Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Housewives Choice

Whatever else I try to be, most of my time is taken up with looking after my home and family. My wife has a demanding and successful career and I am charged with those jobs which, perhaps thirty years ago, might have been seen as ‘women’s work’. I am therefore ~ a housewife. Many men in the same position as I might wince at the term ‘housewife’ as indeed might many women, but that is what I am. Of course, other terms can be used, such as the oxymoronic ‘house husband’ or the deeply unflattering ‘stay home dad’. To me, the words ‘stay home dad’ conjure up a picture of a large, rather sedentary man; he wears shorts all year long,  gazing out of a window, unable to go outside lest his ‘stay home’ status be removed. Women feminists mostly dropped the word ‘housewife’ because of its historical associations with subservience but, as a male feminist I feel that I can adopt the term because; a) I do not fit into the historical stereotype of a housewife, b) no suitable alternative word exists, c) my use of the word unites me (at least in my mind) with others of either sex who perform the same role as me. Housewifery is not so different when performed by either sex, so why the need for a different name?   It is the ‘wife’ part of the word which causes the most problems to people.  My Oxford English Dictionary tells me that it comes from the Saxon word ‘wif’ of unknown origin; it has come to mean ‘woman’, but not always.  We have male midwives (at least we do in the UK) and, though I confess I never have met one, male fishwives, so what else can I be but a male housewife?

I note that some men have invented various roles and designations to cover up the fact that they are looking after the house, such as ‘domestic economics consultant’, ‘cleansing and restructuring officer,  ‘or ‘provisions and child distribution manager’. I would urge these men to go to a mirror in their house, (give it a quick clean first), then ~ look themselves straight in the eye and repeat ‘my name is ...........and I am a housewife’.  Do this whenever the urge to invent a fancy name comes upon you. Make a point of filling in the word ‘housewife’ on documents that require your occupation, but you must never ever put the words ‘only’ or ‘I’m just a’ before the word ‘housewife’ ~ that lets all of us down! Hold your head high and don’t feel that you are alone; above all never be ashamed ~ you are now part of a noble profession. Housework may be routine, but without it civilization would grind to halt, probably just after the supply of clean socks runs out and no one has fixed breakfast.

One of the hardest parts of being a male housewife is the reaction of women. Some women greet you as an ‘honorary sister’ and the fact that you are male seems never to cause them a problem. Such women are wonderful people, true egalitarians and good friends. Others use indifference or glaring hostility; they move closer into their all-female groups and do that thing that penguins do ~ I think it’s called ‘huddling’. These women jealously guard their domain and look upon any ‘housewifey’ looking man as they might upon an albatross about to swoop into the group and steal eggs or eat baby penguins or some such thing. I can only imagine the consequences if I tried to infiltrate such groups by ‘popping in’ on a coffee morning, or throwing a comment on the price of washing powder into their huddled conversation. I think they might attack me and send me squawking off to another part of the beach, bloodied and defeated ~ never to try again. The reaction of other men is different again; seeing me walking to school with two children in tow, plus one in pushchair, as often as not with some mild but rumbling family altercation in full flow, leaves many men just shaking their heads and mumbling to themselves ~ I assume that they offer up some kind of prayer or invocation to protect themselves from a similar fate.

Don’t for one moment assume that I am a reluctant housewife ~ not one bit; cooking, cleaning, childcare, laundry, ironing are all fine with me, somebody has to do them and the fact that for thousands of years it has been the women does not mean that men are somehow unsuitable for them. If, on the other hand, men find themselves unprepared for them ~ then we need to re-examine what we expect from children in the home. Do we expect girls and boys to have different experiences of work in the house? If you expect more from your daughters than your sons in terms of helping out, are you actually doing boys any favours?  I like keeping house partly because I do not see it as a subservient role ~ it may well have been for my grandmother and possibly so for my mother, but not for me. Neither do I find that my role threatens my masculinity; changing diapers, cooking supper and hanging out the washing can not be seen as female-only activities, even if they have been for generations. For me, being a housewife is enabling and liberating ~ I am my own boss and set my own agenda ~ as long as I don’t mess up big time, all will be fine. Being a ‘good’ housewife is only judged by others in terms of outcome, not process. I am a feminist and, above all else that means that a persons’ sex does not determine their role in life; it is interwoven with equality, so if we want women presidents, and Nobel Prize-winning women scientists then we also need male housewives and male childcarers! How else can the whole thing work! Modern men are much more likely than their forefathers to get involved in domestic duties, however many are still reluctant to become the main provider of these services.

