TOI iDiva: Supermomhood


Sometimes institutions get torn down only to be replaced by ones that look a little better, but work just like the old thing. This is why, theoretically and superficially, it’s very easy to say that the average Indian woman of the urban middle class is emancipated. She probably works, and certainly has tertiary education. But the bondage continues: she is expected to bear children, that too specifically in the context of wedlock. Worse, she is expected to want to.

The idea of motherhood is replete with myths. “Mothers are inherently compassionate”. “Mother knows best”. “Womanhood is unfulfilled until one becomes a mother”. In Tamil, there is this frankly shocking proverb: “No chick ever dies from a hen stepping on it”. Oedipus would be put to shame by the extent to which we elevate the mother figure. Like all deeply chauvinistic disguises, it reduces through its elevations, stripping the individual of personal traits, making choices for her and blindly forgiving her personal failings. Children suffer for this, as do their makers.

If we are truly to support or celebrate mothers, it is not in glorifying them but in humanizing them that we can best do this. The Supermom idea is dangerous and must be retired: it is a human body that nourishes a child and gives it life, it is a human heart that loves it. All Supermomhood means, in actual terms, is that women must not only work outside the home, bringing back a salary that subsidizes its management, but must also maintain their traditional responsibilities. The question to ask is: if women have adapted to the pressures of earning wages, have their partners also adapted to the pressures of running a household?

Who makes the meals? Who makes the beds? Who does the laundry? Who monitors the homework? Who does the grocery shopping? Who cleans the dishes? If a child falls ill, who takes the day off from work? How many of these questions were answered with “the mother”?

Some will cheerfully dismiss this maintaining of two parallel careers (only one of which is paid for) as evidence of incredible fortitude. Or more condescendingly yet, that “it’s all for the children”.

Maybe it is. In some cases, surely it is. But not enough to justify such an unequal distribution of responsibility.

Until fatherhood is understood to be co-parenting – and not just a contribution by way of sperm, legitimacy, school fees, a certain kind of love (but not as hallowed as maternal love) and the occasional humiliating consent letter because society does not trust the single woman – the lot of the mother will not change. She will remain both sacred cow and beast of burden.

And for the lot of the mother to change, so must the lot of the woman. Imagine how different things might be if motherhood was not a default expectation, but a conscientious and deliberate decision. Not everyone is cut out for caregiving. Not everyone would, if truly left to their own choices, desire it. Social acceptance of the choice not to have offspring, irrespective of whether or not one is in a relationship (and irrespective of whether or not that relationship is marriage), might be the first step in minimizing family dysfunction. Unhappy people raise unhappy people. And children, who do not choose the roles they are born into, deserve better than that.

An edited version appeared in iDiva (Chennai), The Times of India on Friday.

3 responses »

  1. A very necessary pause to celebrations of “mother’s day” (How did that become such a big deal in India anyway? And when did that happen?!). It reminds me of an equally beautiful passage on water that Susie Tharu wrote many years ago, which moved me deeply, and which I read to my students still. I’m pasting it below at the risk of making my comment overlong–but thinking you’ll identify with the sentiment expressed, too. But before that: I love the colors and textures of your blog (and work); I’m just sorry it’s taken me this long to properly engage. I blame it on the constant and many demands of motherhood, which often defers private (and intellectual) enjoyments for much, much too long! Here’s Tharu:

    If we consider the women’s question as it has been legitimated today, it has by and large been legitimated at levels which exclude the personal. Let me explain. Most people – politicians, planners, social workers – would agree that water is a women’s issue. They would also agree that price and the availability of food is a women’s issue. Or, let me put it another way, and there is a distinction – that water is an important issue for women since women are primarily responsible for the household economy. In fact I’d say that today to speak about women and water, to organize women to demand for water, would by and large be regarded a laudable thing. What the world would seem to be saying is please work on the issue of water, on the issue of price rise. If you do that, the chances are that you will stay within the traditional articulation of the problem. [W]hat you will not ask what does a scarcity of water mean in terms of a woman’s time, her work, her health, the amount of water she herself gets. Who is it who will wash her clothes less often, forgo a bath, and perhaps even a drink if there is less to go around? Who is the only one skilled enough to scour the pans when there’s a shortage of water, who re-organizes her life to make sure she is at the communal tap on time, who keeps her ears constantly perked for the trickle that will start at night? Who is held responsible for the new tensions in the family? Whose are the friendships jeopardized in the long, tiring queues at the tap? What does an economy of water centered on her show us? How do we estimate the cost of all this and how does it change the way we pose the question of water, the way we estimate its value or the criteria for its allocation? How can this knowledge be built into the politics of water? And who does it? I have yet to see something written or said about water which reckons with the problem of what water is for women, and what its political dimensions become when women are included in an analysis of the question. (Tharu 1986: 2)

    Tharu, Susie. 1986. “The Politics of Personal Struggle.” In Women Take One: Beginning of a dialogue in the third World Women’s Film Festival 1986. Ed. Abha Bhaiya and Sheba Chhachhi. New Delhi: Jagori, pp. 1-5.

  2. Beautiful post. Thank you for writing it. The other danger of “celebrating” woman/motherhood is the trivialization of the paternal figure. I would like to consider myself the emancipated man of middle class urban India, and it pains me no end to see the implicit synonymization (I guess I just made that word up) of parenting to motherhood. I take personal affront to it as a committed and involved father. Not only was I denied the opportunity to carry and deliver my baby, I am also summarily ignored as a parent simply because I am not the mother.

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