Once during a Diwali function, each family had to introduce themselves. When it was our turn, my father, in a deep-set voice, spoke of his profession. My mother in a muffled tone said, “I’m a housewife, I used to be a senior secondary teacher.” When we settled into our seats, I observed all the women who came to the stage and let out the same “housewife” whisper. None of them squared their shoulders and beamed in pride. It was as if it had dawned on them in those two minutes that they were Mrs. Something or XYZ’s mother.
My mom has taken frequent breathers in her professional life. I was born, which led to a break. Then my brother was born, which led to another break. My dad shifted cities and jobs, and she had to keep abreast of the transferring and school admissions, so then came to another break. My grandmother fell to the clutches of cancer. Yet again, another break.
These hiccups were like factory resets. She began from square one each time. Not to mention the unsolicited interventions by relatives: “why do you work, your husband earns enough for the family, relax.” She never bought this. There was always this unspent energy in her, she wanted an outlet for. If she quit her teaching job at a school, she would gather old students to tuition at home.
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It was low-key financial independence, but mostly, it was a creative bandwagon she wanted. The bounden duties at home didn’t satisfy her. It doesn’t for most Indian housewives. They don’t loathe the work but resent it because no one gives two hoots about it. When they hold the reins and put to use their decaying degrees, they realize the pickle they are in. My mother never delegated the housework, and despite the new feather in her cap, everyone in the house works the pavlovian way. She can’t unpin the housewife badge, so she has to wear two.
It has also been burned into the consciousness of housewives — “housework is yours to do.” If they take to bed with fever or menstruation blues, they are drowning in oceans of guilt. They flood their mental back burner with “Are the children home? Did he take his tiffin? Did the maid close the door? Was my gold on the top drawer and not inside? Oh, my god, have I not switched off the gas?”
Well, we, too, have been complicit in making our mothers/wives/sisters feel that it’s their job to clean and cook. What if spider webs are hanging from the corner of walls, or if the fridge had a fallout or the bathroom tile is leaking, it is simply their headache to bear. This vulnerability, diffusion and awareness of needs around her all compound to a compromised career.
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The domino effect is women thinking, “Who am I doing this for? My husband earns suitable money. Why should I invent this trouble of working when nobody wants me to?” This is where it all circles to a full stop. She sets back, resigns and nestles into those four walls, only to realize that they suffocate her. It doesn’t end here, though. She wakes up from her creative slumber every few years, only to find that the family tide hasn’t turned.
Oblivious to the conditioned misogyny, women continue to be the second sex in a household. I live with three other women of my age in a rented flat. We have timetables to split our work here: peeling and chopping, kneading the dough and cooking are separate departments. We have, by now, become maestros in our kitchen terrains. If we marry some years down the line, we would expect a similar format of a delegation with our partner.
We should raise boys and girls to know that chores are gender-agnostic. On Sunday mornings, I see boys helping their father in cleaning the cars, scrubbing the tires, changing the floor-mats while girls oil their hair, lend a hand for breakfast and do some squeaky cleaning around the house. There must be a swap of these traditional duties periodically.
It’s only this dispersal of routine work that will elbow women into crafting a career of their own. We are all househusbands, housewives and house children. We all have to double up as engineers, managers, teachers, doctors and home cleaners. We, too, have to pin two badges.