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A Woman's Work Is Never Done

A Woman's Work Is Never Done

August 15, 2010

Beggars, prisoners, prostitutes, housewives: same difference.

The government of India’s 2001 Census, according to this new report, considers housewives, or home-makers if you prefer, to be economically non-productive workers, and by this virtue categorises them with prostitutes, beggars and prisoners.

I will give you a moment to let that sink in.

The first time I read it, my hackles rose. I agreed with the Supreme Court’s observation that it was “callous” and “insensitive”. But when I calmed down I realized that the census report merely reflected the general perception of non-professional women.

The majority, men and women alike, believe those who choose to run a house hold have “wasted” their lives lounging around the house, watching telly and cooking the odd meal or two. The general impression is that such women have unlimited free time with nothing productive to do.

I have heard conversations where old girl friends and their life choices have been discussed. Those with hot-shot careers were objects of envy; those who chose to stay at home to look after the family were summarily dismissed with an “oh, she’s just a house wife” shrug.

Some folks say it out loud, others’ actions speak for them. The expression about a housewife “sitting at home” is most inaccurate, for she is definitely not leading an easy life without a care in the world.

My mother worked as a medical professional for 23 years till she decided to put her papers in to be involved in my life full time. She never regretted her decision despite having to deal with these common stereotypes. That she was leading a gala life as she likes to put it sarcastically! Far from it. She was never busier or more worried and remains so. The only saving grace in all this was that her husband never subscribed to that idea. Not so much her daughter, I confess. Last year, however, my respect for her shot up several notches.

I moved to London in the summer of 2009 to join my husband who works here. This meant quitting my job and starting afresh. I couldn’t have chosen a worse time to make the move but chose family life over my career. With this choice came the responsibility of running the home and being a housewife. I assure you, this is one of the toughest roles I have ever had to perform. There are no fixed hours of work. It starts when you wake up and let’s you take a break to sleep.

As if the sheer effort and time that goes into running a home was not exhausting enough, imagine dealing with condescending attitudes. If you felt unappreciated because your boss doesn’t recognize your worth, imagine being stuck in a position where the man you love and friends whose opinion matters to you, think you are enjoying the coziest job (or non-job) in the world.

I am lucky to have a husband who for the most part at least appreciates what I do. But I have my own demons to deal with. Growing up in middle class India, I have heard the term housewife used with utter disdain. One set of ideas doing the rounds was that housewives were those who were consigned to the duties of home and hearth because there was no better use for them. Others believed that this was the lot of women anyway, whether they were literate or not.

One year of “sitting” at home, I am still struggling to get a job and wriggle out of the “label” I have been endowed with. And I am ashamed to admit to my status, mostly because I feel that I need to do something “worthwhile” because, even today, I feel that running a well managed household is beneath me. So I how can I blame the government back home for thinking  housewives are non-productive?


  • Thinkinghat
    20.08.10 02:52 PM
    I am reminded of an old joke I had read somewhere.

    Mommy: What barbie do you want for your birthday?
    Little girl: A ....Divorcee Barbie!
    Mommy: Why is that?
    Little girl: Then i will get Ken's house, car, and lots of money along with it!

    To put it in perspective, all mature legal systems in the world have recognized the idea of matrimonial property rights as opposed to maintenance . Inherent in such an understanding is that the there be an economic value in a person providing another with the emotional stability and mental support, often at the cost of their careers. Hence there is an equitable way of sharing the wealth accumulated during the subsistence of marriage.
    As far as an aggregation of the nominal economic value of the work done in a house, it can be very misleading and demeaning.
  • anuja seith
    anuja seith
    20.08.10 03:37 AM

    The article makes an excellent read. And I can relate to lot of it that you have written. Being journalist and now a NRI housewife based in California I go through some of those feelings everyday.
  • Sim
    20.08.10 01:55 AM
    Hi prerna..the comments you've been getting are just as engrossing as your piece itself.
    I think it's got to do with money. The prevalent mind-set bestows power on the person who brings in the money. Which makes it all the more hard for free-thinking, intelligent, productive women to be satisfied in a role that limits them to being house-wives.
  • Simran
    19.08.10 09:46 PM
    That the contents of post dated 19.08.2010 at 12:32 pm by JKR are denied. The commenter may be put to strict proof of the same.
  • Prerna Uppal
    Prerna Uppal
    19.08.10 07:05 PM
    @ JKR thank you for responding to the post as you have. I respect the fact that you are entitled to your thoughts, regressive as they may be, in believing that a woman can prove her worth ONLY if she can prove herself in the professional sphere or that her struggle is worth appreciating if competing the professional arena. I would say more but my "atrophied" brain can't seem to grasp your warped logic that you are bandying about.

