Lockdown Investigation: Who Picks Up The Dirty Cups?
In the dawn of the current global lockdown, a Tweet from Molly Tolksy, a New York based writer, offered a witty pro-tip for couples in quarantine.
Pro-tip for couples suddenly working from home together: Get yourselves an imaginary coworker to blame things on. In our apartment, Cheryl keeps leaving her dirty water cups all over the place and we really don't know what to do about her.— Molly Tolsky (@mollytolsky) March 16, 2020
It sounds wonderful to have a Cheryl to blame the mess on, but how many cups have to pile up before someone not imaginary has to step up and take responsibility? At some point, someone has to put their work, or downtime, aside, and pick up the dirty dishes. And cook. And do the laundry.
The narrative that is often reiterated is that division of household chores is skewed between sexes. Women do significantly more around the house than men do, regardless of professional commitments. Bring a child into the mix, and the burden on women multiplies.
A lot of the work done around the house is invisible. If all your life, someone has picked up after you, you'll grow up to be an adult who doesn't notice that someone picks up after you. You are programmed to think that the house gets cleaned up on its own, or with minimal effort, because no one has created noise about it. And indeed, it is true that in many Indian families, women silently and stoically take on the entire load of keeping the house in good shape. This entails everything from supervising the domestic help to deciding the daily menu, and in joint family setups, even keeping all family members adequately pleased. The labour, really, is in the small things - Who makes the morning tea or coffee? Who picks up the dishes? Who puts the laundry in the laundry basket? Who decides, and executes, the daily menu? These micro-tasks add up to the macro-burden, which in many homes, falls upon the women.
One would think that during the present times, while we are all locked in our homes with no option to step away and rejuvenate, the aforementioned gender gap would amplify, and even begin to show up in relationships that manage to stay more or less egalitarian until a crisis arises, and men are expected to “act like men”, and women are expected to “act like women”. Much like in families where women are encouraged to pursue an education and get a high paying, and even demanding job, until it’s time to get married or have a child.
I personally know a lot of young couples, either married or otherwise cohabiting, where both partners are working, and gender roles are fluid. If the woman is working late, the man would arrange for food. The two often cook together. Making the bed in the morning is a joint chore. But, as domestic help can’t get to work during the lockdown, I wondered if this new reality might be bringing some of our latent gender biases to the surface. How would men and women divide chores if they had to do everything - from sweeping to cooking to laundry - on their own? Add to the mix, parents, who have the added responsibility of a child. How are people managing without help, or the option to have parents or friends occasionally visit and help out, and with a ton of both professional and personal work? Are women forced to take up majority of the work around the house?
As I learnt through the course of working on this story, in words of one woman I spoke to, ‘Indian men are willing to do more than we give credit to them.’ Poorva Jassi, 32, is a mom of a two year old, and lives with her husband, and parents-in-law. ‘I am fortunate enough to be married into a house where my father-in-law takes pride in cooking. So since day one of this lockdown, we have been presented with one delicious dish after another. My mother-in-law does the laundry, and she and I have divided the cleaning and upkeep of the house between ourselves, while the boys take charge of other things. I am working from home, and have a lot of work calls to take during the day. So I divide my time between emails, vacuuming, mopping, and baby. My husband helps me with making the bed, and keeping the little one busy. He also cleans the bathroom and folds the laundry. My son, who is two and a half, is learning to water the plants, and helps dust the room. It’s really been a time of sharing the load!’
Sounds picture perfect, doesn’t it? But, this sums up the narrative of many women I spoke to.
“We have full time help. I know it’s a complete luxury right now! But on the days that she was unwell, I did the cleaning, and Kshitij, my husband gave our Daughter Ayra a bath and fed her breakfast. Cooking is between me and the maid. My MIL rarely cooks. She’s the executive director at power grid of India, so she’s always working! My father-in-law makes tea in the morning and gives it to her. He actually does the maximum work around the house. Fetches all the groceries, fruits and vegetables. Laundry hasn’t been tough because we have didi [help]. We put the clothes in the machine at night, and Kshitij’s dadi is pretty anal about clothes so 5:30 in the morning the machine starts and by 8 they are up and drying.”
“When it comes to housework and gender roles, life hasn't changed much for us. When we moved out of India, it was understood between us that we will share the work. So now when we work from home, the division of work continues. In my conversations with other Indian women here, it seems many of them carry their traditional and patriarchal roles with them, where the woman continues to look after the house and the man goes to work. I hope this changes things, where both partners begin to take responsibility.”
“We live with my in-laws, and have house help living with us, so it’s relatively easy. However, my husband is an equal partner in that he cooks, cleans, picks up after me and everything. If I can’t cook, mainly because my WFH involves me actually working from home, he even decides what dish needs to be made, what we will need for it etc and then confirms it with me. In many ways, I have my MIL to thank for making him so independent. Of course, since my MIL is still traditional in some ways, if something needs to be done, it’s likely that my name comes first to her than his. But I guess that’s just...well, I’ve made my peace with it. But also, if my husband left everything to me, I would just let it be. Because I’m not going to spread myself thin to get things done.”
