On March 24, when the nationwide lockdown was announced, a collective groan rang out in the WhatsApp group of the Gurgaon apartment complex where 29-year-old homemaker M lives with her husband and two toddlers.
None of the usual battalion of domestic workers would be allowed in from the next day, leaving 300 families to sort out household chores by themselves.
No one, M said, protested as much as the single guys living in shared apartments.
“We are not married. How will we eat and live?” the men on M’s WhatsApp group lamented.
The laughter and concern that rippled through the groups over this ‘anxiety’ of single men, confirmed one thing: nobody saw a problem with the idea of a woman being the designated person to do household chores and keep the men ‘fed’.
“Lucky that my husband has me, I guess. If it hadn’t been for me, I’m pretty sure he would have been crying like the rest of the guys,” M said.
This is a common thread in the mom’s groups I am in on WhatsApp and Facebook: the workload of women has risen exponentially during the lockdown. And there is a grudging acceptance of this among privileged women, some of who have as demanding professional lives as their male partners.
“I’ll keep them fed,” said one chartered accountant, “But they better not complain that it’s going to be dal-chawal four times a week. The usual five-star service is over because I have to also do jhadu-poncha, the kids’ homework, and my own office tasks.”
Others say their spouse is “helping” them, but implicit in that word is the idea that the woman is the primary dogsbody, and the man of the house is at best an odd-job man.
Nayamat Bawa, head psychologist with IWill by epsyclinic, a provider of online counselling services says that the inflow of calls and chat requests from distressed men and women have shot up during the lockdown.
“Some issues are more serious, such as being locked in with an abusive partner. But in other cases, couples are dealing with a lot of friction over the distribution of household chores. Suddenly, there is so much work to do at home, but they cannot pass the buck to others as they have done for so long. In most instances, it is the woman who is doing the bulk of the work, whether or not she also has office work,” Bawa said.
The reasons cited for it are different—the man refuses to do the work, or he was never taught to do it, or he does not perform chores the way the woman wants him to.
Why do so many men apparently lack the basic life skills that any adult should know? How is it that they have been able to get away with it for so long? Are they lacking in empathy for their chronically overworked partners (after all, for every six hours of domestic chores performed by a woman in India, a man does just one)? And why do so many educated, seemingly empowered women simply accept men’s convenient lack of ‘ability’, except for the occasional outburst?
“Why do so many educated, seemingly empowered women simply accept men’s convenient lack of ‘ability’, except for the occasional outburst?”
With the Covid-19 lockdown, the status quo is now under serious threat, with the home becoming ground zero. We are all becoming aware that survival in this time hinges on cooking, cleaning, and care tasks as much as it does on making enough money to get by.
According to mental health experts, behaviour change in both men and women is the need of the hour, but it means grappling with generations of patriarchal conditioning and excuse-making for men who are simply not stepping up to the plate (or washing those that lie in the sink).
Toxic conditioning and ‘Men just cannot’
Sushma Agarwal, a 65-year-old retired school teacher, suffers from a variety of ailments, including arthritis and diabetes. Yet, she insists on preparing three elaborate meals a day for six members of her family.
“My husband and I are staying with my son’s family for the lockdown. The cooking is very tiring, but my daughter-in-law helps sometimes,” Agarwal said.
What about her husband and son?
Sushma laughed, clearly amused.
“My husband cannot cook, obviously. And what’s the need for my son to do all this? He is in a high stress job. We women can handle it,” she said.
When reminded that her daughter-in-law works too, Sushma repeated herself.
“We women can handle it, we are stronger. Men just cannot.”
Sushma echoed a common belief in many Indian families that a man’s job is to be a provider and a protector, deserving of service and devotion at all costs by virtue of his gender. Housework is seen as somehow beneath his loftier pursuits of earning degrees and money. The same rules, however, do not apply to daughters who are also educated and earning.
““My husband cannot cook, obviously. And what’s the need for my son to do all this? He is in a high stress job. We women can handle it,” she said”
According to Dr Rajat Thukral, a psychologist with a private practice in South Delhi, even women who have always been encouraged to seek financial independence have learned—from family, popular culture, and wider society—that they must also be responsible for home, hearth and nurturance. For them it is not an either-or configuration as it is for many men. That’s why you will not see so many single women taking to social media and complaining that chopping a carrot is too much work.
In addition, women are conditioned, explicitly or implicitly, to tie their self-worth to how well they perform their traditional caregiving roles.
The stakes are not so high for men—including those who do perform household work—and they are less likely to invest much of their personal sense of value in how nutritious their cooking is, or how well their toddler can recite nursery rhymes.
