My Nana and Nani had four daughters and decided to raise them “like sons”.
Ma and her sisters were expected to study hard, make money, navigate the world independently – in addition to getting married, having children, being their primary parent, the sole household manager, and often caregivers to both spouses’ parents.
“Like sons”, in 1960s binary-speak, actually meant like sons and daughters both.
It’s a mandate unique to girls born in cultures where women are expected to participate in previously-masculine domains, but men aren’t expected to pitch in to ease the load of conventionally-feminine duties.
While I grew up, Ma was a college history professor, then founded and ran her own business for a decade, then taught fashion design, and somehow, the whole time, was also constantly coordinating tuition and dance class pickups, putting Dettol on our scraped knees, improvising scraps into school play costumes, teaching us how to cover our textbooks in brown paper, turning leftover lauki into bread-pizza topping so we’d be tricked into eating it, and being our first point-of-contact with any demand.
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“My stomach hurts.” / “I need to buy chart paper.” / “What’s for dinner?” / “Where’s that book I was reading?” (There’s a joke that used to go around online that the process of finding anything at home is only 5% actually looking for it and 95% shouting, “Maaaaa?”)
I never saw Ma as uninterruptible. Never saw any part of her day as off-limits.
She’d let me come with her on work errands. I remember afternoons spent at Nalli, watching her match fabric swatches with borders and linings. If I got antsy, she’d hand me a notepad and pencil from her purse and tell me to draw. She was always armed like that, with ways to buy herself twenty minutes.
I asked her today if she was ever able to steal quality alone time for herself, in all that.
“Alone time wasn’t really a concept for me then,” she said.
At 28, I’m a year older than Ma was when she had me, and I’m looking at a very different life.
(If she-at-28 met me-at-28, each of us would question the other’s life choices, probably in identically passive aggressive ways.)
For some years now, I’ve mostly lived by myself. Post-lockdown at my parents’ home, the plan was / is to return to an apartment of my own.
My twenties have been a journey of avoiding, befriending, and now prizing solitude. Alone time is an essential concept for me.
I like falling into ideas (or, ok, shows) for whole days. I like the feeling of having nothing to do later. I like quiet.
In response to those unprompted 3am self-interrogations of why my life matters to me, my mind plays a tacky, sentimental slideshow that’s split into equal thirds: first the friends and family photos, then a modest but growing reel of creative work, and finally, as the music crescendos, a montage of wide-angle shots with me, a strong-but-often-wrong female lead alone and centred on screen: I’m pacing my living room in a nightie with lit agarbatis in both hands, singing loudly; I’m alone in a foreign city, walking to my hostel at midnight after watching an open mic at a pub, weeping because there are so many good stories in the world and I’ll never hear all; I’m on my sofa, it’s storming outside, I’ve read a hundred pages and drank four cups of chai.
It’s in these long stretches of being unoccupied and unwitnessed that I feel most like myself. It’s when I have good ideas, write my favourite sentences, feel most enamoured by the world.
So for me, the question of having children quickly invites a second: could I give up this easy, thrilling solitude?
And, honestly, though it feels wrong and selfish, I know my answer.
Maybe this is why society conspires to get its girls married and mothering young, shipped straight from their parents’ homes to their husband’s and then immediately badgered for “good news”. There’s a dangerous thing that happens if a woman feels free, even momentarily. She might refuse to ever feel any other way again.
And free women pull all sorts of structures apart.
This solitude vs. parenting dichotomy hasn’t classically existed for men. Plenty of fathers have disappeared into rooms of their own without feeling guilty or exceptional for it.
When the world locked down, a tweet by writer Roseanne Cash erupted into every corner of the internet: “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear.” Parents quickly added an asterisk: Shakespeare could write King Lear in quarantine because his three children were away and in his wife’s care.
Fatherhood has, for the most part, escaped too much moral prescription. Fathers who actively father are normal. Fathers who father less and work more are normal too. Fathers who work and want all the rest of their waking hours for leisure even though their wives work full-time also – somehow, normal.
It’s been assumed that whatever type of father a man wants to be, his wife will fill the gaps to accommodate it and his child will deal with the fallout in therapy.
Motherhood hasn’t come in easy-medium-hard like that. The versions I saw growing up were almost always all-in.
Which isn’t to say women should now fight for the right to be neglectful or absentee parents, or for reversed inequalities.
Only: for women to actualise all the possibilities that call on them for how they’d like to spend their time, their support systems have to meet them halfway and be willing, sometimes, to meet them even further in.
Even as we wait on that world, women have been pushing forward into imagining new motherhoods.
There are women who choose single motherhood but are able to pay to outsource some care help and housework. Women who have children that their partners are primary caregivers to. Women who adopt with non-spouse co-parents who share in caring.
And there are those women who choose, without fanfare, without drawing pity or disapproval, without providing explanation, not to be mothers at all.
I wonder which of these women I’ll be.
At 28, I can’t tell if I’m musing about the future or I’m already living an ongoing response – working, writing, dating, not yet yearning for children or marriage as I was warned I might but yearning, always, to stretch into myself, to discover new possibilities.
As I write, now, my father is cooking daal and bhindi for lunch. My mother cleaned for a while. Then she disappeared into a room by herself and shut the door.