We have three children at home in a three-storey house; the housework demand is large ~ chaos never sleeps. The house is heated by a wood-burning stove which brings its own set of chores ~ chopping wood, stacking wood, moving wood, lighting fires, cleaning grates, cleaning flues, blacking stoves and removing ash. Then there are animals; chickens, cats, quail and guinea pig ~ all need feeding and cleaning up after. My mother was a housewife but she never did decorating, carpentry, plumbing, electrical work, mending gadgets and sorting out computer problems etc ~ I do! Modern housewifery is a multi-skilled operation. Don’t believe me ~ ask a housewife! I’m lucky I have a sympathetic and helpful partner, many don’t.

Being a housewife, of course, is not my only role in life... I am also a self-sufficient grower for the family with about one acre of land under fairly intensive cultivation ~ finding work to do is never a problem!  Finding the time and energy sometimes is. I do not have a paid job at all and my last pay cheque from a job was eight years ago! I have done some paid writing since then but, as the family has grown, the role of housewife has become bigger too and more demanding of time. Whatever I have to do, however much there is still to get through, I know that I am not alone ~ hundreds of thousands of, mainly but not only, women are doing the same things and facing the same challenges. Do I miss my career and my exciting job, which I loved? – Yes, but my sacrifice is nothing compared to those women of the past who had the yoke of housewifery thrust upon them before they had any chance of reaching their potential, starting a career or sometimes even completing their education. Oh yes ~ I wear my housewife status with pride and I know I’m not alone!

Finally a word from Quaker William Penn for those penguin women: ~
“Being different sexes makes no difference because there is no sex in the inner person where the substance of friendship lies.”

(c) Ray Lovegrove 2012

What's Hay Quaker up to this week

  • Harvesting of brassica and leeks (great for St.David's pie).
  • Mild weather has made it the perfect week for pruning fruit trees ~ apples and pears.
  • New trees planted! Eight flowering crabs for fruit arch, field maple to give a little extra wind protection from the west, and a purple hazel to replaced the diseased horse-chestnut sapling that died in the autumn.
  • Midwinter is the perfect time for window-ledge sprouting seeds!


  1. Lovely, as always. I find the terms, "Homemaker" and "Homekeeping" both egalitarian and far more accurate in terms of defining the end goal, the objective, in remaining rooted to the family and meeting its needs. My husband would very much love to be at home all the time and if we could figure out a way to do it, our ideal would be a completely home-based life. As is, his teaching job isn't terribly demanding of his time at present, and we're able to both be here much of the time. You are doing good work that requires nothing by way of explanation to dignify it; well done!

  2. I'm fond of the Spanish term, far less pejorative. For a woman, it's "ama de casa" = love of the house, or heart of the home. You'd be an amo de casa. Homemaker, housekeeper, family manager are all fine terms, too. Cheers for all you do!

  3. What about housekeeper, chief cook and bottle washer?

    Husband covers it quite well linguistically as being the builder/maker of the house, or even head of the house, doesn't rule out housework. It's just that traditionally society doesn't equate husbands with housework. Try telling people you are simply a husband or a home-based husband. The old word, 'Husbandman' also has connotations of working the land, so it seems to cover a wide range of activities.

    Housework is just the stuff that needs doing round the house and with so many couples where both partners work it's not unusual for men to do a lot more housework than they used to.

  4. As Michelle I think home maker/home keeper...housekeeper has other meanings - keeping someone elses home!

  5. Beautifully written and evidence would suggest you're doing an amazing job! I am now a part time 'housewife', having recently given up full time housewifery and would like to think of myself as as far removed from those penguins as possible. Welcome to the party!

  6. Thanks to all friends for these comments. I do think that nothing is wrong with the term 'housewife'. Perhaps, like the black and gay communities, we need to grasp names with historically unhappy connotations and resurrect them ~ to then dignify them with our own use. Anyone care to join me in 'HWA'? (Housewives with attitude!). I have no problems with 'home-maker', but I have never heard it used outside a North American context. 'Housekeeper, as Flo mentions, in UK means a paid position in another family. Amy; 'amo de casa' is wonderful, I love it ~I just wonder if it will go down well on my next tax return or census form. :^)

    The home is important and it is no surprise that we all love to spend time in the environments that we create ourselves, with our loved ones ~ home and garden. To look after these is an honour and, like most honours it comes with some sacrifice, but a very worthwhile sacrifice. Polly ~ I'm glad to have your comments and I am pleased for you to be here with some of my other special non-penguin friends!

  7. Just changed my facebook profile to read Works at Amo de Casa!

  8. On second thoughts, I wonder if the problem with the word 'housewife' is that it defines a person very narrowly according to what they do. I work part-time and my husband works full-time so it's only fair that I do most of the housework, but that doesn't make me a housewife; it makes me a person who does a variety of things including housework. Likewise my husband is more than his profession, but I am not a housewife by profession and I cannot say I enjoy housework, only the benefits it brings. Likewise, while I enjoy gardening I would not define myself as a gardener, I do not even define myself by my occupation. Paid work, housework and gardening are all things I do, but not who I am.

  9. On the same topic in today's Guardian...