S01E11: The Invisible Work of Care

A hand making roti against the background of a woman dressed in pink. The bottom has a white patch with the words: The Invisible Work of Care

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(Maya Angelou’s voice🙂

“I’ve got the children to tend by
The clothes to mend
The floor to mop
The food to shop
Then the chicken to fry
The baby to dry
I got company to feed
The garden to weed
I’ve got shirts to press
The tots to dress
The cane to be cut
I gotta clean up this hut
Then see about the sick
And the cotton to pick.”

That’s the voice of Maya Angelou, poet and civil rights activist, reciting the poem, Woman Work, a simple yet powerful poem about the constant unending list of tasks women undertake on a daily basis. I was listening to it a few days ago, and in the description of the endless list of domestic work, I felt as if she was describing my day, or my mother’s day, or the days of so many women I know. Days filled with lists of to-dos that keep the home up and running. As India draws to the end of phase 4 of the Covid-19 lockdown, Angelou’s poem could just as well be about ‘a woman’s work during a pandemic’. It feels immediate and present.

The closing of the external world has put a spotlight on the interiors of our homes, the place to which all of us have been resigned to for the past few months. Yet the disruption of support systems like domestic labour on which India’s middle and upper classes depend has in many ways made this constant cycle of women’s work in the home, visible. Work that’s otherwise not really seen as work because it’s done by women, quietly, routinely, constantly, habitually. Washing, cleaning, cooking, caring for the tots, for older people–everyday care work and much more. It’s also, more importantly, made visible women from low income/poor households who do much of this work and are often on the margins of conversations on labour, for whom this income means survival.

While there is still much research to be done in understanding the various facets of the impact the lockdown might have caused, preliminary surveys are showing one thing quite clearly: the impacts are highly unequal and exacerbate existing inequalities. Consider this recent survey-research from the University of Cambridge on the impact of the lockdown that clearly states: Less educated workers and women are more affected by the crisis. Based on data sets from US, UK and Germany, the survey points out that ‘One potential reason for these gender differences is that women are spending more time homeschooling and caring for children’. This increased workload was also mirrored in a survey conducted among middle income Indians where they noted: Survey results indicate that men have been more creative in finding alternative engagement methods (…), while women have had to cope with the additional workload at home, thus, hinting at a possible reason for higher rates of mental health challenges among the latter.

So what has been happening through the period of the lockdown that is leading to this situation? What are women experiencing and what might it mean for them? Seeing how some of these questions were uncomfortably lodged within my own crowded home schedules, it made sense to begin unpacking this with the community of women I know.

34-year old Hyderabad-based Dwithiya lives with her husband and has been working in the development sector for the past 10 years. She’s currently employed with an organisation that does research in the field of education which involves engaging with government schools in Telangana—a job that calls for about 10 days of travel every month. She described what her average day looked like before the lockdown started.

Dwithiya: So I had help, who would, who’s looking after cleaning the house as well as dishes and she would come only after I had left home. So a lot of the responsibility of managing her was on the husband, so I didn’t really think about that very much. I think I would have spent a couple of hours a day just with cooking which is something I did every day, and maybe a few hours more- three, four hours more over the weekend with clothes and dusting and things like that, but not a lot of my day was taken up by this work, definitely. I kind of enjoyed it and did not necessarily think it was work, let’s say.

Deepika: The majority of India’s middle and upper class depends on the labour of service providers like domestic help, gardeners, drivers and dhobis. In many cases, it also allows for women of this class to go out of the house to be employed in the formal sector, while ensuring that the household functions—something that continues to be socially deemed to be the job of a woman.

In Mumbai, 40-year old Khairunnisa Ansari works as a domestic help in two homes in my neigbourhood. She lives with her husband and two children, a 24-year old daughter and 19 year old son. Her husband used to work as a driver till he suffered a stroke in 2019 which led to her son dropping out of college and staying home to look after his father. Since he can’t go out to work, the burden of running the household falls on her. She describes her average pre-lockdown day.

