Ravneet Bawa is a 38 year old Mumbai, India based marketing consultant for technology startups. She divides her time between her projects and her writing. She is also a poet and has published her work in various lit journals and forums. She is currently working on a manuscript of personal essays and a book of poetry. Between yoga, poetry, an 8 year old daughter, a 2 year old pet dog and building brand keys for startups, her balance is often off but her vitality is always on.
The following piece was written in response to the situation of a 5 month long lockdown for Covid19 in the city of Mumbai. Mumbai is the second most populous city in the world with nearly 20 million people. It is also one of the densest cities with 32,000 people per square kilometre [i]. Social distancing is all but impossible here. As an immediate response the lifeline of Mumbai ie the local train network was shut down as was most of public transport. This shut down the income sources for daily wage workers and workers employed in the informal economy leading to a massive migrant worker crisis in India.
Income inequality is apparent in this city which is the financial capital of our country and also home to one of the world’s largest slums. The gender pay gap in India is at 34% with female participation in the workforce amongst the lowest in the world[ii]. The country and especially urban centres like Mumbai rest precariously on the shoulders of these statistics. Urban working women balance home, hearth and work. They often use less than safe public transport and have less time for sleep and leisure. Add to this strongly steeped cultural mores and traditions which put the burden of conformity and safekeeping for progeny on women. On the other hand, while no definitive number exists, estimates of domestic workers in India range from 5 million to 50 million. Domestic workers are employed in independent homes for managing house chores like cleaning, mopping, dusting and cooking. 75% of these domestic workers are women [iii]. It’s an informal economy and they are not covered under any employee benefits or guaranteed employment. Several workers have multiple employers, no cap on working hours, no minimum wage, no paid leaves and no health insurance. The burden of domesticity including well-being for children and elders is split between women employed by the formal sector and the domestic workers that they in turn employ for managing their home needs.
When the lockdown was imposed in late March, all corporate offices asked employees to work from home. At the same time the entry of domestic workers in residential apartments and housing complexes was completely banned. This was while necessary, it was a shock to the domestic setup. Women who often work long hours at their jobs were overwhelmingly burdened with household chores that were up until now outsourced to domestic workers. On the other hand, in the absence of labour laws protecting the rights of domestic workers, without work, several of these workers had to go without wages. Getting paid depended on the conscientiousness of the employers and little else. The huge dependence on domestic workers in the urban homes of India also means that we are ill-equipped with appliances like dishwashers, automated cleaners and dryers. In more progressive households, this period saw men and children share the burden of chores with the women of the family as also for the first time the realization of the size and form of visible and invisible household work.
As someone who worked full-time in a demanding marketing job and then took a career break, I observed the chasm between domestic and professional lives from close quarters in the six months preceding the lockdown. Having outsourced a majority of my domestic chores, I hadn’t paid as much attention to decomposing domesticity. This essay is a consolidation of my thoughts on how we view domesticity and the transformation this perspective has undergone during the Covid19 lockdown.
When I took a career break last year, despite making provisions for my savings and a recurring monthly income by way of consulting projects, I found my sense of self worth plummet. It just wasn’t the money, well to be honest some days it was. But the sense of going out every morning to earn a salary somehow seemed like legitimate work as opposed to freelancing which felt glib. There was a socially validated sense of purpose in dressing up for work, calling for the driver or an Uber, picking up the laptop bag and walking out the door with packaged lunch that someone else slaved in the kitchen for. There was intangible but enormous value associated with the pretty wrapping paper that the life of a working woman came in and nothing I did from home came close. I tried getting dressed in formals everyday, buying an electric kettle to set up a coffee corner, and making some unnecessary calls. Everything fell short. I deleted my LinkedIn app from my phone and that helped. But what really flipped the switch for me was the Covid19 lockdown when my husband had to stay home too. When we both shared house chores and when we both sat in our respective corners doing our respective gigs and when we both took turns to allow for interruptible time, is when what I did independent of what money I made felt not so unimportant. We are both stay-at-home, we are both working from home, we both have careers and we both have more or less the same work-life imbalance problems. Childcare and eldercare are a joint responsibility for many people now not just in spirit but down to the very diapers. This shift to my surprise has been a significant improvement for my self worth because the lens on both domestic and professional work has been reset so dramatically.
