Feminism 101: How can we fix how “domestic work” is defined?

Our favorite feminists explore how we can help alleviate the burden of "women's work"
By Avital Norman Nathman  Published on 06/02/2017 at 9:00 AM EDT

[Photo credit]

Domestic life has traditionally always been the realm of women. And, despite the fact that more women than ever are in the workplace, it is still assumed that most domestic work will remain under their purview. Do women tend to take on the lion’s share out of a sense of guilt, responsibility, or duty? Or have we — as a society — have been conditioned to perpetuate this domestic labor by gender regardless of how the workforce looks? Either way, there’s no mistaking that women are the ones taking on the extra work of the home.

A recent comic from France beautifully illustrates this concept. Titled “You Should’ve Asked,” this viral comic has been resonating with many women as they reflect on their own home lives and how much of that burden they feel. We turned to our own cabal of fabulous feminists to find out about their own experience with this extra “women’s work” and what their thoughts are on helping to dismantle the assumption that domestic work is the sole responsibility of the woman.

Natasha Chiam:I’ve just had to have another round of orthopedic surgery and been incapacitated and out of the house for a week in hospital and will be unable to do pretty much anything for another 5 weeks while I recover at home.

I can see how much my partner is stressed out already and it occurred to me last night that a lot of his exhaustion is mental. It’s not that he has an excessive increase in the amount of actual physical work he has to do around the house and with the children. It is that now, with me out of the house or out of commission, he is being forced to THINK about all the things that he never really had to before. Do the kids have clean clothes, when do I have to get them for lessons, soccer games, dance class, do we have enough groceries for the week and what am I making for dinner tonight, did I fill in that permission form for school, etc…

I am not sure if he is making the connection yet as to why *I* seem so exhausted all the time, but I think this is a good bit of role reversal and reality check for all of us. Part of me is grateful for this situation, and another part just wants to be able to get back to “normal” ASAP. What I have learned throughout this is that sometimes we as women and mothers hoard a lot of the minutiae of our days and children’s lives, and feel like we are the only ones who KNOW what needs to be done and when and why and how… We need to let that shit go and let our partners in on these details. And then step back so they can figure out THEIR way of handling LIFE as an equal partner.”

Seraphina Ferraro:My best friend calls the ways in which women are pushed to do labor in relationships the “Google Calendar Sex Mom” phenomenon. And it is so pervasive that I have never been in a relationship that hasn’t expected me to fulfill that role.

More than ‘women-centric,’ I would go so far as to label this ‘femme-centric labor.’ As a queer woman, I have been in relationships with women that have mimed the ways in which men assign labor to women. Masculine or butch identified partners have always expected me to perform domestic as well as emotional labor to a much higher degree than they do.

As for the problem of how to decrease that extra labor: socialization is the key. Normalizing from a very young age that everyone should be learning the skills essential to their survival as adults is the only way to make sure that there are not significant gaps in labor that need to be filled by other partners as we grow. If we all know how to take care of ourselves, we can meet in the middle when it comes to the labors inherent in everyday life!”

Avital Norman Nathman:For so long — and still, to this day — a lot of women’s work, particularly in the domestic sphere, has been invisible. Things get done and houses run because women are the ones doing it and for the most part, they’re doing it quietly. Despite the fact that more women than ever are in the workforce, our society still clings to these traditional gender roles that are not only archaic, but continue to be a drain on women. We need to be explicit when we talk about domestic work, how it’s split up, and the toll it takes — both mentally and physically — on those who bear the biggest burden. Talking about expectations and following through on them are key. Also, trust your partner.It goes both ways. Women need to trust their male partners to take on responsibilities otherwise traditionally ascribed to women and men need to trust their female partners when they talk about equity in division of labor and what it looks like to them.”

Danielle Corcione:There was a meme circulating on Facebook recently that something along the lines of ‘photo of a man trying to do something you asked him to do a week ago’ (like a chore) and it’s a GIF a slug slowly moving along. That’s so accurate. I’ve been in many situations where I’ve been expected to do what I’m asked but the men in my life never had that shared accountability. For male relatives, I’ve often had to follow-up with them multiple times and ask for them to do the thing until they *actually* do it. This has also happened in work environments as well.”

Jennifer Pozner:Dealing with domestic tasks equitably requires balance, care, and intentionality — all the more so when gendered expectations are thrown in. The political and personal implications of believing home life management is ‘women’s work’ often burden women in terms of lost leisure time and mental energy, plus added stress and physical labor. To manage domestic responsibilities fairly, couples should speak very honestly about every single task it takes to manage their home life — from housekeeping chores to childcare to medical and social maintenance — then divide those tasks according to which person is better able to do which job (and which particular task each finds less odious). Also, it’s helpful to set priorities: what are deal breakers that must get done, and who is responsible for those? Which tasks can be sacrificed to create more time?”

Mayim Bialik:This question brings me back to the days when I was nursing an infant, teaching science and piano and tending to the needs of a toddler while also cooking and cleaning and doing laundry round the clock! I think a lot of it depends on your spouse, and I think a lot of it depends on your preferences as a woman. Unfortunately — or fortunately for my ex — I love being domestic. I didn’t ever want to give up my labor even though I was a working mom. I think it’s on us to try and shift the conversation so that we don’t see giving those things up as something that makes us less of a woman. I also think it’s on us to ask for help and speak up so that everything doesn’t fall on us. That’s my hope for future feminists!”

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