In defence of an unequal distribution of housework

When I was younger and more idealistic, I started a business with friends. Being (as most twentysomethings are) well-meaning lefties, we thought hierarchy was A Bad Thing. We were determined to do things differently, with a flat structure and no one of us in authority over the others. We believed  that among the group we would self-organise to ensure all tasks were completed in a timely way.

It didn’t work. Things fell through the cracks, resentments built up. And without clear lines of accountability power games began to emerge within the group as hierarchy fought to re-establish itself. Those games culminated in such hostility that it became impossible to work together. The business failed, and in that experiment with egalitarianism I lost more than the venture I’d put heart and soul into: the friendships that had inspired us to start the business never recovered. I came away with little except a hard lesson in the value of hierarchy. Egalitarianism sounds lovely on paper, but to organise a system of any complexity there needs to be someone with an overview and decision-making authority.

This insight is not controversial in the world of business. So why, when it comes to the domestic setting, is egalitarianism still flavour of the month?

In popular feminism, we hear repeatedly that management, monitoring and coordination of domestic matters should be evenly distributed between adults in a relationship. Countless articles rehash the idea; this one is typical. The burden of remembering to buy loo roll, putting things away, packing school bags, knowing when the windows were last cleaned and so on is called ‘the mental load’. This ‘mental load’, we are told, is unthinkingly handed to women by men who simply take the smooth running of domestic matters for granted.

I do not doubt that this is often the case. My argument is with those who tell us that the solution is to redistribute this ‘mental load’ evenly. To illustrate why this is a terrible idea, imagine a small business that has two Managing Directors. They have joint responsibility for approving expenses, liaising with suppliers, paying bills, chasing invoices, remembering to get the paperwork into Companies House. How long do you imagine this situation lasts before one of the MDs is seething with resentment, having found themselves in practice being the one who is keeping track of most of these tasks, reminding the other to do things, picking up things the other has forgotten, and fuming inwardly every time their co-MD preens about their progressive company management method? This, or something very like it, happens in households up and down the country where either both parties are trying to be household MD or both are pretending they don’t need one.

The truth is that the ‘mental load’ (which I prefer to think of as executive oversight of the household) cannot be evenly distributed. Someone has to take ownership. That person can delegate parts of the work, or subcontract to paid helpers, but they cannot delegate the overview: cleaners just clean, they don’t put away, or reorganise storage, or declutter, or deep clean – not without someone managing their work – and there you are again, needing someone with executive oversight. Accounts, schedules, storage, organisation, team politics, hygiene, canteen, transport…. like any other moderately complex system, without planning, goals and direction a household rapidly becomes chaotic. There is no point expecting everyone to ‘just muck in’ and make it all work smoothly with no one person in charge. My twentysomething venture was a painful lesson in how that plays out: things don’t get done, people seethe in silence, relationships deteriorate. In short, it doesn’t work.

This matters. What could be more profoundly important to human happiness, whether individual or societal, than harmonious homes where each person knows which jobs are their responsibility and each does their part? And yet our culture treats a household either as something so simple that it should largely run itself, or else as such lowly work that taking responsibility for it is a mark of shame, suggesting as it does a fundamental inferiority to other members of the household.

Worse still, this denigration has been widely presented in popular media as a feminist view. A movement which was supposed to liberate and uplift women has ended up dismissing the complexity and value of the household MD role – a role that had traditionally been women’s field of expertise – so thoroughly that it vanished from the public conversation altogether until re-invented as that most invidious of impositions, the ‘mental load’. And now that being household MD has been thoroughly denigrated as worthwhile in its own right, and in the teeth of best practice from the management of organisations in any other context, we are expected to believe that the solution to this dire situation is to bring in a co-MD. It is a recipe for misery.

Of course there is no obvious reason why the role of household MD should by necessity be taken by women. If a woman feels she is being tacitly handed that role by her male partner and wishes to demur then by all means do things the other way round. But a home cannot get by without someone taking the role, at least not without incurring discord and disarray.

And if no-one wants to do it? What if both partners feel the role of household MD is beneath them? Is that where we are today? If so, it is that lack of respect for what is in truth vital work, not the unequal division of domestic management and labour as such, which should be the issue addressed by those who wish to advocate for the interests of women and families.

This article first appeared in The Conservative Woman.