Jacinta Nandi and Nadia Shehadeh in conversation about mums, marriage and men. About how housework would be ok if it weren’t for the lazy man in the background. And why cleaning the house is a bit like sex work
JN: Nadia, I was so happy when you told me you loved my book, “Die Schlechteste Hausfrau der Welt”, – and a little bit surprised, too, if I’m honest. Like, of course, I thought EVERYONE would enjoy my book – I wouldn’t have written it otherwise! But I thought it would appeal more to mums than childless women. So, go on, at the risk of sounding like I’m fishing for compliments – what did you like about it?
NS: Well, I think there’s two reasons I loved your book, basically. First of all, I have younger siblings I had to take care of a lot. My youngest sister is nine years younger than me and I practically raised her together with my mum. And the second reason is because I’ve lived together with men! And I often had the feeling that living with cis-males is a bit like having a child.
You know, I moved in with my first boyfriend when I was just 20 years old. Almost 10 years of being exhausted followed. I think this experience was the reason that I decided not to have kids to be honest!
JN: You know, I think it is so weird. We make out like married women are so happy. Like all their dreams came true? At the end of every romantic film, romantic novel, is the woman achieves everything she can possibly dream of: marriage to a rich, Nice Guy. But I just don’t see it. I think the happiest, luckiest, married woman in the world is actually slightly less happy than the unhappiest single mama in the world? Okay, I’m exaggerating a little bit! But the main reasons single mums are unhappy are poverty and stigmatization. When you factor that in, I think single mums are a lot happier than most married women.
NS: It is totally weird, isn`t it? When it comes to mental load and care-work, I’d still say it’s a lot easier when you are single. Even when you divide all the work in the household, there is still one person who has to have a plan. And from a sociological view, I would say most of the work is done by the person with the most competence. And when it comes to reality, it is so often the women who have more skills.
JN: But women have more skills at all this stuff – the mental load, remembering doctors’ appointments, ironing sheets, buying Christmas presents – because they have to. Right? Because men just check out, emotionally speaking. You know, it’s totally true what you say about cis-men. They’re just like an extra kid at the best of times – and at the worst of times, they’re really fucking shitty to you.
You know, I really piss my friends off, my single girlfriends, who are, like nearing the end of their fertility days. Because I’m just like – in non-corona times, obviously – I’m just like: go to some club, pretend you’re on the pill, get the best-looking guy there to come inside you and have a fucking baby on your own. And they’re all like: Oh, I couldn’t do it on my own! But I genuinely think, a woman who isn’t prepared to be a single mother shouldn’t imagine she’s prepared to be a mum at all. Because those supportive partners? They become a lot less supportive once the babies are born!
NS: I can totally imagine that. I mean, even in Germany, I see so many progressive feminist women praising their partners for basic human behaviour.
JN:To be honest, I think progressive German men are even more lazy than slightly sexist British men. They’ve done a really good Milchmädchenrechnung – rubbish Maths – which is that men and women are equal now – which they are not – so they should be earning the same – which they are not – so the lazy German men just go, oh, you earn less than me, I contribute, say, 40% more of the rent. But we are equal so you need to do 40% more housework. It’s perverse, to be honest.
NS: I’d agree with that 100%! And, you know, I think in heterosexual relationships, the women always work more. And when it’s said that there’s 50:50 in the relationship, that is certainly not true. Maybe they feel like they have the 50:50-stuff, but I am sure that it is just not true.
JN: Single mothers are just so invisible in our society. Everyone acts like they don’t exist. Like all the left-wing child hating stuff. All those left-wing Germans who act like they hate children because the family is so bourgeois, right? What about single mothers? They assume every time they tut when a kid is being loud in the U-Bahn, there’s a dad at home, but there really fucking isn’t, half the time.
NS: Yeah, well, I think there is a lot of Kinderhass [hatred of children] in general, and also linker Kinderhass. And especially, actually, when it comes to the women who are single parents. Maybe it is a mixture of neoliberal and misogynist tendencies.
JN: But the cool lefties who hate kids are not thinking of single mothers, huh? They think, when they see kids on the train or whatever, or at the beach, that those kids are a symbol or of bourgeois conformity.
NS: Well, I think, whether you’re a leftist or not, hating children is an important part of neoliberal society. Right? Children are a reminder, an unwanted reminder, that there’s still this necessity to be responsible for someone, to care for someone.
And I mean, in this pandemic we have seen, that in all the discourses there was so much emphasis of “individual choices”…
JN: Personal responsibility, Eigenverantwortung.
NS: Yes, absolutely. Like: stay at home, don’t do this or that, beware of too many contacts, and so on.And I think it’s somehow comparable with this Kinderhass. Kinderhass is something that goes hand in hand with white and neoliberal thoughts. I think people are afraid that if you have children, you stop being an individual. A kind of Muttertier.
JN: You know, something? I really think women in general, and mothers especially, get attacked for anything and everything they do. If they’re good mothers, they’ve lost themselves, they are too selfless, they’re to blame for their own oppression. They love their kids too much. Helicopter mums! If they enjoy housework, they are stupid, dumb, boring, unliberated. But if they hate motherhood, or hate housework, or just struggle with housework, that’s not okay either, then they are dirty, disgusting… gross. Grotesque, even!
NS: I totally love doing housework. I would be a 100% housewife for myself! I would love it! But I think that it is absolutely miserable to do the work for someone who is not thankful, or, who has no idea of how much work it is.
JN: Yeah, I sometimes think I actually quite enjoy housework, too. I am bad at it. I’m unskilled at it, no good at it. I’m untalented. But I actually enjoy it. I enjoy peeling potatoes, I even enjoy washing up. The bit I don’t like is the lazy man in the background, not helping, or even attacking you, for the work you are doing, which he should be helping you with.
NS: To cook for me, to clean for me, to plan everything for myself: I have no problem with that. I am somehow addicted to a certain bubble of Korean and Japanese Vlogs on YouTube. Single women living alone, and all they film is like how they structure their days with cooking, eating, shopping.
No male partners around, but some have cute pets. This is paradise to me!
And basically, they just film themselves doing the grocery shopping, preparing food, the cleaning of the kitchen. It is in no way spectacular… but so peaceful. And in my opinion also an act of self care. But the self care would of course end with a judging partner on the couch who always has Extrawünsche like a trotziges Kind [spoiled child]!
JN: I’m not sure I even believe in self care to be honest. You get these tired mums writing in Facebook groups, like, “Hello, I have seven kids, am studying full-time, my kids are all home-schooled, I am running three businesses and a home daycare and in my spare time I am redecorating the garage. My partner really needs to relax on the weekends and lie in and enjoy his hobbies. His favourite hobby is his x-box. He just explained to me that he needs more x-box time. I don’t understand why I feel like I hate my children? I look at them and wish they would die. What is wrong with me?”
And the other mums, instead of going, put your lazy arse of a husband in the fucking bin, they go “how’s your self care? Do you get enough self care? What about waking up earlier to meditate? Self care isn’t selfish!” And I just think for fuck’s sake, can’t women be selfish? Why can’t women be selfish? What is wrong with being selfish?
NS: Oh God! Sadly, I am going to have to admit something here: I actually have a morning self care routine which has a cleaning component. I get up, I open the windows, I make the bed, I clean the floor. I CLEAN THE FLOOR. So sad. Isn’t that strange? But I do wonder about this whole self care as duty thing: is it a legacy of our Protestant work ethic? Like almost as if some Victorian daily structure mysteriously survived in German homes?
JN: But it’s the same for American mums, British mums. Mind you, we all had a bit of Protestant work ethic, right?
NS: And the way self care is presented, especially on social media, also belongs in that category for me. It always has to be something that is presentable, beautiful aesthetically. Maybe the best self care is just being home alone, farting on the sofa, having a nap while watching senseless stuff on YouTube?
Or playing June`s Journey on the mobile. I really loved the moments in your book when you wrote about those days when you hang around on the couch and play this quiz on Facebook.
JN: A friend of mine wrote to me recently, she read the bit in the book where I say maybe Netflix is self care, and she said when you watch trashy TV, it releases dopamine in your brain, and it’s relaxing for your brain but not self care. But if you read a book, especially a difficult one, it releases some other hormone – I forget which one now – and it is self care.
Like can that possibly be true? And how does your brain know how hard a book is and when to start releasing which hormone? Like you’re reading Rosamunde Pilcher and it’s letting all the dopamine out but then you switch to Thomas Hardy and your brain is like oh, this is hard, now this is self care, now I release the good hormones?
NS: I don`t know! I have to say, I love Rosamunde. I’ve read quite a few of her books! I learned a lot about cleaning! For example, don`t be afraid to give the wooden table a good scrub! And I think people judge Rosamunde Pilcher`s books for 3 reasons. Number One: the German movies – they kinda killed her legacy, I’m sure! Number Two – she wrote a lot about elderly women.
JN: Yeah, people hate older women, don’t they? Like, they’ll so quickly go from slagging terfs off for being transphobic to slagging them off for being middle-aged?
NS: Yeah. People hate older women. But actually, the third reason people hate her books is that she wrote a lot about household tasks. As if housework is the least important thing in the world.
JN: I just wonder why people hate older women so much?
NS: I don’t know, but it totally seems like they do. I think elderly women sometimes have something witchy about them, and I have the feeling it scares people. The elderly women in Rosamunde Pilcher books have this kind of freedom, they don’t exist for the male sexual desire, and they already did all the women`s work, like raising kids, you know? Most of them are widows, so they have the joy of a clean kitchen table all day.
They exist mainly for themselves, and I have the feeling, a lot of people think this is suspicious.
JN: I mean, I even think that some of the criticism of Fifty Shades of Grey got was actually just people being pissed off that older women, older housewives were getting horny. Like, okay, Christian Grey is rapey. But a lot of books that don’t get slagged off even half as much just use rape as a selling point, right?
NS: I think books are hated when the recipients are not a majority of cis-male readers. My favourite example of this double standard is Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” versus and Nuala O`Faolain’s “Are you somebody”. Both are Irish memoirs and they were published more or less in the same time, I think maybe sogar in the same year.
Both sold millions of copies. But just a few people will remember Nuala today, while everybody knows who Frank McCourt is.
JN: There are so many books written by men that would be chicklit if a woman had written them? What’s that stupid one set on the same day each year? It’s super boring.
JN: Before we go, let’s talk about one of our favourite topics. I could talk about this forever! Can you be a socialist and hire a cleaning lady? Can you be a feminist and hire a cleaning lady? Why or why not?
NS: I mean, first up, being a professional cleaner is a job that requires a lot of skills. I think here in Germany, maybe in most European countries, people have this problem when it comes to having a cleaner in your private home. Most people are totally okay with the fact that offices, factories, etc, need a staff of professional cleaners. But when it comes to the private home, there’s always the idea, that cleaning is so basic that you MUST do it yourself?
JN: I don’t think it’s that people think the cleaning is easy or basic is it? But that the dirt is disgusting.
NS: Yes, exactly!
JN: And there’s this weird idea that the home is sacred? Private and sacred.
NS: Yes. And also that the dirt is sacred! I mean, most people I know have no problem with a cleaner coming for the stairwell when they are living in a house with more than one party.
JN: Why do we say that about washing your dirty linen in public? We say it in German and English, too. If a woman talks about a man having hit her, or raped her, especially if a woman talks about her husband or male partner having raped her, we say: don’t wash your dirty linen in public.
NS: It’s interesting, isn’t it? The cleaners can come to clean the stairwell. But when it comes to the very private rooms, doors stay shut. People have this personal connection to their own dirt, they find it very shameful. I mean, one thing I find interesting, is that people can stand a certain amount of mess, chaos. They would even present it on Social Media. A certain amount of chaos. Like: here, after the holidays, the living room is filled with toys? Maybe a dirty window, maybe the dishes? That might be acceptable!
But not the hairs on the ground or the pee on the toilet seat. And I also have the feeling, that presenting a little bit of charming chaos is a very bourgeois thing. Like, as if it is special when you have a little bit of chaos between your expensive furniture. As if it is edgy. I think if people see chaos between a collection of cheap Möbelboss-furniture, it wouldn`t feel charming to them.
JN: When I am being paranoid, I think it is to do with men’s rights to rape their wives and beat their kids. This obsession with the home as sacred, with dirt as secret. Even this idea that if a woman posts a picture of her kid on social media, she is using her kid as an accessory. Like that’s her life. That’s what women’s lives are. And who benefits from it being taboo to let strangers in to see the dirt? To see the real mess? Abusive men, that’s who.
NS: I can’t say anything to that, really, because I have no kids. But I understand the feeling to show just the beautiful stuff, I think that is the basics of Social Media, and that makes it somehow harder. And what I often see is that women tend to show the family-life, the warmth, all the stuff that they achieved in a “relationshipped” way. In a way most men would never do!
JN: Yeah, you’re right, huh? I mean, I definitely overshare my kids on social media. The older one has even complained. Even made me delete stuff, to be honest. But women present the family, present their families on social media, as if they own them, as if they own their kids. That’s why people accuse them of using the babies as accessories.
But the thing that really pisses people off, is that they think – without ever admitting to themselves that they think this – that men should own their wives, and own their children.
NS: Well, I would not judge mothers for oversharing. Because, I think it’s time to condemn the men!
JN: For not sharing?
NS: Yes, for not sharing. For not showing appreciation. For cold, distanced behaviour in general.
JN: Yeah, mothers wouldn’t have to share so much online – or, like, even in parenting groups – if men were doing their fair share?
NS: Totally asking myself the same question! To be honest, I have learned so many good things from those cleaning and family videos on YouTube, I get so much inspiration! And so often, much, much more than from videos where men stage themselves as political commentators. And I don’t have kids!
JN: What annoys me about people saying a mum taking a photo of a kid climbing a tree or whatever is using the kid as decoration, as an accessory, is that they just don’t get it. Like that IS her life. That kid IS her life. How can we leave mothers and children so alone and then expect them to just, like, be silent?
Like that’s what people want, really. They want women to just silently, and invisibly, do all the work of housework and childrearing. That’s why they say if you are interested in housework, you must be dumb – you should do it without talking about it. If you take a photo of your kid in a tree you are exploiting your kid for likes – you should just sit there at the fucking Spielplatz, empty and still like a fucking robot!
NS: And I think that’s why it was and is always comforting to me to read about housework or to see it in Vlogs. Like: There is someone who does it. Who invests time. Who makes an effort.
I so often felt like: Am I wrong doing so much housework? Am I dirtier than others? Is something wrong with my flat?
Even when I was living alone!
And I so often had a bad conscience when I spent a Saturday with cleaning. Like: Should this flat not be automatically and magically clean and nice all the time?
And when Marie Kondo came, I was so relieved. There was it, visible in a very popcultural moment: To show that it is actually work and you have to invest time and thoughts.
People cannot live with the thought of women being in the internet showing beautiful things, or practical things, or DIY or children! They don`t want to be confronted with that kind of work. And I want to say one last thing about the professional cleaner thing. I find the whole discussion quite similar to the sex work discussion. Sex workers get stigmatized in a totally different way to cleaners, of course, but at the core of the argument, I think there is this thought that women should do certain things for free and for this reason certain professions, certain jobs, can never be proper jobs at all.
Jacinta Nandi’s book Die Schlechteste Hausfrau der Welt is published by Nautilus and available in most German book shops. Nadia Shehadeh can be found on the Shehadistan blog