This week, a family’s story was made public in a request for financial assistance. The wife and mother had been financially supporting the family of four while the husband was a stay-at-home father. The mother is now seeking financial assistance to help her support herself and her children because her spouse has abandoned them. There is more to the story, but the part that is relevant here is that, in both anger and humour, people have made comments that make clear their disregard for domestic and care work because it is still considered “women’s work”.
In January, I wrote in this column about domestic work. There was a focus on Bahamian attitudes toward migrant workers, domestic work and what it is worth. This time, let’s look at domestic and care work within the family and as a contribution to economic production.
A New York Times article published in March last year, for International Women’s Day, put the value of women’s unpaid labour at $10.9 trillion - higher than the revenue of Walmart, Apple and Amazon. It noted little attention is paid to this labour until it is disrupted, and it is unequally distributed. In the US women do four hours of unpaid labour while men, on average, do two and a half hours. Countries with the largest difference in time spent on unpaid labour between men and women are India, Turkey and Portugal. It is not surprising those with the smallest difference are Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Canada.
For many years, women were relegated to the domestic sphere while men went out to work and earned the income needed to provide for their households. They paid for accommodation, food and other necessities. Women were tasked with keeping the house clean, doing laundry, grocery shopping, preparing meals, taking care of children and other tasks such as collecting mail and rearing animals depending on the family’s resources. Some women took on work they could do from home such as dressmaking to help make ends meet.
During the Second World War, many (white) women entered the workforce for the first time. The men were away and there was work to be done, so women became factory workers, auxiliaries to the armed forces, drivers and nurses. With women working, it was critical that care needs be otherwise met. For example, nurseries were funded by states.
Since the Second World War, women continued to work. Even in homes where the men returned, women continued to have the responsibility of domestic duties. The economy changed and women’s participation in it changed significantly, but gender ideologies remained the same. Women then starting working two shifts — their paid work outside of the home and the unpaid labour at home that was not shared by the men.
Before women started entering the workforce, their domestic and care labour was what allowed men — their husbands, sons and brothers — to undertake paid work. While the men were out working for pay, women were ensuring their homes were clean, meals were prepared for them, clothing was washed, dried, and ironed and children were clean and being educated. Men’s paid work was made possible by women’s unpaid work which means the economy was not only fuelled by men’s labour, but by the labour of women that took place behind the scenes.
Today most households depend on two incomes. It is not as easy and, in many cases it is impossible, for a family to get by on one income so we do not see as many stay-at-home mothers. Still, like decades ago, there is the misconception that domestic and care work are for women, regardless of whether or not we are in the workforce. Feminist organisers are talking more about the burden of domestic and care work, the need to value it, and the importance of sharing it. Feminist economists point out this unpaid work should be factored into the gross domestic product (GDP) as it is directly linked to economic production.
Of course, there are households that are far ahead having recognised that domestic and care work are, in fact, work. No matter who is doing it, it requires time, effort and skill. It is full-time work when a household can hire someone to do it, but simply a duty when someone — usually a woman or girl — in the family does it. We are seeing more men participate in domestic and care work. It may not be a 50:50 split, but some people are realising it should not be the women’s burden and it is unfair to expect one person to take on so much work in addition to their formal employment.
All work has value, no matter who does it. We have to not only recognise that value, but share the burden of unpaid work. It is unacceptable to expect women to take on these tasks simply because we are women. We are not naturally better suited to it. Society has taught us there are specific requirements we must all meet in order to be seen as “real men” and “real women” and those requirements are based on the social construct of gender. This construct limits us in many ways and leads to dehumanisation of certain groups of people.
The suggestion that a man is not a man because he is a stay-at-home father who takes care of his children and the household is ignorant and harmful. Just as women have done this work for decades, enabling their husbands to work, men can do the same to enable women to work. In dual income-households, it is favourable for people to share the unpaid labour so that no one has to work the entire second shift.
Contrary to the misguided assertions made on social media over the past few days — and for much longer in social dialogue — when someone is earning an income while their partner takes care of the household and children, it is a fair exchange. The income-earning partner is not “taking care of” the partner working in the home. Income does not determine whether or not an activity is work and it certainly does not determine the value of that work.
The story that was shared about the Bahamian woman in need of assistance is sad. It is upsetting. It looks as though the woman and her children have been wronged, abandoned by her partner and their other parent. It is possible to express displeasure and even disgust at the actions of her partner without insulting people — both women and men — by devaluing the domestic and care work they do. We do not “take care of” live-in domestic or care workers. We compensate them for their work. It is quite similar in the household. One person’s work makes it possible for the other person to work.
Dusting the furniture, sweeping and mopping the floor, making the beds, doing the laundry, making the bank deposits, paying the utility bills, supervising the children’s virtual schooling, visiting grandparents and cooking dinner are tasks that can be done by people of all genders. They are disproportionately done by women and mostly women who also have paid work. Men need to share the burden of that work.
We need to understand the gender boxes we have been put in do not serve us. They were built to make it easy to profit off of us, convincing us that our value was tied to what we were able to produce. By now, we should know we are more than that. Given our experience with the COVID-19 pandemic, we should also see and feel the weight of the invisible labour other people have been doing while we were not looking.
It is not too late to make the shift for an equitable division of labour which is not based on gender but our care and commitment to each other as families, communities and nations.
Spare moments . . .
1. The Body Myth by Rheeaa Mukherjee.
In this novel, Mira is drawn into the lives of Sara and Rahil by what seems to be a chance encounter—seeing Sara have seizure in the park. Sara’s husband Rahil recruits Mira to be Sara’s friend. Mira tries to figure out whether or not Sara is truly sick and, if she is, how Rahil may be causing it. What seems like a story of friendship becomes a love story, a mystery and commentary on the human body.
2. A Million Little Things.
On its third season, this ABC drama series follows a group of friends immediately after the death of one member of the group. When Jon dies by suicide, everyone is shocked because he always seemed so happy and was a central figure in their lives. As they band together, this group of friends deals with the reveal of secrets new and old. From Rome dragging himself through a job he hates to Gary refusing to accept Maggie’s decision not to have chemotherapy, season one is packed with important themes, tough decisions and tests friendship.
3. Sunday Drive.
Every week, Bahamian DJ Ampero creates a playlist this is perfect for, you guessed it, a nice drive on a Sunday. It is also perfect for relaxing showers, dinners at home and doing laundry. Sunday Drive is a great way to find new songs and artists to add to your own. This week’s playlist includes Carry Me Home by KOKOROKO, Pineapple Jam by Saib and As You Are by cktrl. Find it on Spotify and Tidal.