Diaries Magazine

The Burden of Care Work (The F Word: Let's Talk Feminism & Gender)

Posted on the 25 March 2019 by Sharasekaram @sharasekaram
(This piece first appeared as part of a weekly column for - The Sunday Morning - a Sri Lankan national print newspaper)
Last week, I wrote about the origins of International Women’s Day and why I feel we need to reflect a little deeper on what we mean when we refer to the concept of “work”. While I pontificated and wrote, I began to think about how much work those who engage in unpaid care work really do.
This last month, my parents were away on travels and the running of the household was left in the hands of my sibling and me. Anyone who has been a long-suffering eldest child will also know that this means mostly me. I of course took on the task with all the brash confidence of someone who lives at home and has never actually run a household by herself. “How hard can it be?” I thought to myself as my poor mother scribbled down reminder after reminder for me, stocked the fridge, made sure there was household and emergency money, arranged for the fumigators, and a dozen other things. I was in for a rude shock.
I mean, I had written about the burden of unpaid care work before this and I wasn’t completely unaware of how much work it was. In our house, my parents firmly believed in raising independent people, so daily chores and division of labor were a given; I wasn’t completely helpless. But this was still inadequate to prepare me for the sheer amount of mental and emotional labor that goes into this work.
Within 10 days, I found myself having to take a day off work just to get back on top of things like bills, grocery shopping, dealing with finances, and a hundred other tasks which can only be done during work hours.
This doesn’t account for the fact that your mind is constantly thinking of what needs to be done, what needs to be stocked up, if people have been paid, what will be had for meals – it really is endless. Someone described the running of a household as a huge intricate project that never ends, and that is a spot on analogy.
This really pushed me to reflect on how much work women do in our homes that really go unseen and too often, unacknowledged. Working mothers do all of the above, plus rearing children (and the million additional tasks that come with another human being dependent on you), and their “proper” jobs.
Their minds never stop running and it’s hardly ever themselves they think of. I was consistently thinking of my mother and the number of tasks she shoulders the burden of for the rest of us to have a home – from remembering when the sheets on the bed should be changed to ensuring meals are not repetitive and are balanced.
It’s mind-blowing and honestly, I’m not sure how they have not rebelled yet.
And it’s all unpaid
It is a fact that the burden of unpaid care work, as we discussed in the last column, is primarily and disproportionately shouldered by women.
A paper by the Institute of Policy Studies in Sri Lanka stated: “Studies reveal that over 75% of the world’s total unpaid care work is done by women. In South Asia and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), this share is much higher, with women undertaking nearly 80-90% of total care and domestic work in the economy. Time-use data from across the world support these findings: Statistics from six different countries – with varying income levels and socioeconomic structures – reveal that women everywhere devote one to three more hours each day to housework than men; two to 10 times the amount of time a day to care (for children, elderly, and the sick), and one to four hours less a day to market activities.”
Why women though? Why, in this brave new world where we champion female choice and liberty, do we yet struggle with this yoke that weighs down women’s ability to do many other things?
The answer lies in gender roles; rigid gender roles that we are conditioned to embrace from birth, which are sold as “nature” and “biological” and put us into pre-labelled boxes rather than allow us to make choices as individual people.
What are gender roles?
Gender roles in society mean how we’re expected to act, speak, dress, groom, and conduct ourselves based on our assigned sex.
For example, girls and women are generally expected to dress in typically feminine ways and be polite, accommodating, and nurturing. Men are generally expected to be strong, aggressive, and bold. These can vary and be specific to every society, ethnic group, and culture.
Gender roles have defined care work and domestic work as female tasks and this is continually reinforced at every stage of our lives. From how school textbook illustrations portray “Amma” and “Thaththa” to how children’s cartoons and shows depict these roles to how advertisements reinforce these stereotypes, right down to casual conversation.
The idea takes root very early and very young and has far-reaching effects. In my opinion, those limited by these roles are not just women and I think we have done a great disservice to our men as well.
Young boys are being raised around the world devoid of basic life skills such as cooking and taking care of a home, we have devalued the role of a father and have pigeonholed men as money machines who then struggle with depression when they cannot or do not want to fit into these boxes.
We do not embrace people for what they are – diverse, complex, and with varied talents and interests. Instead, we have forced upon to hem a prefabricated frame that limits and frustrates.
Indeed, there are those who choose to embrace these ideals, love them, and thrive within them. Overturning these expectations is not and should not be about demonising women and men who are this, but rather about giving everyone the freedom to make an informed choice about what makes them happiest and works best for their family.
It is about giving everyone the chance to explore their options until they find what works best for them. We need to create for our children more diverse and complex narratives to teach them more than this single story of a home-running supermom and a bumbling, best-to-focus-on-the-office father.
As Nigerian feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said: “The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make the one story become the only story.”

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