Front page | Essays index


A Man's Work is Never ...


Have you ever had the experience of being completely taken aback by something that one of your children said? Of hearing words come out that make you think that this kid must have been living with somebody else for all those years?

This happened to me just this morning. We had finished our breakfast, and were in the middle of that general chaos that prevails at that time of day, the kids scrambling to get their school satchels filled with the proper selection of books and their hair fixed in the currently 'in' style, while I try to put our house 'back together' after the activities of the previous twenty-four hours. It is really only once a day that our place could be described as 'clean'. Once the kids are off to school, I am free to finish up the dishes, the laundry and vacuuming, to wipe the floors, air the bedding, feed the fish, give my workroom the once-over, and generally restore order before settling down to the day's work.

This morning, Himi-chan, my 12-year old, finished her personal 'toilet' a bit earlier than usual (a very rare event indeed), and stood in the kitchen watching me as I washed the breakfast dishes. (Actually, to be honest, it wasn't just breakfast dishes, but let's leave me a little pride ...) I don't really mind so much doing this particular job. The warm soapy water feels good, and as long as there isn't a vast pile of dirty plates waiting, or a lot of very greasy ones, or the sound of people enjoying their 'after-dinner' time coming from another room while one works alone, it's a pleasant chore. So I wasn't in a bad mood, but was just quietly working my way down the pile. Himi watched for a while, and then delivered the line that hit me hard. 'Yappari, otoko no shigoto janai ... ne'. 'This really isn't a man's job, is it!'

When I queried her a bit about what she meant, she said that she didn't intend to imply that I was doing it badly, but just that it looked so totally wrong for a man to be standing there at the sink with his hands in the water. A minute or so later, she was off to school, so I didn't have a chance to talk to her further about this, but all day today as I worked away at my printmaking, I mulled over the ramifications of her comment.

Can you see why I was so affected by this? Here is a man who has been living with his two daughters for more than twelve years now (the last four of them 'alone' as the only parent in a three member family), and all during this time he has tried to provide them with as much of a non-sexist background as he possibly can. While I certainly do not claim to be a card-carrying supporter of modern feminism, I have tried, right from the day of the birth of my first child (and even before), to show that I believe that 'family work' (I like that term better than 'housework') is not woman's work, but rather something to be shared by all members of the family unit, to whatever extent each is able to do so.

And here was my own daughter telling me that all my efforts to this end have been wasted. Telling me that she fully expected one day to step into the kitchen, tie on the apron, and get to work ... washing dishes. What a shock - to hear from a twelve year old girl, just at the beginning of her life, that instead of seeing herself as someone who could go anywhere, and do anything, and be anything, she rather accepts the traditional patterns ... She has accepted the equation: housework = female work. She sees herself as a dishwasher!

In one sense, would it perhaps have been better if my kids had been boys? What good is it to show girls that a man is capable of cooking and cleaning? That is just going to lead them to expect too much from their future partners! (Especially if such partners grew up in here in Japan!) If my kids had been male though, wouldn't they perhaps have grown up with a more reasonable attitude towards this kind of work? But after hearing Himi's comment, I'm not so sure about any of this anymore. If after all these years of seeing her father working in the kitchen and laundry space, she still believes that this is woman's work, what hope is there for her of establishing a balanced relationship with a future partner? Is the influence from the society around us, where men get on the train and disappear each morning, while the women clean the houses, so strong? Stronger than her own family's example?

It seems like that might be the case, and that is why I am so depressed at what she said. Because of course, just like anybody, I don't really like doing housework. But in my case, one of the main things sustaining me through it, has been the thought that I was really doing something important for my children - providing them with a living example of how family life should be organized. An example not of how things usually are done, but how they could be done ... and should be done.

And now that feeling has disappeared. With one flippant comment, my daughter destroyed it. For me now, housework is again just drudgery.

Was I just kidding myself all this time? Perhaps it really is a hopeless cause trying to instill a young girl with these ideas ... hopeless, because maybe she is right ... maybe housework really is woman's work! What do you think?