Khairunnisa: ‘Before the lockdown, my days would go well. I’d get up in the morning at 7am, cook for everyone and pack tiffin for my children, then I’d clean my house and leave for work. I’d work in two houses and then come back. I’d sit down for an hour or so after I’d return from work. Then I’d cook and wash clothes in the evening because I didn’t have time in the morning and I’d get late if I did it then.’

When I asked Khairunnisa about the work she does at home, she was initially dismissive of the question. It was obvious, surely, that she did all the household tasks that go into its functioning—from cooking and cleaning to washing. As development economist Jayati Ghosh at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, writes, ‘Women from poor families who are also engaged in outside work usually cannot afford to hire others to perform these tasks, so most often these are passed on to young girls and elderly women within the household or become a “double burden” of work for such women.

A few years ago, I was working with women living in slums in urban cities and in impoverished rural communities. What was common across was that in both cases, the burden of household tasks fell on them. If they were employed in the informal or formal sector, some of these tasks were done by girls in the family. As one adolescent girl said to me, ‘If I have to fill water in the morning, cook and sweep the house, I can’t make it to school on time. These things have to be done.’ All of 13, she was very clear that keeping house was the main priority. For decades, this combined with fears about girls going out of the home and facing harassment has meant far lower access to school than boys. So deeply rooted is this notion of performing multiple roles that it’s often not even seen as work by the women undertaking it. In Khairunnisa’s description, there’s a matter-of-factness about all the jobs she does and the roles other members of her family play. It’s something that I noticed I’d often do myself–separate ‘work’ as external, out of the home jobs for which I’d receive pay, whereas everything I’d do at home was just things that needed to be done. Not work, just necessary tasks to function.

The multiple burdens that women carry is not a novel concept. Academic and anthropologist Caroline Moser first coined the term ‘Triple Roles Framework’ in the 1980s and studied the multiple kinds of work women do. She captured the division of labour within a household and community by dividing women’s work into 3 categories: reproduction labour which includes household-related work, child care, caring for the sick and water and fuel related work; the second arena of labour was, production which meant the work women put in farms or producing marketable good and services; and finally, women also bear the responsibilities of maintaining socio-cultural (community-based) functions such as  work  meant for the general wellbeing of communities such as social  events,  and  community resource management. 

What the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) defines as unpaid work largely falls under this first category of a reproductive function: “All unpaid services provided within a household for its members, including care of persons, housework and voluntary community work. These activities are considered work, because theoretically one could pay a third person to perform them.

For Khairunnisa, who is often that third person for a few households, there is no escape from her own chores at home. An average day involves taking on the responsibility that spans all 3 functions–what Moser calls reproductive, productive and socio-cultural – whereas for her husband, it was limited largely to a productive role—one to which monetary value was attached.

For Dwithiya however, and many like her, who are able to employ service providers; her pre-covid everyday reality differed significantly. She was able to delegate some of her duties to her domestic help and didn’t have to do these chores herself. Even so, she shared that even before the lockdown, she was still doing the ‘mental labor’ of planning and scheduling the running of the house. She explained how this worked with an example:

Dwithiya: So for the most part he’s always managed the washing of the clothes, let’s say. But this is one of the things that I complain, I don’t know what if it’s nitpicking so much, but despite the fact that possibly the work he would do he would need the reminding. So I was doing the mental labour of remembering that these things need to be done, you know, otherwise if I would stop doing it, it would go on and we would possibly not wash clothes for a month. So this thing of, ‘you need to remind me to do it’, I was never able to pass it on. Even if I was travelling, I’d be like, ‘have you washed the clothes?’ So in that sense, I think it was not necessarily the kind of sharing that you can forget about right. I mean, look, ‘this is handled by someone so I don’t need to worry about it’ was never a thing.

