Growing up in the 90s, I went to an all-girls school in Hyderabad, which tried to balance our academic education along with our exposure to life essentials like arts and sports. There were frequent excursions, and after middle school, we all had to take an extra-curricular activity from a variety of options each term. So, it was quite a surprise when we were presented with a strange predicament, at the all-important juncture of class 9, no less. (We would be appearing for the ICSE Board Exams in class 10).
We could, if we wanted to, drop mathematics and science, in favor of accounts and commerce.
And that wasn’t all.
The entire batch had to choose a “third subject” between computer applications and home science!
My batch was the first to have to make this life-changing decision – so we couldn’t call on the time-tested wisdom of friendly seniors or request the advice of our favorite teachers. We were on our own, and we had to lock in our choices (and perhaps our lives) before we were off for the summer!
Having been introduced to computer applications in class 8, we knew that this subject would delve deeper into software/programming languages like Java and C++. But many of us, myself included, were wary of the subject matter of home science. By definition, the syllabus would include how to manage the home. But what would it mean, and imply, by extension? What, if anything, was scientific about it? And was there a masked gendered aspect in “teaching” it to us?
“Computer applications did not interest me, so home science was my obvious subject choice. In retrospect, I am glad I went for it,” shares Supriya Surana, a Hyderabadi business woman.
She continues, “It’s because of this subject that I know some of the ‘invisible’ aspects of a home, crucial elements that affect all residents of the home – but we’ve been conditioned to think that women alone need to know and take care of them.”
So what goes into making and managing a home?
“Running the household efficiently, budgeting in the right way, and saving for the future,” offers Nida Saiyed, a teacher in Ahmedabad.
Nida observed the dynamics at her home from her girlhood days – while her father was the sole breadwinner of the family, her mother ran the household.
She tells me that it was her mother’s responsibility to make sure everything fitted within the budget, and that, “she was the one who taught me that women need to take responsibility for such things. It’s only recently that I have begun realizing that both men and women should play a role in home management, but I think it will take a long time for this to become a reality. At least in my culture.”
The economics are a major part, but Raisa Bhatia, a Hyderabad-based psychologist, says that home management is much more complex. Often called the mental load, it involves observing (significant education/career/health landmarks and markers), planning (meals, schedules, occasions), organizing (things, spaces), and caring (visits to medical health providers, medications, follow-ups), among other responsibilities.
Naturally, the power of compounding complicates these processes as the number of members in the family increases.
Raisa adds, “I also realized gender roles play a huge part – there’s a lot of stuff that women are naturally expected to do even if both partners are working full-time. But over time, my husband and I came to a mutual understanding. I cook our meals and supervise the domestic staff, while he takes care of the cleaning and repairs/fixes, etc.”
Whose home is it?
So, while a lot goes into making a home, its maker is typically a woman. She is no longer called a housewife, but the gendered role and designation remains a fact.
Nida’s husband, Mubassir, a banker, learnt cooking and other chores while working away from home. Living alone, he learnt to appreciate the importance of home management. While he agrees that all children need to participate in the chores, he points out the gender disparities, “I had not been taught many of these things as a child because it is seen as a woman’s role to take care of the house.”
Niyati Juthani, an advocate from Ahmedabad, shares that she regularly took up chores like washing utensils or clothes when younger and cooking when older. Her husband, Dhaval, a banker, also participated in chores from an early age. But they had a realization while setting up their home and life after marriage. She shares, “We realized early on that if I was a home-maker instead of a working woman, it would be easier to manage the chores and responsibilities. Since we’re both earning, we share the responsibility to manage what we earn and do the best for our home.”
In that sense, their domestic set-up is quite different from that of their respective childhood homes, where their fathers ‘earned’ and mothers managed the home.
But that’s not always the case.
Although Nida works as a teacher, her paid work day is shorter than that of Mubassir, who’s a banker. So, it seems to make sense for them that she is the one to keep everything in order. “But,” she shares, “even if I were working longer, I think it would still be me taking care of the house.”
Mubassir states, “Our current situation is the same as my childhood home. I focus more on my job, while my wife looks after the home, just like our parents did. I know it’s not equal or fair but it’s working out for us. I do try and help out by doing the shopping or running other errands from time to time. But without my wife, the home would be unmanageable for sure.”