Dr Umang Kochhar, a consultant psychiatrist in New Delhi, recalls a client who was distraught when her son performed poorly in his Class IX exam. “She saw it as a sign that she was a bad mother, rather than as the outcome of him not having taken his studies seriously enough,” Kochhar said. Women, thus, put an unnecessary amount of pressure on themselves and see themselves as responsible for others.
‘Nurturer’ vs ‘Provider’
For some women, pragmatism may overtake their principles. R, a doctor-turned-teacher with two children, says she and her mother-in-law do the bulk of the cooking and childcare, but she is sanguine about it.
“My husband’s work hours have increased because his office says that time is no longer being lost in commuting. As a Class XII teacher I too am facing more pressure, but my hours are not as punishing as his and the pay not as rewarding! We have to be smart about setting priorities in these times of uncertainty,” R said.
“The stakes are not so high for men—including those who do perform household work—and they are less likely to invest much of their personal sense of value in how nutritious their cooking is”
However, she too acknowledges her work not being taken as seriously as her husband’s is reflective of an imbalance—including the gender pay gap—in larger society.
After all, many men’s earnings are more substantial simply because they are not punished for having children and are not impeded by the proverbial glass ceiling or sticky floor.
Some other women we spoke to said they “preferred” to do more chores and childcare because they had higher standards than their partner. According to Thukral, there are multiple dimensions to women’s prioritizing of housework, ranging from “internalized oppression” to negotiating power and respect in the family for their performance of traditionally feminine roles.
Related to this is what Bawa calls Indian women’s tendency to “infantilize” men at home—much as their mothers did— and to accept shockingly low standards from them.
This perhaps is not so surprising in the case of 70-year-old dancer Prarthna, who grew up in a different generation. She says she is pleased that her husband does not kick up a fuss over the more basic lockdown menu and that she does not expect him to contribute more.
“We were brought up differently, so to us it was normal to have very clear expectations about what men and women should do. I have taught my sons to have more egalitarian views, but there is nothing wrong if a woman prioritises her role as a nurturer,” Prarthna said. However, despite her insistence on women’s role as nurtuters, she admits that she had to work ‘doubly hard’ to find time for her dancing, which was her career.
But even younger and more liberated women such as Sumita, a journalist in her 30s, subscribe to similar views but ascribe it to personal quirks rather than the insidious power of patriarchal social values.
“I’m so particular about how things should be done that I’d rather than my husband simply doesn’t interfere. I’d just have to redo it anyway. I do appreciate what he does do, and he’s better now than he was a decade ago. At least he puts his plate back in the sink,” Sumita said.
“I do appreciate what he does do, and he’s better now than he was a decade ago. At least he puts his plate back in the sink.””
Bawa pointed out that this kind of “babying” of men can have unintended negative consequences for both partners.
“Many women make jokes about needing to babysit their husband but under it there is a lot of guilt and conditioning,” she said. The dissonance between this conditioning to do the “second shift” of housework and women’s awareness of their own rights may lead to depression and anger outbursts when they are stretched beyond capacity.
“We all know how mothers are, right? Sometimes they will coddle and cosset their kids, and then sometimes they will nag and shout at them to clean their rooms. This is how many wives treat their husbands, and it does not promote a relationship based on equality and respect. It is better to state your needs clearly and confidently rather than having anger outbursts now and then,” said Bawa.
Gender conditioning and the lockdown
The lockdown may also be a particularly fertile juncture to sow the seeds of change, and this desire to do better may come from within men themselves.
S says that the lockdown has had a surprisingly positive impact on her septuagenarian parents, who are living by themselves in Chandigarh: “A few days ago, my father shared a photo of some aloo sabzi he had made, and then of some groceries he had bought. It shocked us because when we were kids, he never even entered the kitchen. Now he is happy he is doing more. Mom feels a little awkward about it, but she likes it.”
Thukral believes the lockdown is forcing many men to re-evaluate the skills they hold important, regardless of the monetary value attached to them. “This lockdown has made us relook at the value of labour within the house, even if it is unpaid,” she said.
Kochhar made a similar point. “Men, by and large, tend to have more empathy for working partners, but in the lockdown, they will also hopefully see how much work goes into homemaking alone as well,” he said.
“Thukral believes the lockdown is forcing many men to re-evaluate the skills they hold important, regardless of the monetary value attached to them.”
Kochhar believes that many urban, educated men are making more of an effort. “Social change is a slow process. Many men were never taught these life skills, they were never given these values,” he said.
So, are we stuck? Do men continue to reap the benefits of their so-called learned helplessness in domestic matters, while women lose themselves to the tyranny of dirty dishes and snotty noses. Can we not expect some empathy?