I found myself nodding along in agreement with Dwithiya as she spoke of mental labour. The all-too-familiar, what feels almost like a default setting of remembering all the tasks that go into running a house and having to plan for it. 

Are there vegetables in the fridge to cook for dinner? 
Do we need a new tube of toothpaste? 
Is the detergent running out? 

Questions that we ask ourselves and actionables we put down on that ever growing list of things to do. It might even seem trivial, this ask of ‘can you remind me’, but doing it day after day without respite has on many occasions left me feeling exhausted and depleted. Perhaps because implicit in being the person who remembers everything is the assumption that ultimately, ‘it’s your job’ ,whereas the person being reminded is helping you fulfil your job.

A few years ago, I was in a job that involved extensive travel every month, and I’d start my day by sending a to-do list to my partner so that the basics would be covered in my absence and the household would continue to tick. ‘Run a wash’, ‘call the electrician’, ‘drop off the cheque’ it would read. I’m not entirely sure how I reached that place or assumed that role, but the women around me also seemed to do the same–to continuously plan and manage the home in addition to other kinds of work they were doing. It’s something that made me pause and ask myself: Where did I learn it? Was it something I was told? Or did I start to believe that’s how it’s meant to be because it’s what I saw at home, with my own mother or my aunt. Because unlike women, the social pressure to take charge of the family to-do list is not an experience common to most men.

This mental load that falls on women has been well researched in the social sciences since the 1980s. Because it’s invisible, it’s also difficult to assign a value to this work, and it therefore becomes easier for society to undervalue because it’s not socially recognised.

From well before the pandemic, women have disproportionately shouldered unpaid care work, whether it’s caring for children, ageing parents or keeping the house up and running. According to a Time Use survey published by the OECD in 2018, women in India spend upto 352 minutes or six hours per day on domestic work compared to men who spend less than an hour per day. That’s a whopping 577 per cent more than men. It’s also 40% more than women in South Africa and China. It isn’t just about how much time is spent doing domestic work. It also means less time or a poverty of time that women face for activities such as learning or getting a job or even resting. With the ongoing lockdown, the workload for women has increased even more. For many this is mainly because of the disruption of the labour of service providers.

Dwithiya’s talks about her experience of life-under-lockdown, and how her day has seen an increase in household work from 2 hours a day before the lockdown to 5 hours or more a day.

Dwithiya: One of the key things that changed was we asked the help to not come anymore, which meant that everything had to be done and we had to manage all the work ourselves alongside cooking three times a day because Hyderabad is one of those places where delivery was food delivery was banned as well during the lockdown. So there was little option in terms of not doing the cooking labor of this was we had no option but to do it at home.

I think what did happen is the work that goes into running the house and keeping everybody fed and looked after was almost made visible by the lockdown because you don’t necessarily see this. I don’t necessarily see how long it takes to get the house cleaned and dishes done and things like that. So for both of us, it made the work visible. And just husband offered to let’s say help because it was I don’t think he necessarily perceives it as his job to be done at all. It’s like I will do this so you have lesser to do kind of a thing.

Deepika: Men are now part of the conversation on when the dusting will be done, dishes washed and plants watered, something they’ve never thought of before. Yet, as Dwithiya says, implicit in the offer of ‘helping out’ or ‘pitching in’ is the notion that it’s ‘not my business’.The slew of memes and whatsapp forwards at the beginning of the lockdown indicate this. One for instance said, ‘Be nice to your wife. Restaurants are closed’. So having men participate a little bit more than before still doesn’t mean that it’s lead to better labour distribution in the house. Rather, the age old responsibility for it continues to remain with women. 

Recognising the greater work load, the Odisha Chief Minister put out an appeal that women shouldn’t be overburdened by having to cook three meals a day for men who are treating the lockdown as a holiday. Yet what remained absent from his address was the elephant in the room– directly urging men to particaipate and share in this labour, make it their own. Its an aspect that’s unaddressed by employers who have newfound enthusiasm for work-from-home, without recognising the challenges it poses for women.

