It feels small, perhaps ridiculous. Family and friends sit together over good food and wine. The meal begins to slow, forks stay on the plate while bodies begin to lean away, giving their stomachs as much space as possible. The men stay seated, chatting while women and daughters get up. We carry the dishes to the sink. We wash them off. Whether we are guests or hosts, we understand and begin the work.
For a while, I saw it as part of learning to be a hostess. It was to make life easier. Then, I was at someone else’s house and I did it to be a good guest. It was work. It was the least I could do to help with a few plates. Eventually, I couldn’t stop seeing who was doing this work. The wives and daughters did this work. Women knew to get up and help. Men sat through, barely touching the dirty dishes. Sometimes, my father would rise, opening the port or another after dinner drink. Perhaps he’d carry a heavy dish in. But from what I’ve seen, men rarely help with the dishes, never at someone else’s house.
So what can I do about it? If I ask my father or brother to do more am I being paranoid or worse, ‘militant’? Like most men, they’d say that they share housework equally. Yet, American women on average spend 2.1 hours on housework daily. Men, in comparison, do 1.4 hours. This isn’t just an American issue: globally, women spend twice as much time on unpaid work than men. Yes, that work is more than just dirty dishes. Somehow this unseen work still ends up in front of us.
What is the cost of that time? Women don’t get more days than men, so we have to lose something. We give up time at the office and for ourselves. For myself, I know that can’t be the end of the burden. Time studies can’t reveal the mental checklists I’ve watched too many women do. How many have to ask male partners or sons to help while their arms are full of dirty dishes? How many like me, just clean up, too tired to fight? It’s just a few dirty plates after all.
And yet, those dirty dishes bring an extra weight, another level of awareness. I know my mother’s suggestive cough, wordlessly asking me to help. My eyes can’t help scouring a table, analyzing the most efficient way to carry dishes without dropping or breaking. My mind understands body language at the sink. Is she harried? Does she just want me to drop the dishes off? Does she need conversation? Even if I don’t get up, I still can’t escape social expectations about being a woman. My hands itch on the table: I can’t help feeling selfish when I don’t help.
Meanwhile the men sit there, relaxed and unaware. The dishes disappear and glasses are refilled. The men laugh and chat. We women return, our hands a little red. We smile and sit back down again. After all, the dishwasher will run for almost an hour before we have to unload it and reload it again.