I come home from work absolutely exhausted. I’ve worked the typical eight hour day (plus commute), battled for a seat on a train and two buses, ate lunch at my desk and worried endlessly about advertising revenue and why seasoned clients had gone elsewhere for their advertising pages. All I want to do is plonk down on the couch and put my feet up, putting the day behind me so I can gather enough motivation and energy to start a new one the next day. But my slightly younger brother, home before me and already fed, showered, and dressed, wants a glass of water.
In another household, I would’ve yelled at him to go and get it himself. I was not his slave, and I’d only just got home from work. But my father was on the opposite side of the living room, watching the Lebanese news via satellite TV, and this was not the way of doing things in his home. I got up and got my brother his glass of water, all the while complaining inwardly about the unfairness of it all.
Such was life in my adolescence and early twenties, when I was old enough to understand that this was not the way that things should be in 21st Century Australia, but far too young (and not confident enough) to express my discontent about it. Instead, I manifested this discontent into the vow that when I married and moved out of home, my home life would be different, reflecting the changed dynamics of Australian home life and the reality that women of the modern age were a lot more than just homemakers who catered to the every whim of the men in their lives – be it their husbands, brothers or children.
I’d grown up in a 1950’s style household. My father rarely worked outside his day job and the handyman jobs around the house, and my mother did every household job you could think of, and often let her health suffer for it. I remember turning 13 and watching as she clutched her stitched-up stomach with one hand, while she mopped the floor with another, two days after a particularly distressing miscarriage. She was still cooking meals despite her personal tragedy, and although I can’t remember, I don’t doubt that a fortnight later she would be hovering around the oven and stove, setting the table, and preparing meals for the frequent guests at our dinner table. And after every meal, dad and my brother would leave their plates, cutlery and glasses at the table, not bothering to make the short journey to the sink en-route to their place of relaxation on the couch in front of the TV or the Nintendo.
Granted, my father had grown up in a different time and culture that I, let alone most Australian women, could not identify with. Apart from those traits that seemed strange to me, he was the perfect family man. In the small Lebanese village where he grew up, that was the way that things were done, and despite his move to Australia at the young age of 17 (where opportunities to change no doubt abounded) his attitudes remained the same. My mother’s environment was not any different, and although she’s been married for over 25 years and has lived away from her parents that entire time, I still hear my maternal grandmother’s advice to her on her rare visits to Australia: You have to do what pleases him, no matter how sick or pained you are. Because you know, the only positive reinforcement we deserve to get is tied in with whether or not our husbands are happy, even if it is at our expense.
In all honesty, I had a rather privileged upbringing where chores were concerned. I was not exactly the perfect housewife in training. I had to do the little things, like dishes and dusting and washing up, but my complaints came more from a place of observation as opposed to personally-encountered suffering. Yes, I hated it when my brother used the electric shaver and left hair all over the bathroom sink. I hated doing his bed in the morning or putting his dirty clothes in the hamper because I was a girl who had to do it and he was a boy who didn’t. But I bided my time, and when the time came to get married, I fell for someone whose mentality was as far removed from little Lebanese villages and 1950’s gender roles as possible.
I assumed my transition to another home and lifestyle would be completely different, but I had no idea how ingrained the attitudes to women and housework were, and how men and women’s attitudes to home and work life differ.
My husband, who works shifts and has a couple of days off per week, will use his day off for his own personal enjoyment (and rightly so). When and if he has caught up with friends, done his exercise, got his beloved cup of coffee and played a few video games, he’ll turn to the household chores. If he doesn’t have the time for them, they don’t get done. But I’ll devote the relished annual leave day that I take here and there to everything from bill-paying, phone calls with health insurers and telco companies, cleaning those annoying places (behind the toilets and microwave etc) and general home duties before I devote it to myself and my manicure/book-writing/lunch with the girls.
At the moment, Ita Buttrose is enjoying a resurrection of fame when it comes to my generation, thanks to the screening of Paper Giants: The Birth of CLEO not long ago, but the show just made me realise that that maybe, we women have not come very far at all, Lebanese or not. Just as I saw Buttrose (played by Asher Keddie) come home from work to cook dinner for her husband and hold editorial meetings from her hospital room just after giving birth, I can’t open a magazine or watch a women’s panel show segment without reading or hearing about the plight of the modern woman juggling her work and home duties and feeling like she’s failing miserably at both. But yet there they were, the CLEO team of the early 70’s, both optimistic and relishing of the changes they were making for women by raising their awareness of the fact that there was a bigger world opening up for them, all thanks to women’s lib.
My family skipped the feminist movement altogether because they were too busy evacuating a civil war. But the funny thing is that thirty or forty years later, they still have not caught up with it and my generation is suffering, maybe by choice and maybe because we can’t seem to avoid it.
Where I was once so adamant that our division of duties in the home would be fifty/fifty (while we both work-full-time, that is), I am nowadays so confused about the ingrained attitudes of my childhood and the woman I professed that I’d be due to my steady diet of feminist blogs and magazines. I’m so paranoid that the type of husband that I deliberately chose will change his outlook towards men and housework due to his immersion in my family and it leaves me torn between wanting to serve my husband a hot, home-cooked meal upon his arrival from work or telling him off over the littlest things lest he learn to take me for granted. It’s very much along the lines of saying “Sure my darling, would you like some feminist with that?” every time he asks me to pass the peas.
I’ll openly admit that I’d be happy to do all the chores if I was a stay-at-home wife who could write in between dishes and laundry and dusting, but for the time being, I am plagued with so many questions, even though I’m realistic enough to know that some couples have navigated this territory perfectly.
So do I risk being a good, contented person (with no grudges whatsoever to my home life) at the expense of escaping being a good housewife? Can I escape the attitudes that I have been born and bred with, the ones I’d promised to escape but that are threatening to catch up with me? How will I fare with the duties that I do want to fulfil more than anything – supportive wife and eventually, doting mother – if I am already questioning whether or not they’re intertwined with housework and subservience to everyone who is not me?
Women’s liberation has come a long way, but there are still a lot of elephants in our kitchens and our boardrooms and in our minds. They’re not made of paper, and they come seeped in history, culture, and personal attitudes. And until we figure out how to deal with them, they’re really the only giants worth worrying about.
Sarah Ayoub is a freelance journalist and copywriter whose work has appeared in Marie-Claire, Madison, CLEO, Shop Til You Drop, Sunday Mag and more. You can follow her blog here or catch up with her on Twitter here
Did your upbringing affect the way you view women’s liberation? Are your views very different from those of your family?