Few days ago, I read an article about mental workload women carry which was part of a discussion initiated for the women participants of a programme we conduct at nu-i. The article talked about the immense burden women carry of household tasks along with everything else they do. Both the written word and the graphics communicated the message very clearly: men rarely share the burden of household tasks. Reading the article, as a man, I felt ashamed. I have seen this happen around me often.
I was very fortunate to have a mother who was highly “educated” and was very progressive. When I was 5 years old my mother bought a small farm. There was no electricity. No running water. No people to help, cook, clean and do laundry. Or care for the cattle and do other multitude of farming tasks. No one else to take care of the young siblings. When you live on a farm, the inside and outside tasks together can fill up a long excel sheet. When it came to ensuring all the farm and household tasks got done, my mother had three simple principles. They shaped my upbringing.
All are responsible, even though some one specific is accountable.
Growing up, we all had specific things that we were expected to do. The accountabilities were not gender based nor were they assigned in a formal meeting. They evolved based on the passion, interest and availability. For example, I was accountable for the food, kitchen and the cleanliness of the house. I always hung around the kitchen. My sister, for the care of the siblings, their studies etc (she was smarter!). We both took care of the laundry – going to the nearest stream twice a week to wash. When my sister started going to high school in a neighbouring village, I was in charge of my infant sister’s wellbeing.
My mother told us “walk around with your eyes, ears and nose open. Whatever you see hear or smell that requires attention, do it. If a cow came home in the evening and said mooo, go and take care of the cow”. Even though my brother was primarily accountable for it. “If you smell the aroma of the rice being cooked, go check the pot to see if it is ready”. Depending on the status of the rice, we were expected to do what was necessary. Each of us were accountable for specific areas, but all of us were responsible to ensure nothing was left unattended. I f you saw the dust on the floor, you were expected to sweep.
Do the task end to end (as we say today, not just a tick in the box)
If you happen to go to the cow shed and took care of the cows, then you were expected to not just tie the cow, but also feed the cow and ensure there is water to drink. Check the cow to see that she is not hurt anywhere by birds or other cattle. If the cow is a bit restless, check the hooves to make sure they don’t have any stones. Ensure the place where the cow is going to sleep is clean and dry. End to end meant, we couldn’t expect someone else to come in and complete some part of the job. If you are there, you take care of everything. This applied to all tasks.
This meant look at not just now, but tomorrow and day after too – always think about the long term. Look at not just self but others too. Look at what is causing something and why it is happening, and not just go with what you see or hear.
If my infant sister cried, I had to go and take care of her. Not just prepare and give her the milk bottle, assuming she was hungry, but also check to see why she was crying. She might be wet. A mosquito might be bothering her. If I fed her with a milk bottle, I had to make sure other bottles are clean for the next use. Same with the nappies.
My mother was able to focus on the farm when her mental workload was shared by the rest of us. Mental workload is not about completing the chores, it is about carrying the total context for everything that goes on in the house and outside. It is the thinking behind the activity: the why, what, how, who when. It is about thinking of the alternatives when things don’t go as planned. It is about anticipating, empathising and ruminating. It is looking at today as well as tomorrow. It is being concerned about the outcome and how it affects everything else, and not just completing a task.
Sadly, all this rests with a woman in most social set ups. Unless we get the husbands, sons and daughters and others around, to think beyond just carrying out the task, women will continue to carry the mental workload as that has come to be seen as her job.
Sharing the mental workload doesn’t happen overnight. It is a slow process of delegation. Needs patience and creativity. Most of all it requires a strong desire to use appropriate opportunities to expand awareness.
I believe, we all and especially we the men, have the responsibility to stop the behaviours which continually perpetuate mental workload of women. We have the obligation to ensure we do not transmit the poison of gender bias to the next generation.
In my next blog, I will share how I have applied what I learned from my mother and inculcate the same in our children and others around.