When families include children and elderly members, the workload also increases. As month 2 of the lockdown began, Dwithiya’s household saw an additional family member come into the home, her 70-year old diabetic mother-in-law. The change brought with it a new dynamic in terms of not only dealing with an additional member in the house but also in having to re-negotiate household chores with her husband in the context of her mother-in-law’s expectations of what functions women and men perform inside the home.

Dwithiya: There had to be a change fairly immediately as soon as mom -in-law arrived mostly because again, mostly because of patriarchy and her saying that her son shouldn’t be doing some of these things, right. In the sense of that she would do the dishes instead of him or not even letting him do his own dishes for example. So if the husband is not going to do the dishes because well, he has a full-time job apparently, then I have to do them because you don’t let your 70-year old mother do the dishes.

I felt unable to allocate some of the responsibility to my husband and if we did, if I did do it it often ended up becoming a disagreement between the two of them if they left me out of it, but they would fight about it. So I kind of for the sake of ‘let everyone be okay and peaceful’, I think I ended up doing pretty much all the work and that annoyed me.

Deepika: For many women, the pandemic has made 3 things happen–there’s an increase in actual time spent doing unpaid care work, there’s the continued burden of the mental labour this involves in terms of planning and scheduling everything that has to be done.

A survey conducted by the Lean In organisation in the US backed this experience. It says: “Women are shouldering a much heavier burden of household labor and caregiving during Covid-19, and it’s taking a toll — they’re experiencing physical symptoms of stress and burnout at up to twice the rate of men. Our findings also indicate that employers are providing limited support for employees who are trying to manage increased responsibilities at home during the pandemic.” A closer look at their data showed how: Among women and men who have full-time jobs, partners, and children, women are spending an average of 7.4 more hours per week than men on childcare, and 5.3 more hours caring for elderly or sick relatives. Most women are also spending at least 7 more hours than men on housework. That adds up to a difference of almost 20 hours per week — the equivalent of a part-time job. For women of Latina and Black communities who are economically more precarious, this number was higher, as it was for single women run households.

And then there’s the emotional labour of having to suppress your own feelings to manage how other members of the family feel.

First introduced in the 1980s by Arlie Hochschild in her book The Managed Heart, Hochschild described emotional labour as having to “induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others”. This role of managing the emotional needs of others is something that many women are familiar with. As sociologist Rebecca J. Erickson at Akron University in Ohio, says, “The problem is that those expectations haven’t changed since women entered the workforce. The belief that women primarily are in charge of and accountable for the emotional climate in the home is still part of the invisible work that women do. And part of the issue about that is that it’s seen as something natural in women as opposed to something that takes time, energy, and skill.

What the lockdown showcases is that despite the increased entry of women into the workforce through this century and the many laudable changes with regards to perception of women’s roles within societies, the idea of the ‘second shift’ – where women return from paid labour at work places to the unpaid labour at home – continues. It reminded me of that old quote I read somewhere which goes: ‘A man can work from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done’. 

While women might finally be accessing paid work and the advantages that come with it, the fundamental structures that underpin the system, the division of labour across workspaces and home, continues to largely remain unchanged irrespective of the class one comes from. This in many ways shows how the wins of the past several decades are still fragile. When a disaster of any form strikes, the fault lines under the feet of women can open up again, pushing back the hard-won advances made through the past decades. Unless the structure and division of labour itself is re-worked women remain precariously perched on the edge, ready to be swallowed by the circumstances that overwhelm their time and energies.

Yet, class of course is not without significance in this conversation. For Khairunnisa, the lockdown has affected her day differently in terms of how she spends her time. With the suspension of the work she does as a domestic worker, there’s more time at hand but also anxiety building around how to earn an income on which her family survives.

