When I started writing this essay, I did not particularly have a goal in mind. I don’t think the purpose of this essay is to make a great, theoretical or otherwise, point about this. To me it feels like a story that I’ve needed to tell for a long time now. I am aware that, sadly, I am not and will not be the only one who’s ever encountered this phenomenon at home and I’m pretty sure I have a lot of easier than a lot of women, but right now, that is beside the point. For once, this is my story, in my own words. If I’ve offended or have stated something incorrect, asinine etc, please let me know — I don’t usually write long pieces like this centered around a theme in my life!
Growing up in a post-communist country, you more or less live with the impression that gender equality has been ‘achieved.’ When my mother was in her 20s, like I am now, state policy demanded that both men and women had to contribute to the country’s well-being by having jobs and working. Feminism was spurned during Communist rule, mostly because gender equality was (on paper, at least, less so in reality) already a part of the Communist doctrine and, even more so, feminism was deemed to be bourgeois, something characteristic of the ever so hated capitalistic countries.
I say gender equality on paper, but less so in reality because, even though the Communist regime was the one that finally granted women the right to vote in 1946, women’s fertility, for example, was wholly controlled by the state - as abortion and contraception became largely illegal, women underwent monthly compulsory gynecological exams meant to detect pregnancies and monitor them, effectively preventing illegal abortions. It was women’s patriotic duty to have children, preferably as many as possible.
As such, despite laws and proclamations about gender equality regarding employment, in the voting process (which was also useless, as there was only one political party) and in political participation and representation - women still had to bear the grunt of their ancestral role, as enforced by the very regime that promised to make them equal. Even more so, back in their homes, the Communist regime had little or no influence on traditional gender roles. The expectations of the regime clashed with the expectations of the patriarchal society: women were expected to have a full-time job (with legal repercussions if they refused to work) and, even though maternity leave and day care were provided, they left work only to arrive at their second shift as ‘working homemakers’ (as I call it), caregivers and mothers, taking on the great majority of household chores, cooking and nursing the children.
As the dictatorial Communist regime fell in 1989, society, finally free after decades of being strictly controlled and coerced into gobbling up the party line, rejected the values that Communism espoused. As such, society started turning even more towards the traditional and the religious, embracing values which informed them of their role in society and in the family.
Communism’s lingering legacy that absolute gender equality had been achieved persisted in the minds of people so they saw no reason to question or reject traditional gender roles - after all, women can vote, get an education and work. Feminism is not needed here - even though feminism was rejected by Communism, feminism itself is often called socialist or left leaning politics as a ways to invoke society’s disgust with the regime. Women’s unpaid work in the home is, simply, women’s job, the way it’s always been - beneath men’s self-respect and very shameful for you as a woman if you don’t perform. I am not arguing that this is the case for all households; it may very well be that, in households that have had the privilege of more education and more money and of living in urban, cosmopolitan areas, household work is split more evenly between genders - although statistics do not always point in that direction.
Growing up, I had the same belief. I thought I was equal in rights and opportunities to anyone else. I did not understand what all this feminist mumbo jumbo was about. I saw my mother arrive home from work and continue to toil away, scrubbing and cleaning, doing the laundry and cooking for hours for me and my father and I did not think much of the fact that my father barely lifted a finger once he stepped foot inside. It was the way things were. It was and is the way things go in, well, almost everybody’s house. My mother was - is - unhappy with this role. She coaxed me into promising that I will get married - she ‘affectionately’ calls it “putting on your yoke” - and have children as late as possible, because she wants me to be ‘free’ first. She said that once you get married, you have to give yourself up and dedicate your life to your husband and later your children — and she did not want that for me. I made that promise, because I never felt any calling to get married and have children. And, to be perfectly honest, I thought her double shift was just a remnant of an old system. I thought things were fine now and that everything would be totally different for me. After all, unlike in Western countries, we have had state mandated gender equality for so long! Surely we must be more evolved.
Oh, I was wrong.
Again, to be perfectly honest, I am not married and I don’t have children. I am in a different, more ‘modern’ position: I live with my boyfriend (a situation that used to be pretty much taboo a couple of decades ago). We’ve been living together for about two and a half years and, for all intents and purposes, we are kind of like a married couple.
