I was brought up to equate my gender with the inevitability of doing household chores like cooking, cleaning, serving food at the dining table – chores that my male cousins or father would never be expected to do. When my father used to tell me to do something in the kitchen, he’d often say, “I’m only asking because you are the youngest in the family.” He was reluctant to accept his misogyny in front of his daughter. But he continued.
While I accepted these arbitrary rules in an Indian household, they felt somewhat strange to me even then. But eventually – as most things do when you’re growing up – familial expectations led to my understanding of gender norms.
As I grew older, I began to understand that I didn’t appreciate these expectations. Chores became symbolic of suppression and the enabling of a skewed power dynamic. Statements like: “if you don’t study, you’ll have to wash dishes for the rest of your life” were commonly uttered by my extended family.
Of course, my brothers never heard these threats. They were encouraged to pursue professional success because they were smart. On the other hand, it was insinuated that I had to pursue the same in order to save myself from becoming a woman who can only perform household chores. I did not want to be inferior. I wanted to be respected the way my brothers were; I had to be. So I stayed away from household chores.
“When I went a couple of days without cleaning the house, the mess made me realise that I would have to work to achieve the aesthetic I wanted in my flat”
A few months ago, I decided to live separately from my parents and moved to a flat by myself. With all my bags packed on the way to the new place, I could hear the same Taylor Swift lyrics over and over in my head: “I took your matches before fire could catch me, so don’t look now, I’m shining like fireworks over your sad, empty town.”
This had been a special song ever since I first listened to it when I was 14 – I had been plotting my escape for a long time. It felt liberating to finally be on the brink of experiencing that independence. I was 21 and could mould my days the way I wanted to, give myself a haircut at 2 am and not have anyone tell me how I’d regret it when I got home, and best of all, I could live without the looming weight of any domestic expectations.
But I soon stumbled. I suddenly didn’t have the privilege and luxury of not doing household chores. When I went a couple of days without cleaning the house, the mess made me realise that I would have to work to achieve the aesthetic I wanted in my flat. The most difficult task was to regularly do all the chores – cleaning the floors, cooking, washing the dishes, dusting.
Somewhere I knew that my rebellion at home had meant more work and less support for my mom. And it was then that I fully comprehended how she had to foot the bill of my calculated attempt at subverting gender roles at home. I felt guilty. It was a painful dissonance, but I had chosen it over being expected to work because I was a girl. I don’t know how she forgives me for the lack of support.
“I was not supposed to do these chores because I was a woman; I was supposed to do them because I had to take care of myself!”
At my new flat, I was exasperated at the chores at first. But in my routine of having to do them, I found unexpected joy. I was not supposed to do these chores because I was a woman; I was supposed to do them because I had to take care of myself!
On a particular Wednesday, I surprised myself and decided that I’d deep-clean the house the coming weekend. It was one of those Saturdays that started with a cool breeze, fooling me into thinking the rest of the day is going to be pleasant. Nevertheless, throwback music kept me company while I cleaned my small flat and set it up.
It felt like I was in a happy montage of my life. I ended the day with a long bath and a gooey, homemade face mask. This was in sharp contrast to the scene at my parents’ house, where my father often takes things out of their place, just for my mom to clean and put everything back in their place.
“Without the presence of patriarchal expectations, I rediscovered what it meant to keep my house clean, cook food and do the dishes”
Without the presence of patriarchal expectations, I rediscovered what it meant to keep my house clean, cook food and do the dishes. I experienced unadulterated warmth when I watered the new plants I’d bought for my bedroom before washing my face in the morning. I was taking care of them, and they were taking care of me. I noticed the position of the leaves changing according to the time of the day.
I found my mind resting when I washed the dishes daily – the cacophony of Zoom calls and robot-sounding glitches on my laptop screen fading away, clearing my mind for the dialogues Grey’s Anatomy characters were going to say. Unfamiliar happiness washes over me when I cook (very mediocre) pasta in the evenings while listening to a podcast about behavioural design.
It took over six months to gradually experience this comforting healing from gendered expectations from my family’s house. Sometimes I’m afraid that I might lose the safe space I’ve nurtured for myself in my flat. But then, I decide to sit on the balcony and enjoy the sunset – my anxiety calming down, my mind making a list of groceries to get the next time I go to the supermarket.
Every time I go back to visit my parents’ home, things quickly fall back into the template that has existed over the years. The gender roles persist and so does my refusal to do them. My evolved relationship with household chores is positive only in my independence of misogynistic expectations. While I have learned to accept that my family will most likely never unlearn gendered roles when it comes to housework, I now know how to create a warm, tidy and feminist space where cleaning feels like self-care.