I keep one quivery toe in the workforce only so I don’t have to suffer the ignominies of saying “I’m a housewife” at cocktail parties. Or as film and television critic Aneela Babar once said hilariously, “Arre baba, poora naam batao, ‘Just A Housewife.’” The word to describe “a married woman whose main occupation is caring for her family, managing household affairs, and doing housework” is “sometimes offensive” the internet dictionaries warn. I know internet dictionary, I know.
It would not be better, but it would still be something, if the nitty-gritty of housewifery – the cooking, cleaning, stocking, standard caring, elderly and recuperative caring, laundry, planning for celebrations, religious rituals, etc. – was only expected out of those who were indeed mothers or wives. However, even financially independent single women are still expected to facilitate the household – handling a majority of the care of their ailing elderly, managing maintenance and domestic staff with a sharp-suit face on at all times.
A study on the division of labour at home by the Maryland Population Research Center found that “in 2012, single women with no children still did twice as much cooking, cleaning and laundry as single men”, with those women spending 13 minutes on laundry and 31 minutes on cleaning per day. Men did only seven and 17 minutes, respectively. But those are American statistics.
Indian men best these numbers, unsurprisingly. A report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a global policy forum, pegs their contribution to housework at an incredible 19 minutes versus the glorious 11 hours spent every day sleeping, eating, watching TV and, in a nod to our national bird, preening! (This is the most anyone spends on getting pretty in the world!) I understand this. I mean who wants to bust a manicure doing the dishes? The grooming however is not to beguile their partners, but because they feel they’re worth it.
There would be no point in telling desi guys that men who share housework have better sex lives when two surveys on Global Sexual Wellbeing by the condom brand Durex tag Indian men as “quickest” on the job (in the sheets, not washing them) and rating themselves quite high on the “exciting” and “satisfaction” charts.
Contributions to the economy
Anecdotally, I would say I have met very few fathers or sons who have chosen to give up thriving careers to be full-time carers for their children or elders. Yet, while these men are held up as precious examples of social evolution (and they are), women who do the caring every day must brace themselves to be constantly reminded, not least by other working women, that their work at home is unproductive and a waste of their intellectual resources.
It may have something to do with the fact that, in general, cheap labour seems to reinforce the idea that domestic work can be done by just about anyone. This line of thinking attributes its value – even for something as potentially complex and determinant as nannies and childcare or nurses and elder care – more to the employer’s ability to increase their earning potential (having been released from the drudgery of the home) rather than in terms of the value received by those cared for. (I suspect the discussion is not encouraged not only because it is difficult to quantify the experience of a hired carer vs a parent – in this case, mother – but also because it is a minefield for women who struggle with expectations, guilt and logistics, social and otherwise, over their decisions to go back to work full time.)
In recent years there have been many attempts to place a monetary value on the work done at home. It is an impossible task of course – itemising the hundreds of components that go into the functioning of a household itself, constantly adjusting values to take into account growing children, location shifts, the financial status of the family, etc. Even after assigning a low estimate for the market value of basic household chores in a report titled Women’s Economic Contribution through Their Unpaid Household Work: The Case of India, researchers valued their contribution at $612.8 billion or 61% of the Gross Domestic Product. Every time I clean the fridge now I make sure I inform my children about my contribution to the economy.
I’m being facetious of course, but even in discussions on how women’s participation can boost GDP, the conversation is about creating more support services to “improve productivity”, implying that these women who run their own homes are currently unproductive.
That the conversation and debate about the value of domestic work is not new is both reassuring and dispiriting. We are making very slow progress whether we Lean In or choose not to have it all.
A complex art
Still, when art and literature turn their lens on the drudgery, it can be elevating. In 1935, the author and illustrator Wanga Gag published Gone is Gone, a gentle telling of a farmer who trades places with his wife for a workday and gets an unequivocal lesson in the value of her work.
Author Ursula K Le Guin likened housekeeping to other complex arts like piano-playing or story-writing, the mastery of which involved skills, choices of method and secrets, some teachable and some only hard-won from repetitive, methodical practice.
There are other examples too, but recently, I have come across two delightful celebrations of housework in art. A series of photographs by artist Sally Gall elevates laundry on the line with a sensuous fluidity. And a gigantic grocery list featuring familiars like paper towels, bananas, Nutella, is immortalised in granite. Called Memorial, the artist David Shrigley in New York acknowledges that memorials are for grander things, “But for most of us, what are the noble deeds of our lives?” What indeed.
I like to think that the idea is not just to acknowledge the contribution of unpaid work at home as something that facilitates the big machine but also to examine our biases towards women who grudgingly or otherwise make the choice (or maybe even more importantly, who didn’t have the choice but) to acquiesce to somewhat traditional roles.
And not just when you’re talking to them at home… but even at cocktail parties.