The ex expat
Thrown in at the deep end on the home front, domestically challenged Kate Birch discovers housework has its perks
The perks that come with househould chores soften the blow for domestically challenged Kate Birch.
If someone had told me before
leaving Dubai I would spend 18 hours of my week doing housework, I would have, well, simply stayed put. Yes, according to a recent survey, women in the UK spend an average of 2.6 hours a day on chores. Phew!
If that seems a lot, that’s because it is. As I discovered recently, the laundry list of odd jobs is never-ending. And while many Brits I know seem to take such relentless and thankless domestic drudgery in their stride, after six months of UK life, this particular Brit has found it a bit of a chore.
The fact is, at the grand old age of 40, and having been an expat all my adult life, I’m clueless about cleaning.
When, last year, a Dubai colleague shared a story about her brother who, having left Dubai for a UK university, didn’t wash his duvet cover for an entire year as he didn’t know it needed changing, I feigned utter shock – grimacing and volubly retching for maximum impact.
The truth is, I didn’t know a duvet cover needed to be changed either until I was well into my 20s and never actually changed one until, erm, well quite recently actually.
OK, OK, it’s time to come totally clean. Until this year, I thought bleach was something for hair or teeth, rubber gloves were the latest catwalk trend and scouring pads was something you did when looking for a new villa.
I had no idea what a skirting board was, let alone the fact that I had to dust it. I was shocked to discover that a kettle needed descaling and a hoover needed emptying; and I had to have lessons – courtesy of smug motherin-law, no less – on loading a washing machine, defrosting a freezer and operating an oven.
Oh, the tedium. It’s enough to drive you back to Dubai and into the arms of people who fold your toilet paper into points, your plastic bags into balls and your perfectly ironed knickers into diamond shapes.
It’s not just the boredom, though. There’s the total lack of recognition (nobody praises you polishing the silver); the hours and hours of wasted time (you could probably learn Mandarin in 18 hours a week); the nasty filth and grotty grime (removing clogged hair from the bath is my nemesis); and the quite unexpected physical pain (backache from hoovering and cuts from peeling veggies).
I’ve even sustained two quite serious housework injuries, one of which required a trip to casualty and stitches.
But the boredom, the wasted time and the hospital visits are nothing compared to the silent but deadly judgments meted out by neighbourhood mums, who have
I resigned to my domestic destiny, trying everything to make it easier, enjoyable or even entertaining
judged me on my deftness with a duster and my skill with a scrubbing brush. Because while my domestic habits, or lack thereof, might leave a lot to be desired (I refuse to hoover or dust where I cannot see), other Brits seem to take great pleasure in the process.
And these ‘house snobs’, as I’ve labelled them – suburban women who scrub, scour and shine their show houses to within an inch of their luxurious lives – love nothing more than coming round to my less-than-spotless abode to point, to judge, to gloat.
Yes, for a spell I became the laughing stock of my Surrey neighbourhood – I would have had complete strangers inspecting my lack of housework handiwork had my windows not been too filthy to peer in.
And so shamed into shower head polishing, I soon found myself resigned to my domestic destiny (I can neither afford nor justify hired help here), trying everything to make it easier, enjoyable or even entertaining.
The distraction technique – listening to the radio while cooking, watching TV while ironing – helped a little, while the shortcut technique – investing in smart stuff to help you lighten the load – gave some light relief. But it was the offloading technique – distributing domestic duties to husband, son and even visiting mother, aunt and best friend – that proved particularly helpful.
Ironically though, the technique that finally turned me from domestic disaster into cleaning queen, rewarding me with the Surrey mums’ seal of approval, was the one fear I have that is greater than my fear of housework – my very big fear of being fat.
Yes, it was a study (put on my pillow by my too-clever-for-his-own-pinny husband) revealing how the rise in women’s weight worldwide has much to do with the decline of housework, which finally allowed me to respect and embrace my inner domestic deity.
It was Dr Gary O’Donovan’s, (a lecturer in sport and exercise medicine at the University of Exeter) words that ultimately did it though. “To prevent weight gain, most adults need to expend around 400 calories per day in physical activity, which is equivalent to around two hours of dusting and cleaning or 82 minutes of vacuuming and mopping.”
They say life begins at 40 and I guess in some ways it has.
And while these days you’re more likely to find me dusting my duvet as opposed to hitting the town, I’m rather smugly doing it in my size-eight apron.
Overworked, overwhelmed and over there... long-term Dubai expat Kate Birch misses
her maid, struggles with small talk and is desperate for someone
to pack her shopping