When some publisher decides to publish my PhD thesis, you will read about socialist families in more details, together with many other issues such as impacts of collectivization, veil lifting campaign, policies towards workers, and policies towards youth sexuality. Now, however, I will take one source as an example of the crucial problems regarding gender relations in the socialist family.
The letter from ‘comrade Milja’ to the central AFZ’s magazine to women is telling. Milja wrote to the magazine Žena danas asking for advice. She was concerned that her husband is becoming more distant. He was jumpy, grim, and did not want to spend time in the house. Milja accepted that her husband has his own “business”, meaning to meet with his friends, go to cinema and taverns. But she was worried that her husband did not see everything she was doing in the household and wondered if she had to do more to please him. And what was Milja doing? Well, everything.
Before they had children, following the advice from her mother that “you have to prepare everything for your husband, before he wakes up”, she did everything to please him. She would always wake up first, walk on her tiptoes not to wake him up, clean his shoes and suit, prepare his shaving razors, and then served him breakfast. Only then, she would wake him up. She was fulfilling all his wishes “with the greatest joy.” She was happy that she was a wife as her mother told her to be, and that there was “the perfect harmony” in her marriage.
Alas, they had three children. Milja’s husband was used to be the priority, and was angry that the situation has changed. Milja, of course, cared for all children alone. She still got up early, went to bad late, and woke up during the night to breastfeed. Already with the first child, Milja’s husband became grumpy when a child would wake him up during the night, so Milja slept in the kitchen with the baby. She thought, “It is not fair that we both suffer, let him have some peace at least”. She did everything to make a baby quiet, so that her husband could sleep. Sleeping separately also suited her, as she said that she could go out early to the market and get groceries. After that, she would prepare breakfast, bath children, send the oldest one to school, and then wake up her husband. Then she would take two other children to crèches and kindergarten, and finally go to her own workplace. Actually, according to Milja, her office job was the only easy time she had during the day. And she was a good clerk.
After work, Milja would run home, prepare lunch, while her husband would read newspapers and rest. Then he would go to the swimming pool or to see his friends while Milja would go to take children from kindergarten and crèches. Then she would do the laundry, prepare dinner, and clean the flat. Milja asked the magazine what to do, how to please her husband, to lighten up the mood, and yet to fulfil all these “duties”. Her husband made it clear that he will not “give up his friends and be enslaved in the house, just for the love of children”. She accepted that her husband will not do any domestic chores and asked the magazine how to persuade him to at least watch the children for a while when she cleans and cooks.
The magazine had no answer and asked other readers to reply.
Oddly enough, in the next issue already, they printed one answer. Marko Savović, gave advices to ‘comrade Milja’, from his own experience.
Marko said that he had approached her letter carefully, as “we, the men, with some inherent suspicion read such texts.” He claimed that women learned to exaggerate these problems, and that it was not men’s fault that they were sceptical. But, in her letter he discovered enough human and “maternal” values to believe her. As she was honest, he decided to be honest as well. He admitted that he had recognized himself, and many of his comrades, in the personality of her husband. Therefore, he decided to share his experience, as his wife temporarily left him, and went to live with his family together with their two children. He was forced to learn to do all domestic chores (expect to wash his own underpants; his wife left him enough clean pairs). That experience opened his eyes to realize how lazy he was. He admitted that his flat is now very dirty, that dishes are often not washed, and that the house became surprisingly unpleasant place to live. The quality of food he ate was terrible as well. His wish to be alone, away from the children’s noise, to have peaceful newspaper reading time, has now changed. He wanted to be with his family again, and to have all the comfort of his wife’s work in the household.
Then he gave the advice to Milja: Travel somewhere for a week or two. Let him be alone, without all the care you provide to him. Only then, he would realize how valuable your domestic chore is. Then, when you return, talk to him and explain that he has to share some domestic chores, and to share parental duties as well. Marko also advised Milja to be tactical. To, metaphorically, play chess with her husband. He told her to “fight smart”.
Milja’s experience was common to millions of women in socialist Yugoslavia. Of course, these problems were similar in many other societies and system, but it is important to analyse them in Yugoslav context as Yugoslav socialism promised to solve this double burden. Yugoslav communists, indeed, opened many opportunities for women to enter industry and acquire new skills and professions as never before. They all also opened all doors of all educational institutions (and in my dissertation you will be able to read how these doors were not so wide). However, Yugoslav communists never changed the idea that domestic chores, and care for children was solely women’s duty. In Yugoslav 1946 constitution, the society promised to provide services such as kindergartens and crèches to help employed mothers, but with the first economic crisis funding for these services were cut. According to the immediate post-war promises, Milja’s troubles would be solved with collective services such as communal serveries, laundry, kindergartens. This case, clearly shows, that despite some of these services being built, without deep changes in gender and family relations, Milja’s position was not much different from her mother’s, who gave the advice to always please her husband, in the first place.
‘Šta biste joj vi odgovorile?’ Žena danas, no. 86 (August 1951): 6–7.