Khairunnisa: Because of the lockdown, I don’t have work anymore. I get up in the morning, and there’s nowhere to go. Even going to the market is limited. Whatever we have at home, we manage with that. I clean my house and then I’m just sitting here. I’d like to go to work, but how can I? I just stay home.

Whether there’s a lockdown or not, the landlord wants rent. I still have to pay the electricity bill. It might not be due right now but it will come together for payment at some point. So there are all these worries. If the lockdown opens up, I can go to work and pay rent. If not, I’ll have to move out somewhere.

Deepika: Home for Khairunnisa is an 8×10 ft room in a Mumbai slum that she shares with the other 3 members of her family. She’s housebound now but as each day passes, it becomes more urgent to resume work so that she can continue to live in the city. The pressures on her to support her family, a sick husband with mounting medical bills alongside her two children are tremendous. Living on the margins with little savings, making her household function on the basis of day to day or monthly earnings disproportionate to the living costs of a city like Mumbai makes her far more vulnerable to the whims of global or local disasters and disruptions.

Previous studies on epidemics such as Ebola by scholars have found that the economic impact on women is far more significant than men. As women bear the brunt of caring for the children, the sick and elderly, their unpaid work rises sharply. Further as women are frontline health care workers–a job that dismally paid, with exacting demands and little protection–they are also at higher risk. Even before the pandemic, women’s participation in the workforce was already very low. According to the National Sample Survey Office, it saw a decline to 27.67% in 2011-12 from 34.1% in 1999-00. With job losses already a reality, the effect on women will be more severe than the 2008 recession. UN Secretary General Antonio Gutterres said, ‘nearly 60 percent of women around the world work in the informal economy, earning less, saving less, and at greater risk of falling into poverty.’ He added that the pandemic is “having devastating social and economic consequences for women and girls”.

The poem I began with, Woman Work by Maya Angelou, has a second part to it following the listing of chores and really it is this bit is deeply moving:

Maya Angelou’s voice:

“Shine on me, sunshine
Rain on me, rain
Fall softly, dewdrops
And cool my brow again.
Storm, blow me from here
With your fiercest wind
Let me float across the sky
‘Til I can rest again.”

Deepika: ’Till I can rest again.’ Followed by the endless listing of her chores is this heart-breaking tiredness, this utter loneliness, this almost hopeless articulation of escape that is possibly never to come. It is a poem filled with exhaustion – of toiling on and on endlessly, unrecognised, somehow like the labours of the Earth – constant and unstopping. The yearning for release, the desire to unhinge oneself from the toil and ‘float across the sky’ so that she can rest – echoes across time and makes us question what has changed since 1978 when this poem was written.

The lockdown frames the four walls of our homes as a place of refuge. A place to retreat when all is not well with the world outside. Within its concrete, stone, brick, mortar or even thin metal or plastic walls – is the hope of the idea of shelter, rest, comfort and care – even for a small while. Yet as we retreat to these spaces in these times of uncertainty and stress, women still find themselves left out from that promise of refuge. Layer this experience of unending toil with the experiences of increased domestic violence which are being reported during these times and inaccessibility to safe spaces or support systems outside the home and we begin to see how old structures of inequity are waiting underfoot to reassert themselves.

The question remains: What shall we do? Does it begin with recognising the different kinds of work women do and making the conversation part of the everyday? Does it mean demanding that support structures are put in place? I wonder if this crisis will lead to more reflection, and to greater equality, but only time will tell.

Outro: If you liked this episode, please share it with your friends and family. You can also join our newsletter and social media spaces to explore further reading on the invisible work of women and how to begin to change the story! We would always love to hear from you at http://www.thecuriocitycollective.org

Over the course of this month, we’ll continue to explore lockdown and labour and the unfolding humanitarian crisis as millions of migrant workers try to make their way back home.

Credits: This episode was made with the support of Srinidhi Raghavan and Arpita Joshi and was produced by The Bangalore Recording Company.