“Housewife, or Outwife?”
© Dr. Rajas Deshpande
“Isn’t your wife working? She must not waste her education.. She has such good opportunity..” he asked.
“Yes, she is planning to, but after the baby is at least three months old. We have taken alternate leaves. What about your wife?” I asked. I knew his wife was a qualified postgraduate doctor.
“Oh she wants to stay at home and look after the kids. There is no one else at our home to take care of the kids. My mom has knee pain. She feels that once the kids grow up to 10 years, then my wife should join duty. I said okay, anyways I am earning enough!” he replied.
“Then why did you ask about the waste of my wife’s education?” I thought, but didn’t ask. I was used to these questions.
Although a single now, I was once married. My parents had gracefully lived like friends till my father passed away, so there always was a culture of true equality without any “culturally sweetened” excuses at our home. “If at all there has to be a preference, and you two disagree, prefer what your wife wants” my father always insisted. So naturally she studied and worked as she wanted, made her choices. There were no discussions about superiority, neither any hidden rules of dominance at our place. This has a compromise: when both are equal, and there is no “dominance”, fights/ arguments over differences increase. Still this was any day better than a traditionally hidden slavery system.© Dr. Rajas Deshpande
But there were these friends, relatives and strangers, who kept on continuing the evergreen Indian business of “frankly poking their noses” in our affairs. From advice about what to eat to when to have children, they all had individualised suggestions for us, notwithstanding the knowledge that we were both qualified doctors!
One of my uncles was famous for spending his whole life at home before and after work reclining in a sofa. His day started with shifting himself from his bed to the sofa, ordering his wife to ‘paste his brush’, make tea, heat up water for his bath, keep his towel in the bathroom (all this while he read newspapers or watched TV), keep his office clothes ready, make his favourite dishes for breakfast, tiffin and dinner every day, and telling her and everyone else how much he loved her. Although she was an art graduate and sung well, she didn’t get any time for herself beyond his chores and raising the four kids. As aunty herself smilingly said she enjoyed doing all this, other working women in the family kept on speaking about her in ‘belittling’ words, of her being lucky to be ‘just a housewife’. Every other day, uncle’s friends came home for dinner / drinks / card games etc., and aunty kept serving their culinary wishes.© Dr. Rajas Deshpande
This very uncle was once chatting with me at a marriage ceremony. My grandma sent some tea with my wife to the room where I sat with this uncle and many guests, most strangers. As she handed over the tea to me, my uncle, in a ‘classified diplomatic high volume” voice, started: “Rajas, she is a doctor. She is equally educated as you. How can you ask her to make tea for you and bring it? Is she your slave? You must treat her as your equal”. As the whole room and over 40 eyes stared derogatory at me, I expected her to reply, but someone called her and she left.
I was reluctant, but one must never give up the wars for dignity.
“Why should she be a slave even if she is less educated or even uneducated?” I asked him. “Do you mean to say that a differently educated woman is doomed to be a slave? Why must your wife cook for you? Why must she be responsible for everything from your clothes to cleaning of the house to raising the kids, while you order her like a personal assistant? I have never even seen you getting a glass of water for yourself” I retorted. The ‘seniors’ in the room interfered, reminding me that this was not the way to ‘answer back’ an uncle.
Years passed by. We divorced. Kids with me, and an ever demanding career of a specialist doctor, I realised further more how difficult it is to attend to the house chores alone. From handling groceries, maids to schooling, how insufficient it is to have only two hands and only 24 hours. God helped, and I have survived.
This caused one definite change in my practice. While asking women the history, we were trained to ask “Are you working or not”? (and the usual answer used to be “No, I don’t work, I’m just a housewife”). Now I ask “Do you work only at home or also outside?” . Because I know the housewife works far more than the workwife, but without any remuneration or respect. The job of successfully growing up children is any day over and above any other!© Dr. Rajas Deshpande
“Someone has to look after the family. I can earn and provide as much as she wants. I give her whatever she wants. She has to choose a career with lesser responsibility, so someone is available for kids. She loves taking care of me and the children. This is our tradition, our culture. Men hunt, women nest”. There are so many sweet excuses of murdering a woman’s career! Well what most men hunt are women’s dreams and where most women nest are prisons with golden walls. The immense clever deceptive wordplay that goes into hiding the simple truth “I think women should look after home and live a secondary life while men have a free will” is amazingly accepted by even the best talented men in our society!
Be it doctors or any other profession, a “lesser career” for a woman is taken for granted by those who claim to love her.
“She should be happy about it: she has to just sit at home and enjoy, while I do all the hard work” said the national level director of a telecom project.
The second side: “I like doing it for my family” some women say, and if they do, how perfect it must feel!© Dr. Rajas Deshpande
It is not my business what others decide among themselves. But when people who “encage” their wives in the confines of a home start talking diplomatically about gender equality or why other people’s beautiful and able wives must start working etc., when they flirt with their officemates / colleagues while expecting wifey dear to keep dinner ready when they “return tired”, I cannot stop reacting without a sizzle in my words.
There are no easy answers for the ritualistic mindsets though.
One of my patients suffered with a very bad form of Parkinsonism, and was bed-bound for over five years. His perfectly healthy wife once broke down. “I have taken care of this man since the first day of our marriage, done everything he wanted. He was always busy, day and even many a night, outside the house, I have always been lonely all through so many years. I used to pray to God that I get some good time with him. The thought of making any friends, some other man never touched me. But he never talked to me about love. Never realised I was burning inside for true friendship with him. Now he is home all the time and wants me never to leave his bedside. But now I am tired. Now I clean him, feed him and just think: what had I done wrong to deserve this kind of a punishment?”.
When he passed away, we heard two reactions: “He is now relieved of his pain” and “She is now relieved of having to take his care”. What no one spoke was about the loveless, friendless 50 years of a woman’s life.
“You are so brilliant, hard working and yes, beautiful ,” said a senior professor, to a bombesque colleague friend of mine, gently patting upon her back, “you must make a great career.. Do let me know if you have any problems, I have many connections”. “Yes, Sir, may I ask what madam (your wife) does? Is she a doctor too?” asked my friend. “No, she stopped after MBBS. We married early, you see!” he replied.
Later that evening, as we sat at Nariman Point watching the sea, I asked her opinion about what the professor had said.
The breezes were noisy, and so was the sea, but the single word that she used for him made a hundred red faces turn towards us.
© Dr. Rajas Deshpande