Dear Men, Your Feminism has to do Better than Ordering Groceries or Doing the Dishes

Social Commentary

Dear Men, Your Feminism has to do Better than Ordering Groceries or Doing the Dishes

Illustration: Arati Gujar

The pandemic has come with its fair share of challenges and won’t leave without exacting some radical changes in the life of a family. In my nuclear setup – a family of three – it has taken me time to evaluate how much psychological and actual ownership my husband took (or didn’t) in the everyday management of our home and the raising of our son. Truth is: a whole lot. Yet, not equally. By his own admission. Amends are underway. Big time. More on that later.

He’s been livid at himself ever since he’s realised that him slacking on the home front is why I hit a coma of sorts in my career whereas his took off.

It was about two months ago when we first sat down to take stock, to telescopically review, how we split our domestic duties and parental responsibilities through the pandemic. Turns out, I bit off plenty more than I could chew. And in hindsight, it infuriates me that he’d let me. To uplift my husband’s day, I do what millennials do: I WhatsApp him a smashing shot of my view, desk, diary. He’s been livid at himself ever since he’s realised that him slacking on the home front is why I hit a coma of sorts in my career whereas his took off – a meaty role at a start-up for which we relocated from Bombay to Bangalore six months ago. Karnataka went under a kingly lockdown days after. #Kismat. Face Palm.

Then the story wrote itself. New city. No maid. No family. No friends. No day care. Top that with a toddler in his terrible twos who quickly deduced: My time with Ammi > her time on her laptop. Little Einstein.

He craved Abbu’s attention too. But since the beginning of the pandemic, Abbu was the Sachin of time management. Put baby down for a nap. Netflix while baby is asleep. Play when baby’s up. But snap playtime short for another call. YouTube endlessly on the pot and so on. Still, what befuddles me is how using the same 24 hours, Abbu devoured Peaky Blinders in straight one month. It took Ammi two cities—and one whole goddamn year!

The thing is, my husband, like most men, is not a habitual shunner. It’s just that, like most men, he was never brought up to speed on how all cogs in the domestic wheel must align seamlessly to affect a smooth home run.

“Gender equality in the workplace regressed during the pandemic” is a text I find neatly packaged in a blurb on the second page of a Deloitte report titled ‘Women @Work: A global output’. It hits me only when I scroll down: I’m amongst the 26% Indian women who at some point during the pandemic considered quitting. Glad I didn’t. Even women who powered through were crumbling, per factoids that kept cropping up in my research. I had to rely on data to substantiate my story so that it doesn’t read like something I’m firing off in a retrospective rage. Or am I? (That wicked, purple devil emoji. Yep, that’s me at the moment!)

Jokes apart, turns out, nearly 57% of Indian women felt their careers weren’t progressing speedily enough; 69% rued about facing non-inclusive behaviour at work, and at 31%, Indian women enjoyed the least employer support. Bulk of home management and childcare fell on them, said 78% Indian women. Globally, this figure stood marginally better at 66%.

The thing is, my husband, like most men, is not a habitual shunner. It’s just that, like most men, he was never brought up to speed on how all cogs in the domestic wheel must align seamlessly to affect a smooth home run. It’s just that, like most men, he was never held accountable or judged, overtly or covertly, at home or outside. And no, ordering groceries on an app doesn’t count. If anything, that’s only the modern-day equivalent of men going to the bazaar. Also, ordering is no biggie. What is? Bearing the guilt of wilting veggies, rehashing leftovers, managing the kitchen cycle end-to-end, including contents of baby’s bento box.

Pre-pandemic too, the everyday “Bhabhi, kya banau?” call went only to her, even if she “happened to be in a meeting with some chief minister.”

To be fair, it is reductive to presume all men wilfully relinquish all things domestic. But it’s also true minus the privilege of domestic staff, how sexism, and fault lines in the division of mental and physical labour played out in many a modern nuclear home, has been, in a way, chronicler of a problem untold. “First two months was a double shift: Business head to bai,” says a mom back in Bombay who’s “learnt to manage her expectations.” If her husband is unfazed by a dusty bookshelf, she, too, has seen merit in ignoring that dust. “I’d rather read or squeeze in a workout.”

S, an urban planner, gives her husband full marks for handling their son’s (online) school. “But all time-sensitive chores magically land in my lap. Like his office desk is enviously clean. But at home he’d do the dishes only at night. Post-work. Post-Netflix.” Pre-pandemic too, the everyday “Bhabhi, kya banau?” call went only to her, even if she “happened to be in a meeting with some chief minister.”

Speaking of ministers… during the first lockdown activist Subarna Ghosh had petitioned Prime Minister Modi to ask Indian men to share the load. Equally. But it did make headlines, parking a deeply personal problem in political corridors. “Feminism, yes. But it’s really a way of life,” says Ghosh. “Making that occasional cup of chai and toast isn’t enough,” she says, scoffing at the grand spectacle most Indian men’s kitchen entries often turn into… “just like you brush your teeth, take a shower. You do the bed. Wash the dishes. Simple.”

Because the thing is, to be comparatively “more feminist” than men of the previous generation is laughingly deplorable. I’d rather have my son play with ketchup than play catch-up.

In our Bangalore 3BHK, my husband’s road to redemption has taken root in a series of colour-coded Google Sheets—weekly menu, day care schedule (yes, it’s on for now!), grocery list. He’s stepping up; more and more. I’m stepping down; more and more. In fact, I’d like to raise a toque to the chef-like precision with which he’s been arranging my ragi chips and hummus toppings. As if his KRAs are linked to it.

Now, who’d have thought a pandemic could be a potential leveller, a wake-up call, a trigger of sorts to introspect on how truly feminist are our feminist male partners. Because the thing is, to be comparatively “more feminist” than men of the previous generation is laughingly deplorable. I’d rather have my son play with ketchup than play catch-up. Underperformance on home turf will breed domestic dissonance. While I’m glad amends are being made on the frontlines in my home, I’m also aware that won’t be the case elsewhere. In most homes, things have returned back to the way they were.

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