The Nagging Wife. Or, of Emotional Labour

Hindu thought emphasises that nature has two fundamental forces, not one. These forces of Shiva and Shakti, must always be in balance. Shiva is death, Shakti is life. Shiva destroys, Shakti creates. Shiva is timeless, Shakti is change. Every person irrespective of biological sex has both the masculine and feminine in them. Nowhere is this more evident that in our myths. For example, Vishnu assumes the feminine form of Mohini to protect the world from Bhasmasura. Durga might have a female body but she contains the energies of the male trinity – Brahma, Vishnu, Maheshwara. Mahishasura, as represented by the buffalo, was too dim-witted to see beyond the literal. He could not understand that a female body could channel the power of destruction and therefore assumed that no one could kill him.

We have largely forgotten this quest for balance and replaced it with duality. Exactly when this happened in our history is not clear but the evidence partially points towards colonisation. During our colonial rule womens breasts were covered up, homosexuality (well illustrated in Khajurao sculptures) was deemed criminal and a complex belief system was reduced to a collection of myths. As our colonial hangover continues we now believe in the dichotomy of right and wrong, good and evil, conqueror and conquered. Two forces cannot be equal in our new world. The masculine being more tangible has won. Since masculinity is associated with power, all people – men and women – have to channel the same energy in order to be successful.

The workplace is still largely a masculine space. There is not much room for sensitivity, subtlety, creativity, or even cooperation in most workplaces. We raise our sons to succeed in this space. They are given no option but to succeed. Women are married (off) to men who were trained to succeed at work. Women who have decided to pursue a career and have been successful at it have had to be “one of the boys”. Thanks to these efforts women are finally starting to gain financial autonomy, political power, and an identity of our own. All good things. Having succeeded at work, we are raising our daughters to do so as well because we want the same independence for them.

Home is a place for all things feminine. The work is constant, changing and largely emotional and invisible. You cannot quantify the value of a well-run home. A home needs a different kind of energy to recharge its inhabitants. This job largely falls to women who are deemed “natural” at it. Already exhausted from a career, we have no energy to bring to the home as well. World over women sense that the demands placed on us are not realistic. Hence articles like this one go viral. We read them, intuitively understand, and pass them on to our husbands who also immediately understand and start taking a more active role in running the home. Ha Ha, just kidding. Men are angry when they read articles like that one.

Why are they angry? Is it because our husbands detest us and want us to quit our jobs and stay home to serve their every need? I don’t think so. I think it’s because splitting the physical load is fair tangible while the overhead of managing a home is emotional, and therefore intangible. A society of Mahishasuras that we are, we consider invisible and intangible to mean imaginary and non-existent. You can’t view the inner world of emotions emotions through the world through a lens focused on the outside world. We need to switch lenses every once in a while. Society would have us believe men are not in possession of such a lens. It unleashes all sorts of tactics to keep women “in their place”.

Here’s a video of Sadhguru subtly mansplaining why homemaking is important. He places his mother on a pedestal and speaks of her with (a tenderness in his voice he never had when he shamed people for causing depression to themselves, may I add?). He speaks of a career as an economic necessity, not an intellectual fulfilment as it is for many of us. Everyone loves this video. It’s sanskaari and lovely for traditionalists and women finally get the validation we’re looking for. Don’t fall for it.

While the world is real, money is real. Political power is real. Intellectual fulfilment is real. The need for a safety net is real. The need to have a voice is real. The need to prepare for the worst is real. Sorry Sadhguru, we don’t need society to value a woman’s contribution to running a home. We need men to value their ability to nurture and care. We need men who can embrace sensitivity. We need more men to feel comfortable thinking about what would make a house a home. Men who can intuitively turn on some music or buy some flowers and light some incense. We need men to not only understand that it’s important to have a welcoming home but to make it happen. The emotional labour it takes to run a home, you see, is not about making lists and running errands. It’s about sitting down and thinking about the needs of someone other than yourself. Since when was it bad to be a little less self-centred?

As my marriage nears the ten year mark, it suddenly appears to me that I’m surrounded by people getting divorced. A friend calls it “that time of life”. Some of the divorces are legal. Many are emotional. I know of several women who have given up on finding any sort of emotional fulfilment from their marriages. What’s worse, we as a society drive anyone (male or female) in an emotionally unsatisfactory partnership towards depression and then shame them for it because, hey, emotional needs are not real.

My most cherished moment with The Hero? A day after I landed in the US I fell sick with a high fever. He made hot rasam and potato fry for me, literally spoon-fed me dinner and tucked me into our grad student airbed. My father is pretty useless in the kitchen but no one can keep a house tidier than he can. A friend makes art, origami, dances tango and grows plants. A cousin took time off to raise his baby and misses changing diapers. So don’t tell me it’s not manly to do such things or that men are biologically unsuited for them.

Anyone who thinks men are incapable of nurturing needs to open their mind beyond the binaries of chromosomal sex. Let little boys tag along in the kitchen. Let them paint butterflies and grow flowers. Let them learn the joy of empathy and don’t shame their tears. Maybe more sensitive men won’t subject us to the “men request, women nag” bullshit. For now, here’s a meme.

Book Review: The Highly Sensitive Person – Elaine Aron

You live by the sword, you die by the sword.

