My last article, "Motherhood has evolved while fatherhood lags behind" raised some passionate opinions on both fronts. My cousin, in particular, proposed that domestic workers serve the very purpose of picking up the fifty percent, or the slack, caused by fathers who are not domestically active.
Additionally, she highlighted that a fifty-fifty mentality in marriage brings no joy, and couples should be content with the fact that they can never be equal. Her take on the childcare and housekeeping stakes is that a mother should appreciate the little things that the father brings to the table. She should focus on his strengths rather than magnifying his weaknesses.
A greater number of my female associates commended my article for how accurately it captured their plight. One lamented, "I've been nursing a big baby for twenty years now and I'm so tired!" Another exclaimed, "Spot on!" Others thanked me for telling their truth. A minority of them have domestically active husbands for whom they expressed immense gratitude — recognising them for the rare unicorns they are.
Coming back to my cousin; I understand the perspectives she is raising and know for a fact that many women rationalise this contentious state of affairs in much the same way she does. However, this is a burning issue that regularly reduces many women to desperate tears, has them dreading returning home after work, and robs them of marital fulfilment. Even more alarming, it is supposedly one of the top ten causes of divorce, according to marriage.com.
As for the domestic worker who apparently comes to the rescue, they come with a glaring discrepancy. Here's why: out of a population of 57.3-million South Africans, approximately 1.1 million are employed as domestic workers — female and male. Of those 1.1-million domestic workers, male gardeners and drivers make up a a fraction — the majority are female part-time workers, and only a remaining minority are live-in workers. In addition, a survey done by Statistics SA shows that during a tough economic climate, domestic workers are the first to be cut from the budget, resulting in the household work falling back on the couple.
From these statistics, we can gather that the overwhelming majority of South African homes have never had a domestic worker. Some have had to let theirs go, while others have domestics that only come in on a casual basis. The result is that the domestic worker industry does not adequately service comprehensive childcare and housework needs.
To get insight on the extent of the issue we are addressing, let's take a typical example of an evening at the home with the working couple, without a domestic worker.
Even within households that have domestic workers, tasks like directing the worker, cooking, shopping and caring for the children are still largely on the mother's shoulders. In fact, the norm dictates that the domestic worker is actually "helping" the mother with "her" work. So let's own up to the uncomfortable truth that mothers are the primary, yet unpaid domestic workers in the home.
The second dynamic raised by my cousin is one that is more sensitive. It goes beyond clinical tasks and enters the domain of fundamental marital interaction. Please indulge me for a moment ... I am not trying to stir up animosity between couples. I understand the mutual need they have for one another. Each brings a set of strengths and weaknesses to the marriage, and their partnership should be the balancing factor. What I am proposing here is a paradigm shift of necessity.
To get insight on the extent of the issue we are addressing, let's take a typical example of an evening at the home with the working couple, without a domestic worker. The children have some form of after-school care and so the whole family is back home at around 6pm.
The mother puts some pots on the stove to prepare a meal. While the food is cooking she checks to see whether the children have done their homework and assists them where required. After that, she dishes up dinner and they eat. After dinner, she bathes the ones who are still young or instructs the older ones to take a bath. After getting them off to bed she washes the dishes and tidies up the living areas. After this, she prepares the following day's clothing for the children, her husband and herself. After... she ...
By around 10pm, she settles down to catch her breath before sleeping. During this time she attends to her husband's emotional needs as they talk about their day and any other matters arising. This is also the time when difficult issues are tackled which could lead to tension and conflict. As the couple is deeply devoted to each other, they try to resolve any differences before going to bed. This could take a while.
Slumping into bed, physically drained and emotionally taxed, she sets the alarm for at least two hours before she starts work — as she has to get the children ready for school, makes their lunch and possibly drop them off. With due acknowledgement of the many unique variations to this scenario, we find that we have an elephant in the room.
The extent of domestic assistance from a father can be evaluated on a continuum from hands-off to hands-on. The effectiveness of their contribution can only be determined by the level of relief experienced by their partner.
What is the father doing from 6pm to 10pm? Remember, he truly loves his wife and children and is considered a responsible family man. So what does this family man do every weekday evening while his wife is heavily immersed in her evening job, after returning from her day job? This is assuming that both of them have average jobs that do not require them to bring any work home. So I ask again, what so occupies the father that he cannot participate in any of the six tasks I mentioned?
Let me qualify my interrogation by stating that girls are not born homemakers, neither are boys natural providers. Each is taught those traditional roles. Therefore, if nurture transcends nature, it follows that either sex can be taught any task.
Books, websites, tons of column inches and talk shows are devoted to advice and tips for working moms on how best they could attain the work-home balance. On the other hand, how much communication and information is dedicated to offering similar advice to fathers? In essence, society says, "Let's educate the oppressed mother on how she can excel at being oppressed". This is while the oppressor is reassured that he can retain his domain by shrewdly picking a partner that will not challenge him to evolve.
Whether one has a domestic worker or not, harmony in the home is generated by mutual respect, cooperation and empathy. The extent of domestic assistance from a father can be evaluated on a continuum from hands-off to hands-on. The effectiveness of their contribution can only be determined by the level of relief experienced by their partner.
I know that unemployed or stay-at-home mothers have homemaking as their occupation by default. Also, there are women whose identities are wrapped up in being homemakers because of the traditional, cultural or religious norms they subscribe to. These women are not the subjects of my advocacy. My cause is for the working mothers who absolutely cannot cope with the double duty!
I foresee a trend where working women will increasingly choose to marry domestically active men. Their choice will be motivated by sheer survival. They will picture their future with a prospective partner and assess their potential level of synergy as spouses, parents, friends and team players. The chosen men would be considered the most evolved, admirable and attractive versions of manhood — in contrast with the outdated, distressing, lazy "Big Baby".