For a short time this year I had a wife. It wasn't a planned thing, it came about by accident and good fortune. For a few months my partner was finishing his PhD and often at home, and we moved from the domestic peace of sharing the chores between us, to a totally unfamiliar fantasy world where I did a lot of outside work and accomplished almost nothing on the home front. I left the house in the morning with a packed lunch and I came home at night to a meal I didn't even shop for. Food magically appeared in the fridge, toilet paper seemed to replenish itself by asexual budding and dirty clothes teleported themselves into neat fragrant piles on top of the dresser. Parcels were fetched from the post office, minor repairs were done and appointments were made and cancelled. Coming home at night felt like a soft landing.
For quite a long time I was a wife, and I did all of the things we think of when we cry - I need a wife! All of the tasks we're writing about, and have written about for so long, that contribute to the incredible disadvantage women face. I cooked and cleaned, washed animals, things and people, planned stuff, brushed hair and teeth and fur and bought food and medicine, products and presents. I made appointments and drove people places and picked them up and took care of them when they were sick. I listened to feelings and worries and held hands and paws and spent a great deal of time wondering about how to make my family’s lives better. During my time as a wife, a big part of my brain was gently occupied thinking about all of these things, and about my people and what they needed, just about all of the time.
As much as I wanted more help with the so-called second shift for more years than I care to remember, I was totally unprepared for what I felt when that help finally arrived.
When I stopped having to do the lionesses’ share of the domestic drudging, I didn't feel empty or miss being needed and I didn't have an identity crisis. I didn't feel bad about not being able to participate in those conversations so many straight women have about their mate's domestic hopelessness. I thought what I'd feel was free, and I did feel free. A whole tedious section of my brain emptied out and was refilled with things I was interested in and things I wanted to do.
I got so much done in such a short space of time that I scared myself.
But what I felt most strongly when help finally did arrive, was loved. And I hadn't expected that for a minute.
It makes perfect sense really. When the balance of the boring day to day is tipped too far in one direction, it's like living in a perpetual state of unrequited love.
I'm not sure that we're simply failing at fairness and equity with the still incredibly skewed distribution of our household labours. I think we may also be failing at love. Love gets lost when we're pressed into domestic service. Our relationships get forced into a kind of sadomasochistic exchange that crushes one half and both privileges and infantilises the other. With so many jobs that can only be done by someone with a wife, loveless servitude is hard wired into the heart of most of our working lives. And once it gets lost, it can be so hard to bring love back.
Maybe if I’d been daring enough to love myself more truly I would have rejected the devil's bargain of a previous domestic situation. Maybe if I’d been courageous enough to love more truly I would have refused to wait on a partner as if he were a pampered princeling child. Maybe I was afraid of what that kind of real loving would cost me.
Because the price of real love runs high. It takes great courage to love yourself and someone else enough to really share the garbage of the day to day. There are no guarantees you'll be met in your efforts and inherently little safety in bucking a universally unfair standard of living. It's not as simple as leaning in or stepping back, and not as prosaic as learning to appreciate the art of a well-cooked sponge cake. It's hard to even imagine a society where love sits at the centre, and what the costs of holding out for that realer love might be.
But what I can say in my new and profoundly limited experience, is that on the home front, sharing the load feels a lot, looks a lot, and tastes a lot like love.
ZOË KRUPKA is a psychotherapist working in private practice in Melbourne. Zoë is currently completing a PhD at LaTrobe University in relational ethics and lectures and supervises research in the Master of Counselling and Psychotherapy program at the Cairnmillar Institute in Melbourne. She has written for The Age, The Converstion, news.com.au, New Matilda, Mamamia, Eureka Street, Psychotherapy in Australia and Crikey.
Twitter: @zoekrupkaWebsite: zoekrupka.com/