It’s a fine day and my mother says to me: ‘Tabitha, get the washing on the line.’ My mother, Yorkshire-born post-war baby, a person who adheres intransigently to the principle ‘make do and mend,’ to the Blitz mentality bestowed by her parents and to the resolution of most problems with a cup of tea. A person who takes genuine pleasure from pegging sheets on the whirligig before nine in the morning to provide a full day of drying, worrying the cotton between her fingers as she checks and repegs. For my mother, a fine day is a washing day.
When I was born in 1970s Oxford, my mother washed my terrycloth nappies in the twin tub every weekday. She filled the drum with hot water through a pipe that fixed to the sink tap, then added detergent and a pile of nappies from a bucket. An agitator in the drum swished the nappies around, before she lifted them out with tongs, rinsed them in the sink and spun them in the second drum. Then they were hung out in the garden or on a clothes horse. I’ve no idea what I was doing during this whole process, but I assume this is why my generation spent the mornings of our babyhood sat in large-wheeled Silvercross prams in the garden.
She says it was exhausting but she was not unhappy and did not recognise any inequality in her marriage. Resentment was only something that came later with hindsight, with betrayal. My father, ensconced within the world of academia, writing mathematical equations on acetate paper for his lectures; my mother, scraping poo from nappies, peeling potatoes, making his favourite sticky toffee pudding, pushing the pram up the hill to the supermarket. I can imagine my young mother, five foot two and petite with long, dark straight hair (the pre-perm days), bustling and busy, embracing her role. It was perfect for her, but not for him; the marriage didn’t last past my childhood.
“It was the event of the day every day it was done, that dreadful, dreadful washing, only worth it to keep the baby’s clothes pristine. Mother said she’d warned her: this was what a woman’s life was about.”
— Margaret Forster, Hidden Lives
In laundry terms, my mother had it easy compared to her grandmother Lizzy, who was born in 1885. She lived her entire married life at 10 Palanza Terrace in Bridlington, East Yorkshire, a house that had an old copper boiler, essentially a large pot, for washing clothes in the kitchen.
‘It had a gas ring underneath which heated the water. She added soap flakes and poshed the clothes and sheets with a wooden dolly,’ my mother recalls.
There was a hand-operated mangle to squeeze out the water. As late as the 1950s, my mother remembers standing in the backyard as a child, twisting the water out of sheets that were too large for the mangle. She may have had a lucky escape: electric mangles which attached to machines such as the 1950s Parnall were so dangerous for children’s fingers that Leeds Infirmary ran a weekly mangle clinic.
Lizzy had two flat irons: one she heated on the gas stove; the other she used until it cooled. The irons had to be kept clean and hot enough to remove creases but not so hot as to scorch the clothes. With no in-built thermostat, Lizzy spat on her iron to check the temperature. In the 1920s, electric irons which plugged into a fitting in the ceiling light started to have commercial success, but Lizzy kept two flat irons throughout her lifetime; my mother has one of them and uses it as a door stop.
As a woman from a working class family of fishermen, Lizzy was educated for a life of homemaking and child-rearing; she ran the house but her husband was the head of the household. I want Lizzy to raise her eyes from poshing my great grandfather’s undergarments in the copper boiler, to straighten her spine, put down her wooden dolly and catch the train to Leeds or Manchester. I want her to picket for equality. But this is not a BBC centenary drama. Lizzy, in her fishing town with the cutting wind that blew across the harbour and over the stony beach to her house in Palanza Terrace, spent little time lamenting the lack of women’s suffrage. The choice to look outside the home for interests and ideals was, on the whole, reserved for women with servants. She didn’t have ‘help’ or a ‘woman who does’ (as my mother terms a cleaner), that the middle classes had and still have. She was the woman who did.
Once her children were grown she played whist every afternoon at the sailors’ bethel, a meeting place for sailors down by the harbour, and became known as ‘Whist Lizzy’. One afternoon in 1965, at the age of eighty, she fell asleep on the sofa of her son’s house on Windsor Crescent, around the corner from Palanza Terrance, and never woke up.
“All housework is futile in the sense that it has always to be done again.”
— Lorna Sage, Bad Blood
My generation of women don’t want to do the washing. I cannot imagine a copper boiler, a wooden dolly or even a twin tub. My generation were taught to think, to form opinions, to believe ourselves as able as men. As we are. We were a generation of women raised with equality, meeting a generation of men raised by traditional mothers. What could go wrong?
I watch my female contemporaries living parallel lives to men, equalling or excelling them at school, at university, in early careers, until their ovaries come knock, knock, knocking at the abdomen wall and they give it all up to have babies. The one thing we can do and men can’t catapults some heterosexual couples back into the 1950s. I always assumed domesticity would be someone else’s responsibility, until it was mine. Choice: it is a wonderful thing until you have to choose.
