Driven by the coronavirus slogan ‘stay at home’, Eluned Gramich considers the role of the housewife and the inequality faced by new mothers.
‘My experience of the regularity of hours and days and seasons has altered so dramatically over the past few weeks that time has become a sort of undifferentiated mass ordered only by the exigencies of the baby’s sleeping and waking, her crying and equally baffling contentment […] We are in the housewiferly slurry of everything that is both too late and too early, of madness and morning television. The day lies ahead empty of landmarks, like a prairie, like an untraversable plain.’
Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work (2007)
Over the last few months, I’ve had more time than usual… No, that’s not true. There was a shortage of time, if anything… But, during these recent months, I didn’t work, apart from looking after my daughter. I didn’t work for payment, then. So I suppose there was time… No. Not pure, uncomplicated time to do with as I pleased. A strange time, new and unsatisfying. Paused time. There was no time to write, work, read, but there seemed to be a surplus of time for worrying, obsessing, the same things going through my head again and again, in the nights, in the long, difficult afternoons. I was aware of my situation in a way that would not have been possible had life gone on as normal.
There’s a familiarity to lockdown, the stern order: Stay At Home. Familiar to women, that is. It’s a time defined by endurance, by caregiving. A time of waiting. Women, in particular, know how to wait. As Gillian Clarke writes in her poem ‘Letter from a far country’:
The minstrel boy to the war has gone.
But the girl stays. To mind things.
She must keep. And wait. And pass time.
‘Most of the labour in the world is done by women: that is a fact.’
Adrienne Rich, Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976)
Even though my three-month-old daughter and I are closer to each other than anyone else – we were once one person after all – we see the world completely differently. Every day the world reveals its secrets to her, and new mysteries take their place. Every day the world changes, widens, becomes more accessible and therefore more interesting. Her father’s face is like the earth to her, the sofa a galaxy, the living room a universe. As her energy pours outwards, my energy turns inwards. Her world is without borders, while mine narrows to the breadth of a single room. As she discovers her voice, babbling and talking in her own way, I become quieter. Words turn into long, unravelling, unending thoughts.
Stay at home, they said, and I remained in my second-floor flat for months. The days passed as I walked up and down with my baby in my arms, ruled by the same routine: feed, change, play, sleep, feed, change, play, sleep. I washed the same bottles again and again; sang the same lullabies over and over. But it wasn’t because of the lockdown that I felt this way. It was nothing more than an intense version of what would have happened in any case. The lockdown simply laid bare the extent of maternal labour.
December 2019. They told me my unborn daughter was too small, so I stayed in Glangwili for two weeks until my Caesarean section. Two weeks on the ward, staring out at a wet concrete car park, shuffling from my bed to the reception desk and back again. Later, on the postnatal ward, the other mothers preferred to close their bed curtains, leaving my premature daughter and I in a gloomy corner, a gulag of curtains, unable even to reach the other side of the bed. Back home, I did not leave the flat for ten days.
The first lockdown was another version of that postpartum period once known as ‘confinement’. If I’d followed the instructions of the terrifying Penelope Leach and the ideas of ‘attachment parenting’, I would have even refused the support of my husband to better create an impenetrable fortress of motherlove around my baby. A fortress, in other words, of complete isolation and maternal duty. It was interesting to see – as lockdown took hold – other women with children return to the home. It was as though the world of work and public commitments had been a kind of temporary illusion, and now, finally, mothers were back indoors, in front of the sink. After all, we are told over again: children need their mothers.
Work and Housework
‘That curious cultural phenomenon of ‘the working mother’ – a term meaning
the mother who gets paid for employment outside the home, as though the
work women do inside it without pay simply doesn’t count. Which, of course,
it doesn’t; it didn’t, in the early 1970s […] and it doesn’t now, in 2018.’
A Sociology of Housework, Ann Oakley
There are statistics: gloomy studies here and there, surveys carried out by the Fawcett Society, University research projects, figures floating across Guardian articles, on how lockdown has affected women: domestic abuse surging, careers on hold, three-quarters of women the ‘default’ parent with all the duties and responsibilities it entails… The numbers seem a distant, cold confirmation of what I already feel and witness in my daily life.
