The Homemaker


Growing up years I mostly interacted with women who were employed and financially independent. This was my parents’ social network and of course I also wanted to be someone who attended office every day, did ‘important’ things, attended off sites, office parties, had colleagues and friends of both sexes, had a ‘life’ outside of home and made money. Many of these women worked long hours in offices and then returned home to care for their families. Some did their own cooking, took care of the children while others had help and support from in-laws or domestic servants. I saw how they managed their time and efforts to manage their personal and professional lives with ease. So I knew that it was possible to be married, a successful professional, be happy and live a fulfilling life.

Like my mother I was a firm believer in women’s rights and my ideology was framed by Ashapoorna Devi’s notable trilogy (in Bengali) Prothom Protisruti, Subarnalata and Bakul Katha. As an introverted little girl I loved to play by myself the role of a housewife with long hair, wearing a sari the Bengali way with sindoor (vermilion) and shakha pola (conch shell and red wax/lac bangle), with the safe keys hanging on my waist, cooking and looking after everyone at home. I would be educated and so would spend my afternoons reading novels and magazines, painting, having engaging conversations with learned men and women. I would have a mind of my own, someone who commanded respect by virtue of the kind of person I was. Everyone would love me and I would be a happy and contended. Guess I visualised myself like many of Rabindranath Tagore’s heroines. Therefore I knew that I could be married, a housewife, be happy and live a fulfilling life.

Growing up as I had very little interaction with women who were solely housewives, perhaps I missed some of the intricacies involved in their reality. Interestingly, after my marriage I came in contact with many within the immediate and extended family from my husband’s side who were. By then I had already been working for 6 years. I didn’t need to do any housework since my mother and sister (till she got married) took care of the house. I didn’t understand the nuances and so my initial gut response was that I was different from these women and we would never understand each other. I wouldn’t be able to converse with them discussing my work, the pressures of meeting deadlines, dealing with office politics and being accountable for timely delivery of projects. Nor could I understand how they spent their time at home with nothing else to do!

housewifeHad I become prejudiced? Yes! Somewhere I had lost the plot. I felt that only women who worked outside did equal amount of work at home too. When you’re a housewife then you couldn’t possibly do that much work since you only had to deal with the housework and that too had the entire day to do it!  Yet being a firm believer in women’s rights I was also a strong supporter of women who choose to stay at home. The operative word of course was ‘choose’ – I didn’t understand the concept why someone couldn’t exercise the option to work outside or someone who had the opportunity to work outside wouldn’t want to.

The immediate repercussion of this was a mismatch of expectations – mine vs. my in-laws! Although my in-laws were never against me having a career, they expected that I would also play the role of the dutiful daughter-in-law – i.e., take care of the house and family, participate in domestic chores, be active during pujas and festivals. I had a problem with that since I hadn’t played that role before. Also, I earned enough money and so couldn’t understand why we couldn’t get hired help to take away some of the pressure. Why did we have to do it all? Although I did try, there were times I didn’t want to since I was tired after a long day’s work and just wanted to put my feet up and relax. No one had pulled me up for this at my parent’s home and I couldn’t imagine anyone taking offence at this behaviour at my in-laws!

Similarly, although my husband and some of his contemporaries within the family had wives who worked outside most of their impressions of a wife was someone who could play both roles with relative ease and élan. They had grown up seeing their mothers – the first women in their lives. She was always present efficiently taking care of their everyday needs. Then came their interaction with women in the professional space – girlfriends, colleagues, persons of authority – all strong, efficient women who knew their minds, earned as much money and to an extent were their equals.

To begin with, there is nothing wrong with this assumption. Like me, he too must have felt that I can manage both. When I wanted to relax he didn’t think there was anything wrong because that was what he did when he was tired – put his feet up and relax. When he saw the shift in dynamics with my in-laws he felt that I should try harder, be more accommodating and travel less on work. And so began a certain rift because I felt that he didn’t understand me or respect my work enough.