    @ Simran: Would love to hear more from you in the future. It's great to see a "working" woman realise that whether at home or in office, stereotypes will haunt us no matter what you do or say. You put together some great arguments, beautifully. Just to add to that: I wonder who gives any one the right to say some jobs are good and others are not, that some are menial or others immoral or that we are better off doing something while others are beneath us for doing something we don't "approve" of? The choice to become a housewife may not be voluntary for most women of today, but even if it were, who is anyone to sit judgment on it?
  • JKR
    19.08.10 06:02 PM
    That makes no sense. Why should women be able to "choose their career" like that? Men certainly don't. What happens if both people in a couple "choose" to stay at home and do home services? The whole house would starve. And secondly, couples who both work, both take care of the house, their own laundry, the dinner, the tailoring, the kids, and so forth aren't living some inferior life subject to chinese take out, socks with holes, nor out of control kids. In fact it is the boys of families who have mothers who were housewives who look at their wives dumb and deaf when it is dinner/laundry time because the expectation that a woman usually does this work becomes a stereotype. There are men in this day and age who refuse to even enter a kitchen because the stigma associated with doing "a woman's work" is that strong. For those people who are pushed into traditional homes literally involuntarily, I feel terrible for them, and they are trying to fight for their rights to work while many housewives just toss it up and use the phrase that they "choose to be moms and take care of a home"--as if women and men who work couldn't do these things without them? Secondly the financial compensation doesn't add up. Once you establish that these tasks would get done without having to pay help provided both people in a couple do everything, the only expense you may have is daycare during business hours until the kids can go to school. If day care if even 1-2K a month that is still less than one paycheck for one person. The financial gains aren't negated in services when a woman stays home because the gains are greater than the value of the savings. And as for intangibles, what about the intangible of raising kids who view women as strong, capable people who are equally able to provide all the things for them in life that their dads can? Nothing teaches that more than example. No matter how many women join the workforce, there is no better example than the mom that helps raise you (notice how I didn't just say raise you because a dad is equally important and responsible for raising his children).
    If a family member is ailing, I don't think everyone should be so quick to say the woman should give up her job--where is the guy in all this? If you want to use the argument that women earn much less, that's true. On average they do and will continue to until we are able to rub out the archetypes for gender roles. There is no reason a woman should be accepting or striving for less money than her husband, being happy with 30K while he earns 80K, then scared when he leaves her because her quality of life is going to drop. It is this issue that keeps many married women staying with abusive men and adulterers alike. You can put a price on the self respect, professional accomplishment, and the respect from society that you'd get having a job. More importantly, you can't put a price on your kids internalizing the respect they see others give their parents. This post was just on the benefits and illogical nature of the post before this--I haven't even gotten into the flipside of why a woman can not force her husband to be the sole bread winner and the hardships of a crappy job for him. It is not right to subject someone to that kind of pressure. Unimaginable drama goes on in any office, and while single at least we have the confidence and peace of mind that we can quit that job or take a break and work in a couple of months. With a wife and kids to support, even with a nasty manager or some other situation that makes a job seem unfit, he would still not be able to quit until securing another equally lucrative position. He would just have to sit there working through everything because the person he married won't help provide. The whole traditional setup of 2 out of 3 things (career, family, or not having to work) doesn't always work. Also, one can't disregard the mental development that goes on in an office. If two people get married out of school, their education is at least at a point where their knowledge has been growing for the last several years. If all of a sudden, one person keeps learning and one person sits at home and her brain atrophies, the chasm that forms between the two of them intellectually is one of the reason that men cheat with their coworkers, if not only for a chance to talk to a woman who has thoughts on par with his own. The entire reason that at traditional indian parties men sit together then women sit together separately is because the topics are so different. One group discusses politics, economics, world intrigue, and the other one discusses puris and how you can make them fluffier using a gas burning stove. The real person losing out in all of this is the woman who does work. She has done the hard work of educating herself, getting to a strong position within a company, and at the end of the day she has to face men who expected her to be nothing more than a cook and a maid. The existence of women like this on a large scale as the norm makes it hard for hard working women to create a marriage that is literally a partnership through everything. The day housewives are erased as the norm for middle and upper class families will be the day that movement can finally begin.
  • Simran
    19.08.10 02:49 PM
    In case of any confusion, by the word "you" used in the first sentence of the comment posted by me on August 19, 2010 I mean JKR.
  • Simran
    19.08.10 02:35 PM
    I greatly disagree with you. Firstly, I disagree with you that house-wives are “house-wives” by personal choice excercised in a vaccum. They choose their career option on the basis of social factors which in the world of today range from globalization to child development. May be persons who support views in post by JKR on August 19, 2010 have had the great fortune of not having to change cities and countries in order to live with their spouses, and neither would they have, and god forbid if they do have, children or family members who are ailing. Indeed such special circumstances would press upon persons with a sense of responsibility towards their family to put their flourishing careers on a hold, to revert to it shortly with the hope that society does not brand them as “incapables”. Further, one may not conceive of this immediately, but in many house-holds women have to fight for their economic independence, including the right to work. Thus, making their choice rather in-voluntary.
