“Yaar, tumne toh ek seat waste kar di” (you have wasted seat!). This was a statement made at a party by an otherwise gracious hostess, to gently rebuke an errant guest. The seat in question was a management degree from one of India’s top business schools, and the guest stood accused of wasting her education by opting to be a stay-at-home mom. I found the statement judgmental and offensive. But I was aware that it reflected a viewpoint that is prevalent in many people, in varying degrees. This mindset is troubling, as I believe that it is one of the reasons for a brewing problem today.
Studies show that birth rates in East Asia are now down to1.6 per woman as opposed to 5.3 in the 60’s. In Tokyo, about 33 percent of the women between the ages of 30-34 remain unmarried. In Singapore, the ratio is around 22 percent. A similar story is starting to emerge in India’s urban middle class. This is a shift that has already happened in the West in the 70s and 80s, but the change in Asia has been much more dramatic.
Given the data, statisticians are wracking their brains to understand why women are rejecting the traditional roles of marriage and motherhood. Possible theories include financial constraints and a breakdown of traditional support structures. These are valid arguments, but I suspect there is another reason, which people don’t talk about. Today, many women seem to have concluded that it’s simply not worth the trouble. After weighing the pros and cons, the cons have come up trumps. There are not enough incentives or compensations for being a full time mother/home-maker, while the disadvantages are many.
Let me elaborate on this point. We know that women now perform as well as the men academically, and a large number of them join the workforce. At some point in their careers however, many of these qualified women opt out of the race, while their male counterparts continue their march up the corporate ladder. The women quit, take extended breaks, or switch to jobs that allow them to balance home and work. Of course, there is a group of brave hearts that manage to perfect the juggling act. They push the existing boundaries and become role models for their sisters across the world. They are the superwomen. However, every woman is not a super woman and nor does she aspire to be one. The problem is that being a superwoman is almost an expectation thrust on her by sections of society, and by feminists today. And I suspect the decision to opt out of the “motherhood club” is one of the reactions to this pressure.
Let’s look at societal expectations in Asia for example. Unlike the men, it’s not enough for the modern woman to be intelligent, professionally competent and earn a decent living. She has to add many pluses to make her “good enough”. She has to be well groomed (if not beautiful), keep a nice home, cook, be a good parent, manage guest relations, and take the onus of maintaining extended family ties.
If a woman dons the career mantle, she is scrutinized for performance in her “traditional” roles, and especially on her role as a mother. Thus she has to deal with other people’s sanctimoniousness, and cope with guilt for being an ‘absent’ mother. If she chooses to be a full time mother, she has to deal with a “you are good for nothing” label that comes in many guises. Many highly qualified and talented friends have shared stories of how people subtly shift focus from them at parties after an “I am a mom/homemaker” introduction. The implied assumption is that women, who choose their children and home over a career, are uninteresting and unimportant. This view is reinforced in many ways. For example, India’s 2001 census report lists housewives in the non-productive category, along with beggars and prisoners! Even GDP calculation contains this bias. If a man marries his maid, national income declines because the wife’s contribution is deemed to have no economic value. Thus by equating value merely with the ability to earn an income, it undermines the work that homemakers do, and negates their contribution to society. Is it a wonder then that many women see childbearing and housework as thankless drudgery, with little benefit? Is it surprising that some women would rather be cool, footloose and productive career women, than dull, domesticated and ‘non-productive’ mothers?
Ironically, feminists play a role in enforcing the negative view. Somewhere in the battle for equality, many feminists seem to have lost track of an important fact. Feminism at its essence is about freedom of choice. That choice includes the freedom to choose options like housekeeping, childrearing, or even baking cookies for that matter- without having to apologize for them.
When a battle for equality gets translated merely into a battle in the workplace, there is a problem. The battle then perceives identity only as a sum total of a person’s net worth and job title. This narrow view fails to factor in the costs of the battle, which are many.
One of the costs, it appears, is that many women no longer see the point of bearing children or investing time in rearing the next generation. The old slogans championing motherhood as a ‘noble profession’ or a ‘duty’, are failing to cut much ice. In order to motivate women to have children there has to be genuine respect for the role mother’s play and an acknowledgement of their contribution, which goes beyond empty platitudes. The concept of value has to be redefined.