The Housewife is the Unsung COVID-19 Warrior
But she is invisible
I believe the COVID-19 pandemic is here to stay, ever since it’s shown no signs of abatement. My optimistic refrain of “It’ll be over next month” has stopped after weeks of stagnant lockdown at home. A vaccine is in the offing which may help us resume ‘normal’ life, though normal has quite different connotations these days.
My husband agonized in March about working from home. He is the orderly type who once preferred the office setup instead of the niche between the shoe rack and kitchenette. It helped him get into the ‘work’ grove. Now six months into Work-From-Home, he’s flourishing in the home environment, even enjoying its perks. As for me, I am sequestered at my corner desk, typing away as usual. Since my writing has always been home-grown, my workspace hasn’t changed at all.
We’ve just been fortunate to stay home even as a large working group toils outside to sustain our bubble of confined safety.
Throughout the year, numerous workers from various sectors have worked assiduously every day. Frontline health workers and first responders battling a deadly virus, grocery store staff working overtime, plant workers pushed to carry on even as the plague spreads, have all put their lives at risk.
However, the neglected few yet to be noticed in their struggle are the housewives (or househusbands).
The Female Homemaker
Forever engaged in the thankless task of looking after their homes, these workers have always worked from home, usually out of necessity and obligation. Someone needs to cook the food, do the dishes, and launder the clothes while others stay busy in Zoom meetings and Slack channels.
While the species of full-time housewives has dwindled over the decades (mostly in the West), the modern working woman is still deputed household chores by default. Of course, there are homes where tasks are equally divided, but in most regions of the world, homemakers are still overwhelmingly female.
As the discourse on gender equality and pay parity rages on, it never extends to household duties or parenting. Inside the house, conformity to traditional gender roles continues. Even today, equality in home labor is a distant Utopia.
In her book, Crunch Time: How Married Couples Confront Unemployment, Aliya Hamid Rao explains how women’s paid work is regarded secondary to the household. As a result, even if the wife earned half or more of the total household income, her re-employment and job searches are treated without urgency. Often the couple (including the woman) assumed that she should take over all chores. An unemployed man’s contribution to home labor, in contrast, is significantly diminished as he spends more time job hunting, a more serious prospect than tedious housework.
Dr. Heejung Chung, a sociologist from the University of Kent, put things in perspective when she agreed that the pandemic has seen the return of the 1950s housewife.
“Men are not actually doing much of the share of childcare or housework. A lot of the unequal division is because everyone, both men and women, kind of fall back on what they assume are the social norms or rules,” says Dr. Chung.
Even with both spouses working, a major share of household duties is managed by women.
I belong to a culture that worships mothers, anointing them above God. My mother is a homemaker who chose family over a career of her choice. She was constrained by familial obligations like many in her generation. She has toiled all her life to ensure a wholesome upbringing for her only daughter, making me the nucleus of her universe. She takes pride in my achievements but stands strong beside me whenever I falter.
“I don’t need to be paid. Your success is payment enough. I’ll take full credit for that”, she teases whenever I broach the subject.
There are women content with being stay-at-home moms and full-time homemakers, like my mother. They take pleasure in looking after the family. For others, the term housewife is denigrating; a label of suppression foisted on them because of gender, a restriction to self-actualization. Yet another type chooses to take on the role since things need to be done and they deem themselves capable.
Irrespective of type, COVID-19 has exhausted housewives everywhere. The housewife eventually becomes a mother and her professional caliber notwithstanding, her performance as a caregiver takes precedence over all else. There is no recourse for them as they work overtime handling the burgeoning needs of the family. Once working women are also constrained by responsibilities of a newborn child far more than their husbands. These employed women are duty-bound to take care of children and be active parents in homeschooling.
The double shift of career work and housework eventually drives them to choose one over the other. Of course, compromising for the family is a necessary sacrifice for most women. Their dreams, aspirations, and ambitions are forever tied to the interests of others and therefore, limited in scope.
COVID mortality is substantially higher among men, exacerbated perhaps by underlying health differences between the sexes. The social and economic fallout of the disease, however, is much harsher on women. In the shrinking job market, the career woman faces high risks. Most women around the world employed in the informal sector, some holding temporary jobs are culpable to job loss. Single mothers, already living precariously, have been dealt a body blow.
Victoriya Raj, a thirty-two-year-old single mother from Chennai, India has had a tough year. She lost her job as telecaller in a bank and is now struggling to make ends meet.
The New Indian Express reported her plight-
“I sent my daughter to my parents’ house and I’ve only been able to afford one proper meal every four days. Otherwise, I have one tea or bun per day. Since I am a single mother, people have realized my financial situation and are trying to take advantage by asking sexual favors. I am scared to even step out of my home.”
Such stories have become horrifying realities around the world.
I have engaged in discussions with women who rally for their right to stay home and look after loved ones. They vehemently oppose the insinuation of oppression.
“I love looking after my home”, “Only I can do it best. My husband doesn’t have a clue”, “Nobody is forcing me to do anything. I have chosen to stay home and raise my kids the way I want”, “My husband makes enough money for both of us. Why should I bother?” etc. are common lines spouted in a bid to justify their position.
While stigmatization of housewives for being homebodies has grown rampant over the past decade, romanticization hasn’t helped their cause either. It undermines the housewife’s true contribution to society, often trivialized compared to other ‘career’ jobs. Most women do not take up housework as a hobby or cherished lifelong passion. It’s usually a marker of resignation to the circumstances.
Calculating the Worth
They are the predominant informal caregivers for family members, including the elderly and the disabled. They spend triple the amount of time in unpaid domestic and care work compared to their male counterparts. While male caregivers provide financial assistance or facilities for care, female caregivers take care of physical tasks, including toileting and bathing. Though there are no notable differences between male and female caregivers, cultural and societal norms dictate that the woman adapts to the role of primary care provider, more so during a pandemic.
Consequently, they are also prone to the ramifications, including greater emotional and physical stress, greater caregiver-burden, and intense psychological strain.
Regardless of the reason for staying home, the housewives’ contribution is never quantified, never gauged as an addition to the GDP. As per the 2019 data from Salary.com, a stay-at-home mom (or dad) could earn a median annual salary of $178,201. Such arithmetics rattle proponents of housework as a noble service or altruism of the highest order. While I respect such sentiments, they shouldn’t become blinkers obscuring reality.
Only a well-nurtured home can be the building block of a prospering economy. This is most evident in crises like the present. We calibrate incurred job losses, failing public health, and disintegrating financial indicators, but have inadvertently overlooked a prominent driving force of the world.
It is baffling that choices conforming to gender stereotypes and societal expectations are pervasive even today. We may be equally educated, empowered, and enfranchised, but are we really equal? Is the equality of opportunity a true right if opportunities are few and our choices preordained?
This is not a paean to the homemaker, but a request for acknowledgment of one of the hardest working people in our midst. Over the past year, we showered accolades at healthcare workers, emergency service providers, and first responders. They have done a phenomenal job, no doubt. But the list of good samaritans is incomplete without the inclusion of the housewife, millions of whom have carried on without a glitch as an unforeseen pandemic unravels