Culture Vulture

Un-gendering the home

The housework gap is all around us and worth writing about

In 1961, in the early days of Alice Munro's career, the Vancouver Sun ran a piece on her titled Housewife Finds Time To Write Short Stories. Almost 60 years later, I sometimes wonder if such ingrained sexism has totally gone away.

When I started non-profit online art and literary journal WeAreAWebsite.com with three female friends in 2015, a well-meaning (and possibly drunk, I'd like to think, as if that mitigates anything) acquaintance had taken me aside to tell me "not to get your hopes up" about the impact and success of our new venture.

"I don't want to see you get hurt," he added soothingly. "People can be critical, and you're just a housewife."

At the time, I had only managed to squeak indignantly that I was not just a housewife before friends diplomatically separated us and the civilised hum of the dinner party resumed. But that weird encounter opened my eyes to how people like him still existed in Singapore - who assume a mother and wife's contributions, away from the paid labour force, centre on and are limited to housekeeping and child-rearing.

As International Women's Day is around the corner on March 8, gender inequality and the housework disparity are once more in the news. The Guardian newspaper in London recently ran a report about how guilt over not doing enough household chores harms working women's health.

And while the global "housework gap" has narrowed since the 1960s, during which Munro became an acknowledged master of the short story form and honoured with a Nobel prize, women did at least 85 per cent of it almost everywhere in the world.

While the global 'housework gap' has narrowed since the 1960s, women did at least 85 per cent of it almost everywhere in the world.

South Korea, according to The Guardian, held the record as the least fair country surveyed, in which women do two hours and 27 minutes of housework a day, as opposed to men's 21 minutes.

Last month, based on an idea from my friend Iman Fahim Hameed, WeAreAWebsite ran a free writing workshop aimed at exploring how to "un-gender" the home. Called We Are A Writing Workshop, the session was held at venue sponsor Sing Lit Station's Jalan Kubor digs, and saw about 20 participants coming together to write about the home so as to turn traditional roles in it on their heads. We wanted to consider and reconsider what home meant, in the context of the unpaid labour of caregivers and home-makers.

We looked at photographs of Swedish dads by Johan Bavman, doing mundane things such as brushing their kids' teeth and vacuuming with a baby strapped to their backs, then wrote stories inspired by the images. We rewrote the fairytale of Cinderella in order to make it more equitable. We dug into memories of doing things with Mum, then writing fiction which recast those activities so that we were doing them with Dad, and vice-versa. We imagined a world in which people did not have genders, a la Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand Of Darkness, and tried to write dialogue in which genderless partners had arguments about housework.

Most powerfully, we listened to one another - women and men - speak about how things were in our own homes. How our fathers did or did not help out, or saw looking after us was our mothers' responsibility, and how these memories and emotions affected us long into adulthood.

We spoke about making it a point to train our children, boys and girls alike (but, perhaps, especially boys), to be proficient in household chores. We spoke of reverse discrimination, in the form of deriding men's efforts at taking on the housework or assuming that they always needed looking after.

Over the years, as a full-time writer of fiction, co-running a family with a freelance writer and editor, I've had to contend with the issue of housework from various angles. I am able to write short stories and publish them because of my husband's strong support and flexible schedule, which allows him to take on the bulk of household chores and parenting when I'm either away on writing residencies or am physically present but have my head in the clouds.

As far as equal division of labour at home goes, we have it good. Still, there are always kinks to iron out and the odd disagreement.

For a while, I went around with a general feeling of malaise, unable to make simple decisions or keep appointments, even though the Supportive Spouse was the one tackling cooking, laundry and tidying up. It finally dawned on me that I was carrying the mental load - being on stand-by when the kids came home from school, taking note of home repairs.

Even tech and apps, which supposedly cut time spent on housework for women, didn't help. Sure, my menfolk knew how to use the FoodPanda app to order their food, but it often fell on me to sound the reminder that dinner time was almost upon us and they still hadn't decided what to eat.

The thing with mental loads, however, is that it's invisible, and couples often have a perception gap about who does more. What makes the housework divide between two people even more insidious is that we all have different standards when it comes to cleanliness and comfort.

Recently, perturbed and nauseated by a mysterious stench coming from our kitchen, I moved for a few days to a friend's empty apartment. Meanwhile, my menfolk continued blithely at home, unaffected. When I finally returned, in full Nancy Drew mode, I discovered the source as a bowl of unidentified goo left in the microwave oven for weeks.

Back at the We Are A Writing Workshop, it felt safe and therapeutic to talk about housework seriously and to privilege it as something worth writing about. After all, if women do most of it, then it is a reality that bears scrutiny and elevating with lyricism.

I raised the question: Is it ever possible to un-gender the home, given that so much of our society and upbringing is still arranged along biological lines? I don't have the answer. But I do know that talking about it openly - changing the perception that one does not air one's housework dirty laundry in public - and compassionately is the first step in seeing alternatives to what we are used to.

Things may never be perfect, but art, writing and dialogue let us see what fairer looks like.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2018, with the headline 'Un-gendering the home'. Print Edition | Subscribe