COVID-19 and the division of labour

Before I proceed with my personal experience of the gendered division of labour during the era of the coronavirus pandemic, which reflects the microcosm of a single household, I would like to add an important disclosure. The views and characters expressed/discussed in this article are not fictional. They are real and very complex. Furthermore, I am very conscious of the fact that my economic, social and educational status is not the general reality for the average Pakistani woman or household.

To elaborate, any comprehensive discussion of gender needs to be reflective of the economic and class differentials existing in society. The reality of one woman may be similar to the reality of other women due to the triple burden of labour that women bear in societies i.e. in the productive, reproductive and community spheres. However, as a Development Economist and having a background in Social Policy, I note that you cannot take inequality and economics out of the wider discussion by assuming that all women bear this triple burden of labour equally.

Covid-19 became apparent in our lives in Pakistan around March 2020 when lockdown was first imposed. This was also the time when I decided to restart my consultancy work after taking a break following the birth of my youngest daughter. As a family, we had decided to ask all domestic workers to stay at home in order to limit exposure and adhere to government guidelines. Hence, where previously in many Upper Middle class Pakistani households, the cooking, cleaning and child-minding is often outsourced to other workers, we were stuck with a predicament: who would do the cooking, cleaning and child minding now…

Cooking was not an issue for me. I have always cooked, even as a child and as a young adult who lived at home whilst at university. Furthermore, I enjoy the creative process involved in cooking, trying different recipes and sometimes mixing and merging ingredients like in an experiment. I also think cooking is a very sensual experience, in the sense that we use all our senses: sight, touch, taste, sound and smell to the fullest. It can be very rewarding.

The cooking was sorted – which then brings us to the cleaning part. Having cooked, I did expect that my husband dealt with the mundane aspect of washing the dishes. Although in earnest washing dishes can also be very therapeutic: running water, mixing soaps and suds (yes, during Covid times we must practice regular mindfulness!) This matter however, did become a cause of friction for us. He would wash the dishes just once at the end of the day. I would have preferred that he didn’t allow them to accumulate in the first place, due to the limited space in the kitchen. Dividing the labour between meal-times might have cut down on cumulative time and been more time efficient. He insisted that if he was to help then he would do it his way.

I often had to hear the proverbial ‘I am doing this for you’, implying that he didn’t really want to wash the dishes and did it as a favour to me, as if it were my job.

With child-minding, my husband did help with getting my youngest ready for online school and sometimes made breakfast for the kids, but when we had a discussion or an argument,  I would often hear him say ‘I’m already doing enough’ in a defensive tone. I often probe him when he makes this statement by ‘What do you mean by enough? As in you don’t have the capacity to do more – or is it that you do not want to do more?’ Like any marriage, we have our struggles and our everyday triumphs. However, in changing times where flexibility, resilience, gratitude, resourcefulness and adaptability are the qualities that will ensure that we survive and sail smoothly, we must question and reflect on the division of labour in our households during periods of high stress and different schedules.

I have not found the magic answer yet, but I will say this: the questions and dialogue will continue in my own household because you may teach a man to fish, but what about  cooking, cleaning and sorting the kids out? Furthermore, does the man remain the hunter even when he does not go out to work, or does he challenge his idea of masculinity and further develop his skill set by cooking, cleaning and helping out with the kids?