This woman's work is never done

Given the choice of a husband who Hoovered or a husband who cooked, I know which I'd prefer
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The Independent Culture
WHEN DID you last turn your mattress, dust the top of the pelmet or polish the bathroom taps - last week, last year, never? Be honest. A survey about housework just published by sociologists at the University of Maryland claims that 20 per cent of the household chores our mothers did 30 years ago are neglected by today's householders. Women (surprise, surprise) still do more housework than men - 17.5 hours a week compared to their partners' 10 - but, overall, our homes are apparently no longer the bastions of spit'n'polish that they were in the super-scrubbed Sixties.

Thank God for that. I grew up with a house-proud mother, the sort that hovered behind your chair with a dustpan and brush every time you ate a biscuit in case you dropped crumbs. "Use a plate, Susan, it's far easier to wash up a plate than Hoover the entire house," she would say. If, as the Maryland sociologists would have us believe, being house-proud is a virtue, then how come pride is a deadly sin?

The astonishing thing, surely, about the report is that despite modern technology, non-iron sheets, bagless Hoovers et al, we have only managed to offload one-fifth of the housework our mothers did. The academic definition of housework, by the way, is pretty broad. Ask most people what the four caryatids in pink Marigold washing-up gloves holding up the four corners of the Temple of Housework represent and chances are they'd say cooking, cleaning, washing and ironing. At the University of Maryland, household chores include gardening, animal care, paying bills, maintenance and general repairs, in which case 171/2 hours a week is pie in the sky. I've spent 171/2 hours trying to make an appointment to get the engineer to come out and fix the dishwasher. You've heard the story of the supermother who brought up 14 children with one hand while waiting to get the Hotpoint number.

Automatic washing machines must surely have done away with at least 10 hours of housework. Thirty years ago, in what those Maryland sociologists would have described as the Golden Age of Housewifery, we were the proud owners of a twin-tub semi-automatic washing-machine. Thinking about it now, it would have been quicker, easier and less stressful to take our dirty linen down to the local pond in Northwick Park and beat it on stones. My mother did the laundry in an outhouse with duckboards on the floor, but even so we always ended up with water lapping round our knees. Semi- automatic meant that you had to lift steaming, sodden clothes from the tub with the soap powder into the second tub with the clean rinsing water. Semi-automatic then meant threading the tangled, sodden clothes from the rinsing tub into the mangle, thence to a basket on the floor and finally to the washing-line. Meanwhile my mother, like a suburban sorceress, mixed potions of bleaching agent made from small dark-blue stock cubes into the boiling water of the first tub or sticky liquid starch into the second. On Monday night we ate leftovers because at 6 o'clock my mother was still mangling. Sometimes, when I press the start button on the washing-machine, I think back to those saturated Mondays but not for long. No time.

Automatic appliances notwithstanding, the real reason less housework is done these days is that women go out to work and men, if they're house- bound, watch supercooks on daytime TV and spend the rest of their time shopping for lime leaves to knock up a quick Thai stir-fry in the evening. I don't count cooking as housework anyway. Cooking has become an art form with men and women competing for Michelin stars. The housework survey quoted cooking as being the only household chore that men and women share. Women spend four-and-a-half hours a week preparing food, while men spend one-and-a-half.

Given the choice of a husband who Hoovered or a husband who cooked, I know which I'd prefer. My first husband had a thing about cleaning taps. He spent hours polishing the taps in the kitchen and the bathroom with curious preparations he made up himself. "Come quick and have a look at what I've done to the cold tap in the bath," he would say. "See how I've got rid of all that black stuff; you can see your face in it now." You can tell how long ago that was. You can't buy old-fashioned polish any more.

Dazzled by the guide in Anne Hathaway's cottage in Stratford telling us how all the antique woodwork was lovingly polished every week, I thought I'd do the same for the piano and the kitchen table. We don't have animals to care for or a garden, so I could use up my 17.5 hours a week polishing furniture. No such luck. They only sell spray-on polish these days. You can't clean a temple with Mr Muscle.