Our man-in-the-middle once again reporting from the front line of living in a multi-generational household….
I look at Mother ironing her way through another basket of laundry fresh from the clothesline and suddenly remember the old joke:
Q: What do you call your mother ironing your clothes for you?
A: A free press.
I’m jolted out of my covid dream state. Where has this joke come from? Is it sexist or just patronising? I’d like to claim it’s been triggered by my irritation this week that the British media weren’t allowed to ask publicly funded health experts questions about Dominic Cummings. Or follow ups to the PM. But the truth is this joke has emerged from the primeval stock pot of my unconscious male bias. It’s a reflection of my cultural programming, not my politics. Disappointingly, my sense of humour is still being shaped by gender stereotypes and the Les Dawson Monster Book of Mother in Law gags. When will it end?
I am able to diagnose myself because I have been learning about unconscious bias among male Boomers from my daughter since she went to the thinky place or university. I thought I had some control over this problem. But, no. I wonder what my children would think if they knew. If my son heard the ironing joke, he would forgive me. His view is that male Boomers like me have been crippled by our upbringings and something called toxic masculinity. To him, I’m just a victim who needs re-education like the bourgeoise under Pol Pot. But, if my daughter thought I was still having such reactionary thoughts, I’d be up on the dining room table for an unmedicated castration before you could say Patriarchal Programming.
As I mull my thought crime over, it strikes me unconscious bias is a very unsatisfactory crime for the perpetrator because unconscious bias just spills out, spontaneously. The criminal doesn’t get the chance to enjoy plotting their crime. I feel like Winston Smith in ‘1984’, riddled with guilt without having really done anything wrong. Room 101 beckons.
Later, I confess my thought crime to my wife. She is my superior in all matters except pinball, so I’m hoping she will give me advice on how to play this when my daughter comes home next weekend. On emotional strategy, particularly, she is Pep Guardiola and I am Sam Allardyce, after a night out with the lads.
She’s asks me to repeat the joke three times.
‘It’s not funny,’ she says.
‘That’s not the problem. The problem is I am still riddled with unconscious gender bias.’
‘The problem is you’re riddled with poor jokes,’ says my wife.
‘What will the children say if they realise how unreconstructed I still am?’
‘If they kick off about your gender bias, I would just remind them it was your gender bias that brought us together in the first place and that without it they wouldn’t exist.’
A warm feeling smiles through me. This is one of those moments when you realise what matters most in a marriage and why it’s worth battling through those difficult moments: who gets to sleep on left side of the bed; should you share razor blades and is Sky Sports worth having.
‘I thought it was those boxes of chocolates that did it?’ I say, winking.
‘Don’t dig yourself back into a hole,’ she says.
Mid-afternoon. Mother is back at the ironing board after lunch, ready to resume her battle against her fear of her impending uselessness.
I put another basket of laundry next to her, when she turns to me and asks if I remember the jokes she used to tell us as young children to keep us near her and within her sight, while she was doing household chores.
‘Like?’ I ask.
‘Why are elephants wrinkly?’ she asks.
‘Because they can’t fit on an ironing board?’ I say, the answer springing out of somewhere, unconsciously and without bias. Mother smiles.
‘That’s right. You remember.’