A doctor told me homemaking is not considered a stress-factor for women because every woman is doing that anyway. This invisible, unpaid labour that is disproportionately seen as the responsibility of women has a long political, economic and social history and in that history, it has taken many victims.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
In a discussion with a doctor about some unexpected health issues that I was facing, I alluded to the possibility of stress being a factor.
“I suppose my work has gotten more stressful over the past year,” I said, “I think that happens when you turn thirty.”
“This is no age for you to be stressed,” he responded, “You are young, stress is about responsibility, at your age you shouldn’t be taking so much.”
“I mean… Responsibility is not always a choice. I have to manage work, a home, a child, a family…” I began to tell him when he cut me off.
“We do not view homemaking as a stress-factor,” he retorted, clinical in his disposition, “Working women surely have more stress, but homemaking is not a stressful job.”
There it was. The adage as old as time. It is a commonly-held belief that homemakers are on a life-long vacation and immune from stress, responsibility and strife. Of course, we don’t say that out loud. Instead, we adopt respectful-seeming but ultimately meaningless cliches like: “Homemaking is the hardest job in the world, a mother never gets off work, we would all die without homemakers.” We do that so we can avoid uttering the truth about the socio-economic condition that is homemaking. Homemaking is a gendered and socially-enforced mechanism that extracts invisible, unpaid labour disproportionately from women without the responsibility of acknowledging such labour and it is systemically-supported and encouraged. No one wants to hear that, a Mother’s Day card and sentimental stories that gloss over the silence and the issues are more palatable. You don’t realise how serious it is until you interact with the systems that enable it.
It may seem as If my annoyance at a doctor rejecting homemaking as a cause of stress is a benign point of outrage, but there are medical consequences to it. Heart disease is thought of as a man’s disease despite the fact that it is the primary-killer of women as well. Most women are not aware of or investigated for the risk-factors that would contribute to heart-issues and even if we were, disqualifying homemaking as a relevant-factor of stress would mean that a majority of Indian women aren’t properly assessed for stress. The only logical conclusion is that medical misogyny enables needless death that could have been avoided with adequate care. And this isn’t about heart-health alone. My mother has had a long-standing medical issue which went undiagnosed and diminished for years, in part, because she is a homemaker. Her symptoms were routinely explained as hypochondria that was enabled by the fact that she “has nothing to do,” and is spending her time worrying about useless things instead.
This false idea that homemakers have nothing to do is one we don’t want to admit to having fostered ourselves. In public-facing communication, we would never agree that is what we believe or even think, but the biases in our own minds are visible when our doctors tell us homemakers don’t have stress. When we refuse to factor the schedules of our mothers into plans because we just assume they will always be free. When as teenagers we vehemently opposed the “lifestyles” of our mothers. When we giggle over cocktails as we wonder what that one friend of ours who doesn’t work even does all day and how we would die if we did not have work to define ourselves. We acknowledge and respect the right for women to choose to be homemakers but the noxious notion that we view this choice as a choice to do nothing has prevailed.
I will not inflict upon homemakers the indignity of listing the chores, tasks or activities they undertake that would justify their contribution to society, it should not need to be justified, but I will state that if you hired professionals to do all of those things for you, you would end up paying them a pretty penny. More importantly, when it is men who have to undertake the same responsibilities, we are all too eager to acknowledge how stressful they can be. The emotion and condition of stress is the purview of men. Parenting is the natural response of a mother and a monumental responsibility for a father. Cleaning and maintaining a home is considered stress-free non-work when women do it, but we needn’t look further than the discourse about home-maintenance that flourished when men had to clean their own houses during the lockdown for evidence that it is real work when men have to do it. I routinely hear of marital problems being an acceptable issue for men to slack a little at work, I only hear of marital issues for women presented as a condition we accept alongside marriage, and therefore not an admissible excuse to be anything less than perfect. We justify exploiting the labour of women because we believe that this kind of labour occurs naturally to us, but if that is a good enough reason to denigrate homemakers, its corollary, that ambition and labour occur naturally to men should also be a good enough reason not to pay them for doing their jobs.
The promotion of the Idea that jobs are the only thing that give value to life and therefore the lives of (homemaking) women are meaningless is supported by two different systems. Capitalism convinces us that our lives are only made meaningful by our jobs because if we believe that, we work harder to make money for their companies to the end of feeling more accomplished ourselves. This synecdoche is a fallacy. The second system, the patriarchy, works through its most efficient agent, the Indian family unit, to keep women out of the workforce so that home maintenance and child-care remain industries of free labour that are blind to their own worth. It is so easy to demean a woman who does not work, but it is much harder to acknowledge that work-places disproportionately favour men for employment and promotions. It is harder to admit that the male need for income is taken more seriously than the female need for it, and because of this pay-gap, sometimes it just doesn’t make financial sense for a woman to keep working only for child-care to cost her entire salary. It is impossible to dispute that the fatherhood bonus and the motherhood penalty are measurable concepts that exist. It is needless to pretend that there are so many industries that aren’t even open to women. A very small example is the restaurant industry, you may see woman chefs at high-end places sometimes, but never at a dhaba or a lunch-home where the majority of cooks are actually employed. The patriarchal economics of employment edge women out of the workforce and push us towards homemaking, only for us to be judged for doing that as if it is not work.
And a perfect storm of distraction is created when we pit working women against homemakers so as to be able to absolve the patriarchy, crony capitalism and economic sexism for creating these conditions. Are women to blame for the discrimination against homemakers? To a certain extent, yes. If you have the ability to recognise that financial independence emancipates you, you possess the analytical skill to conclude that access to financial independence is, in part, a function of privilege. If you participate in the denigration of homemakers, you are part of the problem because the systems that keep all of us in place benefit from our battle with one another.
That’s why when a doctor tells me that homemakers have no stress, he expects me, as a working woman, to agree with him so I may gain his favour. He will go home to his wife and denigrate me as well, claiming, as he did to me, that working women who choose not to procreate cause their own medical issues. He will expect her to agree with him. She might do so because she may believe I am against her by virtue of being a working woman. However this opposition in which we find ourselves doesn’t benefit us, it reduces both of us, while the patriarchy gets away with perpetuating the systems that keep us on opposing sides.
I would rather not.
So I called out the doctor.
It’s the right thing to do and as a woman, I don’t have to be a homemaker, to fight for their rights.