By Arundhati Bhanot
What’s the big deal about cooking a few meals, playing with kids and looking after your own house? Perhaps it’s time we found out
It’s six in the morning. The alarm clock shrieks. Her time starts now. She is up and about. She lights the burners. Rushes about packing lunch boxes. Organizes breakfast. Urges the kids to wake up. Supervises their getting ready for school.
All within minutes of each other.
Then there is the house to be set in order, clothes to be washed, vegetables to be fetched, meals to be prepared, children to be received from school, their school work to be supervised. Overlooking a series of miscellaneous errands, there is also the house budget to be balanced and domestic harmony to be maintained. To top it, when any working member of the family returns after the long day’s toil, she is expected to cater to the needs of that person, give water, and serve food— since it is assumed that she obviously had her rest throughout the day. This is the endless stream that defines the lives of a large number of people (mostly women) who are engaged in housework. They work day after day without either a pay cheque that makes the world slog or a promotion as an evidence of appreciation. They don’t even get the one day off that all office goers so anxiously wait for.
Statistics show that 99 per cent of the workforce engaged in housework are women. But, with no recognized forum to voice their opinion, what do these relentless workers actually feel about their years of service? Does ‘housework’ also qualify as work? Should it be considered a profession like other mainstream jobs? And if so, does it fall into the bracket of mere physical labour, or can it aspire for the same respect that a blue-collared job demands?
Does housework fall into the bracket of mere physical labour, or can it aspire for the same respect that a white-collared 44job demands?
A dialogue with housewives points to a rigorous work schedule that lasts many hours. The average number of hours spent doing housework varies from six to 12, starting with the break of the day to when one retires to bed. And this, in most cases, requires not only sheer physical work, but also excellent management skills to balance the work hours, divide time between spouse and children, as well as monitor miscellaneous paid workers such as maids, gardeners and cooks.
The increasing number of physical and mental ailments among housewives may be attributed to overwork. In fact, statistics suggest that the highest consumers of minor tranquillizers are women engaged in housework who often suffer from insomnia, palpitations, headaches, dizziness, nightmares and anxiety. And not without reason.
Aradhna Bhalla was a journalist with a leading daily before she decided to become a ‘homemaker’. The idea was to take a break from the hectic office activity that was stressing her out. Little did she know what housework entailed. “I soon found myself working for 12 hours at a stretch.” She also relates the sudden change in the attitude of people, her own family, friends and relatives, who considered it a let down. When she accompanied her husband to social get-togethers, she was always asked: “What do you do?”
In a culture defined by status that a job bestows, there is definitely a sense of discrimination attached to housework. Usha Bhanot, a housewife for the last 30 years, says: “Even if you don’t feel it, others give you an inferiority complex.” Delhi-based Shalini Saini, who gave up her job with Airtel five years back when she had her daughter, says: “My friends often tell me that I am wasting my talent.”
Another aspect closely associated with this sense of discrimination is lack of appreciation. Saroj Thakur, a 39-year-old housewife, says: “Most people don’t consider housework as work.” People working at home are often taken for granted. “Try and goof-up with a meal one day and you get dirty glares from everybody. Not being able to tidy the house or declining to cook tantamount to rebellion,” Bhalla says. Since the dawn of civilization, housework has failed to qualify as work. It is considered a responsibility bestowed through marriage than a job option.
With growing consciousness about the nature of work and individual rights, a group of housewives in the UK are demanding wages and a day off for their contribution to the household. Selma James of the Wages for Housework Campaign told BBC News that women should be paid 500 to 600 pound per week for doing housework. “We also want the acknowledgement from society that the work we are doing is fundamental and important.”
Ashima Singh, a former radio and TV personality, who gave up a successful career to stay at home and look after her mentally challenged son, does not agree: “Abroad, we equate everything with wages. But in India we are paid by a clear delineation of work where housewife is the decision maker.”
But this again is true for only a few households. According to Bhanot, women often take decisions in matters related to children and household, but it is the working partner who controls the finances.
V. Venkat, an assistant general manager with a magazine whose wife Kamla is a housewife, says: “It will be undignified to compensate wives with a salary. Giving them one day off will not make up for their amount of contribution. Love and affection is the only means to express gratitude.” An easy way out? Perhaps. Kamla feels that affection expressed through assistance in household chores would be a greater help. “It’s easy to say ‘I love you’. But what about sharing the household responsibilities?” asks Bhalla.
In fact, almost all housewives we met applauded the idea of having one holiday in a week. “It will be a welcome relief,” sighs Bhanot, while Madhu Malik thinks that it will be good to let them break their routine and “not feel guilty about it”. Nidhi Ratnakar laments: “Where is the possibility? I need a vacation.”
Drudgery or Creativity?
Coming back to the nature of household work, let’s see how much creativity housework involves.
Housework can become a mundane affair when done as a routine. The drudgery of working in a closed atmosphere, within the confines of home, can be quite overwhelming. But it can also be a measure of creativity, an extension of one’s personality.
Saini, who is happy being at home and looking after her daughter Sahar, feels: “I think that I am more creative at home. My talent shows in the way I run my house.”
Singh says: “Housewives can use the opportunity of sitting at home to regenerate, reflect and refine their skills.” She feels that a job is single dimensional, while being at home can be ‘multi-perceptional’. She thinks it is crucial to have some hobbies. Once her kids got older, she used up her time to read Upanishads, paint, write, do gardening and even learn astronomy besides turning into a pranic healer.
Prioritise: Act on what needs your utmost attention.
Simplify: Find ways to make daily activities such as cooking or cleaning less stressful. Maybe one of the meals in the day can be basic and easy to cook.
Share work: Ask for help from family members. Children can be made to do some chores in the house.
Be active: Regular exercise is good for physical and mental well-being. It enables you to handle stress.
Communicate: Talk to your family members about the day’s activities, your problems.
Slow down: If bed is unmade, home not spotless, it is not the end of the world.
Rejuvenate: Get a good night’s rest.
Eat sensibly: Eat a balanced diet to get all the nutritive requirements.
Despite the common assent that housework involves being the artist, psychologist, effective manager, all at the same time, the general belief is that a person doing housework is incompetent for mainstream professions. Thakur says: “People feel you lack caliber and talent.” Which is why, today, a growing number of housewives are getting into the business of boutiques, food outlets and beauty salons.
But Saini feels that there is no need for such justifications: “When you are doing two things at the same time, you are compromising somewhere.”
Today, some men in the USA are opting to stay at home and look after the household. But in India, housework is still largely the domain of women. Perhaps it is time these relentless workers are given some recognition.
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