The Poverty of Time 

Bill and Melinda Gates release a letter every year through their foundation The Gates Foundation detailing their goals and wishes for the coming year and what they hope to see for the future their philanthropic endeavors.  There is an annual letter by Melinda Gate’s called ‘More Time’.

‘More Time’ addresses the amount of unpaid work (chores, child care, elderly care) women across the globe do in order to keep their households running. There’s not one country in the world where women do less unpaid work than men. Naturally, the disparity between the developed and third world is big but overall, women do more unpaid work than men.

Melinda Gates describes this as taking time away from women who could be doing other things besides chores and caregiving:

Economists call it opportunity cost: the other things women could be doing if they didn’t spend so much time on mundane tasks. What amazing goals would you accomplish with an extra hour every day? Or, in the case of girls in many poor countries, an extra five or more?

These chores could be done by anyone but almost every country in the world, including Europe and United States, it has been arbitrarily assigned to women. The reasons are given varied: women are just naturally better at caregiving and housekeeping (no they aren’t, anyone can learn to be caregivers and keep a house), women don’t mind or some even like doing these things (again, no, it’s something that someone has to do and since the dawn of man, the chore has just fell to women), and some women mind very much about doing such chores. I don’t think any sane person (man or woman) would say “I just love washing dishes, I can’t wait to do them every night” or “I just love doing laundry — sorting through everyone’s dirty clothes, wash them in the appropriate cycle, then dry it, fold it, put it back in its original place just so they can wear it again and strewn it on the floor” – sounds like fun.

Women in developed countries at least have the luxury of modern appliances to help us with these chores. Women in developing and third world countries have to walk for miles to haul water from a well everyday just to do their washing and cooking. And all of this is done by women (washing, cooking, cleaning, child rearing). The water bucket weighs about 40 lbs minimum, but it’s done by women. Just by the sheer physical strength it requires, one would think this particular chore is more suitable for men. But that’s all beside the point, the point is it can be done by anyone and chores shouldn’t be gender specific.

Melissa Gates addressed this long suppressed issue and brought it out into the open is a vindication to me. I am not crazy for feeling the way I do, which is I fucking hate chores and I find them a fucking pointless, waste of time. This is one side of the lives of women which society and the world just assumes that it’s our burden. Especially those of us who choose to have children and raise a family, this is the price we pay. Our time being stolen from us, not by our children, because they are vulnerable need care but by the patriarchy. If we complain, we are seen as ungrateful mothers and wives. We are accused of not willing to lay in the bed we made. We are accused of being terrible mothers because we find the task of child rearing and housekeeping impossibly boring and tedious at times. And I want to clarify, it’s the physical act of child rearing and housework that is boring and tedious, not the children. There is a difference.

Even in Western societies there is still huge stigma and taboo surrounding women who openly admit that looking after home and children can be boring and soul draining. It indirectly implies that one finds their children boring or that one regrets having children, no, it doesn’t mean any of that. It means women are fucking tired of doing all the boring shit at home that needs doing in order to make the home run smoothly. And it’s not cool that men duck out when they sense some boring chore that needs doing coming on.

Social Darwinists, anthropologists and sociologists can find a myriad of reasons why how this came to be. Where across every continent, race, ethnic group and religion, women are stuck with the majority of the caregiving and chores. But I’d argue all of that was arbitrary, even from the caveman days. The only real job a man can’t do is nursing and rearing of a newly born baby and it’s for obvious biological reasons. Women were assigned work (unpaid) at home solely based on her gender and biological function and men were assigned the hunting and gathering role because they’d rather do that than sit at home with screaming cave-babies. In fact, one member in the animal kingdom has the opposite arrangement: the lions. Lionesses are the hunters because they don’t have a mane so they can camouflage better, and the male lions look after the young while their harem goes out hunting and brings home the food. If the lionesses run into trouble, the male lions come to their rescue by scaring away the agitators with his roar and physical size.

There’s always a stereotype which children, especially very young children, while are adorable, can be screaming, wailing pains in the arses. Family and strangers alike smile politely when one of our precious snowflakes is having a toddler meltdown. The men or the fathers quietly shuffle out of the room before anyone notices them, runs outside, smokes a cigarette or grabs a beer from the fridge and hides until the chaos has died down and it’s usually their mothers who stay behind and soothe their wailing children. It’s assumed that women or mothers know what their children need more than the men, that women know why a child is having a Mount Vesuvius sized fit so it’s best they sort it out. Newsflash: mothers are just as clueless as to why our children are having a meltdown. Especially children who aren’t able to communicate effectively yet. We are not preternaturally more patient because we are women, we are patient with our offspring because we’ve no choice. Our duty as mothers summons us to be our best selves. There’s no logical reason why a man can’t soothe a screaming child. There’s no reason why a man can’t drop everything he’s doing and attend to the needs of his child right then and there.

