Going on strike has always been a secret fantasy of mine. Not from the day job, obviously, so much as from its dreary invisible twin. How else do you make a family understand the point of the unpaid household drudgery that otherwise everyone breezily takes for granted: the daily slog of getting dinner cooked, sheets changed and school letters signed, and stopping trails of other people’s carelessly abandoned crud from clogging the arteries of a house?
There’s something unbelievably tempting about the idea of just leaving everyone to stew in their own mess, and seeing how long it takes for the penny to drop that dishwashers don’t automatically stack themselves. Yet for most women it remains just a fantasy, partly because it’s faintly embarrassing to admit to having fallen into domestic martyrdom and partly because if you didn’t feel irrationally guilty about what might befall a household left to fend for itself, then you’d never have become a slave to it in the first place.
Well, now fate has intervened. A sudden bout of sickness has led to a week of medically enforced bed rest during which I physically can’t do anything except lie down and watch the room spin, leaving the rest of the family to take up the slack. As I type, sounds of distant swearing drift up from the kitchen, where the dog has apparently thrown up two minutes before my husband needs to leave for the school run. But for once, nobody expects me to sort it all out while simultaneously finding their rugby socks, or to feel guilty about not doing so.
I catch myself thinking that this must be what it was like to be a man a generation ago, or indeed to be the kind of man who still feels entitled to float serenely above mundane domestic matters. Although in my case, the serenity is largely down to knockout quantities of prescription drugs.
Why on earth are the chore wars not won by now? It’s nearly half a century since the wages for housework movement highlighted the rank injustice of ignoring unpaid female domestic labour, without which modern economies could not function; a good three decades since the American sociologist Arlie Hochschild argued in her book The Second Shift that feminism had freed women to go out to work but not yet liberated them from coming home to piles of laundry. It’s not a difficult concept to grasp yet still here we are, endlessly having to argue that domestic labour isn’t just a domestic matter; that the dirty secret of who does what at home still constrains what knackered women can achieve in (and for) the wider economy.
Eve Rodsky’s book Fair Play, which identifies a hundred practical and emotional calls on any domestic partnership’s time and explains how to divvy them up more reasonably, is currently causing a stir in the US; the British writer Sally Howard’s Home Stretch, a call to arms for more equitable sharing of childcare and chores, is due out early next year.
For anyone vaguely assuming that woke millennials had all this sorted out by now, a study published this summer by University College London found that fewer than 7% of couples split the domestic load equally. Women still do the lion’s share even when both partners work full time, and even when both claim to have lofty egalitarian beliefs. If anything, the harder a woman works outside the home, the more she cares about showing standards haven’t slipped inside it.
For those who can afford it, meanwhile, chores are being not so much shared out as contracted out to an army of insecurely employed cleaners and Deliveroo riders. Last week an incredulous friend shared on social media a job ad posted by a couple of tech bros seeking a housekeeper, whose duties would include waking one of them up in the morning because he didn’t like alarm clocks. That’s not a man seeking a housekeeper, but an overgrown teenager wanting someone to get him out of bed for school, and for mothers of sons it should sound an alarm of its own. Nagging spouses into pulling their weight is one thing, but what hell are we bequeathing to our future daughters-in-law if we don’t raise our boys both to pitch in and to understand why it matters?
Public policy isn’t powerless here, and all three main party manifestos at least nod vaguely to time-pressed working families with commitments to expand flexible working or shorten working weeks. The SNP’s proposed three months’ paternity leave, too, could start to crack the divide of labour that gets slowly but inexorably calcified on maternity leave, when one parent is home all day wiping baby food splatters off the ceiling and the other isn’t.
But after decades of inching painfully slowly in the right direction, direct action increasingly appeals. If you want kids to understand what it is you do all day – how the toothpaste magically never runs out, where clean shirts come from, how much effort goes into the mysterious migration of food from supermarket shelf to fridge to table – then the only real answer is not to do it. Stand back, and brace yourself for the fallout.
It’s hard if you have small children (Howard, who tried a domestic strike for the purposes of book research, admits rather shamefacedly to breaking her own picket line to collect her son from nursery).
But for parents of teens marinating in their own dirty laundry, there’s remarkably little to lose from withdrawing domestic labour for a couple of days. Things may not be done as you would have done them, to put it mildly. But with luck, something better may rise from the puddle of soggy towels on the floor.
• Gany Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist