It was sarcastic at first. "Have a nice day, darling!" I would trill as he headed off to his WFH 'office' in the morning (our box room, kitted out with a £10 wallpaper pasting table as a desk). "Honey, I’m home!" he would announce as he walked across the landing at 6pm to find me taking a casserole dish out of the oven.
It was sarcastic but now, like so many things that would have been inconceivable a few months ago, it’s become a new kind of normal.
He still has a full-time job and lots of work to keep him busy. Meanwhile, as a freelancer staring down the barrel of slashed budgets and cancelled projects, I barely have a job at all. Snuffling around for elusive freelance work in the current climate is making me feel increasingly like a truffle-hunting pig. Hungry, and slightly dirty. So I’ve hit on a cosy cure to fill the hours and days and distract me from checking my echoing inbox and bank balance: I make life nice.
I bake. I clean. I tidy. I hang pictures, I water houseplants, I plump cushions. I dust the previously undusted. I pickle things and label the jars. I 'get dinner going' in the middle of the afternoon because apparently I’m now a person who has time to sweat an onion for an hour at leisure. I’m enjoying cooking so much more now than I used to, perhaps because I would come home between 7 and 8pm most nights, ravenous, and eat Doritos while resentfully willing a meal to cook faster. I always burned my onions.
Now, like so many of us (especially those of us privileged enough to be bored, rather than run ragged in frontline jobs or beset by screaming kids all day), I’m seeking solace in domesticity. It’s already become one of the biggest tropes of the pandemic. When everything beyond the window feels chaotic, while our careers are a question mark and the future unknown, it’s soothing to create a little order within our control. Just like the old Hollywood musicals and dog-eared novels we’re also using as escapism in these all too terrifyingly modern of times, there’s a particular comfort in the nostalgic. "Day eleventy-nine of lockdown," tweeted my friend Alice this morning. "I use saucers now, it seems."
There’s taking pleasure in a little retro homemaking and then there’s accidentally becoming a throwback. As a feminist, I’ve spent years arguing for the fair division of household work, using phrases like 'mental load', questioning why it’s so often the women in male/female relationships who are responsible for keeping track of what’s in the fridge and remembering to send birthday cards, and refuting the entrenched idea that women are innately 'better' at this stuff. It’s a drum I’ve banged so much that my boyfriend genuinely once caught himself mid-bicker and said: "Sorry, I’m being a bit emotional laboury aren’t I?" I crowed with pride.
The other day I improvised a rustic lentil stew from fridge ends and cupboard dregs, and I crowed with pride at that instead.
Let’s be clear, my domestic goddess act is voluntary. My boyfriend would never ask for it, or expect it. More than once, he’s emerged at the end of the day and announced that he’ll make dinner, only to look sad when he finds me already three paragraphs deep into an Ottolenghi. He’s still pulling his weight; it’s just that I’m finding extra weight to pull.
Which doesn’t, of course, make me a real #tradwife. I’m not a wife at all, which isn’t very trad of me. And while for some of the women who adopt the term it means little more than a Mrs Hinch obsession and a penchant for vintage cake stands, in the US (where the term originated) it has far murkier associations as a tool of the alt-right, promoted by white supremacists. Whatever a newfound talent for banana bread might say about me, it isn’t that.
When I ask around, I quickly find I’m far from the only person currently enjoying a little domestic time travel. "I feel I've become something like a thrifty wartime wife – making spreadsheets of meal planning, taking the seeds out of the vegetables we're eating, drying them out and planting them, painting the walls, somehow doing more laundry than ever," says Sophie Williams, 32. Her partner isn’t off in the trenches. "He's been made redundant so has a bit more time than me as I'm working on a book on a deadline," she says, "but it kind of just feels like what I should be doing – which is so far removed from who I usually am, and who we usually are as a couple."
Of course, there are male/female couples where the total opposite is true ("I'm the only one with work, so my husband is the domestic goddess," one person tells me. "He fucking loves it.") and plenty of people in same-sex or non-binary relationships are going through their own household shake-up as their mutual workloads change. But for those of us suddenly finding ourselves in the role of full-time female homemaker, is the pandemic just a break from normal programming – a kind of 'all rules are off' scenario where we can dip a tentative toe into alternative lifestyles? Or could it be the start of something more sinister: a backslide? One minute you’re thinking, Hmm, I could take an old toothbrush to that tile grout, the next you’re ironing their pants to the gentle strains of Destiny’s Child’s "Cater 2 U". At least that’s my worry.
"There’s nothing wrong with taking pleasure in baking a cake but we need to beware: heterosexual British women already put in 60% more domestic effort than British men (36 hours a week to men’s 18)," warns journalist and author Sally Howard. In her book The Home Stretch: Why It's Time to Come Clean About Who Does the Dishes, she refers to a 'stalled feminist revolution' and confronts an alarming truth: that men now contribute an hour less per day to household chores than they did in the late 1990s.
Unshockingly, she thinks the virus is likely to tip the balance even further. "Women tend to work flexibly, part-time or for lower pay than male partners," she says, "so are under greater pressure to pick up the slack as COVID-19 moves all care work (from schooling to cooking three meals a day) into the home."
But for us lucky ones, who are freely choosing to play the housewife rather than being forced into the role by circumstance, I think something else could be going on. Reams have been written about the fetishisation of productivity and the pressure on us all to be monetising every hobby and performing every pastime for an audience of followers. When work has infringed on more and more of our leisure time, and even that leisure time has been wrung out for likes and validation, perhaps it’s not surprising that we’re enjoying the novelty of tasks done for nobody but us and the people we love. Mould-free tile grout isn’t going to get me a book deal. Nobody is queuing up to sponsor my freshly washed cushion covers. Small domestic wins might not be important according to my usual value system but they bring a sense of private satisfaction that can’t be graded, promoted or reviewed badly on Amazon. I could get used to this.
Or could I? Amy Jones, author of The To-Do List and Other Debacles, has been on maternity leave for seven months and shouldering the bulk of household chores too. "I like the low-stakes, low-pressure break of it," she says. "If I mess up dinner, no one knows apart from my husband and my baby, neither of whom cares, and there’s satisfaction in a perfectly clean kitchen or nicely baked loaf of bread. But although I’m quite enjoying my faux-tradwifery for now, thank fuck for feminism which means I don’t have to do it forever. I can’t wait to get back to professional responsibility and achievement."
If choice is the cornerstone of feminism then it’s wrong to pour scorn on the ways in which other women find fulfilment. There shouldn’t be shame in conventionally 'female' jobs, whoever is doing them. But the question remains: how can we ever be completely sure that we’re picking up the domestic mantle because we want to, not because of some internalised misogyny that says when the going gets tough, the ladies...dry vegetable seeds? The line between free choice and subtle social conditioning is blurry as hell at the best of times, and these are not the best of times.
"I’d say: therapeutically knead that bread and enjoy extra time with your kids [or houseplants]," says Howard, "but resist taking on ALL of the domestic labour without complaint or this crisis might consign you to scrubbing the u-bend for the rest of the decade. Feminist gains, alas, are more fragile than we might think."
Maybe the answer is to spend more time on non-trad endeavours too, like that woman on TikTok who made an art gallery for her pet gecko. To find satisfaction in creativity for creativity’s sake. I could have a fun time tie-dyeing our bedsheets instead of just bleaching out the coffee stains.
Perhaps I will step away from the stove and let my boyfriend pick up a little more slack. Not because enjoying domesticity makes me a bad feminist but because if I find it a soothing distraction in these fraught times, then so might he. It’s only fair to let him find out.