Each passing day, makes me realize how hard it must have been for my Mum. To be a homemaker. Day in, day out. Every single day. Without a break.
On Sundays, when the kids wanted their favorite fried treats, and Pappaa wanted to lie in and watch cricket and read the news.
On Eid and holidays when we’d entertain guests and she’d cook up elaborate, lavish spreads of authentic albeit incredibly time and energy sapping Malabari delicacies. At the end of it, we’d be almost thankless, and would instead nit- pick over dessert choices or the table-ware.
She’s always up at the crack of dawn. Cleaning, organizing, clearing away our mess, cooking, washing, ironing; she was perennially busy. And I wondered why she was always occupied. How utterly foolish of me, I now realize!
Eating out was an uncommon affair, one reserved for special occasions and for times when out of town relatives were visiting. I never once wondered how incredibly hard it must have been to put together three (or four!) ‘full- on’ meals a day, and have it piping hot for people who strolled into the home at different times of the day. Somebody comes in after hockey practice, someone comes in even later because they had their debate club meet; and another person walks in close to midnight because it’s audit season. All want hot, comforting food, on clean, dry, homey plates. And yes, most Indian dishes involve a lot of soaking, kneading, mixing, blending, grinding, cutting; in short they can be complicated and arduous. And this was a time, when mixes and pre- packed, frozen or “short- cut” (e.g.store- bought batter) foods were just coming into the market and were generally looked- down or frowned upon.
She did it all, with hardly a sour face. With no aspirations of a high- flying career (which she laments about now) or wishes for freedom from the chores and mores of domestic life; she lived out her young adult life dedicated to her family.
And here I am. Every time I do the dishes at night, I’m squeamish to admit, I feel a twinge of resentment. A smidgen of self- importance creeps in, and I feel “above” doing dishes. That I’m too qualified, too refined; that doing measly domestic chores is beneath my high and mighty self! I quickly clamp the feeling down and seal them shut. After all, I do it out of love, and not force or coercion I tell myself.
Why does an otherwise family- oriented, well- rounded (hopefully!) family girl/ woman have such feelings of resentment toward homely duties and obligations? When did washing one’s own bathroom, or doing the family dishes become lowly. When does one become too lofty to fold their own underwear?
The fault, probably lies in our upbringing. Equal opportunities and equal treatment of male and female children, in a society where gender stereotypes are rife and real creates a whole generation of well- meaning but confused young adults. The woman wonders if it’s demeaning to be so educated and yet lead the the life of a stay-at- home homemaker. The man wonders if he will be judged by his family, relatives and peers if he decides to take a year off and be a hands on daddy at home.
In our current generation, we like to believe that there are no clear- cut gender definitions or gender- determined roles. We’d like to believe that there are perfectly content and happy families out there with stay- at-home dads and mothers who despise the stove. My generation of Indian women, not all, but at least my friends, acquaintances and peers, growing up, hardly ever spent a moment in the kitchen. We were never really taught to cook, sew, or fold laundry. I never washed a single item of clothing until I moved out of the home to pursue my residency in another city. I never cooked a meal, until I married, and moved to another country.
We’d like to believe that we have truly evolved into a gender- neutral family system and have left our “woman equals gatherer/ nurturer and men equals hunter/ provider” days behind. Yet, ask any man and he will tell you that he feels obliged to bring in the dough every month, to be the primary bread- winner/ provider. And most women I speak to (including myself) admit to feeling the pressure to put some food on the table everyday.
No matter how much I try, every time we eat out or order take away, I feel a sense of failure. Failure to nurture my little family with lovely, home- cooked meals; meals that provide a warmth and homey comfort that no pricey, gourmet meal or cheap, tasty take- away can provide.
And there is this other aspect of gender stereotypes that we cannot seem to be rid off. Even if the woman slogs outside the home and brings in a big, fat paycheck, she is still obligated almost to make sure the home is tidy and organized. That the laundry is sorted, washed, folded and put away. That the sheets are fresh. The surfaces and kitchen counters are clean. That the fridge is stocked. The toys put away. A man doing these chores is a requested exception; most likely a one- off, emergency- dictated occurrence. At best they would make the effort but still leave enough for the woman to re-do or undo and at worst it would lead to a silly tiff!
Maybe the men are not to blame. Mostly likely, they are not inherently programmed to do all of the above. Maybe they do not perceive the mess and chaos as women do. Maybe perceived gender- roles are more ingrained in our psyche than we realize or care to admit.
Even with all the juggling and multi- tasking we do, we are not the superstars. The true superstars are the women before us. Who sacrificed their dreams, aspirations, desires and lives. Who devoted their lives to our upbringing and well being. Who were selfless and giving. Who have worked tirelessly for us to be where we are. We can never be them, sadly, but we can learn great lessons from them. Of patience. Of kindness. Of contentment. Of life.
I have no idea, where we women are heading to. We are not sure what we want from life. We are humans who were no different from our male- peers and competed with them in all aspects, and had similar aspirations; all until the day we got married of course. Thrown blind into the deep end of the new- age family structure, we are unsure of our role and place in this society and its family systems. Our dreams often collide with the future of our families’ and we almost always have to scale back the proportions of the vision our own selfish- future, to accommodate all the new entrants into our life. No matter how differently we think and behave as opposed to the women before us, we still have to do many of the same things they did. Most important of those- bear and nurture progeny. It is a fate we can neither fight nor change, for the continuation of the human race dictates we perform that role. And therefore, we are lost and confused.
Marital roles and motherly feelings are not often conducive to worldly conquests and scientific pursuit. The harsh truth is that, women will always have to work harder, faster, better, smarter; mainly because we just have more to do. And we almost certainly will have to step back a few times, slow down and then rejoin the race and run harder than ever before. We just have to. Or we could opt out and hope to flourish in roles that have been traditionally set out for us. It is a choice, one no more better than the other. Both hard. Both fulfilling.
Amidst all the inner- conflicts, mood- swings, decision swaps and womanly chaos, we must also thank our long- suffering, ever- supportive, eternally understanding partners. After all they are the other wheel of the proverbial bicycle of life, whether we like to admit it or not!
Till next time.