I became a mother four years ago when my oldest was born. It was the first time in my adult life where I didn’t know what I did all day even though I was on my feet and was exhausted. My days and nights blurred together yet my laundry wasn’t done, my house is in disorder and meals are prepared half-heartedly, yet I was always on my feet all day. I realized that while I tended to the physical needs of my child, I had no time to just ‘be’ with her. I had no time just to cuddle and make funny sounds or just watch her sleep – one of the most pleasurable things in life. When I was done feeding her, I had to be off doing something else. When I was off doing that something else, my husband got to spend the precious quality time I wanted to with her. My exhaustion was such that I skipped meals just so I don’t have to prepare and cook that meal, eat that meal and then put away the dishes after that meal. I munched on snacks and fruits and told my husband to do the same or order takeout. I was given the side-eye judgement. He, like the majority of men in this world, felt that all of the above mentioned was my jurisdiction. The boring shit that nobody likes to do is my job.

In most American households, men tend to do the more physical tasks such as landscaping, fixing things around the home, changing light-bulbs, fixing pipes etc., but these are not daily chores that require doing. And most men enjoy or do not mind tinkering with their tools around the house or in the garage. In fact, some prefer it because they can be left alone. A better way would be for the husband to teach his wife how to do these more technical chores. We are not adverse to picking up a power tool if we are taught how to operate it safely. Why do chores have to be pigeonholed by gender?

There were times I wondered if all of that was necessary? Yes, new parenthood is exhaustion itself but is it that exhausting where I prefer to skip meals just so it’s one less thing I’ve got to do (and it’s the only thing I can skip where it doesn’t affect my child)? Did it need to come to that? Probably not had the extra pairs of hands I had around the house been more helpful. Needless to say, these early days of motherhood, all of my other hobbies and things I do for leisure were put on hold.

If I had the option of ‘escaping’ to my career and hiring others to do the housekeeping part of my chores, I’d do so in a heartbeat. I can focus on my career and caring for my children. The money I pay for someone else to do housekeeping is time I can spend with my children. When you’ve been on your feet all day, the last thing you want to do is read a storybook at night to your children, you want to crash into bed and sleep and that’s more of a loss to my children than whether their washing got done or not.

The domestic battles and balance will not be restored until this issue of who does what and why is brought out into the open and discussed. Women, do not enjoy the mess, screaming children, the lack of sleep, constant interruption of thoughts and thought process by inquisitive children more than men. Mothers, very much like their own quiet and space. We also would like to nip out and pour ourselves a glass of wine while the little children fuss. It would be far better if both parents stayed and calmed the children and then both go to the kitchen and grab that beer together.

No one is suggesting that people are to be paid for doing domestic chores and caregiving, but the acknowledgment that this is unpaid work, where our time is taken without compensation and ways can be introduced to cut down unpaid work will be tremendously helpful. Since most of these tasks needs to be done by someone anyways, why not divide and share them equitably?

2 thoughts on “The Poverty of Time 

  1. It’s ironic that at the same time women are made to waste their time doing unpaid work, men are terrified of becoming unemployed. The technology that should have reduced the work day for everybody to 2 or 3 hours a day has instead created millions of “superfluous people.”

    The United States and Western Europe is in between two extremes.

    1.) Aristocratic societies: Where a tiny minority of women have servants and no unpaid labor

    2.) Real socialism, which would use technology to reduce the workload for everybody

    I realize some of this is cultural. Women often have jobs and yet still do most of the work at home. But it’s also economic. To get into a lot of elite fields you have to work as an unpaid intern for a year or two. So the solution is two fold.

    Reduce the workload in general and spread the unpleasant work more evenly.

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    1. This also points to the other side of the argument – men who are doing less paid work but not more domestic work. Given the “superfluous population” – domestic work should be more evenly shared.
      The examples Melinda gates cited in Africa – I am willing to be the woman she visited in Tanzania her husband is unemployed or underemployed- yet she still goes to the woods and chops wood, hauls water, brings wood home, cook the meals by fire wood. Milk the goats etc. where is he? Why is he not contributing to the labor at home. She is up until 10 pm washing dishes my moonlight. Up at 6 to cook breakfast.
      I am not against domestic help as long as said help is paid adequately and the employer is not taking up all her/his time where they have no time for other things.

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