Nicholas Lezard: Breadwinners and losers

I thought I told you that I wanted you to leave this kitchen in as good a state as you found it

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An imaginary look at the home life of Dr Rebecca Meisenbach, whose research paper, 'The Female Breadwinner', will be published this week:



Dr Meisenbach came into the kitchen and sat down at the table. "Boy, what a day," she said. "I'm bushed." "Busy day at the University of Missouri?" asked Mr Meisenbach, drying up some dishes and checking the evening's casserole. "Exhausting," she said. "I've interviewed 15,000 women breadwinners and discovered that women seemed simultaneously to be expressing control and a lack of control over housework."

"How do you mean, sugar pie?" asked Mr Meisenbach, wiping the kitchen table with a cloth. "It turns out," said Rebecca Meisenbach, taking a bottle of Sauvignon from the fridge and pouring herself a glass, "that working women who provide the majority of the household's income to the family continue to articulate themselves as the ones who 'see' household messes and needs as a way to retain claims to an element of a traditional feminine identity."

"Oh dear," said Mr Meisenbach. "You missed a bit," she said. "How many times have I told you? You don't just wipe the bits of the table where you see crumbs, you wipe the whole table."

"Sorry, darling," said Mr Meisenbach. "Anyway, what about your research?"

"Well, women all gendered their partners' behaviour with comments like, 'He's a man, they don't see that there is a mess'. And 'My husband's a guy. He picks and chooses what chores he does'. But by gendering his behaviour, they were also gendering their own as women and mothers, instead of breadwinners. I thought I told you this morning that I wanted you to leave this kitchen in as good a state as you found it."

Mr Meisenbach looked about the room with a feeling of nebulous guilt. "Actually," he said nervously, "I think it's in something of a better state than I found it. You'd left all the breakfast things in the sink." Dr Meisenbach glared at him briefly and carried on.

"Now I've got to write this up in the research journal 'Sex Roles' by tomorrow. You'll have to sort out the kids' bath and bedtime. And I don't want you doing a half-assed job like you usually do."

"Well, you try looking after them all day AND cooking their meals AND cooking yours AND doing the laundry AND I had to do a big shop and you know what they're like in the supermarket." He poured himself a glass of wine.

"That had better be your first of the day," she said. "I don't think the children appreciate it when you've got alcohol on your breath when you read them their stories."

"So what you're saying," he said, not rising to the bait, "is that overturning millennia of social and selection pressure has resulted in a new generation of women who want to have their cake and eat it, see men as useless and are yet racked by guilt about the incompatibility between their roles as breadwinners and mothers?"

"That's about the size of it," she said, rising from the table. "The feminists are going to tear me a new asshole about this one. Still, work's work. Call me when dinner's ready. I'll be in my study."

Mr Meisenbach sat down and miserably poured himself another glass. Dammit, he thought to himself, I never get any thanks round here. And since when, he wondered idly as the wine slightly lifted his spirits, did "gender" become a verb?

n.lezard@independent.co.uk

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