The Elephant in the Kitchen

If a woman is invisible in the kitchen, then anything she does in that space is also mostly unaccounted for – even if her contribution feels life-altering to her. For men, this is not the case.

Once, a friend, an Indian American male, who used to work as a vice-president at a large Silicon Valley company, told me that he didn’t mind scouring dishes, doing laundry, and sweeping the floors – which was much appreciated by his wife. However, the moment they had guests step into their house, his wife expected him to lounge on the sofa like a typical Indian man and discuss world politics. The couple had several fights because he abandoned his throne – his position as the head of the household on the sofa – to serve guests, forgetting his wife’s specific instruction to steer clear of chores.

Wasn’t his wife strange, I thought. Why did she need to be the “chief servant” of the house?

Back then, I felt smug about living in Silicon Valley, among people with masters and PhDs, designing chips, autonomous vehicles, and spaceships, and foolishly mistook technological advancement and a liberal public attitude towards LGBTQ+ issues for gender equality in the privacy of homes. 

In reality, within my own four walls, without ever consciously thinking about it, I empathised with and excused my husband’s disinterest in chores because I had grown up in India and had never seen men fussing over breakfasts and lunches. After working crazy hours at the office, I managed all the dull, menial tasks and two kids with minimal hired help – housework was my own cross to bear, just like it was for every Indian woman. 

Then, I fell ill. My pain, shifting from one part of my body to another and appearing and disappearing at will, was first diagnosed as lupus until a doctor at Stanford told me I might have fibromyalgia caused by hypersensitive nerves – I might feel pain even when there was no pain.

Whatever the reason, I developed a fever if I strained my muscles – cooked for a large party, vacuumed, mopped, or even hiked up a hill with friends. When I rested, I tended to feel better. But resting felt criminal in a home with children and reminded me of my grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s cautionary stories about the worst specimen of humans on earth: lazy women. Even family members, who caught my husband doing dishes and me complaining of pain and dawdling on a sofa or a chair, joked I was just hyping up my symptoms to relax and force my husband to work.

It didn’t help that my rheumatologist at Stanford, a young man who looked and talked like a genius, hinted I might have no real disease because my lab tests seemed okay, more or less. So, when he added a mild antidepressant to my regimen, I wondered if I was just overthinking. Pushing the boundaries to test my sickness, I started to exercise to get mentally and physically stronger – I ran two miles every evening and accepted a difficult role as a programme manager, which meant I had to drive 40 minutes both ways in the sun. That was the first half of 2017.

Close to the end of 2017, I could barely walk, was so weak I needed my daughter’s help to shower and comb my hair, and had to be hospitalised for two weeks. For once, it was clear to the doctors that I wasn’t a frustrated, attention-seeking, middle-aged woman whining about imaginary ailments – I did have lupus that got aggravated by sunlight and by overexercising my muscles (even though no one knew why). 

Although I recovered in a few months, somewhat miraculously, I decided to give up on all difficult manual chores to avoid triggering my lupus again, hired extra household help, and let my husband and children pick up the remaining slack. In short, I became the lazy woman I had always been told to despise and fear.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

To my surprise, my husband, a lover of food, was more of a natural cook than me and concocted novel dishes in no time, seemingly out of nothing, when my kids’ friends showed up unannounced. There was much laughter and fun, the children squealing in delight, watching my husband wielding a spatula like a baton and expertly flipping French toasts and dosas.

At a gathering of five or six families – Indian couples whose children frequented my home – the adults were sitting around a large granite island, laughing and joking, with glasses of wine and whiskey in their hands, when a woman brought up the topic of housework. She complained about her husband’s lack of understanding of the very basics of Indian cooking. Apparently, he didn’t know even jeera, or cumin. 

Smiling, her husband announced that it was “not his department.” As a man, he was only on the hook to bring groceries home, he said and dumped imaginary grocery bags on the granite countertop, which made his wife shake her head and smile. 

Everyone laughed. 

Even the other women at the party carped about their husbands in a similar way, their husbands looking on indulgently. It seemed none of the husbands knew how to cook, although they had come to America from India over 20 years ago. Being the sole provider of meals was a badge of righteousness for the wives. And for the husbands, the wife being the only cook was a matter of secret pride, of having married the right woman. 

