the idea that gender equality had not been reached. I ended up tricking them into recognizing their own gender biases in this area.
At the beginning of the course on social issues, I had them take a questionnaire on a variety of issues that might be covered that semester. It consisted of a list of statements to which they should circle a number between 1 and 5. (1= I agree completely; 5= I disagree completely.) One of those statements was:
“A man should help his wife/girlfriend/partner with the household work.”
My enlightened students all dutifully circled either 1 or, sometimes, 2. I circled 5. Then I showed them the results of the survey and they all laughed at the one person who circled 5. I told them it was me and assured them that I was serious. They stared at me with a quizzical look until one of them finally asked
“Why do you think?”
In most cases, one of the brighter students mentioned the word “help” in that sentence and asked if that was the reason. Of course it was. How can it be that when my husband does some housecleaning that he is helping me with (implicitly: “my”) work?
What ensued was a discussion of deep-seated beliefs and assumptions that household work is women’s work and whether they – this young, knowledgeable-about-feminism crowd – might still, deep down, believe this. Many students insisted they didn’t.
So I asked them how they would have responded to the statement with the genders switched:
“A woman should help her husband/boyfriend/partner with the household work.”
That made them laugh. Until it didn’t.
I can’t tell you how many times a bunch of female students hung around after class to talk to me when the debate topic was women’s rights. Many of them were distraught. They told me that the statements of some of their male – and female! – classmates had shocked them. They had had no idea that such ideas were still so predominant in their age group.
People who decide to live together in a shared space in any sort of relationship should be free to arrange their responsibilities in whatever way works for them. They shouldn’t be ooched toward any particular arrangement based on the expectations of others or social norms or government policies. As long as women still generally earn less than their male counterparts and fathers are generally considered less important than mothers to a child’s well-being, people will continue to conform to old patterns.
I’ll be cleaning the bathrooms tomorrow. Because I have a free day, my cleaning lady is sick, and my husband now has a 60+ hour work week. I will not do it out of sense of responsibility.
I tell myself.