'Why is housework still the woman's job?' — How coronavirus is shaking up the traditional Indian family
“If you ask him to do something, his first instinct is to argue ‘it’s not my job'”
In the 6th standard, we were trotted off to the science lab and made to rudely ogle at Amoeba Proteus, haplessly floating in their little Petri dishes. After spending a month under lockdown, I know exactly what those poor chumps felt like.
Trapped indoors and scraping rock bottom on Netflix, we’ve been forced to examine the lifestyle we take for granted under a microscope.
And one truth has been laid bare.
Women have spent the past few decades so keenly focused on decimating the glass ceiling in industry and enterprise, we forgot about the concrete one waiting for us back home.
From my college Whatsapp group to Reddit threads to the Tweak India inbox, a frustrated cry has replaced ‘Go Corona, go’ as the most popular lockdown anthem: “Why are women still expected to do all the housework?”
Mind the (gender) gap
In 2019, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development dumped a bucket of ice cold stats over our heads.
Their survey calculated that Indian women spend 352 minutes per day on housework — an obnoxious 577 % more than the country’s men, who are about as helpful as sea cucumbers with their 52 minutes of contribution.
Contrast that with other developing nations like China (234:91) or even South Africa (250:103).
Unsurprisingly, India’s working women won the title of ‘Most Stressed’ by Nielsen from a survey of 6,500 women across 21 countries. An astonishing 87% of respondents admitted they felt stressed most of the time, with 82% saying they had no time to relax.
So have weeks of government-prescribed house arrest done enough to prod our partners to pull up their socks and not leave them lying on the floor?
To investigate this inconvenient truth, we spoke to three women, separated by state borders and family background, but united in their experiences of gender inequality at home.
These are their stories.
Whose work is housework?
M Sharma, mom of two living in a joint family
My mother-in-law has been a huge help. She manages lunch since I work from home, and I take care of dinner.
The first few days were stressful because we were not used to this much physical work.
My husband and father-in-law have started washing their own clothes and plates, but we have to repeatedly remind them. Initially, my mother-in-law would feel bad and do it herself, but she’s also realised that it’s too much work for one person.
Men take it for granted that housework is a woman’s responsibility — since they go out to work, they should not be expected to do so at home. They don’t mind paying extra to get it done.
Whereas women somehow juggle all these chores and accommodate everyone else’s needs.
I’m living with three generations of men in the house and I see this behaviour even in my son.
If you ask him to do something, his first instinct is to argue “it’s not my job”.
Whereas my daughter will automatically offer to help in whatever way she can. Maybe it’s because she sees her mom and dadi doing it.
The good news is that there has been a change among the men in my family.
On a recent call with my father, he mentioned my mother had back pain. I asked, “Have you been helping with the housework since there are no maids? You can’t expect her to do everything, naturally she’s going to be in pain.” The next day, my mother called to say he’s started giving her a hand.
Even my sisters’ husbands are cooking and gardening — housework they never did before — and they’re actually enjoying it.
It’s inspiring to see the way these men are learning to support their wives. I make it a point to tell my son every day, “Women are evolving, so if you don’t get into the fact of helping out and understanding gender equality at home, it will affect your relationships.”
*Juanita D’Souza, Teacher and mom of three
The first few weeks of working from home, we were going crazy. This concept of online teaching was so new, we were unprepared and I would spend the whole day on the phone trouble-shooting between students, parents, the IT department…
Being a teacher and a mom, I understand both sides of this problem. Some school parents keep criticising us, but they don’t understand that even the teachers are struggling with something new. And they’re also doing the housework, taking care of kids… so their whole day is consumed.
As a parent, I’ve realised that a classroom set-up is structured. At home, kids become resistant and waste time. “First I’ll do the drawing, then I’ll do the English, then I’ll take a break, then I’ll get to math…”
They’re excited to do something creative, but when it comes to housework, the finger keeps pointing to the next person. It’s like the Wheel of Fortune that keeps spinning and ultimately stops at me.
My husband used to leave very early and come home by 8 pm, so whatever time he got with the kids, he wanted to be the fun parent.
Men enjoy doing tasks as long as it’s something challenging and they get to do it innovatively. The minute it becomes a daily chore, they get bored.
Luckily, I’m noticing them taking initiative at home, and helping out more than they used to, especially with the children.
Other than the fighting between husbands and wives — because we still have to scream to get things done — the routine is smoother now.
I don’t feel like the full weight of responsibility is on me.
This lockdown is giving them a chance to appreciate all the work that their wives and mothers do.
But once school starts, everything is going to go back to normal. I doubt this behaviour will last.
Lalita Yadav, single mom of two
When the lockdown began, I was happy because I don’t get to spend enough time with my kids because of work and running my NGO, AadiShakti Shiksha Foundation.
But as a parent you’re always guilty,
Online classes are far more tedious — you’re running from one room to another and the kids are always calling “Mummy, Mummy”. By the time they’re done with classes, I feel like I’ve attended school myself.
My productivity is zero.
I keep thinking that if I was doing a full-time job, the company would have expected me to be productive and concentrate on work. How would I have ever managed with household chores, cooking and caring for my kids?
The insecurities have also started creeping in. Constantly worrying about how I’ll manage if this goes on any longer is robbing my mental peace and I’m not able to concentrate on anything.
My sons help out by doing grocery runs and cleaning up their room. But even though I live with my extended family, taking care of daily work comes down to the women at the end of the day.
From the richest to the poorest, whether it’s movies or books, it’s ingrained in them because they don’t see men doing these jobs.
My father will eat and leave his stuff on the table. My nephew was living with his girlfriend, and when my mom heard that he’s doing the dishes, she started crying.
I feel like telling them off, but I don’t want to upset them. If you argue, parents feel that they’re being mistreated because they’re old.
The problem is that men will take charge for a day or two, but they don’t consider it their responsibility. They think ‘She’s going to do it, it’s easy for her to do it, so why even get into it?”
I don’t want my sons to become like this. So I make sure that they learn that the kitchen isn’t only a woman’s place.
Where shall we begin?
Margaret Thatcher became a meme legend when she said, “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.”
Like Sharma who convinced her traditional mother-in-law to change the rules of engagement, and Yadav who’s raising a new generation of empathetic men, it’s time to add ‘challenge gender roles at home’ to the to-do list.
From the type of chores we assign to kids and the vocabulary we use when discussing domestic roles (fathers don’t ‘help out’ with childcare, babysitters do) to having honest conversations about your own expectations from your partner, small steps can have significant impact if we teach by doing.
So the next time you see a knight in shining armour ride up to sweep you off your feet, hand him a jhaadu and tell him to get to work.
*Name changed upon request
Konkona Sen Sharma on raising boys in 2020