Over the last three months I have asked various women how they feel about their home life. On opening our conversation, usually over coffee, I often feel sheepish, sometimes nervous. Why, I’ll ask myself, should someone who I don’t know very well be frank about an area of her life that is rarely aired socially? I am no university researcher in sociology. I am a fellow traveller, on a journey to understand why domestic life has, for me and so many others, proven such a real and personal challenge.
Heeding my nervousness, I scaled my project down. I would not set out to ask men and women, young and old, as I’d set out to do at New Year. I would focus on women who were currently in the thick of their domestic lives, and find out as much as I could about that. And instead of fronting up with a list twenty questions, with smaller ones hanging off them, I whittled the list down to a manageable eight that I could ask in an hour’s relaxed chat.
I open my conversations about domestic life with an easy icebreaker. Is your home expressive of who you are? Most women answer this straight off with a breezy yes. In many ways their homes do reflect what they care about most. But one woman frowned when I asked this, tears appearing in her eyes. Her home life isn’t, she explained, the way she’d fantasied it would be when she was younger. She still has the fantasy of how she would like things to be, but the reality of what she goes home to each nights is quite different.
My next question is more pointed. How did you first learn about housekeeping? ‘I just picked it up’, said one. ‘I watched my mother clean the cupboard door handles every day with disinfectant and vowed never to be like that’, said another. ‘My first flatmate sorted me out after a couple of weeks’, said a third. A number were humbled by the realisation of how much their own mothers must have done, largely unnoticed.
How, I ask, do you keep on top of housekeeping these days? Some women laughed at this. ‘Don’t be ridiculous’, their expression told me. ‘Keep on top of my home life? Are you serious?’ Others answered straightaway. ‘I’m very organised’, said one. ‘I keep a lot of lists’, others said, smiling. ‘I use every spare minute as if it’s gold’. Still others have lopsided arrangements with more or less willing members of their family. A few have cleaners. A few have house-proud partners who like nothing better than cleaning the kitchen after a busy day at work.
And have you, I ask, found ways to be creative at home? Cooking tops this list. ‘How can you spend a whole hour chopping vegetables?’ one woman’s husband will ask her, disbelieving. ‘But I just love to chop’, she explains, ‘I find it quite meditative after a day at work. And I make a magnificent ratatouille’. Another woman has found herself a quiet corner of the house in which to make lino-cuts, despite living with a successful artist girlfriend. Another prides herself on growing from heritage seeds.
My next question is perhaps the most pointed. ‘Do you like being in the kitchen?’ One woman loves it so much that in her ideal home, in which she doesn’t live, she would have a day bed in the kitchen so that she could be there to lift the cake from the oven. Another woman never relaxes when she’s cooking, sensing the critical eye of her husband, an adventurous and demanding cook. Another is so disgusted by her son’s eating habits that she has given up family meals, despite cooking from scratch with organic ingredients.
What about when you are on your own at home, I ask, do you enjoy this? Every woman I’ve asked so far has said yes to this. ‘I think it’s because I’m in control of my surroundings’, said one, ‘and I love the quiet’. ‘I get into a rhythm’, said another, ‘getting things done and putting aside all the other things that I’m meant to be doing’.
And when you unwind at home, I ask, what do you like to do? Most women pause before answering this, as if it requires a moment to unwind. Knit, said one. Roll pastry, said another. Take a long bath, said a few. Clean the house, said more than one.
And lastly, I’d say, looking at my watch, and sensing that my subject needed to get back to her day, where and when do you feel most at home? One woman said that she felt most at home when she’s out walking solo, arms swinging and her destination far off. One woman was brave enough to say that, in her shared flat, she hardly ever feels at home, yet longs to. ‘Drinking tea and reading’, said another. ‘Chatting over a glass of wine with my partner and discussing what we’ll cook’, said another.
And so you see what I have discovered, which I could have guessed but needed to find out, is that none of us experience our home lives in the same way. Like me you may be curious to know how others manage theirs, what fires them and what turns them off, but until you actually sit down and have the conversation you are really just guessing. ‘Know me, come to my home’, may not compel as a feminist statement, but it still holds true for many of us.