Men about the house
Sharing a home with five males isn't always easy. But Claire McDonald's unconventional household has caused her to rethink her ideas about gender
Tuesday 08 February 2011
I grew up in a haze of pink. A hands-off approach to parenting by my father meant it was just my mum bringing up my sister and me. We didn't mind, as we skipped from ballet class to Brownies, with our Sindy dolls in our pretend handbags. Our days were filled with playing mummies and daddies, reading books about fairy princesses, and caring for dolls that cried and weed.
At 11 years old, I started my all-girl secondary school, and the oestrogen overdose continued. There were boys, but they were at the school next door, kept at bay by a big wire fence. Phew.
My twenties came and I lived in a shared house with four girlfriends. We cooked for each other, shared clothes and make-up, gossiped, and exchanged caring, nurturing advice. There were boyfriends, but nothing penetrated the core group of good female friends.
So what the hell happened? Why am I now living with five men?
It started gradually. In my early thirties, I met my husband. We went on several dates where he took me to see musicals, go roller skating and watch Dirk Bogarde films. Despite initial appearances he was in fact heterosexual, but my guard had been lowered, and he infiltrated my oestrogen-heavy world. He wasn't like other men. He cooked, he could talk about important things without going into the foetal position and rocking, and he left the loo seat down.
Three years ago, we had a child. A boy. It was a shock. There was a small willy involved (my son's). I didn't really know what to do with it. I'd never even seen a little boy's willy at close quarters before, and now I had one for which I was responsible.
Two years later, I had child number two. Another boy. This is when I realised that life as I knew it was going to change, dramatically. Instead of pretty dresses, ballet and long, emotional chats, the next 18 years are going to be full of football, fighting and mud. I've always loathed football. I'm not that into mud, either.
As if our small worker's cottage in south London weren't testosterone-filled enough, a year after the arrival of our second son, two of my husband's three brothers moved in.
It's a strange transition, going from an all-female household to an all-male one. I am now used to entering the bathroom and the loo seat is up. I'm just thankful if they've flushed. Curry used to be a monthly meal, but now, we have it at least once a week, and the fridge is full of brown ale. We get through mountains of food; a kilo of porridge oats lasts a couple of days, a two-litre bottle of milk just 24 hours. The amount of methane expelled from our house has undoubtedly increased, and is released with more flourish than before.
The Xbox used to gather dust next to the telly, but now, it looks suspiciously shiny, and I'm pretty sure that every time I leave the room, even if it's just to sneeze, the controller is whipped out for a quick round of Fifa 2010. Saturday night is always topped off by an episode of Match of the Day.
Nerdy film references frequently whizz over my head – as does most of the conversation, as the three adult males in the family range from 6ft 1in to 6ft 5in. And it's not just the altitude at which the conversation is made which makes it hard to understand; it is also the content. For a group of emotionally articulate, intelligent men, they do talk a load of rubbish.
When my husband, Liam, used to return from visits to his brothers at home in Wales, before they moved in with us, I would ask how each of them was, how their partners were, what they were up to. To each question I would receive the answer "I don't know, we didn't talk about it."
I would wonder how they could spend an entire weekend with each other and not talk about these things. Now, I know. It's because they spend all their time referencing obscure indie films, making inane in-jokes, and generally talking absolute twaddle. Get them on their own and you can have interesting, intelligent chats. Get them together and you're lucky to find out the answer to "What's the time?"
However, upraised loo seats and a love of football notwithstanding, our lives together are far less clichéd than you might imagine. The reason Brendan, 34, moved in with us was to be our nanny. His brilliance with children, and the slow job market in Wales, meant it was the obvious answer to all our needs. He looks after our young boys three days a week, and gives them all the mud, football and play-fighting their hearts desire. This means that on the days I look after them, I don't feel guilty about doing the things I enjoy more, such as cooking, colouring and reading.
Tristan, 27, the youngest brother, moved in with us three months ago. He has a job, and has just lined up a flat, but we don't want him to leave. Partly because we like him, but mainly because he is a fantastic cook. Each night, he rustles up a delicious meal from what we have in the cupboard while Liam and I bathe the children and put them to bed. At the same time, Brendan tidies the house, putting the plastic cars and farm animals back in their rightful boxes.
This is probably key to the success of the whole situation. When a couple have two young children to look after, there's not much time for anything other than the rudiments of living. But with four adults involved it suddenly becomes far more palatable. Food is tasty again, the house is tidy. There is time to chat over dinner, relax in front of the television, or even go out, as we have permanent babysitters.
Yes. We are living in domestic bliss. It couldn't get any better. I feel happier than I ever have. If you had told my 20-year-old self this is how I'd live, with five men, I would have assumed it would involve my doing all the work. Instead, I would say that it really is equally shared. The men are tidier than I am. Much tidier. They are less able to bear mess, so are often found on their knees picking up Duplo, or doing the washing-up, whereas I'm quite happy to step over it. On the other hand, I do mind germs, so I'm the one scrubbing the bathroom every week, whereas the men don't seem to notice the layer of scum building up on the bath. But it's a fair swap.
So my feminist, or maybe sexist, assumptions have been smashed to smithereens. And that's not the only part of my feminism to go up in smoke. With two vulnerable little boys to take care of, I realise that men are not the doltish enemy. I now realise my feminist stance has always been simplistic. Men were a bit rubbish and women were great. All the bad things in the world are done by men, and the good things are done by women – men fight, women give birth, etc etc. Arguably I had this view because I'd had so little interaction with men that I'd allowed myself to build up a very stereotypical view. However, living with so many of them has caused me to change it completely.
Now, I realise that there are many problems and issues that affect men and boys and I slavishly read the many, many books on the subject, hoping that I can clear the path for my sons a little. It's a complicated world that they are being launched into, and they need all the help they can get. I'm even beginning to change my long-held views on football...
It seems that football, watching as well as playing, can improve many aspects of masculinity. According to a report by the Mental Health Foundation, watching football "plays a cathartic role that provides an opportunity to express internalised emotion that men find difficult to express in other ways. For young men in particular, the opportunity to externalise tension and emotion is important to maintaining health. One in four experiences a mental health problem in any one year, and suicide is the most common form of death for young men under the age of 35."
It's statistics such as this which have got me actively encouraging the big boys to watch Match of the Day with the little boys every Sunday morning, while I make breakfast. In my pinny. Just don't tell my 20-year-old self.
Why it's not a man's world
* Girls outperform boys at all levels of education in the UK from Key Stage 1 to higher education. Some 64 per cent of girls achieved five or more GCSE grades A*-C, compared with 54 per cent of boys in 2006.
* Boys are twice as likely as girls are to suffer from emotional, behavioural or mental health problems when aged between 5 and 10, a British Medical Association report in 2006 said.
* Boys are four times more susceptible to problems such as ADHD and dyspraxia, and nine times more likely to have Asperger's syndrome, says Sue Palmer in her book 21st Century Boys.
* Figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) show that there are more women than men entering full-time undergraduate courses: in autumn 2006, 54 per cent of those who gained a place were women.
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