Journalist, and author of ‘Babies and Bylines’, ‘Choked’ and ‘Punjabi Parmesan’, Pallavi Aiyar discussed parenting and gender roles at a panel discussion at the Times of India Literature Festival in Mumbai yesterday. Aiyar spoke about how the infrastructure around caregiving makes it difficult to transcend gender roles in our families.

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Aiyar spoke about how she had a genderless marriage when she first got married. Gender was not something we did, she said. Both she and her husband worked and took care of the house equally. But then things changed. “We had two children and gender emerged in our relationship and has defined the decisions I have taken.”

“Women remain worriers in chief,” she said.

And this is generated by social and cultural conditioning. “Schools focus more on mothers and there is a sense that the buck stops with the women,” she said. The father steps in only as the surrogate primary caregiver.

She also talks about how having and raising children is time consuming — and that time must come from somewhere!

Work culture doesn’t recognise this and one’s role as a carer in society is not adequately factored in.

She says the way parenting is divided is set early. Mothers are established as the primary caregiver in the first few days. And even if you have diaper dads, the map has been set.

She is no longer a full-time journalist because of her family responsibilities and the primary breadwinner for the household is now her husband.

Deborah Cohen, a professor of History at Northwestern, who was also on the panel, argued that a big shift in parenting is when families started becoming smaller. In Victorian Europe, she argued, larger families meant that there was more tolerance for variation and less dependence on each child. When you have two to three children, the child becomes more precious, and there is more intensive focus on each of them. There is more room for parents to be disappointed with their children because they project their dreams, ambitions and emotions on them, Cohen said.

This is the cult of the child, Aiyar chimed in. There is a huge expectation on parents’ contribution, she said. She also spoke about how she felt disappointed for six months after her baby was born. She thought she had made a mistake and felt it was very difficult to express those feelings. Of course, she adds, there is immense joy in parenting as well.

But there is a trope around motherhood, and a superwoman complex, Aiyar said. You must take on more and more, and sacrifice with a smile. This isn’t healthy she says. In Sweden, 40 per cent of dads also take paternity leave. Aiyar says she has spoken to Swedish women who say that the asymmetry remains nonetheless.

For women, mental space is occupied by children. It is a conquering army. Men lose less of themselves. 

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