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“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.

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12 thoughts on “Why motherhood is uncool

  1. On the dot Smita!! They never realise that ‘Creation’ is such that each person,every single thing in this universe has a role tp play.When that is juggled or tampered with,we pay with disharmony.The question is not about equality but the fact is man and woman complement each other.In homes where you find this,its one heaven or else its always managing life on day to day basis.Trust and respect play a key role.There is no harm in taking up careers for its become necessary today to meet ends but important to know where to draw the line if children ae brought into this world.While looking for happiness in careers,you depend on external factors but when you look for happiness in serving for the family which is also serving the nation,you are your own master.Raising psychologically sound children is one of the most important and toughest job! Salutes to all those Mothers who did their job so well that we are what we are today!!

  2. Beautifully said Smita. With scant value given to the duties women take up as full time mothers and homemakers, there truly is no incentive to coax women to walk that path.

    As they say, what you reward is what you get. Since success in the corporate arena is the new benchmark for assessing the net worth of a person while home-making is looked down upon, why would women want to be martyred for a lost cause- and bear the funeral expenses besides?

    Women ought to be supported a lot more than they are being at present if society wants them to take on the mantle of motherhood. Flexi- hours, work from home as just some of the options. And the eternal dreamer in me dares also to dream of a society which will ‘pay’ a mother for the work she does at home. Of course, even I dare not dream of a world where the net worth of men and women will not be measured by the money they make.

    Loved reading this.

    Dagny

    • Thank you. I belive that there are no free choices in life. One has to weight the costs & benefits as they apply to ones circumstances and then take a decision.It involves tough choice that are made harder still by other peoples judgements and expectations.

  3. A very well written and balanced view which I totally agree with. I would like to add point though that while now tends to generalise society or man for seeding such mind sets I would like to believe there still exist some who appreciate us as home-makers or professionals! And thank god for these ‘few good men’.

  4. has anybody given a thought to why is it so necessary to have a next generation?? don’t get me wrong, I am a 45 year old stay at home mom to 2 kids, took up a job after I my first baby was 5 but left my job to take care of her as I did not like the idea of leaving my child to be taken care of by someone else..

  5. Wow , This article is the best one of all I have read till now which defend women as a normal human being. I totally believe in what you have wrote and I will proudly declare ,”No , I am not a SuperWoman”. This ‘SUPERWOMAN’ thing is a fictitious thing .Why do we even need to become that . Thankyou , but I will like to enjoy our life as a normal human being.

  6. When I started reading, I thought a feminist is in action and writing something without really knowing the importance of mother in life. I started thinking about adding a comment “Is carrier minded women ready to marry a man who is ready to stay home and take care of kids? Is she ready to take all the responsibility of earning for the family?” But guess what, after reading last 3 paragraphs I had to change my mind. Those paras are so well written, summarizes things nicely and strong enough to trigger positive thoughts. Now a days when 12-16 hours of the day are spent outside home (office+travel+office calls etc), if both are working, who is enjoying/living the life? No one. Economical condition does play a role in decision making but I strongly support the idea of staying home by one of the parent for better life, future of next generation.

  7. Hi Smita,

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. I am more inclined to agree with you than your putative opponents on this issue. Having said that, I would like to add – and I am in no way suggesting that you necessarily disagree with what follows:

    1. It is not just the responsibility of the woman in question to think of the long-term benefits of procreation and rearing. The benefits of reproduction are societal+personal, the costs of doing so may be mostly personal. In economic jargon, this is known as an externality. In this case, it is positive. Utilitarians will tell you to, therefore, on the margin, subsidize more births and/or additionally tax a married couple for not having a child. (I am assuming we would not want to tax unmarried couples for not having a child – this can be seen as my implicit endorsement of the position that married parents – heterosexual or homosexual, another debate – make better parents than live-in couples or single mothers etc)

    2. I just Professor Sarkar of UPenn raise an interesting question on social media – can a woman who is not financially independent really said to exercise free choice? It is an interesting question, and I am not sure I have an answer because libertarians like myself are more likely to grant individuals agency and focus on their socio-economic background. Progressives/statists take the other view, and I understand where they come from – though I am not saying Dr Sarkar belongs to the latter school (It is just one position/question, after all). Maybe the meeting ground here is emphasizing female education and some work experience which creates a reservoir of transferable and marketable job skills, albeit depreciating, which can act as a safety valve for the woman.

    3. I am a bit cautious about the final sentence in your post “The concept of value has to be redefined” because some feminists have been asking to incorporate female household work (including childrearing) into GDP statistics. This is theoretically fine, as this work does entail imputed income, though no cash changes hand. This can be understood by the simple example that if two female neighbors take care of each other’s children for a few hours they can pay each other 100 dollars, and the GDP would go up by 200 dollars. But if they just focus on their own kids, the GDP does not reflect that. So far so good. The problem is that many feminists/progressives are statists and there is a push to use this concept of unrecognized value to push for some cash transfers/minimum income to female home-makers and/or higher alimony, often half of even inherited income/wealth, in case of divorce (and many Indian+some foreign cours do not recognize pre-nuptial agreements).

    This, along with the anti-dowry laws, are inherently illiberal because (coming back to your post) it goes against the concept of choice. If men and women are equal, and they choose roles freely, why have forced transfers? Your basic point of motherhood being under-appreciated and unnecessarily mocked is correct. Many feminists (not all) do indulge in this shameful bashing. But they are still not above using what they bash to further push a redistributionist, gender-divisive agenda, which to top it up consists of laws that are either not enforceable and also susceptible to abuse (but even if they were not, their intrinsic morality according to me stays)

    • i know of a system esp in first world countries, where the wife gets a certain amount of pocket money, if she is a stay at home mom, that she can spend on anything she likes, no questions asked, its her money.
      i love this concept. personally iam a daughter of a lady who was married off as a child. but my mom was/is way more independent than i am, vocal in her thoughts and actions. i think its mostly because my parents grew up together, and fight like worst enemies tood 😀

  8. Women are down trodden as they were not financially independent. So there can be no choice whether to work or be a home maker.All woman should have a reliable source of income.

    Neither should women try to be super woman. These super woman status has been conveniently thrust by lazy men who cannot share responsibility of household work and child rearing.I really pity the super woman who live under stress all the time trying to satisfy everyone except themselves.

    The ideal situation would be where the couple share house work and child rearing as they share financial responsibility.
    This may take decades but definitely possible.

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