The devaluing of ‘women’s work’, of child rearing, cleaning, cooking, shopping and managing a household is nothing new. It is evident in the fact that many men return home after ‘work’ to sit on the couch and watch TV, while their partner (who has also been working all day, albeit within the confines of the home) cooks the evening meal, continues with laundry and housework and prepares for the next day. For she has not really been ‘at work’, and she has no money to show for her day. She will often get up in the night to her children, and rise early the next day to start the cycle again. She often has to continually ask her partner and children to ‘help’ with tasks. However, on the whole, she carries the weight of the responsibility for domestic labour- and this is enormous.
I know there are many men out there who carry an equal share of this load, but many do not. Many women speak about having an additional child, rather than a husband who functions as an equal in the relationship. This is the source of much resentment and conflict. Whether it is a man or woman not pulling their weight, it is an exploitation of another’s time and energy. Both of these are precious resources- ask any mother!
The biological realities of motherhood encompass physiological changes of pregnancy, recovery from birth, multiple and ongoing changes in her physical body, sense of self, social life, social position, identity and relationship. She may become financially dependent on her partner for the first time, lose the intellectual stimulation of her career and possibly lose her place on the career ladder for some time. Often with the birth (or even impending birth) of children comes a dramatic change in the power structure of the relationship.The necessity of being the primary care giver for infants (required for breastfeeding, psychological health and attachment) mean a loss of autonomy and a monotonous existence for a length of time.
So what happens to the woman you were before? Your previous life seems to disappear and morph into something unrecognisable. Certainly this was a life I was determined to avoid in my days of feminist study. Whilst becoming a mother is undoubtedly the most amazingly enriching and powerful experience of my life and I feel privileged to be a woman for this reason, I can’t shake the feeling of things somehow being that little bit easier for men. Or maybe a lot easier….. and that really grates on me. Mothers are time poor, sleep deprived and yet still face pressure to be sexually desirable and available. Multiple pressures and expectations give rise to guilt, and the abandonment of caring for your self. The mother’s role of putting others needs before her own is an assumption often not questioned until the relationship- or the individual- reaches the point of break down. Further dementing is the denial women experience when they try to communicate this exhaustion to their partner.
Men are also oppressed by patriarchy in different ways. The huge weight of being the financial provider, the challenging roles of father and partner, societal expectations and the contradictions of masculinity are but a few of men’s challenges. However, there is a unique combination of factors that result in women’s position being unjust and impossible to maintain without slipping into what is diagnosed as ‘mental illness’. For most of us it is simply the feeling of wanting to run screaming from the building and shut yourself into lockdown where you don’t have to do one more thing for anyone and can finish your cup of tea while it’s still hot!
The devaluation of women’s work also flows into the private sphere and is reflected in the lower pay rates of women in traditionally female dominated areas (teaching, nursing, childcare, social work, community services etc). In 2012 Fair Work Australia is still hearing cases for ‘equal pay’. Surely we sorted this back in the 60’s?! The result of this devaluation is that women typically earn less, and latest stats show Australian women retire with 50% less than men. So, unless you shack up with a man (and enter into all of the above) or compete on a mans level (difficult if you have kids), you lose out. Therefore, it seems that throughout life, women are also financially and materially disadvantaged. Is it any wonder that women in violent relationships often cite economic reasons as a reason to stay?
Relationships are at the core of our society- friendships, family, community. Healthy relationships require mutual respect, communication and a sharing of the load. Or at the very least, an acknowledgment of the value of the others contribution. Real change must occur in relationships and homes, or we will continue to see the divorce rate rise. Unsurprisingly it is mostly women who initiate counselling and/or file for divorce. Yes women have a role to play in the health of our relationships too- undoubtedly. But this daily oppression of women in the home has a fundamental root in patriarchy and must end. Men must stop justifying their ill treatment of women and the selfishness of their actions and wake up to the beauty of a true, equal partnership.
Bree Lamprell Burke is:
Youth Worker 2004-5
Sexual assault counsellor 2005-8
YWCA Mentoring program coordinator 2008-9
Family counsellor 2009- present (with 10 months mat leave in there somewhere)
Mother of Ruby 2009- present
Wife to Simon 2009- present