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.

Leaning in – Travel

A great opportunity has come up for me at work. It involves kick-starting a new project, expanding the scope of an engagement and working with a new group of stakeholders, and huge learning on the data analytics side. The assignment is with a marquee client and I cleared four rounds of interviews with them. Yesterday they said they want me on board. Everyone is pleased to hear the news. But I don’t feel a sense of achievement. Instead, I feel terribly guilty for being good at my job because it means I need to travel onsite for a couple of months. I have to leave my family (read son) behind.

In the larger scheme of things, I think it’s ok. The Hero will not be traveling when I’m gone. Even if he is, it will only be for day trips. Chotu will be with his dad and his grandparents who will be staying with us while I’m gone. The other set of grandparents will be visiting frequently. I’m sure the first couple of weeks will be hard but knowing Chotu’s temperament, he will settle in quite quickly. I will probably miss him more than he misses me. This is the rational side of me speaking. This is The Goddess who’s confidently reassuring nosy concerned colleagues and friends that Chotu will be fine in my absence.  The other side of me wants to sob into her pillow.

Now let’s take a moment to think. The knee-jerk reaction to the situation would be to say, “Would a man refuse an assignment that involves travel? Neither should you.” However, is this the right question to be asking? I don’t think so. The question implies that daddy won’t be missed as much as mommy if he travels or that men’s families just have deal with the inconvenience of travel. The question also implies that I need to “think like a man” in order to be successful in my career. Well, both those assumptions are wrong. I’ll tell you why.

Firstly, there’s been a gradual shift in attitudes. One of my male colleagues, for instance, would prefer not to travel because, I quote, “I would miss my boy too much.” The Hero isn’t particularly fond of travel either. Thankfully, his job involves very brief travel rarely extending beyond a week or two. I’ve observed other men who have taken a similar stance.

Secondly, if women end up approaching work/life balance the way men traditionally have, men would have to step up and become homemakers to provide the stability women traditionally have. Or, you’d have to outsource childcare completely to a third party. There’s no way around it. Two people cannot manage between them two careers on high gear and parenting. It’s just too much work.

If we choose not to outsource childcare beyond a point (a very personal choice) and we both want fulfilling careers, there’s only one alternative. We need to take turns to scale back on the career front and take up more responsibility on the home front.

Over the last (close to) four years The Hero and I have worked our butts off to build a family where both careers are equally important and all of our relationships are equally important – Chotu and mom, Chotu and Dad, The Hero’s and my marriage. We’ve worked hard to build a world where both mom and dad have to work and both of our jobs are equally important. We’ve done our best to structure our days such that one of us is spending time hands on with Chotu when he’s not in school.

Sure we’ll grow slower than we would have otherwise. The Hero might publish fewer papers or file fewer patents. I will not land a fast track a promotion. But he will publish. I will eventually get promoted. And we will do good work meanwhile. More importantly, all of us will have our needs met.

Of course it’s going to be rough on all three of us if I travel. We’ll all miss each other and it will be much harder for the boys than me when I’m away. But still, we have to try. We’ve laid the groundwork for it. Now we just have to see how it goes.


Girls’ Toys?

I read this article a few days ago and forwarded it to P.  The gist of the original article was:

Barbie should be put back in her box to make way for more “creative” toys such as Lego and Meccano that are traditionally given to boys, one of Britain’s top women scientists says.

I know P has some very strong opinions on this subject – way stronger than mine. Even so her reply was much more emphatic than I expected. So I knew I had to post it for you guys. Let me know what you think!

Before we get P’s opinion, an obligatory pic of the toys Chotu never plays with.

Makes a nice Thumbnail if you share this post on Facebook!

I think this is a sort of reverse-conditioning that is being imposed on girls. In getting rid of one stereotype, why are we creating another? Why are we giving the girls who do actually want to play with Barbies and cooking-sets a complex? At the end of the day, the kid must have the choice of picking up whatever toy it is he or she wants to play with!

There is such a thing as nature as well, it’s not all nurture. How is this any worse than those parents who “urge” their child to write with their right hand, and not with the left? So yes, I think the child must be given a choice, but this “urging” is bad, one way or another.

On a personal note, my favorite toy was a cute girl with blue-eyes, curly hair and a green dress – I had her with me for the longest time until she was in absolute tatters! I used to love to play with a metal kitchen set my dad got for me and my sis ( yes, my physicist dad, who also taught us quite a bit of physics later on in life!) . And believe it or not, our favorite game was “playing house” 😀

Clearly, none of this reflects on the way me or my sister turned out eventually, except perhaps my fondness for babies 🙂 Conversely, it is not as if all boys who play with Lego sets end up becoming engineers or rocket-scientists!

Actually I find some of the ideas expressed here objectionable and downright condescending. Sample this: “Girls toys are typically liable to lead to passivity – combing the hair of Barbie, for instance – not building, imagining or being creative with Lego or Meccano” . Why is hair-dressing not a creative activity?! How can she say it doesn’t encourage imagination?!

Again, on a personal note, it’s true that I never had any interest in Legos or building stuff, and that I did love to read and do math, and these were perhaps early signs of what I eventually ended up doing. But the fact that I was playing with dolls and kitchen sets didn’t turn me away from science or math, and neither did it dampen my creativity (or so I’d like to think!) . As for internships and such, I know that G served as a bar-tender for a while during his undergraduate days, and then went on to do a math-CS PhD; I think he would have been a disaster at any local garage 😉

It’s not that I’m not admitting that there is a problem : the fraction of women in the so-called STEM fields (even at the entry level) is abysmally small. But I think the approach suggested here is catching the wrong end of the stick. My theory is that it is during the high-school-to-college transition that a lot of girls move away from STEM. A few of them continue on to biology, primarily because of the “scope” of doing medicine later on. Actually if you look at the list of high school toppers in India, whether in CBSE or State-Board, there’s a larger fraction of girls than boys. But when it comes to going into college, they are encouraged to be “practical” and choose fields where there’s a scope of getting a job soon after finishing college.
Long years of societal conditioning makes girls believe that the purpose of a college degree is to get a job, then get married and start a family; that choosing to pursue a research career in science or math or engineering at this stage might entail long years of waiting before the job-marriage-child matrix happens. Most girls give in to social pressure at this stage and choose the more “practical” option…I think *this* is where the problem lies! This is where the societal pressures have to ease and girls should be encouraged to pursue what they are interested in…I don’t think something as simple as replacing the Barbies with Legos will help!

And there we have it, if not from  one of India’s most eminent female scientists (though I’m betting she will count among them soon) then at least from a female scientist who is none the worse from having grown up playing with a blue eyed doll.

It’s a bit of a continuation on yesterday’s theme, I suppose. After all, it’s just another magic wand for parenting. Whatever happened to understanding the child’s temperament and needs and responding to those? Sigh!