I remained a silent spectator to the discussion, wondering if the comments had been for my sake, if the women had heard stories from their children about our household situation–my husband cooking expertly.

When the dessert was served, my husband grabbed a few servings, which he is prone to do despite his diabetes, despite his father having died of diabetes at 51. When he stood up for a fourth helping, I couldn’t stop myself from reminding him to go easy on sugar. The woman who had brought up the topic of housework shot a sharp look at me. “Imagine,” she blurted, looking at the other women, “if she can order her husband in front of us, what she must be saying when no one’s there?” 

Not only was I a woman who didn’t cook but also someone who bossed her husband. Stunned by the woman’s comment, I froze and said nothing. I’m simply unable to think on my feet. I have what they call in psychology the “freeze” reaction. In my life I’ve never been able to come up with a good retort. I hate myself for it, but there’s no way for me to be otherwise.

In reality, despite my terrible disease, not only did I earn money for my family by managing a difficult job in Silicon Valley for which I was on the laptop for over eight hours a day but also cooked breakfast, packed lunch, ordered groceries online, charted kids’ extracurriculars, booked vacations, managed cleaning, cooking, and gardening help, arranged family photographs, sent birthday greetings, bought clothes for my husband and children and gifts for get-togethers, and scheduled meetings with teachers and other parents on phone and Zoom. While my husband did drive us and cook when needed, he barely kept track of our kids’ birthdays – from his perspective as well as mine, he did a lot since his father, while he was alive, had never ever ventured in the area marked as kitchen.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

After we left that party, I recalled my VP friend’s wife, who used to ask her husband to lounge on the sofa in the presence of guests.

How naïve I was to have advertised my husband’s contribution with no regard for the fallout among fellow Indians.

Shouldn’t I have seen the writing on the wall?

Shouldn’t I have kept in mind the stories my husband told me about the luxurious lifestyle of his male friends in Hyderabad, how none of the husbands even cared to serve themselves a glass of water, just cracked jokes in the drawing room, while their smiling wives flitted between the kitchen and the guests with plates of food and cups of chai.

Shouldn’t I have gotten a whiff of the misogyny in our very own Silicon Valley by peeking at the list of volunteers in my kids’ schools? For every hundred female volunteers, there were two or three males. While the husbands did important tech jobs, the women volunteered, offering their time for free for the sake of their children. 

Above all, I should have remembered my paternal grandmother, who, less than a 100 years ago, was not allowed to visit her birth family at the time of her beloved father’s death because the servants were on leave – she needed to cook for her husband and in-laws.

Unfortunately, the party incident wasn’t an isolated one. The news that my husband cooked seemed to have turned me into an ideal target of the wrath of people bearing the load of centuries of sexism.

Since I couldn’t even drive on sunny days without running the risk of sun exposure and a flare-up, my husband drove while I remained in the back of the car, protected by jackets, curtains, and tinted windows, which invited many comments from my country-people about my owning a chauffeur-driven car. Also, I was in the bad books of the local Indian women’s networks for not offering myself as a volunteer (something almost every other woman did), although everyone knew about my sickness. But a woman’s sickness doesn’t count for much – it is often disparaged and dismissed. 

Recently, when my parents stayed with us for three months for the first time, I was working from home and spent a lot of time in the kitchen, serving food to them, loading and unloading the dishwasher, wiping countertops, warming meals, and preparing snacks. My parents didn’t seem to notice or comment on the fact that I appeared to be healthy and taking care of chores busily. However, the moment my husband returned from work and stepped into the kitchen to roast peanuts in the air fryer for himself or to put away a dirty cup or to prepare chai for himself, my parents gleamed with gratefulness and lavished praise on him for being such a wonderful husband, a man who didn’t shy away from housework. 

A short man, my husband is an elephant in the kitchen. Unfortunately, we, women, are invisible and merge with the surroundings in the kitchen since a woman’s place is supposed to be in the kitchen.

Should I have been surprised to learn that my kids’ friends communicated to their parents that my husband cooked? 

