Last Friday, in his Guardian column, Tim Lott wrote about the discrepancies in income between he and his partner and the issues that ensued as a result. The Doc sent the link to me, asking for my views as it was something he was discussing with a couple of his friends. It was a very short piece – I would have liked to hear more from Tim, particularly more about how these issues are nutted out in day to day life in his household. It was interesting to get a man’s view on the sexual division of labour and how modern relationships are affected by differences in disposable income. Much of what he said about his marital dynamic resonated, as I’m sure it would with most couples. The Doc and I also keep our money largely separate, despite him earning about four times as much as I do. I work part-time while he works full-time. I do the lion’s share of the childcare and housework (to be fair, in terms of the latter, I do pretty much all of it). Most of our arguments stem from these imbalances. So while it was in many respects satisfying to see that we are not the only couple suffering these problems, I of course take issue with a number of things Tim put forward.
Firstly, he writes: “My wife does more of the childcare, cleaning and cooking than me. This is predominantly for practical reasons. She is physically at home for a lot more of the time than I am and, with a part-time career, she has more hours available.” Perhaps his partner would agree with this. Taken as a general statement however, I find this to be a distinctly male outlook – seemingly logical but actually erring on the side of being sexist in its stance. It doesn’t necessarily follow that by being physically in the house, it is practical for one to carry out all the tasks that are associated with the home, qua cooking and cleaning. I cannot speak for the Lotts, but in mine and the Doc’s scenario, I work part-time (as opposed to full-time) because of a mixture of the prohibitive costs of childcare and because as a family, we think that at such an early age, our daughter would benefit from a greater proportion of the week being spent with a parent as opposed to someone else. In this sense, childcare makes up the shortfall in my part-time paid work and thus collectively creates a full-time job, and an arduous, long-houred one at that. On the days I am not doing paid work (Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday afternoon – officially), I am looking after our daughter. This may entail anything from carting her to the aquatic centre or into town for an activity, to baking cakes or simply being in the house while she naps (at which point I usually try and cram in some more work). While some of these activities are certainly enjoyable for me, it is childcare. In other words, I am fulfilling a role which absorbs my time away from other roles, whether my own leisure, a more extensive professional role or indeed, domestic work. Depending on what sort of day I have with her, it may in fact not be at all practical for me to also attempt to organise dinner. Therefore, there is an insidiousness in the use of words like ‘practical’ because it implies an amalgamation between housework, childcare and cooking which, if not successfully attended to in their totality, infers some sort of failure on part of the person responsible for them (i.e. the woman). By my logic, housework and cooking are additional responsibilities; they are, if you like, extra curricular to paid work and childcare and as such, should be shared equally between partners.
Secondly, part-time work does not necessarily mean having more hours available. This is unfortunately a systemic shortcoming of the whole ‘part-time work’ concept. The very nature of the part-time-worker-mother is that it is ‘flexible’; read: fluctuating, unstable, bitty, inconsistent and low paid. It is very difficult to build a solid routine around this sort of fluid work structure. In my case, what often happens is that I have to do work while I am looking after my daughter, or, where possible, I do it at night and an unfortunate corollary to this is that I never feel that I’m concentrating on any of my responsibilities adequately. Within such a nexus, there is never any clear demarcation between work life, home life or personal time; the spheres become utterly blurred and it can leave one pining for the strictures of working 9 to 5 in a cubicle canopied by strip lighting. From my discussions with other ‘freelance’ type mummies, this is a pretty standard malaise. In light of this, the idea that it is practical for me to also do domestic work because I’m physically in the house, while the Doc enjoys some down time after his day at work, feels pretty iniquitous.
Thirdly, gaps in disposable income between partners ARE unfair. It’s tricky terrain to be sure; the Doc has studied and worked hard to command the sort of salary he does and I do not wish to deprive him of that. At the same time, I have also studied and worked hard but for various reasons, have never been even close to obtaining the sort of salary he does. Because of our choice to have a family, I have also had to sacrifice a lot of the energy that would have been directed toward career advancement, and channel it into our child. Whatever the inherent rewards of raising a child, the fact that I am financially disadvantaged as a result of this feels like a rather poisoned chalice. Like Tim, the Doc covers the majority of the big bills, such as rent, electricity and so forth, as well as the bulk of holidays. Yet the responsibilities remain proportionate as the entirety of my income goes on food, childcare and other bills. So despite paying the “big bills”, the Doc still has more funds at his disposal than I do. And therein lies the rub, because money in many ways equals both freedom and independence and he has more of it. He can “treat” himself more readily than I can; I have to save up or pay something off over time if I want it. Or worse, I have to ask for help from him to get it. As Tim’s partner contests, this is indeed infantalising.
I have no doubt that Tim, like the Doc, has no desire to treat his partner unfairly. I certainly can’t accuse the Doc of not sharing or not “treating” me, as he does. He also graciously (to a point) accepts that I can never lavish him to the extent that he does me on birthdays, Christmas or Father’s Day, though I try my best to spend comparably. Ultimately however, there is an imbalance here which needs redress. While the Doc and I have made headway in terms of dealing out the chores and responsibilities more equally, I continue to work harder for no pay than he does, with many of my efforts going unrecognised. It is an ongoing battle to change an inherent culture of what is seen (or indeed, not seen at all) as ‘women’s work.’ Throwing discrepancies in income into the mix is but another sting in the tail.