Then vs now: power changes in relationships and households

You know how it is when you get together with a few friends over coffee: after a while, you start talking about who’s tired, why they’re tired, how their full plate would be just that bit smaller if they didn’t have to multitask all the time — and how those tasks wouldn’t be quite so many if their partner did just that bit more. But they can’t — not because they don’t have time but because they just can’t.

They can’t, for instance, mend a table or keep the plants alive by watering occasionally, or do a weekly shop for less than 500 bucks. Sometimes they can’t change a light bulb. The nature of this partner’s failure will depend on the precise requirements of the household.

I live in the country where most of my friends live on acres that may house crops and/or animals, and have a partner who has a job outside the home — just as my friends have jobs outside the home. This means both partners need to pitch in with maximum effort so the grass doesn’t grow out of control, the roof doesn’t leak, there is food on the table, any children are freshly clothed and properly schooled, and the car keeps running. It’s a tricky one.

So, over coffee a year or so ago, my friends and I decided most partners failed somewhere along the line in a practical way — not because they are unlovable, just a bit useless — and the only solution was an additional partner to pick up the slack. This partner, we decided, could be part-time, and we agreed it would be nice if he were a man and his duties included hearing as well as listening.

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1919 was a vastly different time through the lens of women's rights

It seemed like a good idea for a novel — but I already had an idea for a novel. It was to be set in a country town that had a new railway running into it. I wanted to write about what would happen when the train brought in unexpected and unwelcome newcomers.

It was going to be set at the end of the First World War, when there was a shortage of men in rural communities because the town’s finest had marched off to fight for King and Country, and had not come back. It took only a small adjustment to blend one idea with the other.

The four ladies in the novel I subsequently wrote are struggling because they have no voice. Women had run the place while the men were at war but now they had to stand aside and return to their domestic roles. As my heroines can’t tackle the challenges facing them without a man to act for them, they advertise for such a person and all the complications you imagine might ensue from sharing him, ensue.

The question is: Has the situation for women today changed? Of course it has — women can now apply for jobs in any profession imaginable because the law acknowledges that they can do anything men can. But women often don’t earn as much as men, there are fewer women at the top of their professions, and fewer men than women shoulder the bulk of domestic duties. Sure, women bear the children but that’s an excuse, not a reason.

If a law were passed today that declared men should be breadwinners and women should run the house, I’m not sure there wouldn’t be a mad stampede of women running back to the kitchen, just for an easier — if duller — life. Household chores are much easier than they were in 1919, or even 1959 when my mother’s generation were dying from boredom and too many menial tasks.

But it won’t happen because most households need two incomes. Which brings us back to the beginning: Since most women still do most things around the house as well as going to work, they are very tired a lot of the time. And should their partner be just as tired — sorry, more tired — what’s to be done?

Four Respectable Ladies Seek Part-time Husband, published by Penguin Random House, will be available from 29 January for RRP $32.99.

What do you think about changing roles in the household in modern times?

Feature image - Lorrie Graham.

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