After we moved out of his parental home to another city, the onus of managing the house fell on me. But this time, the advantage was that as we were creating our ‘own home’ for the first time we both got equally involved with the chores. We hired help to lend support and that also gave us the opportunity to spend quality time with each other, put our feet up and relax! 10 years after our marriage when my daughter was born I choose to become a stay at home mom to take care of her.

Today I’m a homemaker and prefer that designation rather than housewife. Understanding the origin of the word homemaker helps to explain why I find it more acceptable. The word homemaker of North American origin denotes those, particularly women, who had to leave their paid jobs and take care of their families. I manage the home, take care of my daughter and also work as a freelancer. I have help so do get time to do my own thing. Therefore I feel that the term is a lot more inclusive and being gender neutral it feels right.

A recent article in Youth ki Awaaz reminded me that even though I had done much play-acting in childhood, I would have never said housewife if questioned about my future plans. Yet today I have experienced being both a professional and a homemaker – each are equally demanding jobs and require an attitude and mind-set change to be effective. Neither is easy. If anyone comments now how I don’t have to wake up early in the morning to rush to work, I want to scream. They don’t see that my daughter wakes up intermittently at night which means I don’t get a full night’s rest. Taking care of her is a 24×7 job and there are no weekends! I’ve had to make some adjustments, compromises, re-assertion of viewpoints, let go of certain personal needs, changed my outlook to fit my role. From being DINKS to a single earning member with child, my husband too has had his own share of adjustments and compromises.

We’re still struggling to learn, un-learn and re-learn but yes we’re happy!

The First Lady

Arguably the most important person in the husband’s life and thereby in one’s married life – the ‘mother-in-law’ whom I’d like to address as the First Lady of the house!

I’d heard much about my MIL (mother-in-law) before the wedding – but of course soon realized that nothing can ever prepare you enough to face the real deal! Having grown up in a nuclear family, I was quite unprepared. My notions of a joint family, living with in-laws were ideological in nature – mostly derived from fiction, gossiping friends or the telly. Therefore the expectations set were in most cases unrealistic!

My MIL wasn’t too happy with me as her son’s bride-to-be, mostly because I was a Christian and therefore unsure of the ways of a Hindu household. She was uncertain about my ability to settle into their tradition bound set-up. Every year the extended family came together to celebrate Durga Puja in their native village and everyone pitched in to help – would I be able to fit in? Would the others be able to accept me? As a couple we had decided that I would continue being a practicing Christian and not convert – how would the extended family react to that?

To my credit, I was instantly liked and appreciated for my efforts at the Durga Puja. I wore sari the Bengali way and did everything I was asked to do – making chandan (sandalwood) paste, stringing a garland, giving away prasad (puja offering). I did it because it was an important part of my husband’s life, because I knew that the onus to fit in rested with me as my acceptability into the extended family depended on how I carried myself during those five days.

MIL had grown up with her own prejudices about Christians – and in fact once quite innocently asked me if I could speak in Bengali! At that point I thought it was funny since I was a Bengali Christian and so could definitely speak in my mother tongue. But, was it really funny? After all I was more comfortable conversing and expressing my thoughts and feelings in English rather than Bengali. English was unconsciously the first choice of language when interacting with relations and extended family. Was it any wonder then that she was skeptical about my grasp of the language?

Soon after the wedding when my MIL was travelling, I went about re-decorating the house – the sitting room, kitchen, dining area. This was my home now and I wanted to make MIL happy. I was looking for a pat on the back for a job well done as I thought the re-decoration made the house look even more spacious and welcoming. Two days later after MIL’s return, I came home from office to see that she had changed everything back to what it was earlier! I was taken aback and couldn’t figure out why she’d done that. She didn’t say anything to me for days and then one day unable to stand the silence any longer I asked her. She politely commented, ‘this is my house and since I’m the one who mostly uses the kitchen and dining area, I like to keep things the way that suits my convenience.’