    On the question of their contribution to society I argue that while tangibles are definitely easier to gague, one should not be so quick to disregard intangibles. In houses where wives stay at home, there usually is no domestic help (Calculate money saved on helpers, butler, valets). Add to it the benefit of her skills in tailoring, electric repairs and cooking (Calculate money saved on clothes and tailors, electricians, and daily home-delivery of Chinese. Even more intangible, calculate the money saved in not falling sick on account of unhygienic and ill-nourishing food bought from outside, or consumed on a daily basis). I think after this analysis, you may be able to put a sum on the services provided by a house-wife. After all, did you not say she is working for boarding?
    This brings me to the issue of proportionality. Are we , or you, paying (in any token form) enough for the services rendered? Add to this the burden of sleeping with the husband. Something she may not even be doing consensually. And the fact that some of them do all of this with love, does not in any case imply that it is for FREE! Nothing comes free. Everything has strings. And apart from boarding, I believe you need to pay her as well.
    Also, if employers have a problem with giving jobs to women because they fear the women shall concentrate of having babies, I think we need to change the structure of maternity leaves. Men are also entitled to the same. You would definitely agree with me, since you in your post also spoke of “cooperation and involvement of your (sic: the) husband”. Also, I believe, that if you have a look at the recent surveys on reproductive cycles of women, you may notice a change in the trend, and that they are getting pregnant later in their age. In some states of the US it has been noted that there are more women getting pregnant in their 30s and 40s than in 20s. So, employers’ issues are quite ill-founded and may be, we need to make them more aware.
    As far as prostitution goes, I hardly think it is menial. If regulation by the government is a standard by which you are discerning the nature of the profession, it is rather biased. Till very recently, even the IT industry was not entirely in the grips of the government. India’s own IT act is dated 2000. And in any case, the only enactment in India that even remotely deals with prostitution, is one on TRAFFICKING, which relates to defrauding persons into participating in a business they never consented to work in. Prostitution needs to be dealt with much more respect and definitely not be counted along with beggars since begging itself is illegal, whereas Prostituting is not.
    So, I disagree with you on the reason that people have for disrespecting house-wives. It is ignorance.
  • JKR
    19.08.10 09:56 AM
    I think the census is right. EVERYONE runs a household, not just houses with housewives, but not everyone has to take out all their time in a day to do it. Everyone who has kids raises them, but not everyone has to push the financial burden of being a sole bread winner on their spouses. In most countries, the tasks of cleaning and cooking are penny-wage jobs that unskilled day laborers do. Not only that, but the hard working women who are in the REAL workforce who are trying to get ahead constantly have to fight to have the same rights as men because women who chose to stay at home make a bad name for women everywhere. Employers feel scared that they will not have a stable worker just in case a woman wants to get married or have kids. I feel housewives should have to live a life like beggars and prostitutes because they really are doing menial jobs for their room and board, and they are sleeping with someone in exchange for the money to pay for their food and house. This is what happens when balance is thrown off in a life. You want to see a real difficult job? Try running a household AND working AND taking care of kids all at the same time WITH the cooperation and involvement of your husband--THAT is a real accomplishment. There is a reason people disrespect housewives. You are not doing anything great and in fact you are doing 1/3 the workload that everyone else is doing.
  • nalini hebbar
    nalini hebbar
    18.08.10 07:17 AM
    I just posted about the gender stereotype ...I was a stay-at-home-mother from 87' to 97' and thought so low of myself. No wonder others do too! A thankless job to say the least, and the toughest one in the WWW!
  • Prerna Uppal
    Prerna Uppal
    18.08.10 04:43 AM
    Thank you all for taking the time out to read and comment on the post. Much appreciated!
    @Roopa: I agree that we need to change the way we perceive women, esp. those who decide to tend to home and hearth. But I also believe that they (or rather we, the home-makers) need to give ourselves credit that is due to us.
    @Sweta: Your mom's a very lucky lady! I love and respect my mom for a similar decision that she took, but never realised how much she had to take on till I donned a similar role.
    @Avi: It's good to know that you were honest enough to admit that you were of a "shrug off" opinion before you read the post but what is better is that you changed your mind after reading the piece! :) And thank you for your wishes! God knows I need good will!
    @Purba: I see a kindred soul in you! It's heartening to know that there are intelligent women out there who are making the most of an opportunity offered!
    @flawsohpy: Well I do agree that the current meaning of the word "productivity" is obsolete and in my opinion hollow. It takes a lot to take on the mantle of wife, whether you continue working professionally or not.
    @Swathi: I am sure you can understand how frustrating it is to beat stereotypes, though I continue to learn that your life is what you choose to make it, people will comment nonetheless.
  • swathi pradeep
    swathi pradeep
    18.08.10 03:42 AM
    Lovely post!! I too quit my s/w job in india and moved to USA after wedding. I sat at home for 1 yr blogging,visiting places and ppl stereotyped me as housewife!
    Now I m studying MBA and people have shut their mouths!!
  • flawsophy
    18.08.10 03:05 AM
    Absolutely good point about such an insensitive remark ... the government doesn't give a shit other than your net worth taxes ... the biggest unpaid debt is the sacrifice of all the mothers around the world and the government wants us to raise a generation of "uncared-for" children who'll just be pissed enough with life to work hard about anything they have been told to ...