The imposition of the lockdown that forced a lot of us to work from home brought the domestic and professional spheres within spitting distance of each other. This meant many things, chief among them was the ability to observe the other life through a proximate lens. This interconnectedness has spawned new identities for us that don’t have labels yet. Before we settle into old habits and new labels, we must use this narrow window of blurred boundaries to examine what this means for society, specifically for women. The single most important consequence of this lockdown has been the elevation of domesticity from the invisible, amorphous term ‘chores’ to the time consuming, significant, unpaid and non negotiable ‘work’ that it is. This is the first time in modern history that working men and working women and stay at home moms and dads and everyone in between have had to accept and partake of domestic responsibilities in a somewhat equitable way. There are lessons here that we must record before we move on to a post pandemic normal.
First, the value of work is suddenly not as tied into monetary markers as it was before. The value of what you did manifested in what it could afford you – travel, clothes, experiences, dining out, networking, personal effects et al. The opportunity to spend on all of these has drastically reduced. Moreover you do not have to suffer the social proof of hedonistic consumption in others lives making this less aspirational than before. And besides so many people have reported experiencing the joy of flow in domestic chores like dishwashing and cooking. The gratification of achievement in emptying a sink full of dirty dishes into clean utensils drying on the stand is in the words of a 30 year old male friend, a more rewarding experience than making a proposal for a new business vertical that will go through three hundred legal hoops and then is nary to see the light of the day. It’s been a while that flow and contentment from physical labour had a close shot at competing with money and pleasure earned from intellectual labour, as a means to sustained happiness.
Professional life could potentially now be more accessible to women or so is the hope. Just as the small joys of domesticity are now available to men and there is no shame in admitting so. Companies have realized the possibility of having a majority of their workforce operate remotely with little to no loss in business outcomes. Homes have benefitted from having both partners cooperate to meet domestic needs with significantly better outcomes for home and family health, leisure and learning time. It hasn’t all been rosy since human resource departments are yet to fully recognize the increased home hour needs which are not offset by or comparable to travel time. For some people work pressures have stayed unyielding or worsened due to the illogical virtue signalling of busyness schedules.The dreariness of most jobs is salvaged by chai breaks, water cooler conversations and the bonding over office politics that is now absent. It is epiphanic to note that what kept you sane was everything that happened between and around work instead of the guts of the actual work itself! What you do have now are the continuous interruptions of domestic life, almost always in the urgent-important quadrant. The child accidentally drops her toothbrush in the pot just when the boss asks you if the revised quarterly targets are within reach. The courier bell rings on slide 4 of your presentation. And then on slide 9. The dog is shoving his bone toy in your thigh even as you are in the middle of a not so great performance review. But also the clouds going past your living room window and the sky turning all shades of pink in the dusk light is a sight to behold. Looking at your partner and seeing for the first time their intense work face with the pout that is more than passably hot is a new kind of love.
In closing, let us also address the question of how this demarcation between the domestic and the professional is foundationally responsible for the economic marginalization of homemakers and domestic workers. Do we treat hired help with just laws governing healthcare and paid leave and upskilling? How else can we now integrate and distribute the burden of domesticity with this newfound recognition of the burden of domesticity? If we won’t and possibly can’t compensate the toilers, must we not make it easier for the earners to pick up the domestic burden? Should we consider finally, now, independently managing our own food and living environments like the adults of our species we are supposed to be? Shall we stop venerating the intellectualization of jobs based on their earning potential and begin instead to compensate for the upkeep of social and individual well being? The educators, the healthcare workers, the caretakers of social infrastructure and the managers of domestic infrastructure must find higher regard in society. These are the people who work. Everyone else has a job.