When I was a junior associate at a City law firm ten years ago, the male partners (the overwhelming majority were male), sauntered home early to their outwardly perfect homes and wives, their dinners on the table, their fed and bathed children waiting expectantly. I would shove a couple of loo rolls from the Ladies into my handbag before I crawled into my 11pm expenses-paid taxi home. When I looked around my floor of the thirty-storey glass office building, there were no women that I wanted to ‘be’ in ten years’ time. I have no recollection of any of the laundry I must have done during those years.
When I became a mother, my excuse to retreat from the legal profession had come, but unlike my own mother, I couldn’t happily accept the position of housewife; I needed a counterbalance outside the home to the drudgery inside it. Laundry and housework had to be on the periphery of my life, not the focus of it. It turned out I wasn’t alone.
“If you wash your bedding once a month, what the fuck is wrong with you?”
— Mumsnet thread
This recent thread on the website Mumsnet had 302 responses. Most of the posts dismissed the subject as dull, claiming they were too busy to wash sheets (but not too busy to comment on Mumsnet). ‘I couldn’t give a toss how often anyone washed sheets,’ posted one woman (before detailing how often she washed her sheets). ‘It’s one of those burning questions that keep me awake at night and gets in the way of my scintillating life,’ posted another. Others accused those who washed sheets regularly of ‘competitive washing,’ not caring about the environment or being antifeminist.
The Mumsnetters do protest too much, methinks. The Mumsnet Talk housekeeping homepage has six hundred and seventy pages of around fifty different threads per page. That’s over thirty three thousand different discussions on the topic of housekeeping in ninety days (after which the threads are deleted). Even with labour-saving devices, domestic work is a popular, unpopular subject.
There are smart phone apps which can regulate the fridge temperature, boil the kettle, turn on the heating and even confirm how dirty the clothes are in the washing machine. But someone still has to sort the colours from the whites, add detergent, remove the clothes from the machine, dry them, sort and fold them and replace them into drawers and wardrobes. With higher standards of cleanliness and an array of appliances to keep the house pristine all year round (and not just following the annual spring clean), it is arguable that my generation has as much to do as the ones before it.
Housework is not just women’s work anymore, although it is going to take more than smart phone apps to ensure men and women do equal shares. In my house, my husband does the bins (what the Prime Minister would term a ‘blue job’), but also washing up and gardening at weekends. I work from home part-time as a freelancer, while he is out of the house for thirteen hours every weekday, so I accept a greater share and he accepts an imperfect home.
The laundry was a big part of my mother’s motherhood; something she took pride in. A part of me wants to defend a devalued task against the Mumsnet detractors and a part of me feels pride too; I take pleasure from pegging clothes on the line on a warm spring morning and like an advertiser’s dream I enjoy the sensation of rolling the blue squishy Ariel tablets between my fingertips and lining up the brightly coloured tubs and bottles in the cupboard under the sink. I have a satisfied feeling when the miniature items of stained clothing come out clean from the wash.
My mother didn’t have the seaside town community enjoyed by her grandmother; she had few friends when my brother and I were young and few ways of making them. Her life would have been very different with social media, online shopping and an automatic washing machine. I imagine her, green turtleneck jumper and wide-legged dungarees, taking a selfie as she pins my nappies to the washing line; me in the background sporting homemade Clothkits toddler attire. Would the anxious wait for likes have made her feel less, or more, isolated?
Like her grandmother, in later life, there was an emancipation of sorts. In her late sixties my mother joined the voyage crew on a tall ship which sailed from Cape Horn to the Cape of Good Hope via Antarctica over a period of eight weeks. She had never sailed before but she did nightly watches on board deck in freezing temperatures and helped to mend the frayed seams of the ship’s stay sails. Her rucksack is covered in sewn-on badges from the travels undertaken since her divorce: the Falkland Islands, the Rockies, Tristan de Cunha, South Georgia, the West Highland Way. She has come a long way since the twin tub days, but she confided some time ago that she’d give up the adventures to have my father back again. She was liberated from the house but the home she created no longer existed.
Tabitha is studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, University of London. She is a freelance writer, a qualified lawyer and is currently working on a biography of her great grandmother. She was shortlisted for The White Review Short Story Prize 2018
This is a book rich in loss: childhood loss; marital loss; parental loss. The collection of short stories explores the full lifecycle of losses suffered by ordinary people and what lingers most are the losses which are barely tangible, such as the sense of loss associated with regret, a betrayal, loneliness. Woven amidst the loss and ensuring that the reader is not left with an overwhelming sadness, are the slim, sturdy shoots of hope.