“I'm working from home but my partner is highly supportive. I got a big glass of juice and sliced fruits mid day followed by dal ka paranthas.”
“So lockdown has turned out to be an absolutely crazy time for us!
We’re working parents which means doing two full-time jobs right now. Taking care of our one-year-old and working 9 hours a day. My husband and I try to divide responsibilities but he ends up doing a bulk of the work - cooking, cleaning the floors, changing diapers and hanging up clothes. I wash the dishes, fold the clothes and in general keep the house neat because those are chores he’s not fond of at all. I know a lot of people are talking about how husbands or men need to share the load, but that’s never ever been an issue in our home. I don’t consider myself lucky though. After all, a man has equal responsibility to look after the home he lives in. And yes, like everyone else we are without a maid and nanny.
Fun fact: For the last 1.5 years, my mom has been cooking for us and we’d pick up our meals from her home. Now that’s changed and we have to do everything ourselves but it’s about time we started adulting!”
“I live with my husband and we're both working from home so we've essentially divided up the house into two, along with the chores! If my husband is cooking, I do the dishes; if I am, he does them. He is better at laundry so he takes care of that! Where cleaning the house is concerned, I sweep while he wipes. It's a pretty collaborative process!”
It sounds like peer marriage - a marriage founded on equality and flexibility - is a reality closer than we think, for many young, urban Indians. Indeed, in my own marriage, my personal assumptions and gender stereotypes are challenged every single day. Since the lockdown, I have been working approximately 10 hours a day, while my husband has taken it upon himself to keep the house in shape. Though we have full-time help, and honestly, little to do by way of upkeep, he makes the bed, and often brings me food while I’m in a Zoom meeting.
That being said, this is not the reality for all couples out there. Amita Dogra, mother of two, tells me that her husband “lives the king-size life; he has no role in the household.”
“My husband lives the king-size life; he has no role in the household. I do most of the stuff though I have no complaints. I have a helper, so things are not that difficult. Cooking is my passion, and I research traditional Indian recipes. So cooking is therapeutic in these times. On a lighter note I think men are too dumb to do household chores efficiently. So, to avoid mess I never even ask.”
I am reminded of an article I once read by a 27 year old Indian man, who moved out to live alone for the first time in his life, and realised how inept he was at basic survival. He didn’t even know how to cook maggi! He wrote about how his mother would forbid him from entering the kitchen. It wasn’t a place where men belonged. And so, he never learned how to feed himself. This was, indeed, the reality of many men in our father’s generation. And certainly, many women in our mother’s generation echo Amita’s sentiments. My mother, too, has moments where she’d rather do things around the house by herself than coach my father. But, my parents have evolved over time. Over 60 and living without children, now they have a marriage more equal than they did in their 40s. In the last two decades, they have kept up with the changing times, and altered their roles to not be bound by gender.
“So I'm locked in with Dhruv, and we have been managing cooking, cleaning, laundry all on our own. After many trials-and-errors, we have finally reached a balanced distribution of labour. We have converted it to a game of tag so whenever I complete a chore, I tag him and say, 'you're it!'. Then the next house chore, whether it’s cooking or doing the dishes, is up to him. This way both of us are alternating between tasks.
However, I continue to work mornings with online classes, whereas Dhruv has more down time in the mornings so he mostly ends up taking care of breakfast. I usually take care of the laundry and cleaning simply because I'm picky and anal about the way I like the house cleaned - standards which Dhruv’s cleaning never meet!
Distribution of labour is mostly even but since I'm more of a cleanliness freak, I end up taking on more cleaning tasks and he takes on meals. I think the way I see gender roles play into this is past conditioning. I notice many small house and kitchen tasks are completely natural and old to me but brand new to Dhruv. I remember doing them as a little girl with my mom. Maybe his household was different, but I can also imagine my brother not knowing those tasks so I feel even though the labour is balanced now, the past conditioning isn't. But also some of the way he does household things are new, refreshing and quite surprising. Goes to show that if novices learn household tasks as they go, they can come up with quite a few interesting innovations!”
Have men and women of our generation been socialised in the same way? Not quite. But, undoubtedly, our prejudices are vehemently scrutinised. One significant change between our generation and the one before ours is that women now don’t hesitate as much to hold men accountable, and men now pay heed and step up and help where needed.
While my husband and I were making the bed last morning, I asked him for a quote for this story. Irritated much in the same way an adult gets irritated by a child repeatedly asking why the earth is round and not trapezium shaped, he huffed, “How does it matter who does things around the house? It’s work that needs to be done. You just do it. It doesn’t matter whether the woman does it or the man.” He then walked to the kitchen to arrange for breakfast. He’s not the only one who doesn’t see chores as either masculine or feminine. He's not special. There are more men out there like him, and of course, women, too.
In the end, it doesn’t matter who picks up the dirty cups, as long as everyone is willing, and it’s not the same person who ends up doing it every time!