Sharing household duties is the new normal

Menaka Raman

I still remember the conversation I had with my husband in early March last year. Covid 19 cases were rising in Bengaluru and families in our residential community were asking their part-time helpers to stop coming in to work as a precaution.

It was time we did the same, I said.

“But who will do everything?” my husband asked. “You won’t be able to manage it all yourself!” His eyes were fearful like a badger caught in a trap.

“You’re right, I won’t be able to do all of it myself. Which is why all of you need to step up,” I said firmly, casting a meaningful glance around the dinner table at him and our two sons.

The family dog went and hid behind the sofa.

It’s a well-documented fact that the burden of unpaid domestic labour falls disproportionately on the shoulders of women and girls. In 2018, an International Labour Organization report stated that women in urban India spent 312 minutes a day on unpaid care work. Men did 29 minutes. This unpaid labour is often called invisible labour, though I would challenge that everyone sees and knows who does this work, they choose not to acknowledge it.

But during the lockdown, many men – like my husband and sons – had no choice but to pitch in. There was no office or school to use as an excuse, everyone was at home all the time, and of course, part time help had ceased. News outlets reported how for the first time, the gender gap in average hours spent on domestic work decreased in the first month of the lockdown, nationally as well as across most states. Men devoted an extra hour to housework – 2.5 hours in April compared to 1.5 hours in December. Social media timelines were filled with images of men cooking biryani, ruminating over the zenness of hanging the clothes out to dry and tweeting about what podcasts they listened to while doing the dishes. Some experts were even hopeful that this would lead to a longer lasting change in gender norms. Yet it wasn’t all good news. One study by the non-profit their world revealed that girls and young women aged between 14 and 24 were taking on more responsibility for the majority of household chores during the pandemic, leaving them less time to focus on their education. When girls are locked out of school, traditional household roles become further entrenched, placing future education prospects in jeopardy.

As the mother of two boys, it has always been important that my children saw their father as equally capable of caring for the family and home. It’s a goal that’s difficult to achieve especially in India where from birth, Indian middle class children see women – family members and paid help – make their beds, get them snacks, tidy away their toys and clean up their mess.

So how does one begin to sensitize children to the fact that it doesn’t have to be this way? I’ve always found books to be a wonderful ally in having conversations at home, and showing the children how things might be without having to say it myself.

Children’s books are often reflective of the times they are created in. In Enid Blyton’s books more often than not, the girls are often packing picnics while boys volunteer for dangerous adventures. The mother is almost always hanging up the washing while the father is off doing important work. But dig a little deeper and one will find books that champion gender equity. Kamala Bhasin (Feminist activist, poet, author and social scientist) published a collection of illustrated nursery rhymes called House Work is Everyone’s work: Rhymes of Just and Happy Families decades ago. In it, readers can see working mothers, stay at home fathers and an equal division of labour. In recent years Indian children’s book publishers have found ways to show what it looks like for everyone to take on roles of caring without force fitting it into the stories.

In Vinayak Varma’s Angry Akku (Pratham Books) it is Akku’s father who picks her up from school, makes her buttermilk and hot vada is when they reach home in an attempt to find out what’s bothering her. In When Will Amma Be Back? written by Prathiba Swaminathan and illustrated by Alankrita Amaya, Roja’s mother leaves for work early in the day and it’s her father and grandfather who cook lunch, take her to the park and pass the time with her. Abba’s Day by Sunaina Ali and Debasmita Dasgupta (Katha) is a fine example of how parents can lead by example, with Abba making chai, going to the market and more. Lavanya Karthik’s I Won’t Eat That (Ms. Moochie) shows a father who cooks painstakingly for daughter Chinna every day. Ammachi’s Amazing Machines by Rajiv Eipe (Pratham Books) shows children a grandmother who is an inventor, neatly turning stereotypes on their head.

It’s important to remember here that books can’t do everything on their own. At some level children sense that books and cinema are make-believe, so if they only see equality in picture books but not practiced in their home, they may be less likely to believe that it’s possible.

I want to be honest here and say that my husband didn’t automatically assume domestic roles and responsibilities. It took years of talking, some fighting and reminding him that he needed to do more. It took asking my family to not jump in and feel sorry for him (or the children) when they did take on work around the home.

Family interference is a very real problem. Something my friend Sailakshmi, a former banker, who is currently a Librarian and hobbyist knows all too well. Sailakshmi and her husband Deepak are also raising two boys, and are one of the parents I know who made a conscious decision to teach their children certain skills.

