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  • Fearing the Life of a Housewife

    WITHIN ME lies a paradoxical divide regarding housework which I’d imagine is familiar to many. On the one hand, cooking and cleaning provide a certain busyness and peace because of a sense of creating nourishment or a tidy environment. On the other hand, there are other hazy feelings leaning towards dislike and fear of “women’s work”. So there’s a conflict between wanting to respect the traditional realm of tasks which women have been doing through the ages and wanting to break free of the shackles and spend time on other things that are (construed) as more rewarding or valuable.

    Most of the day I spend doing the latter and only a fraction of my time is spent on housework. But sometimes it’s difficult to bring myself to do it, and especially to avoid any resentment of men in general for not having to do their part. What I would like to explore is where this fearful reaction to housework has come from. I think somewhere along the way (because of empowerment and education), I have come to view housework as something to be avoided because there are ‘more important things to do’. I think this is a result of both feminism and its response to a culture which devalues the work women do, while validating the work that men do. Yes, feminism itself calls for the appreciation and adequate compensation for women’s reproductive work. Yet, in calling women to join the workforce and embrace their financial independence and empowerment, is feminism also simultaneously denigrating housework?

    Turns out I’m not alone in feeling torn. A recent article on Alternet by Vanessa Richmond perfectly illustrates the trend, at least among American women, to shun cooking as an ‘unliberated’ act.

    In short, men come across as evolved, sexy and creative when they mix things up in the kitchen. But women seem stuck in Leave-it-to-Beaver-land when they step in front of the stove: domestic suckers who aren’t paying enough attention to their ambition or their libidos. They’re not third wave feminists, embracing women’s traditional skills or sexy, busy people who make time for health and family, but women who need a good empowerment talk.


    I suppose this is the type of discourse which lurks behind my own aversions. Richmond identifies two parallel processes at play: that women have come to view cooking as ‘low status or unnecessary’, and by extension, women leaving the home and staking their claim in the office is their ‘form of rebellion and liberation and a way to gain more cultural status’; and that many women do the daily meals but don’t value their own work in the way that gourmet cooking is appreciated. I agree with Richmond’s conclusion that shunning cooking does not necessarily lead to liberation, and most likely will lead to both diminished physical health and mental wellbeing.

    What I find most threatening about doing housework/being a housewife is the fear that I may lose sight of the ‘big’ issues. Concentrating on the closed space of the home could lead to boredom or drudgery. But as Richmond points out, cooking is central to the social fabric. Work done in the home is integral to life itself, and indeed timeless. Isn’t that actually what’s big?

    I think that time spent preparing and eating a wholesome meal is similar to praying–cooking is art and science rolled into one. I have found a plethora of Indian food blogs run by housewives. Not only are they informative, but they strike me as collaborative and innovative.


    Nowadays, it seems that Indian women are opting for careers in offices because home life can be stifling, and they want the increased respect accorded to earning income. In this context, the struggle to maintain a balance between reproductive and productive work is becoming increasingly relevant. Do working women come to view housework with contempt or do they still look at as their primary responsibility?

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    11 Responses

    1. Not a particularly serious comment I’m making here, but saw this today quite by coincidence. [From Marginalien.

    2. Having been on both sides and seeing how people react in social situations, I understand very well what you mean. When I’m a working journalist, all sorts of topics are discussed with me… from the glass ceiling for women to America’s foreign policy. When I’m a housewife, the conversation is restricted to issues such as the availability of domestic help and how difficult it is to get school admissions.
      There’s no doubt about it; people seem to think that women who cook, keep house and look after children have less intellect than ‘working women’. Perhaps if we just meditated on the fact that nourishing a family and bringing up good human beings are also ‘big issues’…….

    3. Trees, I agree that raising a family and bringing up good human beings are big issues..infact, only if those are taken care of, the other works well.

      I came here through one of the blogs listed at blogadda. Nice find, I should say.

    4. Thanks all for the comments. Space bar, that clipping is simultaneously hilarious and horrible! I find this passage particularly interesting:

      ‘Try to understand his world of strain and pressure and his very real need to be at home and relax.’

      As if being the ‘good wife’ and living by the guide is easy. All that peace, order and tranquility is achieved with equal or more amounts of tiresome effort.

      Trees: as a housewife, did you try to bring up the other ‘journalist’ issues, or vice versa by politicising the more mundane ones? As a journalist, do you discuss the domestic side of the glass ceiling?

    5. […] at Ultra Violet: Within me lies a paradoxical divide regarding housework which I’d imagine is familiar to many. […]

    6. In answer to your question Becky, I’ve always stated (to anyone willing to listen!) that housework is productive work. It’s the person keeping the household running smoothly who enables others in the family to go out and earn money. Since it’s not possible to quantify such work economically, it remains ‘an inconvenient truth’ that most people would rather not hear. Especially working women who informally rely on their mothers/ mothers-in-law or domestic help.

    7. Becky, this is a discussion that has been doing the rounds for a while now, so I’m glad you brought it up here.

      Having been on both sides of the fence (one of the situations was entirely circumstantial), I have been thinking about this and discussing it a lot with my husband. And here’s where I think the roots of this problem may be:

      Money: As Trees has rightly pointed out. For the sake of discussion, leave out the indirect benefits of a housewife’s work . Directly, there is no monetary benefit or economic freedom. That’s the issue.
      I don’t blame feminists for it. They were reacting to the social norm. Women stayed at home and hence were practically debarred from making any financial decisions.
      As a child, I recall chatting with a housewife-landlady who envied that my mother had a job. I told her I envied her children because they always had someone to come home to after school. She replied (literal translation) : “At least your mother doesn’t have to spread out her palms in front of her husband every time she needs money.”
      That stuck with me for good.