Kochhar says that with men having fewer reasons to push for a change, it is time for women to take more ownership of their needs and to assert their rights.
While this seems to put much of the onus on women, Kochhar points out that many do not fight for their rights at home. Indeed, many of the women we spoke to were well aware of the unfairness of the division of labour in their homes, but also seemed resigned to it.
Why speaking up is so hard
N, a teacher who lives in a traditional joint family, says she actually celebrated when she got her period this month.
“It has always galled me that the family does not allow menstruating women to enter the kitchen, but this time I was, like, yay.”
It never occurred to her to simply ask other members of the family to do some of the work just because she was tired or did not feel like it.
According to Kochhar, the ability to speak up depends on a woman’s upbringing, education, financial independence, and how much support she has in her family of origin.
“If she feels she has nowhere to turn other than the marital home, then she will be less likely to stand up for herself. Many women have nowhere to turn, and for them speaking up seems dangerous,” he said.
““It has always galled me that the family does not allow menstruating women to enter the kitchen, but this time I was, like, yay.””
There are also other cultural factors at play. “I have two clinics—one in Faridabad where I see many rural and lower middle-class people and one in well-heeled South Delhi,” said Kochhar.
“Interestingly, the rural women from Haryana, which by all means is a highly patriarchal society, are often more upfront with their men, because they do not see asking for help as a sign of personal shortcoming.”
Meanwhile, many financially privileged, economically independent women are stuck in a Catch-22 situation, says Bawa. On one hand they are buried in a never-ending avalanche of work and home pressures, but are hesitant to ask for the help they need because of misplaced guilt and a desire to conform to the superwoman archetype—the woman who not just has it all, but does it all. It’s the worst of all worlds, and it is not sustainable.
All the experts we spoke to agree that the first step towards constructive change is a clear communication of needs.
Thukral says this is not the time to hope that sighs and a long face will get the message across. “Many of us have grown up with the Sita myth, the idea that women must sacrifice themselves. However, burn-out can be the result of that. Even if you find it difficult, you have to be clear and specific,” Thukral said.
Charting a new normal, practically
According to Kochhar, even if men have been failed by their upbringing, they can be “coached” into improving. “It is not realistic to expect them to transform overnight, especially once they’ve reached a certain age,” he says.
“Long-standing patterns of behaviour can be very deeply ingrained, but small improvements can happen by setting new expectations clearly and helping them build their skillsets.”
The therapists and psychologists HuffPost India spoke to, recommend that couples take a strategic approach to manage the new demands they are faced with:
Start collaborating: It is crucial for a couple to sit together and list all the household/childcare tasks that need to be done. “A top-down approach with the woman doing all the mental labour will not work best,” says Bawa. “You both need to plan and take responsibility together.”
Play to your strengths: According to Bawa, there will be less stress in the home if couples play to their strengths. “If he enjoys cooking, let him do it. If she prefers sweeping, let her do it. If you both like or dislike something, you can both do the job on alternative days. There needs to be some flexibility, but once both parties have agreed to a certain format, it is easier to stick to than starting each day with a blank slate. Predictability helps in unpredictable times,” she says.
A similar arrangement has worked out well for Anshu and Vivek Srivastava, parents of a five-year-old daughter. “We are enjoying this time where we can work together at home. We have a schedule that we decided and there is very little conflict as a result.”
Do not micromanage: It is crucial to treat your partner as an adult, regardless of their gender. “This means letting them take control of the work they are doing,” says Bawa. “If he wants to do the laundry at 7pm and you prefer it at 7am, let it be. Don’t do the job yourself. Let go and let them take ownership and be empowered at home.”
Manage your expectations: These are not normal times, and our expectations of people and situations both have to change in order for us to adapt.
“Think about survival and your mental health rather than nitty-gritties that do not matter very much in the larger scheme of things,” says Bawa—even if you were brought up to care about things such as dusty corners. Sonika Verma, a technical writer who is currently a homemaker says, “I am usually a very particular person, but I do not keep track of how my husband is handling his tasks as long as he does the job,” she says. Her husband Suryadeep, a management professional, says, “I am much more involved in household tasks now, but it has been smooth because we communicate clearly about what needs to be done and do not step on each other’s toes.”
Keep the mood light: “In these hard times, a positive home environment is very important,” says Bawa. “It’s imperative that we are appreciative of each other and the contribution everyone makes.” Thukral says this extends to appreciation of oneself. “Prioritize self-care and make sure you each take out time every day to recharge in your own way, or your immunity will suffer.”