    this silly obsolete vocabulary like "productivity" is the most non-productive invention that even the western world is doing away with ...
  • Purba
    17.08.10 04:14 PM
    I have been working most of my adult life. It was just last year, that I finally took the drastic step and decided to leave my job. Yes, for the longest I battled with my inner demons, made 10000 excuse and continued to lead a life which was making me unhappy.

    After 9 months at home,all I can say is am loving it. I discovered the writer in me and have never been happier.
  • Avi
    17.08.10 03:17 PM
    Wow, i must admit before I started reading this post, I had a similar 'shrugging' thought about home-makers. But yes, you're right.

    If not for those home-makers, we wouldn't have a home to go back to at the end of the day, no one who would make life worth living and there would be nothing like a home-cooked meal.

    Amazingly written :) a beautiful point of view that must go all out and kick away the presumptions and negative mindsets that are there...

    Way to go Prerna:)
    ll the best for your Home-making :)
  • Sweta
    17.08.10 11:54 AM
    My mom gave up her Career to look after us. We respect her for that.

    I can understand how bad someone will feel if After having good qualification and managing house very well (which is no where less difficult then managing a company), still hear they are not productive.
  • Roopabee
    16.08.10 02:29 PM
    It's great to read articles that expose appalling mindsets such as the one in question rather than just having a banter about the 'unacceptable state of affairs' over coffee and then forgetting about it.

    A decade into the 21st C, but some of our thought processes are still prehistoric. They say, behind every great man, is a great woman. It's high time we started respecting that woman.

    Good stuff, Prerna!
  • Prerna
    16.08.10 03:48 AM
    Thank you all for taking the time to read this piece. For such a mindset (the one addressed in the post) to go away, I believe we need to look beyond ourselves and try to empathise.
  • Simran
    16.08.10 12:45 AM
    True! And surprisingly, I know a house-husband these days, and somehow he is always described in such a hip way, u would never realise that he is after all, sans a job. He cooks, but then what he cooks is Taj Standard, or if he drives around with no objective, its becausae he is in the NHRA. Its all to do with the perspective!
  • Georgy Samuel
    Georgy Samuel
    15.08.10 07:52 PM
    Excellent piece of writing! Housewives are grossly under-rated. I learnt it the hard way when I started living all by myself. Take-aways are like a honeymoon. The bliss soon dies :) Keep up the good work, prerna!
  • Lorraine
    15.08.10 05:29 PM
    Hye Babe! Totally with you on this uptil the end. Its a concept that needs to be shaken off not only by others but me too. Cheers!
  • Jaswinder Singh
    Jaswinder Singh
    15.08.10 05:13 PM
    The idiosyncrasies of the great middle class of India are like a mystery. Many have tried to get a hold of it, alas, all in vain. It's like cold fusion, a distant dream or piece of fiction you cannot depend upon. And sadly, the numbers are so large that it is inevitable for one to run into it around every corner. However, even with all the inevitability surrounding this seemingly insurmountable task of conquering the Indian middle class mindset, this kind of an outlook is appalling. And I feel ashamed at my ignorance on the matter even while my mother has been a part of the national census data collection process.

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