Guess who's packing the bags for the family holiday

It's the last bastion of sexual inequality: he loads the car, she has to remember everything to take with them.
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AS THE holiday season comes upon us, women all over the country will start the flurry of preparations for the family's big summer break. Somewhere in between the washing and the shopping trips for swimming costumes, books, sun block, sweets for the journey and toys for the toddler, she will realise that, as far as getting ready for holidays goes, she has progressed no further forward than her mother or, indeed, her grandmother.

Hiding behind the excitement of getting away from it all, packing is one of the most insidious of gender issues, which traps husband and wife, girlfriend and boyfriend into roles that are about as progressive as the mother and father in the Janet and John books.

In the typical household car-packing is considered manly and practical, and it is the only contribution many men will make towards preparing for a big holiday.

Rebecca Morrison, who has an anally retentive car-packer for a husband, and three children under the age of eight, says: "When we finally get into the car, he will go on to reminisce about travelling around America with just one change of clothes for six months, and while he has his Jack Kerouac fantasy I fume with irritation. There is then the inevitable row, which lasts till Dover and maybe half-way across the Channel, fuelled by my resentment at having had to take two days off to get everything ready, to plan what will keep my kids amused, not only for the journey but for lulls in the television-less evenings. He just had to stroll around in the morning, folding a couple of T-shirts and a couple of pairs of shorts and choosing a paperback. It is no wonder then that he regards my running around as neurotic and unnecessary."

Gillian Shepard, a psychotherapist, says that her experiences are typical: "Leaving for holiday can be an extremely stressful time, particularly for the mother who feels that the success of the trip depends on her, and what she decides to take. Men just seem to continue to think of their own provisions, and so act rather like bachelors packing solely for themselves, or even expecting their partners to lay out a choice of clothes on the bed. Perhaps, then, it is the last bastion of the old-fashioned feminine duty."

Even couples without children find that the woman is expected to remember all the little essentials such as toothpaste and sun cream. A friend who went away with her boyfriend for the weekend discovered when they arrived that they had forgotten the sponge bag. "Although we both tried to blame each other, there was the definite feeling that it was really my responsibility. I was amazed to realise that when it came to packing, he really wanted me to be mumsy and look after him."

It may be that women are partly responsible for clinging to the idea of packing being a feminine duty, for while resenting the lack of support from their partners, they also seem to be unprepared to relinquish the task. Many feel that their menfolk would just not understand the problems, and that rather than having to tell them to take tapes for the journey, the two-year-old's comfort blanket and the antihistamine, you may as well do it all yourself.

Cathy Banford, who has been with her partner Richard for nearly 20 years, says that she did try to hand over the control of the suitcase - but only once. "He was going away on a work trip and I decided that now was the time to see if he could do it for himself", she says. "Not only did he forget to pack any shirts, and had to buy some at the airport, but he also left his medication and had to spend a fair amount of the trip trying to find a doctor. I was terrifically irritated that I felt guilty and responsible, and of course the next time, there I was, laying all his stuff out on the bed once again."