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?