      Financial independence: Without a doubt, working women get a chance to get worldly-wise. God forbid something happens to their spouses, they will not collapse financially or socially.

      Value: As I mentioned above, there is no obvious monetary benefit to be had by housework, so it is not in the interest of the government to encourage women to stay at home for housework. It is not seen as an economically productive work, and, there is no study/solid proof that children of housewives are better off/more successful than children of working moms. And housewives don’t pay taxes.

      Education: Without making a qualitative analysis of our productivity, the general view is that you don’t need any degrees to be a housewife. The threshold for entry is low to nil. So, no matter how educated you are, since the work you do at home doesn’t necessary “require” the skills you’ve acquired outside, you are not expected to be particularly brainy or talented. If you are, why don’t you put it to “better”, more productive use?
      You get the drift…

      On the flip side: (In the Indian context, strictly) My mom used to say that if your husband is professionally on the rise in the same field as you, your are better off as a housewife, because you will be treated with equal respect as your man. But if you are working —especially in the same field — you will be treated according to your achievements alone, and you’ll miss out on all the benefits of being Mrs. Boss 😉

      Unless we can find a way to quantify housework, this trend will continue, and women will make their choices and have to live with the consequences.

      Thanks Becky. Fabulous discussion and this is a fabulous blog.

    8. My mother has lived with both, a career and all of the housework to do. She has managed well both, but there is a clear distinction between them. Her career has brought her appreciation, money, pride, admiration, compliments, and a sens of fulfilled life…. her housework has brought none of those, and has simply weared her down emotionally and physicaly. Its not a “feminist” view thing, women have never truly been appreciated for their work, men and even other women take the work of women for granted and this is how our entire society functions. Men do work that is recognized and rewarded, women are never truly rewarded. The typical excuse is that men work “hard” all day to win money, thus are to tired to work when the day ends… well my mother has worked all day and kept doing house chores anyway when she came back, while my father would not lift a finger… he could of, its not like his “sitting all day long” job had worned him more than my mother’s. Society thought him it was not his job to do “women’s” job.
      Why would taking care of house and kids be “women’s” job anyway? Men find for excuse that women have “maternal instinct” while THEY they know little of kids… but women are born as ignorant as they about child careing and household tasks, they learn the best they can… that’s all. Its so sad, because women often feel they have to be housewives, and they get little out of it, so they come to accept that they are “only wives”… such a loss of precious human identity!

      I presently live with an amazing boyfriend, and I made it clear to him that if he did no house tasks I would not do them either… there is really no problem with him because he has been raised to think that men and women do equal shares and I don’t even truly need to tell him to do house chores for he does them automaticaly. I, on the other hand, feel conflicted by this psychological heritage that women are bound to the house chores, and must sometimes fight the urge to do everything myself. When I take a step back, I realize that the urge I have is everything but healthy… its almost my way of saying “I am worthless so this is my punishment for existing” (I hate house chores). I know it should not be a demeanouring thing, but women often say “I am just a housewife” in a deamining thing, and men often claim that “they will not lower themselves to a woman’s job”… so I guess all of it takes a told in my mind. Now I am very bitter about simple things such as doing the dishes, even though I KNOW my boyfriend does it as much (probably more often actually) as I do.

      I think when the stereotypes, the fight between genders cease, and equality truly becomes a natural notion in the mind of men and women alike, then we will no longer feel such paradoxes.

    9. glad to know Albel that your boyfriend does chores willingly. i firmly believe that chores should be equally shared between the sexes. in india the dichotomy is still apalling. it is not a matter of celebration that the woman manages both work and home. thats because society and modern women as well have accepted the working woman, but a man doing housework, that just has not yet gained ground. And it comes with upbringing. I think it is time families should bring up sons differently where housework is concerned. that’s when i guess modern marriages would be less stressful and the fear of being tied down to domesticity would lessen.

    10. Regarding “chores”, women have a far higher standard of cleanliness than men. In fact I find my mother’s penchant for a clean spotless house as a sort of idiotic fuss. Men are perfectly comfortable with not-so-dirty house and junk food. But regarding women, it is a different story all together. Male does the house work in his standards and this does not appeal to women at all. This is the central point for all the house hold conflicts.

      Few men value parenthood and relationship before professional success or social status. These men are more likely to share the house work equally.

    11. SS, your comment was very insightful, sorry I didn’t see it sooner! Interesting experience you had with your neighbor. And the anecdote about ‘Mrs. Boss’ is sad but true. There are ongoing efforts, mostly by feminist economists, to quantify the productive value of housework in terms of the larger economy, but certainly by and large the mainstream view is still that housework in ‘un-productive’. But without it, no production could take place!

      Albel, I agree that even as women ourselves, we downgrade the value of housework. I totally understand the conflict and aversion to chores you feel, simply because they have been expected of women for so long. But, as I’ve realized, I think the truly important thing is to recognize that you have a loving and helpful partner, and to try not to bring all the baggage of the past crashing into your house. By that I do not mean to say that the personal is not political, but as you yourself admit, the thought process that you go through is not ‘healthy’, that it is just as damaging to you as any chores may be. And of course feeling that “I am worthless so this is my punishment for existing” is not a nice way to feel about yourself, and the more you think/feel it, the more the thought cycle continues to bring you into its downward spiral. There are other ways to deal with the issue of housework than to beat ourselves up and get drawn into the melodrama.

      Rahi, I totally agree that boys, just as girls, must be taught to contribute to the housework in meaningful ways!

      It’s quite true, Bhanu, that men’s and women’s different cleanliness standards cause problems, because even when men want to help out, often their partners are displeased with the results… I do not quite understand why men care less about it than women; perhaps they don’t notice, or they simply don’t mind? But I do also agree with you that women can over-do it and become too obsessive-compulsive over cleaning.

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