Invisible labour


February 8, 2022 by Cláudia

The past couple of days, I’ve had to work on a scientific paper for publication on top of work, on top of my dog’s training, on top of feeding us both, on top of maintaining housework. Unsurprisingly, something had to give and I quickly saw myself in a nearly inhabitable living situation: dishes piled up, clothes multiplied on chairs and then on the floor, hair and dog fur clumped together, and virtually all everyday objects were out of place.

In just a couple of days, my house turned from neat(ish) to a sight not to be witnessed by the most impressionable.

When I finished writing my article, after poorly slept nights and at least two mental breakdowns, the first thing I did was take a shower (yes, I missed at least one of my usual daily showers) and then clean my house. I did this even though my whole body screamed for rest, my back hurt and my left wrist was accusing the early stages of strain tendonitis from typing.

While scrubbing tomato sauce from my oven, I couldn’t help to feel some resentment towards housework. Not because I thought I was too good to scrub the oven or because I would have liked someone else to do it for me. I felt resentment because keeping up housework is real work, which rarely gets recognized as so, both by partners, employers, or society in general.

When I was younger I remember thinking how unfair it was in the past that men could go to work and women had to stay at home and do nothing. Following a very male-centric gaze, I was considering housework and care work easy and barely work at all (if women do it, how hard can it be, really?). This also disregarded that women of colour and low-income women have always worked, often to pick up housework and childcare of middle and upper-class white women.

It was only later, when I started living alone, that I realized how misguided I was. While I lived with my mom, even if I helped with some tasks, I didn’t get the full picture of what it takes to keep a house clean, to plan and prepare meals, to keep the fridge full and the home life organized.

Besides relying on her completely to organize the house tasks, it was also something I could opt out of whenever I was feeling too tired or had too much work. Still, chores were being done without me realizing it. Now that all of the housework is falling on me, I feel often tired, overwhelmed, or that there is not much free time left at the end of the day. And this is just me taking care of myself (and my dog). I can’t even imagine what it takes to keep a bigger family running.

Domestic and care work is one of the least valued jobs and one that doesn’t offer time off or holidays. I think back to when we used to go on family holidays and it was my grandmother who prepared all the meals, changed the beds, did the laundry, cleaned the house, and did the dishes. Only now do I realize that she was never really on holiday and that we all depended on her to keep everything running.

Even today, we look at stay at home moms and wives as not contributing to society, or as being “kept” by their husbands, not realizing that their vital contributions are 1) ensuring home life runs smoothly 2) in fact supporting the husband in his career, by allowing him to have the time and energy to focus on his professional endeavours.

Even with the large-scale entry of women into the labour market, domestic (and care) tasks in heterosexual couples still fall disproportionally on the woman, even when both partners are full-time workers. According to the latest Eurostat, employed women spend about 2,3 hours daily on housework, while employed men only spend 1,6 hours. This amounts to an average of five fewer hours of free time for women than for men per week. This is a huge burden for an already busy schedule, leaving women overworked and with less availability for their paying jobs.

Housework is real work and should be recognized as such. Cleaning work is the foundation that keeps life together functioning effectively. It’s essential in our homes, in our offices, in our streets, however, it is low-paying (or unpaid), unappreciated and the workers are still considered lesser than.

40 hour weeks were designed assuming that there would be a woman at home fully dedicated to domestic work and childcare. Despite pretences of gender equality, gender roles still default the role of caregiver to the woman, while not even recognizing how taxing it can be. We all know couples in which the woman naturally picks up most of the tasks, while the man skids by, sometimes with blatant excuses that “she’s better at it” or that he’s “too tired”. And we also know the glorified and applauded man who does pick up his share of housework (“she’s lucky to have you!”).

Achieving true equality also starts with the division of domestic labour, by tipping the scales and unburdening women from the overwhelming responsibilities that by default fall onto them. It’s almost laughable that in 2022 we are still discussing the division of housework, but here we are.

In the feminist circles that I attend, there are conversations around gender fluidity, how to look at the sex work industry, and the intersections between non-monogamy and anti-capitalism. So when I leave this bubble, it is daunting to go to a friend’s house and see the boyfriend on the couch asking “so what’s for dinner today?”.

There can be no equality until there is a fair division of housework. Right now, we are playing on an uneven field and this is one of the injustices to be challenged.

Reminder: In cases of cohabitation, we don’t want “help”, we want the division of domestic work.

Reminder two: If you’re a man and you’re picking up house chores, you’re not exceptional nor are you deserving of a standing ovation, you are doing the bare minimum to contribute to the shared household.

Apologies for the heteronormativity on this post – these are tendencies that are more present in heterosexual dynamics.


2 thoughts on “Invisible labour

  1. Carol anne says:

    fabulous post, I agree with you, on all points! Xoxo

    Liked by 1 person

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