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.