by Dwithiya Raghavan
“Didi, khane mein kya banau?” (Didi, what should I cook for dinner?) is the phrase that is most representative to me of the invisible labour of the housework that I as a woman, shoulder alone. Every day I would get this call at work, sometimes in between an incredibly stimulating meeting, managing to distract me from the discussion even if I chose not to answer the call. I started leaving on the kitchen counter ingredients that would indicate what I wanted cooked that evening, and this reduced the frequency of the calls, but I would still get them on days my ingredients left some ambiguity and confirmation of the menu was required! When I did eventually decide not to have a cook, honestly the freedom from not having to think about what we were eating for dinner at work was far more rewarding than managing the extra work I had taken on in terms of cooking dinner. I recognize fully the deep privilege this little anecdote is loaded with, I have an intellectually stimulating job that makes me enough money to be able to afford to hire someone to do the cooking for me and I am filled with guilt for complaining about the small things like one phone call that interrupts a work day. But so often I look enviously at men all around me who do not have to do this and the only way in which they are different from me is their gender.
This conflict between guilt and envy has only been heightened with the pandemic and all of us finding ourselves suddenly without the support systems that sustained us, the women and men who played a key role in creating some sense of equal distribution of the household chores.; domestic help, cooks, food and groceries delivered to our homes. This made visible, even for me, the time and energy that goes into just keeping a home running with a semblance of cleanliness and ensuring everyone is fed! It requires a fair bit of planning and organizing your day around work deadlines and meetings along with cooking, cleaning and caregiving.
‘You should have asked’
French author and cartoonist, Emma in her comic titled ‘You should have asked’ talks about the work that is the organizing, remembering/reminding and scheduling that go into managing a household which she calls the mental load brilliantly summarized as ‘always having to remember’. This resonates with me strongly as we live out this pandemic quarantined with our families and their dirty dishes. My partner and I took a few days to assess the work that is involved in keeping ourselves fed and our home clean and I quickly did an allocation of chores. He would do the dishes and the dusting, and I would do the cooking and clothes; shopping would be done by whoever was stepping out of home. I found myself having to remind him to do the dishes several times before they were done. And on long work days when I found myself exhausted, I would invariably end up snapping at him for not doing his share of the work and the resultant little squabble would have me feeling like it was really not worth the additional 15 minutes of work I had to do. Almost immediately the feminist in me would admonish me for not wanting to engage in these discussions and continuing to do lion’s share of the work.
I understand well the power patriarchy and generations of conditioning into traditional gender roles have on men and women. Even though my partner was raised by a single mother from a reasonably young age, him and his brother were not regularly involved in the cooking or housework as they grew up. For me, as one of three girl children, with a stay at home mom, I have not seen my dad take on his share of the household chores; even when mom was recovering from surgery, it was us as teenage daughters who took on the cooking and housekeeping responsibilities. If I were to be absolutely honest, even as an adult, I have literally no role models of couples where house work is shared equitably along with the mental load of having to remember and this often makes me think if by asking my partner to share equally I am being too demanding, asking for too much or just being plain unreasonable.
Effects of the lockdown
With us being locked down in our homes for more than two months now, I know my partner sees and understands like never before the wide range of activities that form part of what we call housework and as a result the number of times I have to leave my desk during the work day and go finish a chore in the kitchen. Especially when we had to take on the responsibility of caring for his 70-year-old diabetic mom, we had to contend with patriarchy not just in the way it influences our thinking which as a couple we were jointly imperfectly navigating, but we now found ourselves face to face with a generation where seeing men, especially their sons take on a full role in housekeeping was not natural. My mom in law would offer to do the dishes because he was working all day and I would be peeved, at the possible disruption of a system we had struggled to create and because I work a full-time job as well and I was not precluded from doing the housework. What further agitated the feminist in me was that by my mom in law doing the work it was again a woman taking on the labour of the household. I would try to articulate this unsuccessfully, sometimes resulting in arguments and all three of us now negotiating a pattern of sharing housework that was at least partially acceptable to all of us.
What all of this has shown me, is that we are the generation that has begun to start figuring this out; my dad told me I could be whoever I wanted to be, and gender was no bar for my professional ambitions and I simultaneously saw mom do everything in her power to keep the house running efficiently; and I now feel intensely the pressure to excel at both, unable to detach sufficiently from the thought that the household is primarily a woman’s domain. While struggling with the guilt of not being able to do all of it myself and the feminist objections of fairly sharing the housework with my partner, I don’t have any real answers yet. The only thing that I have learnt is that we need to be our own role models; this is uncharted territory for most of us; conversations are important, conflicts are inevitable, discomfort is to be expected and respect for one another is paramount.
Dwithiya Raghavan is a development professional, researcher and writer. She is part of The Curio-city Collective Family.