How COVID-19 Came Down Hard on Indian Mothers
COVID-19 has been especially unkind to mothers. Here’s how.
In 1949, French author Simone de Beauvoir changed the world by describing ‘care work’ in a much less sophisticated, yet impactful, way. She wrote, “Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.”
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the lopsided burden of unpaid domestic labour is becoming clearer by the day.
As I wake up each morning with the intention of logging into work, I watch my mother saunter into the kitchen to begin her 24-hour workday.
In the absence of domestic help, the disproportionate burden of housework has unquestioningly landed on her shoulders. She cooks, she cleans, she tends to our most insignificant household needs. Should we have seen it coming? Probably.
According to the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), care work or unpaid labour is the time an individual might spend cooking, cleaning, shopping for essentials, caring for children and other unpaid labour that goes into maintaining a household. Simply put, what I just described is an endless list of tasks performed by Indian mothers on an average day.
But with the COVID-19 lockdown, the situation has gotten worse.
Earlier my mother’s job was primarily managerial. She paid someone to get most of the house chores done. But now, she has to do it all. From ensuring that we’re all well-fed three times a day to also doing the dishes three times a day, her schedule is busier than ever. Her day only ends post-dinner, when she rearranges the leftovers and keeps them in the fridge. To add to that, we’re a spoilt family of four - and all of us have very different taste palettes. Yet, somehow, my supermom finds a way to keep us all happy.
“Mere Paas Maa Hai” Is Still the Ultimate Flex
When it comes to unpaid domestic labour, things are not as simple. According to the Economic Survey 2020, 60% of women in India (aged 15-59) spend all their time doing household work. But even this lone statistic tells us very little about the extent to which women, especially mothers who come with the added burden of taking care of a family, invest themselves in care work.
You can’t count the number of hours your mother spends in the kitchen, assign a financial value and be done with it.
In fact, the lack of metrics just proves that care work goes beyond the tangible tasks performed by Indian mothers.
Even when my mother isn’t cooking, she’s mentally keeping a track of when our essentials will need restocking.
Her nagging comments about how I need to change my bedsheet soon (since I spend all my time lazing on the bed these days) are a manifestation of her emotional investment. My dad might accidentally forget that I can’t tolerate chillies in my food - but my mom? Never. For the past 24 years, she’s managed to track the evolution of all our preferences to a T and there’s nothing more fascinating than that.
Work-From-Home or Work-For-Home?
During one of my weekly grocery shopping trips recently, I unintentionally eavesdropped on a conversation between two mothers discussing the woes of working motherhood.
Their problem was such: how to work-from-home while also working for home.
So far, they’d been able to seek external help to achieve the perfect ‘balance’ between the two. But that wasn’t possible anymore. Their responsibilities had doubled overnight. Now, they were expected to juggle their professional responsibilities and household/family chores flawlessly.
Imagine attending Zoom work meetings while also keeping a track of the number of whistles as your dal gets cooked in the kitchen - impossible, right? Well, not for these working moms.
The limitless boundaries of unpaid domestic work have existed for centuries. However, at some point, feminism gifted (a certain section of) mothers with a more respectful version of the term ‘housewife’— now they are ‘homemakers’ instead. This contemporary substitute came with a sense of dignity and hope. At the same time, it also created space for mothers to become a quantifiable aspect of the economy.
But the coronavirus pandemic has been a bummer regardless of which side of evolution you’re on. In the absence of domestic help, working mothers are having to perform twice as much. If earlier they could dedicate 9 hours every day to their professional goals and then come home to their gendered responsibilities, now they’re forced to go beyond that.
Are Men Learning?
So, while it’s fair to say that the unsuspected emergence of a virus has left mothers across the country exhausted and helpless, it’s also important to acknowledge that COVID may (or may not) have encouraged a little responsibility on behalf of the men who also occupy these households.
Personally, I’ve never before seen my father wake up early just so he can be done with jhaadu-poccha on time.
Even my brother who, as the younger sibling, has been shielded from chores for most of his life, is now picking up the broom every morning. For the first time ever, household chores are, albeit unequally, distributed amongst everyone in the house.
Now, I wouldn’t dare to applaud men for doing the bare minimum by just stepping foot in the kitchen. Because guess what, redeeming yourself is not THAT simple. However, as someone who often looks at her mother and wonders if that’s what awaits most women who choose to become mothers, I do feel hopeful. Or at least, I want to feel hopeful about what could happen once this lockdown ends and things slowly start getting back to normal.
Unfortunately, this Mother’s Day will be a bland one. It’s not going to be marked by the usual flurry of gifts and cards and cake - although I am expecting a rise in the number of social media posts.
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