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.

The moment to walk out of a relationship

The latest post on IHM’s blog is a heartbreaking story of abuse. Once a person is deep in an abusive relationship, they can’t really get out so easily. Their self esteem is broken, their movements are curtailed, and even their life is at risk. Yet, given how common abuse is, why don’t parents and daughters ever have a conversation before the wedding*? Why don’t parents ever tell their daughters up front, the doors are open if you need to walk out? Why don’t daughters ever tell their parents what they need or expect?

This is my list of red flags and the issues I discussed with my parents before I even agreed to an arranged marriage. I don’t think how a woman chooses her spouse makes a difference to the list, however. These are also conversations a woman needs to have with her partner before living together or getting married. A couple needs to set expectations from each other.

Before the wedding:

  1. Any mention of skin colour or appearance or mention of socially acceptable standards of beauty. Some people would ask my mother if I was good looking. My mother’s stock reply was, “Beauty is a personal opinion. How can I not call my own child beautiful?” We never called any of them back.
  2. Any subtle (or not) probing into my family’s financial status was unacceptable because it was none of their business. Some were interested in what my brother earned.

The wedding itself. I was clear that I would break an engagement or even walk out of a wedding at:

  1. Any mention of the word dowry, gifts, gifting of saris, demand for customs, expectations from the scale of the wedding and so on and.
  2. Anything at all said against my parents or any expectations from them because they’re the “girl’s side” before, during, and after the wedding would not be tolerated.
  3. Unwillingness to share expenses was a massive red flag indicating entitlement. I couldn’t convince my dad as much as I would have wanted to but it was still progress from my aunts’ weddings.
  4. Any mention about me quitting work or relocating without having an equal discussion was out. A dependent visa was out. If I moved to another country, I’d move on my own visa.

After the wedding. Cause for separation, if not divorce:

  1. Any hint that I need to change anything about myself after marriage because I’m a woman including coercion to wear symbols of marriage I didn’t want to or giving up contact with male friends or any restrictions on my behaviour, movements, finances, etc.
  2. Any implications that I “belong” to a certain family or not.
  3. Any expectations that I need to perform a certain traditional role because I’m a woman including the kind of chores I’m expected to do, unwillingness to share household work, etc.

Would result in me walking out without a word:

  1. Verbal abuse including name calling by anyone, not just the guy
  2. Any hint of physical abuse including something including grabbing my hand with too much force by anyone, not just the guy
  3. Forced sex/marital rape. This I did not explicitly discuss with my parents but they knew what I meant by physical abuse.

The most important relationship we’ll ever have is the one with ourselves. Everyone might have a different line for what verbal abuse is. What’s more important is deciding for ourselves – before we make a lifelong commitment to a spouse – what our limits are and to honour ourselves and those limits.

It’s not one sided. A man can feel equally stifled by a jealous or insecure spouse. He can feel pressure to earn more or be more “manly”. He needs to be upfront about it. In fact, when The Hero and I were engaged, the level of frankness in our conversations alarmed his parents and mine who thought it was too much honesty to last. This was only based on what was reported. 😉 But that’s how our marriage works to this day. The Hero and I can get passionate and argue loudly about the silliest of things and make the most ridiculous of statements and fume (him) and cry (me). Then, we can just shrug it off and go out for ice cream because we’re secure that we agree about the things that truly matter. That approach might not be for everybody but everybody needs to know what they need.

* Yes, yes, not only women get abused but let’s stick with the woman’s side of the story this time, eh?

Rolling Eyes…

IHM wrote a short post on this letter by an Indian MIL but when my comment started getting too long for the textbox, I knew I needed to make it a post. 🙂

Dear Fictional MIL,

To start off, please don’t claim to speak for every Indian MIL. Mine is a sweetheart and she would probably not agree with your sentiments. You say:

  • I may appear a little jealous; but deep down, I am only scared and insecure.
  • I may appear dominating; but deep down, I only take hold of things only to lessen your burden.I may appear intrusive; but deep down, I am actually protective and concerned for you.
  • I may appear stiff and stubborn; but please don’t judge a book by its cover. I am willing to adapt
  • I may give the impression of an emotional bomb; but I am in my fifties and suffering from menopause.
  • I may be appear obsessive of your husband; but deep down, its the motherly instinct that nature gave me.
  • I may be nagging sometimes; but I want you to help you with things around.
  • I may spoil your kids a little bit with chocolate and toys; but its my expression of affection to kids.

Why do you feel the need to express all your “deep down” positive feelings in such a negative manner? Why dominate instead of ask? Why intrude instead of talk? Why hide your adaptability by “appearing” stiff and stubborn? Why display affection for your grandchildren in a way that belittles their mother’s parenting efforts? In short, why are you behaving exactly opposite to what you say you feel? Why are you so insecure?

You say:

I am doing it all out of love.

Please don’t confuse love and maternal instinct with co-dependence, physical closeness, and emotional control. Every species on the planet lets its child go at some point. That doesn’t mean the mother loves the child any less or even that it is easy. It means that the mother has done her duty towards her children and can now relax and move on to a different phase of her life. Mothers of daughters have lived with their child being away, in her own home, raising her own family, having her own life for millennia in our culture. It’s only now that we’re asking mothers of sons to do the same.

What do you mean by being “considerate of the fact that I am still his mother”? I wish I knew what it means so that I could assure you that your DIL probably means no harm to you. In fact, I do empathize with your situation. But have you ever thought that if you treated your DIL the way you wish to be treated instead of being hypocritical and expecting her to understand what’s happening with you “deep down”, you would gain a new relationship in your life instead of losing control over an existing one with your son?

In an Indian marriage, the in-laws always make the first move. If you make a wise choice, you might not need to write letters like this. I know this because my mother-in-law made the right choices and so, I’m the one who reminds her son to call her and I’m the one who is more upset when she leaves after a visit. We are not perfect, my MIL and I. We both make mistakes all the time but we have the strength to apologize and the wisdom to move on.

An Indian Daughter-in-Law

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