My son seems to think chores are fun – but his work has only just begun

<span>Photograph: Jozef Polc/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Jozef Polc/Alamy

When I tell friends how happy I am that my son now closes doors, fetches objects and turns off lights, those without kids look at me as if I’m a cruel, petty tyrant. When I tell friends with kids, they simply ask, ‘When? When does this happen? Roughly?’

Perhaps it’s because our baby daughter is so comically, tragically helpless that my son’s newfound usefulness seems so sweet. He’s not very helpful with her, you understand. It’s just I can forgive him squeezing her head and pulling her around the sofa by her ankles, if he continues to pass me beers, place his own dirty clothes in the washing machine and, joy of joys, hand me pegs when I put the sheets out to dry on the washing line. Twice this week he’s asked – begged – to help me set the table, and he’s taken to cleaning my shoes with the zeal of someone who is much, much better at cleaning shoes than he is. ‘Thank you,’ I say, wiping something I very much hope to be yoghurt from his tongue.

I get this joy in task-mastering from my father

I suppose I get this joy in task-mastering from my father. None of my city-dwelling friends did any housework at all, barring taking out the bins the odd time. My dad, on the other hand, read those famine-era reports of Irish children being shipped out to the Caribbean to work as household servants for rich English plantation owners, and reckoned it sounded like a pretty savvy use of resources. As a result, our childhood was spent in light servitude. We devised a rota to separate common household tasks, like cooking dinner or doing the laundry. Those chores we shared with no regard to gender, but any outside jobs fell on my brother and myself, since we were boys and therefore deemed genetically predisposed to operating gardening tools. If my sisters felt aggrieved by this patriarchal slight, their principled feminist protests to this effect remain unrecorded by history.

Cutting the grass meant mowing an acre of land filled with nettles, bees and spiders, so that it became a slightly shorter stack of nettles, bees and spiders. Then came strimming the kerbs and fence posts, with a manner of precision that suggested my father thought the Antiques Roadshow might be round any minute, to host an all-day event on the lavish grounds of our pebble-dashed bungalow. We’d mend and varnish fences, and paint the entire outside wall of our house every few years.

Once a year we’d clean the gutters, sluicing mulch upon ourselves during hours of arduous stretching and, indeed, retching. This seemed almost confrontationally pointless since, surely, transporting crud from the roof to the ground was the gutter’s job not ours and I couldn’t see how involving a ladder and some small children in this process was helping in any way. If I ever mentioned this, my father would simply reprimand me for my indolence. ‘Work harder!’ I like to imagine him saying, surrounded by my other siblings, fanning him with palm fronds, as he sipped juice from a pineapple through a straw.

Where I felt resentment, I feel now only admiration. It is my turn to use these feckless, indolent children to my advantage, and reap some benefits from the drudgery. The shoe is on the other foot. With another wipe, it may even soon be clean.

Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? by Séamas O’Reilly is out now (Little, Brown, £16.99). Buy a copy from guardianbookshop at £14.78

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