We are living in confusing times. Stereotypes are being shot; roles are being turned on their heads; role models are becoming nonexistent; hierarchies are disappearing at least on paper and the generation gap is seemingly disappearing.
Take for instance the workplace. My boss asks me to call him by his first name and ‘We are all friends here!’ I am thrilled to be able to call the big guy by his name and talk to him as if he were my pal. But when assessment time comes, he doesn’t remember his own words and forgets the meaning of friendship. After all, friends are meant to stand in for each other, right? Had I called him Mr.Saluja and addressed him as ‘Sir’, I wouldn’t have taken his ‘friendship’ for granted and got a bad assessment report, would I? Bah!
Can one blame Seema, who entered her marital home with trepidations but was instantly put at ease by a friendly mother-in-law, who told her to treat it like her own home. So happy was she that she slept in late and came for her cuppa in the morning to find a scowling ma-in-law who plonked her tea in front of her and walked out. The poor girl had no clue what the matter was! She was behaving exactly as she would have done in her own home, wasn’t she? And her mother never scowled at her early in the morning like this! Shouldn’t the old lady have specified that by her ‘own home’ she had meant that the latter should begin doing the housework? Bah!
Ajay’s case is slightly different. He gets up early and makes tea and gets things ready in the kitchen before Geeta wakes up and finishes the cooking while he wakes his three-year-old son and gets him ready for his pre-school and day care. The couple leaves home together, dropping off the kid at the day care, where the school bus picks him up later. Of late there has been a lot of tension between the couple since Geeta got a promotion and expects Ajay to do all the work in the morning while she catches a few more winks of sleep. ‘My pay packet is bigger and I have more responsibilities at work,’ she argues. Ajay is angry because his work is very demanding, he being in the finance department. ‘You act like a typical MCP,’ she flings at him at the slightest provocation. ‘Bah! Why reduce everything into a gender issue? After all, I am sharing in all the work equally,’ wonders Ajay.
Seriously, this whole thing of changing roles is spooking people out.
Two generations ago, things were cut and dried: Father went to work and brought in the pay cheque and mother looked after the house and children, cooked and cleaned or supervised those who did the work, depending upon the financial circumstances of the said family. Organisations had a strict hierarchy and the senior was ‘Sir’ and deferred to, even if reluctantly. Women had not begun going to work and so the gender issues and their attendant double standards had not cropped up. Daughters-in-law were expected to blend into their married homes and conform to the customs of the family and they mostly did, readily or otherwise.
Changes began slowly. Girls began dreaming of becoming teachers or professors or an ICS officer. Most of them didn’t succeed to get their way but a few managed to and went on to pursue their vocations. As the pioneers, they had to set their own agenda and did not get any help from their families in looking after the home front in addition to their work. But so happy they were to be doing something of worth that they gladly took on the double burden.
Even a generation ago (this was the Gen X — mine) things were not too different and the same trend continued, of women bearing the dual burden, even as more work avenues were opening up for them. But the increasing number of women in the workforce was not getting them any concession either at work or at home. They were pulling the weight of two people and more, especially since nuclear families were becoming the norm and the pressures of modern living made life more complicated. Because the change in their roles was unilateral, with the menfolk continuing to be the de facto heads, the lot of the women was very hard for this ‘sandwich generation’.
The males of the species were thrown into turmoil. They found their bases being eroded by women, but they couldn’t sneeze at the money that came in. So they behaved in a vexed manner. While some continued being overbearing and authoritarian, others tried being more accommodating and helpful, taking some chores upon themselves to ease the burden on their womenfolk, as the L&M did. So, children grew up seeing their fathers doing housework – washing, cleaning and even cooking and treated it as natural. Often though men tried to do things surreptitiously to avoid being jeered at for being hen-pecked.
When Gen X women had kids, they made sure that the basics of equality were drilled into the heads of their children, mostly the boys — thus moving them a step towards equality. And when they became the mothers-in-law, they tried to be more liberal towards their daughters-in-law. But there are many like Seema’s MIL who are only able to mouth the words of welcome and not act them because they have not changed their thinking — only conforming to the ‘new’ model superficially. But I would say that even that is a step forward. Also, it is a fact that today, there are at least as many if not more young and old women who appreciate their in-laws as there are those who flay them. The sandwich generation has come good after all!
Old stereotypes as far as men are concerned still exist to a large extent and have not completely given way to the new, caring men. Social conditioning is so ingrained in the male and so we still have the aggressive males browbeating a meek partner. But they know in their hearts that the change in the society is irreversible and the more gracefully they accept it, and the sooner they accept it, the better it would be for both sexes.
But one worrisome thing is that the pendulum is seemingly swinging dangerously to the other extreme today, with young men being pushed to the corner, much as the woman had been earlier. By doing this, women are only becoming men with all the latters’ weaknesses. This is not then about equality but one-upmanship (should I say one-upwomanship?) and control. If the relationship had been unequal then, it is still unequal today, with the roles of aggressor and victims just getting interchanged.
Unfortunately a lot of women feel that they would be betraying their sex by acknowledging that the men are indeed changing — albeit not fast enough or in large enough numbers to make an overall impact. I want to ask these women: why not take things at face value or a problem of relationships instead of reducing everything to a question of gender equality — as the bewildered Ajay is asking?
I personally have great admiration for the young men of today, who have assumed roles inside the home including child-rearing with seemingly effortless ease. I wrote this post knowing fully well that it might be seen as a biased one. But when even the devil gets his due, why not this new breed of men? Bereft of any role models, fighting centuries of social conditioning and stereotypes, standing up to their parents (especially their mothers) they change diapers, feed the baby and even don the apron without batting an eyelid. So what if they are not perfect at it? I feel that they are the true foils of the dynamic women of today. We should encourage them so that enough number of them join this breed to make a difference to the society.
It would take at least another generation or even two for things to move a little closer towards true equality of the sexes and when marriages would be seen as the coming together of two individuals who are equal in all respects. Till then let us enjoy the changing roles of the sexes and applaud each other’s efforts and achievements, shall we?
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