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Monday, March 29, 1999

It's the army life for me

Christy McCormick
National Post

Thomas Fuchs

If equality between the sexes prevails and men take over household work, women had better accept that families will be run very differently than the way they have been.

In assuming my role of house-husband as my wife brings home more of the bacon, I have encountered problems with role reversal on the home front. It is not I who cling to male power, but rather it is she who will not let go and allow me to run the house and raise our children, Hannah, 6, and Joseph, 3, without making intrusive suggestions or asking silly questions in the middle of household operations.

Admittedly, my military methods may appear bizarre, but other men may well adopt household management systems they find superior to the fuss-and-fret method we so often inherit. After all, housewifery is time and motion and personnel management. Aren't these the very principles on which men built corporate culture? Certainly no one questions my competence in these areas. That was settled last year when Miriam disappeared for a month on a job.

There was much gleeful clucking at the time from female neighbours with their comic visions of male incompetence. Fear not, I told them. I would simply employ the Royal Canadian Service Corps cooking and supply techniques I remembered from long ago, and for cleaning rely on my barrack-room experience at the army camp at Farnham, Que.

I remember quoting the ironic military maxim of long ago: "Join the army and do women's work," so concerned were we with cleaning and clothing in the army of the late '50s and early '60s. To the neighbourhood females, this did not sound very cuddly, but dire predictions soon dried up.

Home alone with the kids turned out as expected: a cheerful version of Captain Von Trapp before Julie Andrews arrives in The Sound of Music. The kids and I formed a troop of Irish Dragoons at war with the foe, dirt. "Dragoons advance on the filth -- it does not advance on us," was our cry. Marching music blared from the CD, orders were shouted, and "Yes sirs" barked back.

Of course, this only happened "on duty," three to four half-hour blocks of time every day -- wake-up, meals, cleanup, and bedtime. When dismissed, the kids were "off duty," free to do what they wished if they did not "bother me, upset the neighbours, or alarm the police."

My wife returned. The house never looked better and the kids were smiling and well-turned-out.

Carry on, she said.

But not for long. While she admired the results, she did not like the methods. The marching music had to go because she didn't like it. "Why is it necessary?" she asked.

Like all the suggested changes, it was hard to explain at the time, but as the system broke down, it became clearer. Without the marching music adding drama to the housework and a brisk pace, daily cleanups became drag-assed. The horrible sound of nagging, the hallmark of the fuss-and-fret system returned, and with it, a "creeping adhocracy" that was ruinous to routine.

Troops, quoth von Clausewitz, the Prussian military strategist, get better at tasks they repeat, making it important to repeat tasks exactly. But our system collapsed because a mood of the moment would shatter a schedule. Tasks were then done when it was convenient, which tended to mean they were not done at all or done badly in a last-minute rush.

Under these circumstances, the Irish Dragoons were headed for defeat. But the final blow came with strictures against TV watching in off-duty time. Under my regime, when off-duty was really off-duty, there was a lot of TV watching by the kids. We would do other things, too. A couple of times a week they would badger me into batting a ball around the park, or I would get them to join me on a visit to Granny, who lives in a nursing home. But it was voluntary. If I wanted to read or they wanted to watch TV, it was a matter of choice. They were private soldiers with private, individual rights and, within stated limits, a near absolute right of choice.

'Dragoons advance on the filth'

With the arrival of the TV ban, the balance of rights and responsibilities ended, and we returned to fret-and-fuss full time and I withdrew from command and responsibility.

But in recent months, since my wife has been functioning in a demanding job, she has again asked me to take on household duties. It has not been easy re-mustering the Dragoons -- though by getting Miriam out of the house to walk the dog first thing, the marching music is back. Daily cleanups are inspiring task repeats and the payoffs promised by von Clausewitz. We are once again advancing on the filth and will shortly restore our most forward salient of the summer.

Time will tell if my wife can get on with breadwinning and leave the barracks to me. Time will also tell whether the world's womenry will be able to do the same as men take on household tasks in their own commanding way.

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