Months ago, when the first lockdown was beginning to ebb, I met a friend who was expecting her first child. She talked happily about the time she would have to read and write during the six months of her maternity leave. She spoke about her husband who would have a couple of weeks off from his job at the local hospital: how he was looking forward to the break from the wards to paint the house. I sat two metres away from her and said little to nothing about her near future: that isolated and isolating place I knew too well. I did not want to frighten her or take away the warmth in her voice. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘maybe not at the start. You won’t be painting then…. Not at first…’. ‘Oh, yes, not at the start,’ she agreed, ‘but later, when the baby sleeps all day….’. She went to talk about a friend who visited the month after my daughter was born. ‘He said you seemed so calm, so relaxed’. ‘Really?’ I said. ‘That’s strange’.
I realised that my life seemed very quiet from the outside. Was my life quiet? Yes. No. My days passed in a cycle of cleaning, cooking, caring for a baby, and worrying. Was I busy? Was this real work? Could I complain, since I’m so privileged in many ways? God! Just stop it, I told myself, it’s just housework. We all argue about housework with our housemates, our partners… It’s miserable enough quarrelling about housework without making it a political issue. Even though that’s what it is.
In interviews conducted with housewives in the 1970s, sociologist Ann Oakley found that the women often said they liked to be ‘their own boss’. But later in the conversation, it became clear that this apparent independence didn’t make much difference in the end, since they were obliged to work more or less around the clock. ‘You can’t not do it,’ said one interviewee. You can’t just leave a spilt drink on the floor, or your baby crying in the cot, even if it is after one o’clock at night. If I stopped sterilising my daughter’s bottles, forgot to change her nappies, or clean her sick, people would think there was something wrong with me. My days are full of essential acts, essential for the health and well-being of my small family, but they are not considered to be particularly important. They are quiet. They go unnoticed, especially, as it happens, by men.’ In Letter From a Far Country, Clarke explores that tension between celebrating housework and acknowledging its invisible nature:
The waves are folded meticulously,
perfectly white. Then they are tumbled
and must come to be folded again.
Like waves, ‘women’s work’ does not end. It seems to be a natural part of our world and, like the sea, it can contain beauty: clean sheets, polished floors, ironed clothes. Essential and quiet acts that are beautiful and loving in their own way, yes. Yet I find myself resistant to its charms. Resistant and resisting. I am bewildered that it should be ‘women’s work’ at all, and not our work, regardless of gender; disappointed to find that my days, my responsibilities, should be prescribed by social expectation, as though nothing had changed, and I’m angry to see other women I know – artists, poets, writers, translators – drowning in the white waves… I remember another writer explaining how she and a female friend had to share childcare, divvying up the week between them so that each had time to work a little. I know it’s stupid. Why is it our responsibility to organise the childcare? But there you are. It can’t be helped. I nodded. Yes, it’s wrong. We can see the inequality, acknowledge it. But it can’t be helped.
We were walking along the marina at the time. Aberystwyth in its early summer bloom. The sky shining blue, and the path to the lighthouse empty of tourists. It was around the time that my daughter began to sleep a longer stretch at night – precious hours – where I could feel my old self return. Although it would never return completely. I’m a mother now, or ‘Angharad’s mam’ as the nursery staff call me, and this has entailed an awakening, a radicalisation. I sit in distanced circle with other mothers, waving glittery silk scarfs over our babies’ heads, imagining that we are all thinking the same rebellious thoughts – free state childcare, equal paid paternity leave, abolish gender roles, abolish the housewife – yet I still carry on, paying my five pounds for the baby classes, smiling at other mums whose names I do not know, all of us waiting for a revolution that we think has already happened but which perhaps, truthfully, may never take place.
The original Welsh-language article, ‘Slwtsh Gwraig Tŷ’, can be found in O’r Pedwar Gwynt.