For a long time I was angry and hurt because MIL had in no uncertain terms told me that this wasn’t my house and that without her permission I shouldn’t change anything. What I failed to see and accept then was that it was indeed her home – one that she had painstakingly made her own with years of hard work. How could I, who had just arrived, want to change all that? I didn’t need to do any house work since she took care of everything – shopping, cooking, cleaning and entertaining. Why did I then need to change the set-up which she found most convenient? And more importantly why didn’t I ask if she needed my help without just assuming that I could make a difference? Today, years later I understand her sentiments as I too get upset if anyone makes any changes in my home, my own set-up!

MIL loved to dress up and wear jewellery while I always liked to be just presentable – I would dress according to the occasion and wore minimum jewellery. In the initial years there would always be a war of words as my MIL wanted me to wear practically every piece of jewellery I owned or was given! I couldn’t understand why she didn’t like the understated subtle look I preferred. During one such argument she openly told me ‘I can’t dress up the way I want to because of you. There is no way I can wear jewellery as I will look over dressed in comparison to you. People will say that I have kept all the jewellery to myself and not given you anything!’ I was aghast as that hadn’t crossed my mind but I guess her sensibilities dictated that she be forced to tone down because of my ‘subtle’ fashion statement! I understood that but somehow just couldn’t bring myself to do as she wanted – it still continues to be a bone of contention between us.

When I look back, as advised by the article in Times of India, Bond with your mother-in-law, I too had tried to be polite if she picked on me, tried to please her when she asked for my help, tried to mask my feelings by putting myself in her shoes to figure out why she behaved the way she did, tried to build a rapport by being open about my feelings and sometimes I also resorted to humour to lighten the situation. MIL too in her own ways failed trying to mould me into her ‘ideal’ daughter-in-law.

I complained to my husband whenever I had an issue with my MIL which was almost every other day! I still remember the night when in frustration he burst out, ‘you’re always complaining about her and she’s always complaining about you. Where do I go? Why don’t you understand that I’m hurting the most trying to balance between you both?’ He sounded miserable and for the first time it struck me that in our own ways we were making his life a living hell. That night I vouched that I wouldn’t complain to him again. Of course, I wasn’t successful but did try to keep my opinions to myself. I dealt with it the way I knew how but this in turn led to even more trouble. My silence was viewed as arrogance. In my attempt to avoid conflict I had in turn allowed everyone to assume the worst about me.

When my husband was offered an opportunity to work in Mumbai I was super thrilled – it was a means to escape the ‘respectable’ way – it meant living away from my in-laws without having to create a scene. Unfortunately it didn’t work as well as I thought it would. My in-laws and extended family taunted that I had broken up the family while my husband too felt pressurised that he had to leave his home for me. When I heard this I was devastated as in no way was that my intention – more so I had quit my job believing the move would make our lives better, there would be no visible conflict and it would definitely be a good career move for my husband.

Years later, I still carry that burden but believe it has worked out for all of us. The love that was almost at break-point was resurrected and we found each other again in the new city. Professionally my husband’s done extremely well, his view of life changed and today he is a better man. My MIL who had her own issues to deal with realises some of my worth (I’d like to believe!) when she sees us together, sees that her son is happy or compares me with her other daughter-in-law. With the birth of my daughter I’ve truly understood the meaning of being a mother and the innate protectiveness one feels when someone else tries to take my place – somewhere it’s helped me understand my MIL better.

Books, articles, researches, discussions about how to deal with the MIL are freely available but no one really teaches you how to ‘live’ with one. That is something that we each have to figure out on our own as every “mother-in-law – daughter-in-law” unit is unique with their own sets of baggage, needs, outlook and expectations. The “son” is as important to both parties but one has to acknowledge that the mother is the first woman in his life and he’s grown up being moulded by her. For some it’s difficult and ego battles are inevitable while there are others who have been able to live in harmony. There aren’t any easy answers but only those that one can find for themselves on their own – those that suit them and their situation.

In my case what is most important today is that we have each made peace with the situation. We’re still in touch, my daughter spends quality time with her grandmother, we’re together during Durga Puja yet we have our own separate lives.