It started well enough, as we were very much in love. We moved in together despite strong protests from our respective parents - I was 19, he was 20. My mother accepted it, although I am sure she had a very difficult time swallowing the pill - not because of the immorality of the situation, but because she perceived me as chaining myself to household duties and to my boyfriend. I scoffed at first. But then followed my rude awakening.
It was gradual. About five months after we started dating and our first semester of college, I brought my stuff into our new little home and everything seemed wonderful. He proudly declared that he would help me with everything at home, just as I asked him. There, Mother! gender equality achieved, yet again. We were both in college, after all, busy with classes and other activities young people do. We should have equal responsibilities at home. And everything was fine, in theory.
As the weeks passed and we settled into living with each other, I started struggling with several realizations. My boyfriend was not transitioning from living with his parents (overbearing parents, might I add) to living with his girlfriend as an adult. He was transitioning out of his doting mother’s care into a surrogate mother’s care - me.
Suddenly, I found myself in a position that was strange and overwhelming to me. I was barely managing to take care of myself, since I was ill-equipped to deal with real life as I suppose most teenagers leaving home are. The real world was scary and fraught with dangers and chaos and I was fighting to keep those at bay. And here was my boyfriend, basically acting as a child that needed baby-sitting. He wasn’t worried about anything - oh, no! Realization #1: He needed me to coax him into doing his assignments, yes - just like a mother would with a child, since he was a lot more preoccupied with going out with his friends and playing video games. He needed me to sit by him and encourage him, oversee him, give him ideas and recommendations and check for mistakes. After I was done with the hand-holding, I then had to do my own assignments which no one helped me with. And suddenly, I had double the work load and stress for college. I had to make sure he was doing all his assignments, help him actually do them, remind him to turn them in and remind him to go to class - believe me, I found out he was so absent-minded and careless, so used to being taken care of, that he just didn’t do these things without the hand holding. And then... I had to do all these things again, for myself.
Living together on our own terms also comes with other responsibilities - and, yes, you guessed it! All household chores and cooking suddenly fell on my shoulders. It was just that, as my boyfriend said, he didn’t really care about keeping the space clean, you know? He felt fine just throwing all his clothes on the floor and leaving used dishes in the sink until they rotted - it didn’t really matter to him, he said. He was just a really messy person, that’s just him. Realization #2: It wasn’t that he was fine with being messy, but that all his life his mother picked up after him. For example, I noticed he really appreciated having clean and ironed button-up shirts, his favorite item of clothing. But to him - these things just happened, almost magically, as stupid as that sounds. To him, all household work I did was completely invisible. He was so far removed from the processes of maintaining a living space that he couldn’t fathom doing them. After class, I had to come home and clean, and pick up all of his stuff, and do the laundry and iron his shirts, and wash the dishes, while he put his feet up. Sometimes I convinced him to sweep or mop the floors through his grumbles and resentment that I interrupted his free time. Remember, I had to do all of this on top of the double college workload (which, let me assure you, was not light).
Cooking, as I’ve mentioned, became my attribute as well. When we moved in together, I had no idea how to cook absolutely anything. In the very beginning, we mostly lived on food sent in care packages from our mothers, but then we decided to learn how to cook together. We visited some family friends of his, a couple in their late 20s, who cooked together and seemed to have a lot of fun, so we decided to follow in their footsteps. One day my boyfriend showed me how to make fried eggs and a few days later I made them for him. He liked them and from then on he refused to cook again, because I cooked better, he said - although, let’s be serious, they were fried eggs. Again, I was faced with managing an entire aspect of our lives on my own and he simply refused to help or do it himself — not even when I got home after a 12 hour work plus classes day, not even when we had cooked food in the fridge and the only requirement was to heat it up. I did learn to cook quite a wide array of dishes, but I was all on my own, spending a lot of time in the kitchen, when I also had to clean, do the laundry, wash the dishes, manage his coursework and then manage my coursework.