Generations of patriarchy have ensured that all this, and much more, falls on the overflowing plate of the women of the house. Isn’t it at all surprising when a global pandemic notwithstanding, a working mother from Mumbai started an online petition to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, calling out how “women’s care work continues to be invisible”? Note that the petitioner in question was a “working” woman.
This disproportionate distribution does not merely highlight the differences in how men and women spend the minutes in their day, but in the inequitable value assigned to their work. And when all of women’s work is unpaid, as in the case of home-makers, it comes with financial dependence and a sense of conditioned inferiority. Perhaps it was to emphasize the endless mental load and emotional labor that home-makers started using the term “stay-at-home mom”.
There are various surveys and reports – nationally and internationally – to highlight this disparity. For instance, a 2018 report from the International Labor Organization pointed out that urban Indian women spent as many as 312 minutes a day on unpaid care work, in stark contrast to men with their meagre 29 minutes. The disparity in rural India was about the same, with 291 women’s minutes as against 32 of the men’s. But when those tasked with analyzing these reports are primarily men, what, if anything, can be the expected outcome?
Instead of getting men to share the burden, would it be more worthwhile to assign monetary value to women’s work?
Like mother, (un)like daughter
Geographical location, socio-economic status, and living situation are some factors that have an indirect influence on men’s participation in domestic life. If they see male figures contributing equally, they may be more likely to imbibe values of gender equality.
Abhileen Chaturvedi, a Mumbai-based lawyer, tells me that he enjoys cooking and learnt how to cook various dishes from his grandmother and mother. “My father is a Sunday chef, so I took up chole and rajma skills from him!”
Exposure to different cultures, where domestic work is less gendered also helps in sensitization. Of course, it’s also more expensive to outsource these on a shoestring budget with a student or work visa. In these situations, one has no option but to grit their teeth and get on with these seemingly unpleasant tasks. Abhileen too experienced this while studying abroad. While he hired a domestic helper on returning to Mumbai, he lives alone and manages his home by himself.
He tells me how the COVID-19 lockdown was a revelation for him, “Earlier, I would clean and cook as an option, but had to do these tasks out of compulsion during the lockdown months. Although my culinary skills improved, it was not fun to have to clean the house, do the dishes, and the clothes. But all these had to be done.”
One could argue that the independence of living alone overshadows the difficulties of doing so. The complications arise when individuals of different genders live together, married or not. Of course, fewer things are more complicated than the equation formed by a married heterosexual Indian couple.
“I’m the oldest of three siblings, so I learnt domestic work quite early. My parents shared the tasks of cooking and cleaning, and taught my brother and sister to do so equally. For us, therefore, doing things around the house was a fun activity, where we all came together and shared the tasks. But after I got married, I saw that the situation at my husband’s house was entirely different,” recalls Yashaswini Sharma, a Hyderabad-based consultant.
A married woman living with her husband in a nuclear family setup, for instance, is likely to have more agency in demanding inputs from her male partner than her counterpart living in a joint family. This is because, as soon as they are married, the home is her domain; in corporate speak, the home is the project, the wife is the project manager as well as the executive, while the husband acts as the honorary member or external consultant. This analogy was first explored in a 2017 comic by a French artist.
When I ask Yashaswini to elaborate, she says, “My husband is very fussy about his meals, there are few things he likes and fewer that he eats. And now that I’m an official part of the family, I’m expected to cook even after a long day at work. There are no such expectations from him or my sister-in-law. It’s upsetting when I think about it, but I still do it to maintain harmony, as that’s more valuable to me. Whenever I visit my parents and see my brother cook a meal or my father make me a cup of tea, I feel so proud.”
Everything about the home – architecture, organization, economics – is scientific. While I had chosen to study computer applications all those years ago, I’m no longer wary of the scientific traits or academic principles of home science. And like the individuals quoted here, and countless others not (mis)represented, I, too, am negotiating my compromises and deal-breakers.
Perhaps I could even go so far as to study this subject, but only if it is taught to men too. It would make them realize how these patriarchal systems continue to harm them.
The author is a content specialist based in Hyderabad. She can be reached at [email protected].