Ninna Makrinov portrait

Written by Ninna Makrinov

Organisational Psychologist with over 20 years' experience in Higher Education. Currently the Chair of Governors at Water Mill Primary School.

People sometimes laugh when I say I would be a great husband. I think those who understand the patriarchy in the West might get it though. 

This weekend I had a lot of fun washing my car and doing DIY, while my house is a mess. The last three things I bought for myself that gave me joy were a nail gun, a battery-operated drill, and a pressure washer. I love work, I might even be a bit of a workaholic. In my spare time, I volunteer as chair of governors in my local school. I spend the rest of my time gardening, reading and watching TV. I also like sewing and cooking. I am a solo mum with two children, is it a surprise that I just mention them at the end of the paragraph? 

It has taken me 40 years and quite a lot of pain to understand that all I described above is fine. That I can be my true self. That I can be loved even if I am a terrible housewife. That it is OK to love my children and say openly that they are not the centre of my life. Are there others who feel the same way? I also often wonder if some men feel trapped too, if they crave to be the main carers and not the main providers in a family. If I can be the perfect husband, they can be the perfect wife. I have noticed too that I have focused on the binary, I understand and respect that gender is a continuum. So I suppose my question is more how we all respond to gender stereotypes. I also realise that I am writing of the ‘traditional’ family, maybe because I crave companionship and community living is not something I know much about or is common enough in the UK. I am also writing as a white, Chilean, cis, heterosexual woman. Please open my eyes to other ways to live!

What does it mean to be a woman?

I am not sure we really know. I recently joined a feminist reading group (I know, late to the party) and it has been great to discover feminism in more depth. It has made me wonder why I define myself as a woman. My preferred pronouns are she and her. I suppose I was naturally a child who liked to please and tried to fit in. It was hard though!

At some point early in life, I might have been 8, I realised life would be easier for me if I was a boy. Most of my friends were boys, I thought girls were silly. I liked Lego, He-Man and Star Wars; I was given Barbies and dolls. I also liked the Care Bears, I must admit. I loved being part of the boys’ world. Why was it a boys’ world though? 

A little later, I had to discard some of my ‘dream jobs’. I wanted to be a fighter pilot like my dad but in Chile (where I was born and raised) women were not allowed to join the airforce. Women police officers had to wear high heels, madness! I love that some women were less accommodating, so there are now women fighter pilots in Chile too. In my teenage rebellion I became a Catholic and I would have loved to be a priest; again, not a job for women. I am not going to get into a discussion about religion.

I also remember a time when one of my best friends told me that if I wanted to have a boyfriend I needed to act as if I was less intelligent than they were. I am glad that in that case I realised how stupid that idea was. Maybe that is why I did not have my first boyfriend until I was 17. 

I don’t believe being a woman means focusing on being pretty, quiet and subservient. I am a woman. I am a loud leader and I love being the centre of attention. We have moved on in what it means to be a woman. Have we moved on what it means to be a wife though?

Being a wife and a mother

Attitudes are changing, at least in the UK. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, in 2017 almost three quarters of people disagreed that a man’s job is to earn money and a woman’s job is to look after the home and family. However, In 2018 most people agreed that the mother should take either the entire or most of the paid maternity leave period (52%), while 34% thought it should be split equally and none thought the dad should take most; 13% could not choose.  In 2017, most people (51%) also thought that it was best for the mother to stay at home or work part-time and the father to work full-time while children were under school age; none thought I was best for this to be reversed.  Interestingly, when only asked about the mother, 33% thought they should stay at home, 38% that they should work part-time and 7% full-time. For mothers of school-age children, 2% thought they should stay at home,  49% prefer for women to work part-time and 27% to work full-time (percentages don’t add up to 100% as some people responded they could not choose). I could go on for ages. Read the excellent Section on Gender Inequality and Family Change section of the Understanding Society Insights 2018-19 for many other details. It clearly states that “there are gender inequalities throughout the life course”, these increase when becoming a parent. 

I found the analysis on how our attitudes change when becoming parents very interesting. The report suggests that women change their gender role attitudes when becoming mothers, and it is likely that most progressive women change their attitudes more. The authors suggested this could be due to cognitive dissonance, as women adjust to new roles due to lack of alternatives. I can see this in my experience too. When I became a mother, my role changed from full-time worker to worker and mother; my responsibilities increased. I hated it; particularly when people criticized me for having a messy house while praising my ex-husband for being such a good dad when he changed a nappy. He was a good dad, but that was his role and no-one told me I was a good mum for changing nappies. No-one criticised him for our messy house either, they just wondered what I had been doing all day (I had been working from home). 

Living the dream: ‘being a husband’

I had the experience of turning this around when I first became a single mum. Not really in the full sense of being married to someone who did the work. But for a while I was the provider for my family and, because I was living in Mexico, I could afford to pay my sister-in-law to be my ‘wife’ (nanny, cleaner, cook) – to be clear the analogy ends there. The arrangement worked for both of us, her daughters and my sons. It was so lovely to come home from work to a clean house and dinner on the table. I understand why the status quo is kept. Women have ‘earned’ the right to work, we have not earned the right to stop ‘being the wife’. If married, most women take on more caring responsibilities, particularly when becoming mothers. If going solo, we tend to keep children for a bigger percentage of time. I know this is not the case for all, I also know some men would prefer this not to be the case. My point is just, can we just do what we do best, forgetting ‘traditional roles’?