parent opinion

"I promised myself I would never do my partner's washing. 16 years later, here's how that's going."

I used to live with a boyfriend in a share house

It was a time in my 20s that now feels like a scripted noughties drama. A crumbling five-bedroom house by a Sydney beach with an ever-rotating cast of housemates. Myself and a good male friend were the longest-serving tenants. We were the ones interviewing would-be newbies, creating hierarchies defined by room-size, timing each other's showers, policing washing up, sticking notes on fridges. 

Someone was growing weed in the back shed. Someone had a small dog that caught the cockroaches and mice. The neighbours were often complaining. Someone always had their boyfriend over. 

That became me. Eventually, my boyfriend moved in. Understandably, it changed dynamics. We became "the couple", in a house full of singles. But we resisted domesticity, because we were young, and fancied ourselves as wild and free, and our only responsibility was to the people who paid us, and to my friend who told us when to pay him for the gas, electricity and phone (phone!). We were like flatmates who had sex and argued sometimes. 

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Then, another couple moved in. And they were very different. They were playing house in our chaotic communal home. She always cooked his meals, no matter what the rest of us were or weren't eating. She also cleared the plates, washed the dishes, and put them away in the cupboard they'd ring-fenced as their own. 

She always came home with heavy bags of groceries and put their initials on packets and jars as she stacked them, neatly, on the peeling fridge shelves, next to the beer and the shrinking half-lemons and the lettuce quietly melting to mulch.

I never really liked the way her boyfriend spoke to her. I didn't understand the way he never moved from his chair to help her when she was carrying in his food. They were the first other couple I'd observed up close, day after day, since my own parents, who, in specific Boomer Leftie fashion, believed in domestic equality. If you cook, the other person washes up. Shopping is shared. If I'm doing the bathroom, you're doing the kitchen, if I'm hoovering, you're doing the bins, and so on. I was fascinated by watching this young woman serving her partner, as if he were.... what? Her boss? 

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I asked her about it one day, like a 20-something with a few box-wines under her belt might. 

"Are you and (insert name of unremarkable man) happy?" I asked. "Because he seems kind of... grumpy." I didn't say lazy. But I definitely meant lazy. 

She laughed. "Of course. And we'll be moving out soon, into our own place." 

Oh?

"We'll probably get married in another year," she was soft-spoken, but very clear about what she said and the way she said it. "He'd be so screwed without me, he wouldn't even know how to do his own washing."

She wasn't unhappy. She felt powerful. In control. Like she had hand. 

I didn't understand that, either. 

I vowed to myself in that moment, like a young, idealistic person might, that no partner would ever stay with me because I did their washing. Or cooked their meals, Or stacked their plates.

In fact, I told myself, I would never again DO my partner's washing. Just to be sure, you know, that convenience and free housekeeping services were not at the top of the list of what kept us together. 

The home-making couple did move out, unsurprisingly. Maybe they did get married, I don't know. 

But my housemate-boyfriend and I broke up. Not because of the washing. Our domestic equality may have been on point, but there were other areas lacking. 

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Fast forward a couple of decades. Flick through me living alone and then meeting my partner, my person. Whizz past us deciding to move in, buy a flat, have a baby. Arrive at peak domesticity: Two adults, two children, a dog. Two jobs. A couple of side hustles. Additional needs. A schedule as crammed as any. 

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Did I stick to my vow?

My prejudices, established early, still stand. I pride myself on not being judgemental about anyone's domestic and romantic arrangements, but I don't always live up to that self-delusion. When I see grown women packing work lunches for grown men - there's a whole genre of this on TikTok, #lunchformyhusband - I can't help but cringe. When I hear of men who need a freezer full of meals if their partner's going away for a few days, I judge. When I see the lists of instructions new mums leave new dads when they go out for a much-needed night with friends - I inwardly sigh. 

I know I shouldn't - doing lovely things for people you love is a gift. And mostly, women run things, especially homes. It says more about me than it does about them, and I know it. 

And look, the washing promise is more complex than I'd considered. Simplistic and self-focused. 

What kind of human would I be if I washed my children's clothes, and my own, but left my partner's in a mouldy pile at the bottom of the washing basket? 

Who shovels the clothes into the washing machine is really not a political question, is it? Unless you're only ever doing it. And, look, he washes my clothes all the time.

So, the boundaries are leaky, as boundaries become.

But I am stubborn. So here's where I've landed, in my bullshit bid to stand on domestic principal. 

I wash whoever's clothes need washing, whenever I'm near the machine. 

I fold them when they're dry. 

I put the kids' clothes away for them. I put my clothes away, for me. 

And then I leave all Brent's clothes in a passive-aggressive pile at the end of the bed. 

No man will ever stay with me because I put their washing away neatly in the correct drawers. 

What an idiot I am, with my domestic politics. And my comparisons and generalisations. 

Wherever she is, I hope my fleeting former housemate is happy. And that whoever's washing she does these days, the person she is or isn't doing it for thanks her very much for doing it.

This article first appeared in Holly Wainwright's weekly email, For Human With Kids. You can subscribe right here.