– Dr. Giant Steps

It’s been about a year since I wrote this post about sensitive people. I’ve largely retreated into myself since then for various reasons. One of these reasons was the navel-gazing on this blog. Why did I need to analyse everything so much? Why did I feel this constant need to understand and explain myself? Even after all the writing why did some things feel so hard? Why are some things which seem so easy for so many people feel so hard to me? A piece of the puzzle is, obviously, sensitivity. But identifying the sword does nothing to help you not die by it. Me being who I am, I started researching a bit. Here’s the first step of the journey.

Source: Goodreads

I came across a reference to Elaine Aron’s book in Quiet by Susan Cain. The fundamental premise of Dr. Aron’s work appears to be that some individuals (about 15-20% of the population) are just wired differently from others. This difference in wiring, she postulates, causes differences in the way we perceive the world and react to it. Of course, disclaimers apply*.

Given sensitivity is a highly subjective trait, we need a baseline to go by. The book was written by a researcher and it therefore starts with a self assessment (replicated here on the author’s website). This assessment sets the general tone of the book. In general a sensitive person is someone who: Reacts strongly to sensory input; tends to think deeply about things; notices subtle details others might not; has a lower threshold for arousal by most stimuli. While each person will agree with a few questions, the book largely deals with those who are more sensitive than average.

Why should you read this book? Well, if you’re a sensitive person, you’ve probably always felt vaguely out of place. I have certainly been told many times to “toughen up”, not “cry so easily”, stop “over-analyzing everything”, etc. This book helps explain how we function. If you don’t identify as sensitive, someone close to you likely does and the book might give you a fresh perspective.

The Highly Sensitive Person normalizes what society implies is abnormal. Some of us do process everything more deeply than others and the first couple of chapters provide evidence of this. They also contain details of how the trait impacts day-to-day life. They also provide a way to reframe one’s past and view one’s “failures” through a new lens. I personally skipped the exercises because I’m not comfortable digging that deep. At least not alone 🙂 I’m also skeptical about the benefits of digging too deep in some areas. (“Dig too deep and you’ll find water anywhere”. Another nugget of wisdom from Dr. Giant Steps)

Chapters 5 through 7 are about work and relationships. I found these chapters more culture-specific. I personally find a stay in the US particularly exhausting because I feel I’m expected to constantly be “on”. Similarly Indian expectations from love and marriage are quite different and many of the assumptions don’t really hold. That said, it’s academically quite interesting to read.

Chapters 8 and 9 deal with therapy and medication. They’re again interesting from an academic perspective to me. There’s good information on how some common drugs such as Prozac work. There’s also good information about psycho-therapy, how to choose a good therapist, what to expect and so forth. While I’m not sure therapy is for me, the chapters are detailed and the information is very useful.

The final chapter deals with “soul and spirit”. Again, I find the content culture-specific. Broadly speaking, Indians are more comfortable with the idea of holistic wellness and we implicitly accept the idea of something deeper within a person that needs to be cared for. I largely skimmed this chapter but I do accept the idea that pranayama and other holistic forms of wellness work much better for me than a course of antibiotics.

Overall, reading this book helped me understand a few things better. First, there is such a trait as sensitivity which cannot be altered too much. Second, I have a system that needs more downtime and maintenance. There’s nothing wrong with this. Acknowledging these ideas has allowed me to simplify my life and reduce the demands I place on myself. More importantly I’m working on being more quietly assertive of my needs rather than pushing myself too far and then experiencing physical, mental or emotional exhaustion (or some combination thereof). I’m trying to let go of the idea that I “should” be able to do some things just because others can and accept that not being able to do them is not a sign of weakness.

I simply cannot be the person I would like to be – a tough, outgoing, multi-tasking, decision maker who can shrug things off easily and just march ahead no matter what. I’m instead always going to be a softy. I’m going to fall for sob stories, feel a shade more guilty than I need to, make decisions slowly, and just generally take more space. I’m going to care too much, cry too much, think too much, and keep asking people to turn down the TV. Reading this book finally made me realize I’m just fine exactly as I am.

  • I understand that no single theory can explain the entirety of a human life lived and experienced. Each theory only (crudely) explains one facet of our personalities
  • I understand that no one can prove conclusively how individuals are wired to think and behave and the research methodology will have limitations and is highly subjective
  • I understand that it’s harmful to label oneself and limit oneself any kind of label, positive or negative
  • I understand that the perception of personality traits is highly cultural and we cannot take all the research out of its cultural context
  • I understand one should not attempt to self-diagnose
  • Other general terms and conditions as applicable

September 2017: Goals

I don’t know if anyone is still around but I’ve missed blogging and I’m going ease my way back in by posting weekly book reviews and round ups of what’s happening in my garden.

Reading Goals:
I haven’t been reading much these days. Here’s my reading list for September. Two fiction and two non-fiction books:

  • Interesting Times, Terry Pratchett
  • My Brilliant Friend , Elena Ferrante
  • The Master Algorithm, Pedro Domingos
  • Health, Healing and Beyond, T. K. V. Desikachar

Gardening goals:
I’m learning to grow vegetables in containers and my goal is to feed our family with organic produce by the end of next year. With the exception of onions, potatoes, carrots and suchlike it’s theoretically possible to grow almost everything else for ourselves. Flowers for puja included. Let’s see how this project goes. I have quite a liberal budget set for this and I hope to start breaking even by next year.

Here’s my target for this month.

  • Revive my bottle gourd and snake gourd vines which somehow look a bit wilted and yellow
  • Get the cucumber creepers to yield
  • Tomato, brinjal, chilly plants are flowering, they need to start yielding
  • Start cauliflower, beets, carrots, spinach from seeds
  • Plant a few gongura stalks
  • Plant banana and papaya trees in the garden