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No more chore wars? PDF Print E-mail
(1 Vote)
Written by Sakuntala Narasimhan   

Today, many men in metropolitan areas may be chipping in to do their share of household chores. Yet, it’s too early to begin celebrating the phenomenon of near perfect gender equality among working couples in India

Meera rolls chapatis while her husband Nitin chops vegetables. After dinner, while she clears the table and puts away the leftovers, he reads a bedtime story to their three-year-old and tucks him in for the night. Saturday mornings while Meera heads for her yoga class, Nitin loads the washing machine and does the week’s laundry. “It is 50-50 sharing of all chores,” Meera declares. Adds Nitin, “That makes sense, since we are both working.”

As marketing managers based in Bangalore, the couple work long hours. But the understanding is that whoever gets home first puts the cooker on the stove. Nitin even jokes that he wished he could have shared in Meera’s pregnancy!

Meera believes that her mother’s generation — in “wanting it all” — ended up taking on more work, not less, in the name of “women’s progress”. Her father would never lend a hand with the household chores, although her mother held a paid job too and stoically shouldered the proverbial double burden that included cooking, cleaning and childcare (traditionally considered “women’s work”) as well as discharging her professional duties in her 9-to-5 job. Today, Meera says, that pattern is no longer acceptable.

Incidentally, the international news magazine Time, in a recent issue carried a story on “chore wars”, suggesting that it is now men, not women, who carry a greater burden. The article cited 2010 data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, that says “men now do 8 hours 11 minutes, against women’s 8 hours 3 minutes” (in families without children). In families with children, mothers put in just 20 minutes extra compared to fathers.
Another report, titled The New Male Mystique (a take off from Betty Friedan’s bestseller,
The Feminine Mystique, which heralded the global feminist movement) quoted in the Time article says 60 per cent of men complained about “pressures” (to be good fathers as well as providers) against “only 47 per cent of mothers”. The survey claims that women’s conviction that they carry a heavier load is now “a myth”.

But is that really the case? Does Meera’s example typify the general trend? Are we then ready to celebrate the phenomenon of a near perfect gender equality among the emerging generation of metropolitan working couples? A random survey of couples in Bangalore and Mumbai unearthed some interesting insights.

The fact is that sharing household chores is still dictated by whether the husband accepts the equality principle. As Miriam, a thirty-something college lecturer in Bangalore, points out, “If he doesn’t want to pitch in, there’s no way he can be forced to do so.
Believe me, I have tried. I have left chores undone — like leaving it to him to clear the table if he has a late dinner and I am busy with my next day’s assignment — but the leftover food will still be on the table when I wake up in the morning. Forced sharing only leads to arguments and verbal battles, and that upsets the children,” she says. Miriam adds that if the man has been brought up to believe that housework is the wife’s responsibility, changing his attitude is “very, very, difficult”. Her neighbour, Nasreen, who is a school teacher, agrees. “I envy stay-at-home women. They don’t have to do double duty. Of course, I appreciate the extra income that my job brings in but I am certainly paying a price for it in terms of extra physical and mental stress.”

Mumbai resident Madhu, 33, is a programme officer for a civil society organisation, while her husband Mohan, 36, is a lawyer. They share the household chores. “He has no hang-ups about lending a hand in the kitchen but I can’t take it for granted. I cannot presume that he will routinely attend to these tasks. It is ad hoc, he may be around to share the work, or he may not,” she explains. That kind of ad hoc-ism doesn’t relieve her of the stress of responsibility, she says, because she needs to be around to ensure that the chores get done, especially in matters related to childcare. As she puts it, “I cannot say I will not feed the kid, or put her on the potty, because it is his turn today and I am off duty.”

It is a similar situation with Ann, based in distant New Jersey. She has two children, aged eight and six, and holds a full time job in a publishing firm. She often brings home her editing work but finds her attention distracted even when her husband is home, because of the unpredictable demands the children can make. This means that even if she is technically “spending time at home with the kids” she is “at work” — as a parent and as a professional. Statistics do not reflect the overlap between “time with family” and “time at work”.

Madhu, who has a similar editing job with an Indian firm and regularly commutes between Coimbatore and Chennai, puts her finger on the problem, “Women can rarely switch off the way men can. Mentally, the pressures are far greater on mothers, even if the father shares chores according to a roster.” As for the point raised in the Time magazine that 60 per cent of men are reporting pressures although only 47 per cent of women are doing so, Madhu retorts that “it could just mean that women don’t complain enough. It does not necessarily reflect actual stress levels.”

During the hour that Madhu spends commuting to work, she says she mulls over her stories since she is already on duty using her mobile or laptop, and in between discussions at work she finds herself planning the menu for the next day’s meal and mentally running a check list on what groceries need to be bought. Says she, “Men do not seem to be programmed to carry work around this way, even when they share chores.”

Anupama, a psychologist in Mumbai, concurs, “What mothers have is mostly leisure at ‘stand-by’. Ever ready to be on call, they cannot ‘get away’ from familial obligations the way men can.” Stella M, who does professional counselling in Bangalore, believes that fathers do not multitask the way mothers do — men make a virtue of “being focused” she laughs — and that makes statistical measurements of time spent at work or with family meaningless.

But reversing roles also proves difficult because it entails battling social norms. Take Hosur, Tamil Nadu-based Sundar, a house-husband. He lost his job with a finance company two years ago when recession hit his parent company in the US. Today, it is he who buys the grocery, does the cooking and undertakes childcare, while his wife, Supriya, puts in an eight-hour shift at her office. Says Supriya, “There is still the enormous burden of social pressures and familial disapproval. Even my mother thinks I am a bad parent because I don’t do the conventional childcare bit and neighbours make Sundar the butt of jokes.”

Even when couples agree on chore sharing, socio-cultural norms cause a lot of stress, according to Anupama. Parents, in-laws, colleagues, they can all pile on that stress. And popular stereotyping invite comments like “He’s a hen-pecked husband” or “Look who’s wearing the pants!” that don’t help.

Metropolitan India, it seems, is still a long way from accepting “a true and meaningful sharing of familial chores”.


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