By Farah Haque
A couple of days ago, I had an initially-casual-turned-grim Skype conversation with my partner. It was regarding the decision about when to be parents. Many people may find the sheer topic of the conversation to be too serious to start off casually, however, between my partner and I, this is a much talked about topic that we often bring up in humorous ways.
It is important to mention here that we have been married for the last 4 and a half years — out of which we have been away from each other for the last year, by virtue of my Master’s degree in London and his job in one of the developing countries in South Asia (where I spent the first 26 years of my life).
My partner knows that I love children and would love to be a mother at some point in my life but we both agreed on taking that step once I am ready to do so. In his words, “It’s your body and so you have to be both physically and mentally willing to undergo the whole process” — and he sincerely meant that. This initially sounded awesome and thoughtful, especially taking into account the kind of men we were surrounded by, in an unbelievably patriarchal society such as that of my home country. However, the more I contemplated it, the more I felt that there was something wrong with such a statement. This led me to start writing for Gender and the City.
Back to the conversation… While still joking around the topic, I asked him about his readiness for a child and his immediate response was that he is always ready because he is old and responsible enough to become a father. My pro-gender-equality mind responded saying, “I’ll only become a mother once you’re ready to take an equal share of the childcare responsibilities.” He replied that, needless to say, he would. He asserted that he is a very caring and understanding husband, (jokingly) unlike many of his friends, and that he would never place childcare responsibilities solely on the mother’s shoulders.
Nevertheless, when I asked whether his imagined caring responsibilities included tasks such as changing diapers; singing lullabies to make the baby fall asleep; waking up in the middle of the night to check if the baby was sleeping well; feeding the baby; trying to understand why the baby was crying; teaching the baby to write the first letters of the alphabet; waking the child up in the morning and preparing breakfast and a packed-lunch; getting him/her dressed for school and numerous other chores that I have seen my mother do for us, his simple solution to all these questions did not surprise me at all.
He effortlessly reminded me that many or most of these could easily be taken care of by a nanny whilst we share the rest and that I should not get stressed worrying about all these issues now. I responded by asking what would happen if I did not want to hire a nanny: “Well, in that case I’ll definitely help you out as much as possible but I’m not sure if I’m capable of doing all of those things. Also, given that I am so busy at work, I wonder if I’ll have enough time for these activities on a regular basis. But of course, I’m not insensitive: if you’re feeling unwell, or if you’re busy elsewhere, or if you have to leave for work early, or go out of town, I’ll try to take care of everything.” That was his earnest response and somewhere in the process, we lost the humour!
Before describing the note on which we ended our conversation, let me share my state of mind at that very moment. Too many things were racing through my head. Knowing my partner for the last 10 years as a man who has always been sensitive, understanding and respectful towards women, our conversation left me pondering the socially acceptable extent of a man’s sensitivity towards women. I realised that my husband’s appeals and offers were genuinely made and that he had no intention of looking down on me because this is what he has learnt all his life through our universally acceptable socialisation processes. Despite being open-minded and respecting women’s rights, he was unable to think beyond the socially constructed traditions; he too took it for granted that the above mentioned tasks were naturally meant to be the duties of a mother, even if she was a working mother, often substituted by a nanny. His response implied that being an empathetic husband and a responsible father meant all he could do was help me out in times of crisis. That was as far as his stretch of imagination could take him as a gender-sensitive man in a South Asian context.
I could sense his uneasiness around the topic because, knowing me well enough, he could also sense my apprehension. It took him a while to figure out why these foreboding thoughts were eating me up and that leaving these issues unresolved may well lead to jeopardising our marriage. I was left perplexed at how he ended the conversation — he admitted that he was nervous about making a commitment that he may not be able to live up to later on and that he was still not sure if he could actually make himself do all the tasks mentioned. He emphasised that he would love to assure me as my partner that together we could move mountains BUT apparently, my questions have left him baffled and he asked for time to think about these points.
After this conversation, I did not know what to feel: should I be delighted and hopeful that my partner understood my trepidation regarding equality in parenthood and actively decided to consider my questions? Or should I rather be miserable, feeling hopeless that I had to explicitly put a ‘responsibility chart’ in plain words in order for him to realise what equality in parenting responsibilities means — that parenting not only involves playing with a baby and buying chocolates and toys, but also the not-so-exciting feeding and cleaning?
I know I am sharing a very personal experience on a public platform and perhaps many readers may deem this inappropriate. Nonetheless, part of the reason for sharing this story is also to challenge the way we divide the public and the private realms, which has an undeniable role in the social construction of our gendered divisions of labour: the father, the mother, the nanny!
The way we attach roles to ourselves and to others based on sex, race and class is evident from this simple day-to-day conversation and there is certainly a power play — albeit unintentionally in my case — which in itself is problematic. These inherently unequal societal notions go unrecognised because they are so deeply rooted and ingrained and if someone points them out to us, they become points to ponder on.
Having grown up in an upper-middle class family in the capital city of one of the developing nations of the Global South, the socially constructed notions of ‘good girl’ versus ‘bad girl’ and ‘good family’ versus ‘bad family,’ always disturbed me. The reasons why my mother left her job in order to take care of us and yet my father continued to work, were always unconvincing to me.
The reasons why five of my female friends got divorced within a year of getting married and even worse, the reasons why they were to take the blame for that, were also unnerving. As a result, the way I used to think (and still do) was never perceived as ‘normal’ for a girl or a woman in my society. Time and time again, since childhood, I have experienced such reactions following my words and actions every time I protested against unequal gender relations.
My personal opinion on this — and I am sure many others will agree — is that we probably have a disproportionate number of women who are aware of and sensitive to gender inequality whilst men are unmistakably not on an equal footing here. The discrepancy in this awareness is probably increasing (if anything) the already-existing gap between the way men and women think of themselves and of others. Increasing men’s awareness of this issue may prove to have a greater effect than getting more women on board. It’s about time!