Minh Ha hadn’t traveled anywhere in the 10 years since her wedding, so a sympathetic friend offered to take her on a trip to HCMC.
Ha spent a few days considering the offer.
The thing that concerned her most was she did not want to leave her two children, ages 8 and 6, at home for her husband and mother-in-law to take care of.
“But bringing them with me was not a good idea either,” she said.
“I would not be able to enjoy the trip freely, and it would cost a lot more money to bring them along as well.”
Ha works remotely from home for a company that requires her to be on call 24/7. During the minutes in between work, she has to take care of her children and do all the house chores. So she tries to save time any way she can.
“I cut my hair short so that I don’t need spend time brushing it,” she said.
When Ha told her friend that she had nightmares about her supervisor shouting at her for not meeting work requirements, her friend suggested that she should take some time off to relax.
“You should free yourself from work and responsibilities with your children for a while,” the friend said. “Just spend time for yourself.”
A 2022 survey conducted by World Bank Vietnam found out that Ha was one of around a third of Vietnamese women who do not spend enough time on their own needs.
Dr. Pham Thi Thuy, a professor at the National Academy of Public Administration, believes that if the survey was conducted at a larger scale, it might have found out that the real figure is much higher, especially in rural areas.
“Most women do not understand how spending time for themselves contributes to maintaining their families’ happiness,” she said. “So they do not prioritize this need.”
Experts say that social prejudices are a major contributing factor helping push women deeper into self-negligence.
The common belief that women should sacrifice everything for their families, for example, exhausts women by forcing them to put all of their energy into taking care of others, without knowing that doing so will have adverse effects in the long term.
Culturally, women who prioritize spending time for themselves over taking care of their families can be considered lazy. And this prompts women to overwhelm themselves with so-called familial responsibilities to avoid being negatively viewed by society, according to Thuy.
As a married woman living in a rural area herself, Ha admits that she has considered her children her number one priority since they were born. Working also saps the time she could have spent meeting her friends or traveling. Even watching a movie or arranging flowers is too luxurious an activity for her.
Her husband is busy all day running the family convenience store in an attempt to pay back the money the family borrowed to open the store. Thus, Ha thinks she has more spare time than her husband, and she is thus willing to be the one solely responsible for cleaning their house and taking care of their children.
Just like Ha, around 61% of female participants in a survey conducted by Van Lang University reportedly take chores, including taking care of the elderly and children in their families, as their sole responsibilities.
Being too much of a perfectionist also makes women busy to the point that they do not have any time to relax.
Thuy has a male client who is also suffering the neglect of his over-tasked wife.
“He complains to me that he waits for his wife in their bedroom every night, but she instead spends time cleaning the toilet,” said the doctor. “The problem is he wants to hold his wife instead of having an overly-clean toilet.”
Chu Thi Thanh Huong, a psychologist in HCMC, says women have to deal with an immense amount of pressure from both their work and families in this modern era, which limits the amount of time they can spend on themselves.
The World Bank Vietnam study also pointed out that nearly women report having to spend a majority of their “free” time doing housework. Compared to that, only around 55% of men report the same thing.
Women have to spend three hours a day on housework on average, while men spend only one hour and 42 minutes. About 45% of the women participating in the research say they take part in taking care of their families, while the proportion of men doing the same thing is only about 24%.
The difference in the division of housework labor between 28-year-old Hanoian Hong Hanh and her husband was a contributing factor in their recent separation.
Although they don’t have any children, Hanh has not had any time to hang out with her friends or watch her favorite movies since getting married a year ago.
Working as an accountant, Hanh has to fully concentrate on her work for eight hours a day, sometimes even more if her supervisor asks. Still, her husband has never offered to help her with the housework.
“Housework is women’s responsibilities,” he says every time Hanh asks him to give her a hand. “My mother has never asked me to help her in the kitchen,” he says passive-aggressively, according to Hanh.
Even when Hanh was diagnosed as positive with Covid and got so tired she could barely move, her husband wouldn’t go shopping for groceries. She had to ask a relative of hers and supermarkets to deliver food. When she was not even fully recovered, she was already cooking meals for her husband again.
“I don’t have any time for myself anymore,” she said.
“If I knew that getting married would make me this miserable, I would have stayed single my whole life.”
Thuy advises women to take care of themselves before taking care of their husbands and children. She says relaxing does not necessarily require being wealthy, although many women use the excuse that they don’t have enough money to justify their lack of self-care.
The doctor says that in fact the opposite should be true:
“The poorer you are, the more you need to relax,” she argues.
“Being relaxed makes you healthy physically and mentally, which saves you money on buying medicine and helps you improve your work performances and income.”
Huong agrees that society should create a fairer environment for women.
“Authorities should establish more facilities like childcare centers, nursing homes, and mental health support centers to help reduce women’s workloads,” she says.
After consideration, Ha decided to tell her family that she wished to go on the trip to HCMC with her friend. Her two children encouraged her to go and made her promise to buy gifts for them when she came back.
Her husband and his family supported her as well, promising that they would take care of the family so that she could comfortably enjoy her trip. Her supervisor also approved her days off.
“Turns out everything was not as serious as I thought before,” Ha said. “The point is whether we women want to prioritize ourselves or not.”