Sailakshmi was brought up in a household, where everyone pitched in to get the house up and running, regardless of age or gender, something her husband didn’t experience when growing up. She admits that her in-laws did initially find it very alarming that the ‘boys’ were expected to partake in running the house. “The whole idea was initially met with resistance. Friends sometimes feel sorry for my children and think we are being hard taskmasters,” Sai shared over email. “Although, when the pandemic hit us, and when I had a health setback – it is because of how we raised them that running the house became so much easier. So friends have realized that it is indeed a good idea to get children more involved.”

But we shouldn’t have to wait for a health scare or a pandemic lockdown to hit to start teaching our children how to contribute towards running a home.

Start now, no matter how young your children are. Sai shares that when her boys turned about 6-7 years of age, they each began taking on simple tasks around the home, or learning how to run a household appliance and making it part of their routine. A simple internet search will throw up numerous ‘age appropriate chore lists for children’. From tidying their own room for toddlers, to loading the washing machine for children in primary school to cooking a simple meal for tweens – teaching children to climb the ladder of home skills is just as important as them climbing corporate ladders of success in the future.

Sai’s email made me realize how often I myself have been a hindrance in my children’s acquisition of life skills. My excuses were those of many other mothers – it would be easier and quicker if I just did the work myself! They won’t be able to do it the right way and I’ll have to do it again! There’s not enough time – long commutes to school and back, extra-curricular activities, homework – asking them to take on more work is cruel!

And then the lockdown happened. No school commute. No classes or activities. We had nothing but time, and I needed all the help I could get.

So, I created rosters and assigned duties. My husband bought groceries, did the dishes, walked the dog, set the table for meals and cleared it away (learning the important skill of transferring leftovers to smaller vessels instead of trying to stuff everything into the fridge). By April end the boys could boil milk, make dosas, cut vegetables and operate the gas. Laundry, dishes, sanitizing and putting away deliveries, meal prep, mopping and toilet cleaning – there was nothing that I didn’t ask them to do – except perhaps sit in on Zoom calls for me.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. The 9-year-old cringed when touching my undergarments or taking my cloth sanitary pads down from the line. The pre-teen demanded pocket money in exchange for his labour. The tomatoes were once stored with the onions and potatoes, something I noticed after a strange smell started wafting around the kitchen. It took immense will power to bite back the sharp retorts at the tip of my tongue. To explain that it was just cloth. To reason that not everything was a transaction. To laugh and move on.

In a world that’s increasingly obsessed with teaching our children coding and equipping them with 21st century skills they’ll need for future jobs that don’t even exist yet, I was finally teaching my children life skills.

How to live.

Looking back, I realize that these are skills once taught in schools under the name of home economics.

Stereotyped for decades as “girls’ classes” home economics was once about teaching young girls how to transition into life as a homemaker, equipping them with the skills they would need to run a house. But I think it’s safe to say that today all our children need to be able to do this. Otherwise they grow up into individuals who need to sign up for adulting courses. While cooking and housekeeping are core to home economics or home sciences, looked at through a wider lens it also includes nutrition, personal finance, wellness and consumer issues. Children should know how to save money, file their taxes, plant a kitchen garden, recycle, change a light bulb and sew a button.

Bringing home economics back into school curricula and making it compulsory for all learners will be a way to equip them with life skills.

I’m not saying for one minute that this is the purview of schools and educators alone, rather it’s something schools and parents must see as important for our children to learn. As important as coding and chemical equations. Teaching our children home economics or home management skills is about teaching them self-care.

We are now in a post lockdown world. We continue to work from home, online school is in full swing and I won’t lie, I welcomed my house help back home like Jaya Bacchhan welcomed her children home in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Ghum.

As we navigate the new normal, it has been hard to not get sucked back into old ways, to not make excuses or feel ‘sorry’ for the children. I need to constantly remind myself not to do things for the boys that they now know how to do themselves. And if family members do slide back into old habits, instead of fuming and fretting I call it out.

Yes, it’s tiring and annoying at times, but when the children bring me a snack when they’re making one for themselves, or start putting the groceries away without being asked to, I know it’s worth it. That we’re on the right track.

I still remember when I was going to get married how my mother apologetically told my future in-laws that I didn’t know how to cook, but that she would set that right before the wedding. My in-laws felt no need to apologize for their son’s lack of culinary skills and made no such promises in return.

It’s a scenario that still plays out across the country and sets the tone for many relationships, career paths and life decisions. I’d like to think that one day we won’t need to make such promises on behalf of our daughters because there won’t be assumptions around what is women’s work. We would have realized Kamala Bhasin’s idea that house work is everyone’s work.

Perhaps that will be the new normal.

The author is a children’s book writer, columnist and communications consultant. She can be reached at [email protected] and @menakaraman on Twitter and at @mothership80 on Instagram.

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