A couple of days ago, after dinner, I remember casually mentioning to my partner that I was going to write a piece on gender roles and how they have returned to their default, owing to Covid-induced lockdowns. You know, how women seem to be doing the bulk of the cooking and cleaning and childcare, even though they have the same jobs they did before the lockdown. Yet, when the lockdowns rolled around, and the house help that enabled working women to lead their lives vanished, the division of labour lapsed into the way it has always been. I am not the only who thinks this way. More than 70,000 people, who signed this petition urging Prime Minister Modi to get men to chip in with housework, agree.
A little later that night I am wiping down the kitchen stove and he is rinsing off the last utensil in the sink; when he casually mentions he will make breakfast the next morning. I turn to catch his eye and we both crack up.
Reality though, isn’t as light-hearted as this. Take a step back and look at the way Covid-19 has affected our lives, and you’ll find women seem to be at the centre – or shall I say the margin? – of it all. Whether it’s being at the forefront of the fight against the pandemic (the majority of nurses globally are women), financially (an argument already well chronicled) and where it all begins… in their own homes.
Why is it that running a household gets so inextricably linked to the women in the house? Things may vary from joint families to nuclear families to couples with and without kids, yet the core narrative in every scenario, remains unchanged. And the presence of the house help, the maid or your ever-smiling, uncomplaining didi, only helped us all to brush this ever-existing imbalance right under the carpet.
When the house help that enabled working women to lead their lives vanished, the division of labour lapsed into the way it has always been.
Are women “natural” managers of the house?
In 2017, French comic artist Emma spoke about the the concept of “mental load” in “The gender wars of household chores: a feminist comic”. The illustrator cited many instances of heterosexual partners, where the woman of the house was expected to behave like the “manager” of household chores and had to instruct the man to do things around the house. It remains just as relevant today as it was three years ago.
Over the last few weeks, I have been speaking with many friends, aunts and uncles, married couples and those living with their partners, to gauge what something like this meant in the current scenario of the lockdown. Almost everyone brought up that phrase “just tell me what to do” – the women with a touch of annoyance and the men with naive candour. It’s a never-ending cycle of constantly telling them what to do, which then is interpreted and criticised as nagging and/or being forgetful. At which point the women then give up and just get it done themselves.
Ankhi Majoomdar, a friend who lives with her husband in Mumbai, pointed out how language influenced actions. Why do we talk about the men “helping” the women out at home, she asked. “Helping” implied that it was the job profile of a woman to run the house, while the man, out of the goodness of his heart, would attempt to “share the load”. As equal partners, isn’t it imperative that both consider the home theirs to take care of?
And if you believe that we are reasoning this because women, over time, have taken up jobs outside the home, so men need to step up and contribute at home, then you are sadly mistaken.
Saransh Sugandh, co-founder at Swayam Foundation, who has been holding webinars titled “What an Ordinary Chore”, along with his colleague Shrinkhla Sahai, says that domestic chores are critical to the well being of any relationship, because they are linked to emotional care. A house help is not just a maid who is paid to do physical labour. She – and it’s usually “she” – is someone who knows what colour bedsheets go in which room, what kind of food you love to have over the weekends, what corner of the house needs a different kind of grooming. There is no way to equate this physical labour that goes into maintaining a house to a job that you do outside. So they conclude that the degree of contribution to household chores is a natural indicator of the effort you put into your relationship with the woman of the house.
But the problem is not the willingness or the lack of effort in most cases, but the inclination or the know-how. Ergo, “tell me what to do”.
Domestic chores are critical to the well being of any relationship, because they are linked to emotional care.
How men can really “share the load”
Take childcare, an already tremendous, frustrating task. Now compound it with the challenges of the lockdown. All of us know at least one woman who is solely responsible for taking care of the child or children, minus any help. Don’t come at us with the logic of “modern women” who can “have it all”. We’ll just roll our eyes – there are enough instances where mental and social conditioning has forced any logic or liberal thought out of the window.
Forget the lockdown, just look at the way our world is structured. How many companies have a policy of paternal leave? Because of course, what role could a man possibly have in nurturing his child and taking care of a new mother? How many times do we applaud the men who take on weekend duties for their kids, without dragging the wives in?
It shouldn’t surprise us then that forced against the wall in the lockdown, the roles have defaulted to what they traditionally were. All around me, I see women taking on the bulk of the – unpaid – mental and physical load of keeping the house running, while managing their jobs from home, as the men either busy themselves with “professional” work or chip in with ancillary duties when instructed.
Speaking to my mom and some of my elderly relatives, you know the problem lies in the conditioning that generations have been subjected to. The system in place has been neatly packaged and passed on through the generations like heirlooms – and I see so many of us women automatically assuming the roles that we witnessed our parents in. For example, the son will not be inclined to enter the kitchen because he has never seen his father do so.
So for all the men reading this and thinking, “Hey, I make tea for my mum and wife without being asked to do it”, congratulations, you are a rare breed. Others, who pride themselves in cooking through the lockdown, good for you too, you budding Vikas Khannas and Ranveer Brars. But here’s the thing: Maybe decide what day is laundry day, on your own. Maybe take a mop to the wet kitchen when you see it, so the kids don’t skid over it while running around the house. Make the veggie list, change the baby’s diaper, plan the dog’s walk, without asking your partner.
A friend recently spoke about the honeymoon phase and how with new marriages or relationships, the man will always put in the extra effort to make the bed or do the dishes. Then, when familiarity seeps in, so will the traditional pattern.
There is just one solution to this – the pattern needs to break. That phrase, “tell me what to do” should become “I know what is to be done.” The rest of it is just individual logistics. You’ll figure it out.
When she isn’t watching sports, Rupha Ramani is dreaming of getting back to playing some sport. Now a freelancer, she worked as a reporter, presenter, and producer in a news channel for seven years, and was a producer at Star Sports for over four years.
This article was first published in Arre
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