I recall, nearly two decades back, a very special woman in my life had written her first book and was too scared to publish it. She had the ready manuscript in her hand, but did not have the ‘right’ inspiration to go ahead with the book. Then, with the support of an old friend, she secretly contacted a small publisher… and the book finally came out. Financially she was well off even those days but she was too hesitant to use up the money to publish her own book and was not comfortable to face the endless questions that would arise because of her ‘petty’ yearning! She was a HOUSEWIFE!
Finally, when the book came out, her husband had mixed reactions – surprised, anxious to know how she could publish a book without his consent, perhaps a little proud within that ‘she has the talent’ but never really expressed publicly, thanks to his male egotism. She was in her early forties then and they continue to be a blissful couple and life goes on fine … and I am not attempting to analyze that here.
All I wanted to talk about is the plight of the housewife – someone, who spends her life building her home and her family, who is the most important member in the family and someone whom we often take for granted, shamelessly!
Think of most of us! We often do that to our mothers, who have sacrificed their entire life – passions, careers, hobbies to bring us up selflessly and help us pursue our dreams. In my childhood, I never really understood my mother’s small yearnings that she sometimes expressed wittily – one of those being opening her own bank account, and considered a ‘trivial’ yearning by some, the worth of which I came to know eventually when she started gifting us small tokens on every special occasion from her own savings. As I was growing up, I started realizing that each one of us seeks our identity – beyond that of someone’s daughter, mother or wife.
By tradition and by law, the housewife is not taken to be an economically productive person. Her rewards are vicarious. Those of us who attempted to read Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique, would remember her quoting the suburban household as “a concentration camp” for women where they become “dependent, passive and lived at a “lower human level.” The book that inspired a second wave feminism, saw hundreds of women flocking out of the home into the university and the workplace. Modern feminist Mimi Gladstein however emphasizes staying at home to raise a family as a choice as valid as entering the work force. She describes how being a suburban housewife trained her to handle taking over as executive director of her university’s Diamond Jubilee celebration. She writes, “That job allowed me to use my housewifery skills to create and manage events, student retention programs and inviting renowned speakers.” She learned the necessary skills while juggling her children’s schedules, planning the family budget, and being a hostess at her husband’s business events – Choice being the key to women.
Unfortunately, it’s not always by choice women stay at home. Of course our times are changing but I see that homemakers of my generation feel even more resentful because unlike most of our mothers, they were raised equally with boys to study and have a career. But, many of them had to give up a flourishing professional career only to raise a family (especially after having a kid) and this often takes a huge emotional toll on them!
One of my neighbors told me, the moment you leave your job and pay attention to family and kids, the attitude of family members become: oh she is just at home – a 24X7 hands-on worker for her family!
This brings up the question of respect to a housewife in a patriarchal system that expectss us to respect only those who bring home the bacon!
Wendy McElroy, a feminist researcher writes in her blog, ironically, the housewife’s job being labeled a ‘non-working’ one is that the market economy has a correspondence for every item of housework that falls in the usual course of her daily chores. You can hire a cook, a cleaner, a housekeeper and an ayah, to perform these tasks within your home itself! If these professional service-providers are included in the country’s GNP calculations, why not housewives engaged in these same tasks? The answer is simple – because they are not paid for their work! By some false logic, her ‘free’ services are considered uneconomic and unproductive! An ILO report recently stated that if the value of housework is calculated as equivalent to paid services performed by cooks, cleaners, housekeepers and nurses, it would contribute to half the GNP in many countries.
Our society rarely thinks that her total consumption of goods and services she has helped create by her work is less than what she has produced. Instead of her labor being exclusively available to her, they are shared among the members of her family, and are benefited mostly by male heads. Moreover, housework has no fixed hours, no holiday and no pay.
While I can continue to discuss theories and views of feminism, in practice my only request to women of my generation is. Whether you are a housewife by choice or under some compulsion, all I can say is stop becoming the martyrs, putting your lives on sacrifice? It doesn’t matter if you have to manage your kids and cannot work fulltime. At least cultivate your own interests and indulge in some hobbies. Never allow your spouse and kids to bad mouth you. One of my friends said, to be hands-on, women should first stop clinging on to the kids or the husband!
Here, I am not talking of abolition of marriage, rather a transformation to make it more equal. For example, men also exhorted to do more of the housework and to share greater responsibility for child rearing. In the hyper-information era, where internet and mobile phones have become ubiquitous, make full use of them… a step to do something, whatever, even small but something of your own by leveraging your talent. The idea is to ‘be proactive’ and to prove your worth, if not to others to yourself!