In the book Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons talk about an experiment in which viewers were told to count passes of basketballs made by players in a short video. In the middle of the scene, a female student wearing a full-body gorilla suit came between the players, thumped her chest, and then walked off. Nearly half the viewers of the video didn’t notice the gorilla. The authors discuss a concept called looking without seeing.

“Sports scientist Daniel Memmert of Heidelberg University ran our gorilla experiment using his eye tracker and found that the subjects who failed to notice the gorilla had spent, on average, a full second looking right at it – the same amount of time as those who did see it!” Simply directing eyes at an object doesn’t guarantee the object will be consciously seen.

If a woman is invisible in the kitchen, then anything she does in that space is also mostly unaccounted for and worthless from the perspective of others, no matter how she sees it – even if her contribution feels life-altering to her. 

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

About the time that my sickness was still undiagnosed and I was in pain, my son had developed a serious eye condition that threatened his vision and for which he needed eyedrops hourly. It was my most significant task for the next few years. I had set hourly reminders on my phone. As my son didn’t want the drops, I needed to chase him around the house every hour and cajole or warn him with consequences till he agreed to take the drops. On days that he went to school, I coordinated with the nurses who administered the drops. If the pack of eyedrops at school was suddenly over, I drove in the middle of the day, trying my best to avoid sunlight by wearing a hat, a long-sleeved shirt, and positioning the car visor above me.

For some reason, my husband could never remember the drops, which put the burden of the eyedrops solely on me. The day that he took my son on a trip with his family was the only day when my son didn’t get any drops for six-hours straight. As the doctors had warned me about the possibly of lost vision, I lived in a surreal, nightmarish state that I might forget about the drops and my son would go blind.

Luckily, ultimately, it was all fine. As he grew bigger, his condition went away – probably also because I started feeding him specially concocted smoothies that the doctors had recommended, twice a day. Even today, every morning I make a glass of smoothie for my son, full of nutrients, seeds and nuts, to make sure his eyes remain okay.

Although I am proud of what I did and grateful that the nightmare is over, no one in my family has any memory of my son’s condition, neither my husband nor my children. In the past few years, I’ve never heard anyone utter a word on that topic. If I decide to bring up the story, I feel like an annoying fool bragging about a job that didn’t even exist.    

According to Angela Y. Davis in her book Women, Race and Class, housewives spend approximately 4,000 hours working on chores annually, which is about 10 hours a day, not including the time they spend minding children. 

‘Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men’, Caroline Criado Perez, Abrams Books, 2021.

According to Caroline Criado Perez, who wrote Invisible Women:

In Katebe, a town in central Uganda, the World Bank found that after spending nearly fifteen hours on a combination of housework, childcare, digging, preparing food, collecting fuel and water, women were unsurprisingly left with only around thirty minutes of leisure time per day.  By contrast, men, who spent an hour less than women per day digging, negligible amounts of time on housework and childcare, and no time at all on collecting fuel and water, managed to find about four hours per day to spend on leisure. The home may have been a place of leisure for him – but for her? Not so much.”

Having a job and bringing in money only increases a woman’s load.

“An Australian study found that even in wealthier couples who pay for domestic help, the remaining unpaid work is still distributed at the same male to female ratio, with women still doing the majority of what’s left.  And as women have increasingly joined the paid labour force men have not matched this shift with a comparative increase in their unpaid work: women have simply increased their total work time, with numerous studies over the past twenty years finding that women do the majority of unpaid work irrespective of the proportion of household income they bring in.”

Perez says that even when men do increase their unpaid work, it isn’t by doing the routine housework that forms the majority of the workload, instead creaming off the more enjoyable activities like childcare.

“It’s also rare for men to take on the more personal, messy, emotionally draining aspects of elder care work. In the UK up to 70% of all unpaid dementia carers are women, and female carers are more likely to help with bathing, dressing, using the toilet and managing incontinence. Women are more than twice as likely as men to be providing intensive on-duty care for someone twenty-four hours a day, and to have been caring for someone with dementia for more than five years.”