All this toiling to keep a clean home and fridge filled with food and still I had even more restrictions on my life. I remember the first time I realized I had a curfew: I was going home after the last class of the day, around 3 in the afternoon. As I was walking down the stairs to the subway platform, my jeans ripped — I was very poor at the time and that was my only pair of jeans. Luckily, my student stipend had just been wired to my account so I went to a cheap store I knew and I tried on some pairs and found one that was okay. I arrived home at about 5 PM, unlike the usual 4 PM. My boyfriend was livid - how dare I be late? I was so confused - late to what? I never said I’d be home at a certain hour. But I was late and he was upset because he was worried. I told him I wasn’t walking alone in the middle of the night and he wasn’t my father, but he was upset nonetheless. This was just the first time - usually if I wasn’t home within some time of being done with whatever I was doing, I was “late.” My time became restricted and I had no control over how it was restricted. I didn’t tell my mother about this because I was ashamed, not even my parents had been this strict with me.
Sometimes I had days off work and school, and I was home all day cleaning and cooking. It was boring as hell, but someone had to do it. My boyfriend would arrive after class and hanging out with his friends for hours and say “Wow, it’s so nice to have you here with dinner ready when I get home. I wish you could always stay home while I worked.” I’d grumble a bit and gently say “But I want to pursue a career in my field... I want to work...”, to which he said “You should find ways to freelance from home.” Now, my future became someone else’s wish to confine me even more in the space of a home. Since I didn’t want to comply with this wish readily, it did bring about some friction between us.
At that time, I was dutifully trying to fit into what I perceived to be my role, the role my mother was performing back home. The two realizations I wrote further above had also applied to me before: 1) I needed my mother by my side and I never realized how much of her time I was eating up when she helped me with homework and preparing for school and 2) I never realized how much work she put into maintaining our house and cooking because, although I knew about it and I was less messy than my boyfriend, I never thought it would take up so fucking much of my already limited free time. This helped me empathize with my mother in a whole new way and it renewed our relationship in a way I didn’t think possible because, for the first time, I understood her better than ever. Later, I introduced her to feminist theory and I hope I also helped change the world she sees herself.
Although I was happy at first to be a good homemaker and my boyfriend also understandably enjoyed having me do everything while he could enjoy his free time unburdened, you can already guess I became overwhelmed by the volume of work quickly, in about six months of living together. I was constantly exhausted and stressed and it felt like my work never ended. I was constantly putting the needs of my boyfriend before mine and in return I felt like I did not matter at all. It became endlessly frustrating having to care for my boyfriend as if he were a child unable to do anything and he still enforced restrictions on my life, and so a lot of resentment started building up inside me.
As those months of exhaustion went on, I started learning about feminism and I had what I like to call “my feminist awakening.” It all started because of a few sociology classes, during which we talked about gender roles and discrimination and how these manifest and it piqued my interest, because I was so frustrated with fulfilling my demanding role. I started googling feminism a lot and I devoured all the reading I could find, because so many concepts spoke to my experience.
Enough was enough — I put my foot down. Reading about feminism made me feel so empowered, so strong, so sure of myself. While before I silently accepted my role in the house and performed my duties without much protest, I could not take it anymore. My boyfriend and I had, what I consider to be, one of the most important talks in our relationship. We had a serious talk about dividing chores, yes, and about what I was and wasn’t willing to do. I slowly reduced my influence over his coursework so he could learn to take care of it himself and, while his performance has indeed dropped, my performance in school did indeed soar.
While he started washing the dishes regularly, it was not enough when I still had to do everything else. It’s not enough when I say we have to clean this place up and he goes to take a nap while I scrub the toilet. It’s not enough when he promises he will cook for me tonight and when I get home after a really long day, I open the door, he’s playing his video games with no food in sight — he forgot, he says, he completely forgot about me. I don’t get that luxury, to forget to cook, or otherwise I go to sleep hungry since there’s no one else to care for me (and delivery is expensive).
And yes, enough is enough. Like so many feminists, I espouse values in favor of women’s liberation, I encourage women to follow them and so on, but I’ve hardly ever followed them myself. I used to find excuses, but no more. This is where it ends and this is when I break free of my role. Soon enough, I will be packing my bags and leaving, never to look back on this place. If this means I’ll never get to share my life with another man or any type of person, I’ll gladly take it over sacrificing myself to someone who sees me firstly as a maid, a cook, a caretaker, and only secondly a person with whom to share their life.
P.S. I actually wrote this post about a month ago, but I was saving it for when I would finally get authorship on GT. Thank you everybody and the mods especially, for giving me this chance to be a part of a wonderful community!
Images via Good Enough Mother, Adevarul.