Are we happy? I know I am.

This post was featured in BlogAdda’s Tangy Tuesday Picks on 26 November 2013

Marriage is Not a 50-50 affair

I was recently reading the guide to intimate relations that Reader’s Digest had published in 1999 and it brought back memories. I was going through a rough patch some years ago – seriously questioning why I had married and what was making me stay in the marriage. That’s when a close friend said, ‘marriage is a 50-50 partnership. Each of you need to be equally involved to make this work – that’s the vow you took when you married and you can’t back out of it now’.

Well his comment at that point in my life made me rethink if I was being selfish, just thinking about myself – addressing only those issues that mattered to me, impacted my life instead of looking at the alternative view – my husband’s? So I took a step back, tried to curb my instinctual reactions and made an effort to re-look at the good things we had going as a couple.

The rough patch passed or did it? In some ways it had but then again sometimes I’ve felt that those issues that we’d shoved under the carpet had ways of raising their ugly head once in a while.

Its much later in our lives together, that we both realized and more importantly accepted and acknowledged that marriage is NOT a 50-50 affair.

When my husband took up photography as a hobby, we enjoyed spending time together. I accompanied him on his travels and it was fun. He shared his thoughts on photography with me and wanted my inputs on the images he took. He inherently likes to delve deep into anything that interests him – in this case he researched on cameras, lighting, exposure, Photoshop, lenses etc – he slowly developed his expertise to the extent that his friends looked up to him for his opinion and advice. He would talk to me at length too about the different facets of photography – some of which I enjoyed but realized very soon that I didn’t share the same passion for photography. I didn’t totally understand the concepts behind the making of a photograph although aesthetically they appealed to me. I couldn’t converse with him with the same authority and soon got bored. I truly wanted to share his pleasure but it did take us a long time to realize that some joys are solo activities.

Similarly I loved to read and write, watch crime serials, play word games or Sudoku – none of which required interaction with others. When we’re on a holiday I like to carry a book along and believe in lazing around. My husband on the other hand prefers to check out local spots, take photographs, enjoy the local cuisine, and meet new people. We each looked at a holiday in different ways. It’s taken us some time to accept, accommodate and let go – allowing each other the option to do different things and at other times accommodating the other’s view do something’s together. I still regret the time when my friend offered me the opportunity to travel with her to Hong Kong – I declined as my husband was busy working and couldn’t accompany us. I believed that as a couple; we should always travel together (except when travelling on work). But years later, as I still regret that decision I now know that I should have gone ahead – travelling without him for fun didn’t mean I loved him any less nor did it mean that there were no feelings of ‘togetherness’!

After our daughter was born, we took the joint decision that I would stay home with her and work either part-time or on projects from home. Of course it meant that he was completely responsible for bringing in the moolah – a real pressure especially since we’d lived life king size as DINKS for a long time. The decision felt right for some time, rather most of the time except when I was physically and mentally drained looking after my daughter and desperately needed a break, when people only insisted speaking to me about motherhood and child upbringing, when I felt lost without the work ‘anchor’! On the other hand he too had his own battles to deal with, used to be equally tired after a long day’s work and needed ‘me’ time to unwind and relax. Although tempers flared often, the point was that apart from regular work, he too did a lot of other things around the house, shared many a responsibility. I too had help at home which helped hugely when I was working on projects from home. So our expectations from each other and our new roles in life needed to be revised.

The idea that an equal marriage had to mean identical experiences for us wasn’t true as it ignored our personal preferences. It’s a trap to assume that a marriage can be a 50-50 in all spheres, all the time. It only leads to unrealistic notions as no two people are identical in emotions, interests or responsibilities. Nor can two people divide their skills in some identically ‘fair’ way.

What is important in marriages is the spirit of 50-50, with the flexibility of give and take. Emotional equality where both partners felt equally loved, shared in family decisions and contributed equally to the family’s well-being – that perhaps is the kind of equality that really works.