We instil the bias in boys at a very young age that housework is not their responsibility, just as we subtly tell girls they are responsible for food, keeping the house tidy, and caring for children and the elderly. How many children have witnessed men peeling and chopping in the kitchen; how many television shows have they watched where men bake cakes; how many cookie advertisements have they heard featuring fathers and grandfathers? We already know childhood biases are almost impossible to undo later in life.   

According to Davis’s book, most women find housework demeaning over time. Should it surprise anyone considering there is, often, no one to appreciate the work? And, as Noah Zatz, a professor at UCLA, School of Law, points out in his article ‘Taking Unpaid Housework for Granted is Wrong’ in The New York Times, housework has no economic value, so not only do women get no credit for housework but also have no protection against future disability, unemployment, or retirement benefits via social insurance programs. 

‘Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley,’ Emily Chang, Penguin Random House, 2019.

Of course, women’s burden of housework also explains to a great extent why men have all the important jobs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere in the world. If you have the urge to argue that men hold all the c-level positions in Silicon Valley on account of merit, you should read Emily Chang’s Brotopia to understand what passes for merit, what shaky grounds merit stands on, how we are conditioned to see overconfident males as geniuses, how dismissive we are of anyone who doesn’t fit the criteria.

The book, about Silicon Valley bro culture, doesn’t discuss the issue that a lot of successful men in the Bay Area come from countries like China and India where their education was prioritised over the education of the girls in their families – they were sent to better schools and received tutoring help. And what about the fact that many of their wives gave up their careers to shoulder housework, enabling the men to climb up the corporate ladder. 

Not only are men expected to have important jobs, but they also spend most of their time working for their important jobs, while women squander their mental energy on soul-numbingly dull tasks. Far greater than the burden of physical work is the burden of responsibility, a woman going to bed listing the unfinished chores, waking up with a new throbbing list, and aching every time she forgets to pack a lunchbox or administer a dose of medicine.  

Women do not realise what they lose when they shoulder household responsibilities alone – many women, even if they hate the grind, take pride in it on account of tradition and conditioning, and actively banish their husbands from the kitchen. I wonder if I might be completely caught in the web of chores, too, cooking lavish meals, so my husband and children feasted thrice a day, and driving my kids to classes they didn’t care for if I hadn’t fallen sick, if I wasn’t forced to take breaks often and forced to not drive in bright sunlight. 

Some women mistakenly believe that spending their days sautéing and frying is necessary to keeping their family healthy. Some have even hinted I developed lupus because I wasn’t cooking enough, which couldn’t be further from the truth – I eat and have eaten healthy food most of my life, salads, sandwiches, and Indian food put together easily. In fact, according to recent research, housework may be responsible for worse health outcomes in women because they don’t give themselves time to recover from illnesses and surgeries.

All this extra work is affecting women’s health. […] This observation may go some way to explaining why a Finnish study found that single women recovered better from heart attacks than married women – particularly when put alongside a University of Michigan study which found that husbands create an extra seven hours of housework a week for women. An Australian study similarly found that housework time is most equal by gender for single men and women; when women start to cohabit, ‘their housework time goes up while men’s goes down, regardless of their employment status’.” 

Recently, I met a dear friend, an intelligent woman I knew in my twenties. All thanks to her marriage to someone who doesn’t bother at all with housework, other than the bare minimum needed, she has spent all her spare time in the past two decades just cooking and cleaning. In fact, when I met her for a day, we couldn’t engage in any conversation because she was in the kitchen the whole time, stressed, overworked, cooking for her husband and children. Although the interest in books she had as a young woman was still very much alive, she has no time for leisure after job and housework and seemed unaware of the world and larger topics of conversation, a somewhat diminished person compared to who she was as a young woman. 

Not attaching any value to their own time and energy, women do not hire help, even when they can afford it. Modern culture emphasises physical wellbeing, exercising, eating healthy, earning, and saving money, but we don’t bother as much about developing our minds, reflecting on our place in the universe, the conversations we need to have to enhance our collective wellbeing. To be able to think, we need to have leisure. It seems a big waste of human intelligence if half the world’s population just plows through days like ants.

Shambhavi Roy is a writer based in California.