I have been getting on with some housework this week, so it wasn’t a huge surprise when I woke up with that on my mind this morning.
Most people just do housework without thinking about it. Others know it should be done, but don’t bother with any, until they can’t stand the sight of their own surroundings. It’s a mundane subject for a blog post, I know. But bear with me, as it had a huge impact on my life, resulting indirectly in the failure of two marriages, and the loss of a huge amount of money too.
I was brought up in a very different time to what we have grown used to in the 21st century. From my earliest memories and life experience, I soon became aware that only women did housework. And they did a lot of it. Washing by hand, boiling the clothes in a huge pot on the stove, then scrubbing at them using a serrated metal board. Taking the wet washing across to a mangle, and turning the handle constantly, to wring all the water out before pegging up the items on an outside line. They scrubbed or polished front steps of houses, and struggled with ancient, ineffective vacuum cleaners to remove bits from the floor. Carpets were taken outside to have the dust beaten from them, using specially-shaped devices made just for that purpose.
They swept using stiff brooms, then swept again using soft brooms. When the washing was dry, they ironed it, using feeble irons plugged into light fittings, laying the clothes flat on any handy table. There were no proprietary branded spray cleaners, polish came from a tin, and it was hard like soap. Baths and toilets were scrubbed with scourers until they gleamed, and windows washed with a combination of water and vinegar, then polished later using newspaper. It seemed that almost every woman I ever saw, of any age, was wearing either an apron or a housecoat, and doing some chore or other. And when all that was over, all they had to look forward to in the evening was getting a meal on the table, and washing up afterwards.
Men and housework were two things never mentioned in the same sentence. Men just didn’t do it, full stop. Furthermore, they were not expected to, and many women would send them out of the house, to get them out from under their feet as they carried on cleaning. Sons living at home were not expected to do much more than to occasionally help carry in some heavy shopping bags. Husbands were expected to do ‘Man jobs’. This involved anything to do with ladders, general repairs, clearing drains, changing light bulbs, and fixing electrical items. If anyone was lucky enough to have a garden, the man would be expected to mow the lawn, and grow any vegetable there was room for.
So I got to get married at the age of 25 without ever having had to do so much as iron a shirt, turn on a washing machine, or run a hoover around the carpet. I didn’t see anything bad about that. After all, I was a product of my environment and upbringing, and I genuinely knew no better. I didn’t even consider it. It never once entered my head. And I am not talking about ‘the old days’ here, oh no. This was the late 1970s. Eight years later, when I was 33 years old, my first wife approached me and told me she wanted us to separate. I was naturally shocked and upset, especially when she told me that one of the reasons was because I had never done any housework. I had to admit to that charge, even though I found it unusual that any woman would even want me to clean the house, or iron my own shirts.
With the benefit of hindsight, I confess to being very stupid. But I suppose you ‘had to be there’, to understand where I had come from. Society and married life were changing, and I was failing to keep up.
I learned my hard lesson though. By the time I got married for the second time, in 1989, I was a housework demon. If I used a cup to drink some coffee, I went straight into the kitchen to wash it, dry it, and put it away. The same with my meals. Knife and fork down, food eaten, washing up done immediately. If I noticed a mark on the coffee table, I would get the spray polish, and give it the once-over. I was so clean and tidy, you could have eaten your dinner off the floor of my small house, with no need for a plate. Mirrors shone, furniture oozed the smell of polish, and carpets were spotless. And how I could iron. In one session, I would happily iron all thirty uniform shirts required for a month at work, as well as anything else on the ironing pile. Everything had its place, and it was all put in it.
Bringing someone into that world, in this case a new wife, was possibly always going to end in disaster, I should have seen that. My regime was set in stone, and carried out with military precision. She did her best to adapt, taking over the chore of ironing, thereby saving me a lot of time. But other obsessive aspects of my housework routine were less attractive to her after a long day at work, or during the precious two days off at the weekend. I carried on though, refusing to slip back to my former ways. And as I did so, I grew to resent her lack of involvement in the process. Eventually, I decided to split up with her, and one of the reasons I gave was that she didn’t do enough to help around the house. My life had turned full circle.
Many years later, I am 66 years old, and living in the countryside. I am no longer physically capable of keeping up such a manic routine of housework, and less bothered about what is considered to be acceptably tidy. I still get down on my hands and knees to clean the stone tiles on the kitchen floor, but it’s more of a struggle, and takes me a lot longer than I would like. Once it’s done, I have little enthusiasm for more, at least until tomorrow. I don’t wear many clothes that need ironing these days, and I don’t polish a surface every time I see a mark. Ollie makes small messes with his biscuits or stuffed toys, and I am content to leave them until the next time I have the vacuum cleaner out.
I went from nothing to everything, then back to something else in between.