First person: Why I could never be a housewife
The first rule of marriage — whether you’re newly married or are 20-30 years into it — is to mute the voices that tell you how you should take care of your home.
“Don’t ever be a housewife,” mum once warned me. “Or you will end up like me.” To set the record straight, my mother was a housewife precisely for eight months when she left her teaching job to take a sabbatical. But those eight months, she’d often recall, were the hardest. It tested her patience in a way even my brother and I hadn’t. Shortly after quitting, my grandmother suggested we do away with domestic helps because mum would now have all the time in the world. She found herself working 12 hours straight — waking up at 6 am, preparing lunch meals, cleaning the house, washing clothes, teaching us when we returned from school, thinking of what to prepare for breakfast during dinnertime. Of course, there were no returns except the ‘satisfaction’ of looking into every aspect of domesticity.
Years later, when I moved to Dubai after marriage and was still job-hunting, a friend’s wife offered an unsolicited advice. “Now that you’re home, why waste money on cleaners? It’s your home, you should take pride in doing everything yourself.” Finally, when I did end up with a job, I don’t know why I felt it was important to tell her that I needed to have cleaners come and arrange everything in the house because I didn’t have time anymore.
The first rule of marriage — whether you’re newly married or are 20-30 years into it — is to mute the voices that tell you how you should take care of your home. Doing that, in my experience, is tougher when you’re a homemaker because, on one hand, while you’re ticking the boxes of a noble wife/daughter-in-law, the judgements will still pour in. People don’t leave their judgements at bay even when you are a working woman, but financial independence gives an agency that the unpaid labour of being a homemaker doesn’t. Whether you wish to buy something or support any other family, including your own, you get to call the shots. And that is liberating.
Looking back, I often wonder why my mother, an educated and financially independent woman, ever had to heed my grandmother’s suggestion when the sole objective of her sabbatical was to rest and gather herself. I also ruminate angrily over my need to offer explanations about why I can’t take care of every little household chore. Why do we — supposedly financially independent women — heed to these judgements? The answer is guilt. We have set templates for how women should lead their lives and any deviation from it can be frowned upon.
Work life can be challenging but also rewarding in intangible ways. As I stepped out of my pond to enter another, I realised work is also about managing expectations and temperaments — and getting rewarded at the end of the month for it. Navigating your way through a competitive environment boosts your confidence in a way that listening to familiar voices every morning doesn’t. Socially, however, you are still doing the balancing act. When my husband would visit his friends and the dinner conversation would be about their shared experiences at office, I would often spot the housewives being invested in every water cooler conversation that would take place at their husbands’ offices. I would have to fake interest, because I had my own water cooler conversations to talk about, but no one would listen.
Whenever I have found myself lost, work has come to my rescue. It has reminded me that I can be many things apart from being a wife, mother, daughter and sister. It has taught me to rise above and be an individual first, one who succeeds as many times as she fails — but on her own terms. I may not be a mother yet, but every time I write, I feel the joy of giving birth — to a tiny idea. This may not have a currency in a world where motherhood and spousal relationships are considered rites of passage for women. But it is in these joys that a woman like me truly discovers — and rediscovers — herself.
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