Marie Kondo and the yaya: Household labor isn’t just gendered, it’s built on class structures
The middle-class Filipino experience of household labor is more nuanced than you think
Jan 27, 2019
It’s often the most innocuous shows that gives you an interior look into society. ABS-CBN’s On the Wings of Love, for example, may have been a JaDine vehicle, but it was also a proper modern-day send up to the Philippine diaspora (and let’s be honest, it was long due. Stories about Filipinos living abroad had already become repetitive and same-y by the time OTWOL came along). Knowing this, I wasn’t surprised when people started wondering about the household gender roles that Tidying Up with Marie Kondo uncovered.
It started with an article on Vice. In “’Tidying Up with Marie Kondo’ Is Inadvertently About Women’s Invisible Labor,” Nicole Clark writes about the expectations that a woman must meet in a normal domestic household, no matter if she’s a housewife or a career woman. The mother is a manager, caretaker, chef, laundry woman, and cleaner. “Women store things, organize things, clean things, order things, schedule things. We not only do these chores, we keep a mental bank of what, how, and when these chores need to be done,” Clark writes, adding that a study saw that women perform 26 hours of unpaid labor per week. It puts on a monumental strain on women, with many mothers describing themselves as burnt out.
On Preen, B. del Rio uses the Vice article as a touchpoint into meditating on her own household’s structure. Describing her mother who traded in her accountancy career to become a housewife, she writes: “I am in awe of how she was able to do everything while keeping all of us in line. She is a smart, hardworking woman, and I have no problem believing she would have made management level had she decided to pursue her career.”
“Women hold up half the sky,” so goes the Chinese proverb, but in a patriarchal society, women don’t just have to hold up half. They are Atlas, holding the brunt of the heavens on their shoulders.
Let me throw my hat in the ring, too.
There’s another dimension to household labor that has gone unsaid. It came to me while thinking of how common household help is in this country, and how professional organizers (which is what Marie Kondo is) here consult their clients’ maids, too, because they’re the ones who know the inner workings of the house. This got me thinking of the many times I’ve seen people leave their litter anywhere, with the simple explanation for this ready at hand: the maid/janitor/cleaner is going to pick it up anyways. (Not to throw shade, but the cups and dishes constantly piled up on the sink at our office pantry is an example of this)
When you really think about it, it’s as clear as day. The division of labor isn’t just gendered, it’s also built on class lines.
Let me talk about my yaya.
I grew up moderately well-off—kind of. The ups and downs of my father’s businesses, as well as his erratic spending behavior, meant that my family would have periods of richness as well as of poverty. By the time he left us, we were on the lower end of middle class. Still, whichever period we were in, my parents made a point to kowtow to one luxury: having a yaya.
And so I grew up always having a rotating array of women in the house. There was Ate Fe, who my mother sent back to school; Ate Jessa, who left for Metro Manila years before I made my own pilgrimage; and Ate Marie, who disappeared after a year. At some point all three of them were in our house at the same time, and I’d spend nights giggling with them on their bed, watching TV or scaring the random passersby on the street from the window, the excitement of staying up late without my parents knowing drumming through my young heart. But they weren’t always around, and my family would cycle through a number of other helpers. There was always one exception, though.
Yaya was already an old woman when she came to us, or so it seems to me. She had been my father’s yaya, and after I was born my grandmother called her up to help my mother. In one of my earliest pictures, she is holding me in her arms, her long straight hair reaching past her hip. (“Why do you always cut your hair short now, yaya?” “It’s because you used to spin it around my neck and choke me, langga.”)
She was a mainstay in my life, a permanent fixture in a childhood that was defined by instability. Ates came and went, houses kept and sold, fathers moved out or made us do the moving, and still yaya was there. When my father left and my mother had to move to an apartment, yaya moved in, too. When her sons would tell her that it was okay for her to rest, that they made enough that she didn’t have to work, yaya would tell them: I need to be with my alaga. At my college graduation, I only had three guests: my mother, my brother, and yaya. That was my family.
A lot of people like mocking the concept of having yayas around. In college, having a yaya was shorthand for not being responsible, for not knowing how to do basic household duties, and for basically being clueless about the world. Spoiled. GMA was able to turn the “Yaya and Angelina” segment from Bubble Gang into a cash cow by trading on that stereotype.
But that doesn’t reflect the reality of a yaya, and is a disservice to their nuanced role. They’re family, but they’re paid. They’re more than just a maid or a helper. They’re not performing motherhood, but they’re also like a second mother. It’s a deeply gendered job: yayas are female. And the existence of the job relies on the presence of inequality: unlike, say, the modern nannies in the U.S. who frequently are high school or college graduates just skating on with that job until they find another one better, yayas usually become yayas because it’s their best option.
While yayas walk that tightrope, they also have to do their job, which is to bear the brunt of the housework. Mothers are still the project managers, but the tasks are delegated towards the yaya more so to any other member of the family. And sure, that’s her job, but do you really think about what yayas do? They’re often the cook, the labandera, the caretaker of the children, the tutor, the cleaner, etc. That’s a lot of work, especially when done full time. And yayas are famously underpaid: remember how much work it took to get the Kasambahay Law to be put in place?
I’m not even talking about how work as a yaya can put a woman in danger. Yaya used to tell me horror stories of former employers, and tales of yayas being abused and mistreated by their employers come up often enough in media.
In the journal article “Un-/Re-Productive Maternal Labor: Marxist Feminism and Chapter Fifteen of Marx’s Capital,” feminist scholar Jacqueline Weeks points out that women are fed the idea that to be a mother, you must have it all: balance a career like a proper working woman, but still take care of your children like a housewife. She points to an article wherein Heidi Klum talks about getting to have “the best of both worlds,” meaning her high-paying film and modeling career alongside her role as a nurturing mother. “This is exactly the kind of media standard that makes many hard-working women feel intensely guilty and occludes the domestic labor that is still being done—by Klum’s staff.”
By having helpers around, my family bought the privilege of not having to think about housework. That also bought us the privilege of being able to make a mess, of being allowed to accumulate items without a thought to the spaces they would go.
In the article “Marie Kondo and the Privilege of Clutter,” Arielle Bernstein contrasts her experience of being a middle class American alongside her mother and grandparents’ experiences of being refugees. She describes her family, after experiencing the intergenerational trauma of being uprooted from their homes because of political violence (her grandparents fled to Cuba from Poland to escape the Nazis, and then fled from Cuba to the U.S. with her mother to escape Fidel Castro), started collecting and hoarding things.
“As a girl growing up in the U.S., I was often exhausted by this proliferation of items—by what seemed to me to be an old-world expression of maternal love. Like many who are privileged enough to not have to worry about having basic things, I tend to idolize the opposite—the empty spaces of yoga studios, the delightful feeling of sorting through a pile of stuff that I can discard,” she writes. Getting to have clutter and being able to throw it away is a privilege.
I saw a bit of that in my household. My mother would buy more and more clothes; but she often revelled in going through her closet and giving away her items. Yaya would always mutter about the clothes she bought, and would invent new ways to store them. My mother could throw away things easily, something that frustrated yaya a lot, because important things could be thrown away, too.
Yaya no longer lives with us. Still, she visits often, especially whenever I come back home. And when she enters the apartment, even now as a guest, she’ll pick up a pan or smoothen out the sofa, as if the long years of labor had worn deep grooves into her soul.
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