Men sit, laugh, talk and do what they please. Women make tea, cook food, serve dinner and clean up. This scene repeats itself multiple times, wherever I am.
The care is provided by women of the family. It doesn’t depend really on whether the men are working or on a holiday or retired or just visiting. It is startling to see how this inequality is normalised on a day-to-day basis. I twinge these days when I experience this.
If one starts to peel the layers of the care economy even more, one finds stark realities. I started doing that by tracing how patriarchy shapes my life.
Whenever I go out with my parents, usually my mom carries a bag/purse. Lately, I have started realising that whether we shop, buy groceries, or even water bottles, the burden of carrying these objects is put on my mother. That is because she carries a bag. And we, the men, don’t.
Unless the object is really heavy, the responsibility to carry it lies with my mother. My mother doesn’t hesitate in doing so. This practice was so normalised that even I participated in this process of letting my mother carry the small or medium-sized objects while I walked weight-free.
My grandmother cooks for me, folds my clothes, serves dinner, provides care when I am sick, ensures that the domestic worker does all her tasks, cleans utensils, washes clothes, cleans the house if the domestic worker (who is from a lower caste background) doesn’t come on particular days. If not for her and the domestic worker, I do not think I would have been able to manage my affairs on a day-to-day basis. I do not have to spare a thought about these things because of my privilege. I can sit in front of my laptop and ask for a glass of milk and I will get it.
In my relationships, as a masculine cisgender man, I have had difficulties in showing care. But the onus of having to show care, affection, and love has been on my partner mainly. My partner has had to endure when I reacted to conflict situations by walking away. She had to put her feelings aside and care for me, while I could not do that in many situations. After a point, this pattern of my partner taking the responsibility of being the caring individual became normalised and was simply expected in many situations. Sometimes, at the back of my mind, I knew that my partner would call me back even if I hang up. Sometimes, this pattern did become abusive.
In my office, I have started counting who cleans the dining table after lunch every day. I have started seeing if men (including me) take up this responsibility – which we sometimes do. But who does it more? The men or the women? Time will tell, but my hunch is that women take this responsibility more.
I call this the care economy. Why? Because the entire economy that we live in runs on unpaid labour – and here I am only talking about labour of particular women. The labour provided in the examples I mentioned above are many small but significant ways in which women provide care without ever getting paid, without ever getting the tasks they do recognised as work.
Who pays for it? The organisation that you work for doesn’t, the government doesn’t, and the men don’t. I earn my salary and my mental and physical well-being is maintained by the care provided by many women in my lives (regardless of whether they are earning or not). It does seem imbalanced, unequal, and oppressive.
In fact, even if I pay for the care I receive (for example, if I try to quantify the work that my grandmother does and pay her for it and pay the domestic worker), it is assumed that the salary I get covers these expenses. But it does not. The salary is for the work I do in the organisation and for the organisation. Even if I assume that my salary covers these expenses, the organisation that I work for or the government doesn’t really provide a break-up of which part of my salary is for the care I receive at home and which part of it is for my work.
In fact, as hospitals, education, and many other ‘public systems’ get privatized, the burden on this unpaid labour increases. As Nancy Fraser asks, what remains of capitalism if one accounts for this unpaid care economy? Will capitalism survive if we start paying for this unpaid labour and put a value on it?
Regardless of the above question, men, like me, have the privilege of not questioning the status quo. Because I really do not have to pay for the unpaid labour. Because the labour of mothers, grandmothers, partners, and even domestic workers comes for free sometimes, out of ‘love’. This ‘love’ is actually political, unequal, and oppressive for the ones who love.
If men like me really want to be a feminist ally, we have to start quantifying this unpaid labour and pay for it when possible. This is to be done along with questioning the larger system which values only certain kinds of work as actual work that needs to be paid.
Men have to destabilise the status quo to be a feminist ally. One way to do this is to learn cooking and reshape the politics of the kitchen and dining space by taking up more responsibility. Not as a token gesture, but truly, as an ally. Question the masculinity of these spaces, make the men, and sometimes even the women of the family, twinge because they will see that there is a man trying to do supposedly womanly tasks. Question the practices of patriarchy. Learn how to care.
In the end, men like me can easily sit on their asses and continue to oppress. That is the status quo. But is that what we want?
This article was first published here.