Women and Friendship – Building a Support System

Guest Post by wordssetmefreee

The last post brings home a striking point. Lack of a support system allows abuse to thrive. And even in non-abusive situations, lack of supports direly impacts women’s happiness quotient.

Recently I was talking to my mother on the phone. She mentioned that Kalyani, her long time friend had visited after many years. I was excited and happy for my mother and asked her if they had a good time together. I was reminded of the times when my mother would visit her when we were very young.

When we were kids, a mother having a friend was a rarity. The fact that they were college buddies was even more amazing. Whenever my mother would visit her friend, we were so awed by this simple fact – that my mother is going out, and it is not to work and it is not to buy groceries, nor is it a visit to relatives’ houses for pujas and other obligations. She was going out to see her friend! How cool is that!

Even though she worked outside the home (which was rare for her generation), my mother’s role at home was pretty traditional. There were meals to be cooked, maids to be managed, unannounced guests, unreasonable in-laws and relatives to be attended to. There were many frustrating and stressful interactions with in-laws and the extended family. So, whom did she talk to, to find some relief? Who did she go to for support and answers?

Most of the time, support, once again, came in the form of relatives. HER side of the family – her sister, her cousins, her aunts provided some support. Because the visits to her only friend were a rare and special treat.

And when she did get together with her side of the family, I noticed a strange vibe. My grandmother, who had little patience for relatives, usually left the room. The women shared their problems and concerns. There were hugs and wiping of tears. But no solutions were ever offered. There was relief in knowing one was not alone. There was certainly a sense of belonging. But it came more from a sense of “we are all women, therefore we are meant to suffer”. My mother usually went home feeling as confused and hurt as she did before the visit.

Another thing I noticed is the one aunt who tended to be more assertive and less obedient was considered a “shrew” and “lucky to have a meek husband who would put up with her”. So much for support and inspiration. This is why relatives (in the Indian setting) cannot really be one’s support system. They are subject to the same conditioning that the rest of us are. They have nothing new to offer.

My grandmother, a free thinker, was the only one who gave my mother sensible advice, still, she was older, of another generation. My mother did not really have anyone her own age to see her point of view. An occasional visit to her only friend’s house doesn’t really count. In many ways, my mother was friendless.

This is probably the story of many women of that generation.

The Current Generation

So, what about us, those in our 30s, 40s, and 50s? I’ve noticed that in our generation, a lot of us tend to have had great friends and friendships in college. But once we got married or moved away, those friendships seldom lasted. Or even if they did, they did not offer daily and genuine support and involvement. To some extent, this is understandable. Many of us outgrow our college friends. We grow up, acquire different ideas, we change to some extent. We crave friends on the same intellectual level, rather than settling for people who happen to be in the same place at the same time.

But how many of us, after we got married, made a serious attempt to develop strong friendships? How many of us are truly committed to friendship – because friendship takes time and effort and interest. Here I’m not referring to “family friends”. Family friends are just that – they are usually friends because our kids are friends at school. Or because some of us work at the same company.   These are simply another version of our college friends – people in the same place at the same time. They are fine for sharing a meal or having tea together or discussing school/college options or the job/commute/elections situation.

But these are not the kind of friends I’m referring to, although they do have their place in our lives.

I’m talking about the kind of friends who share a passion with you. Who remind you of who you are as an individual. Who challenge you to explore your fears, open you to novel experiences, who help you grow. Friends who truly KNOW who you are. So they can remind you of what you are capable of, when you doubt yourself.

(I’m referring to married women here because that is the norm in India and they are the ones who tend to neglect their friendships. Single women are perhaps more likely to take their friendships seriously. They are better at building a support network of friends because the negative attitudes of their families and society have made such a system imperative, even urgent. Perhaps, they even feel frustrated with married women for not being committed to their friendship.)

Factors that Deter Support Systems for Women

So, why do several married Indian women go without real, strong, long lasting friendships? A few factors come to mind (there could be more) –

Parenting – in conservative cultures, friendships for young girls are limited in terms of where they go and how long they stay out and what activities they engage in. They may not be allowed to travel, hike, swim, partake in sports, go for a bike ride – simple things that friends do. These friendship-inducing activities are allowed for sons but not daughters. Early on, they are trained to put family first, and their own needs must be worked around the family’s rules, schedules, and convenience, if at all. Thus, daughters never learn the meaning of strong friendships. They never learn the methods. They haven’t experienced the highs of going camping with friends and gazing at the stars in the night sky. They haven’t experienced being lost in an unfamiliar town and helping each other navigate. They haven’t gone for a long drive with no destination in mind. They do not know what they’re missing, thus they do not seek it in later life either.

The unwritten rules of friendship after marriage – Friendships for married women are discouraged, seen as frivolous and selfish. Indian married men, on the other hand, continue to keep in touch with their buddies, even invite them over and have their wives cook for them. Many Indian women need permission to visit their friends, or need to ensure that they’ve cooked, cleaned, bathed their children, and anticipated every possible need in the next 48 hours before stepping out for an hour. Thus having a family strengthens men’s friendships while the very same weakens women’s friendships.

Complacence and the Illusion of Support – We are surrounded by family in India. We have our parents and extended family constantly in our faces. When we get married, we have even more relatives. Surrounded by all these people gives us the illusion that we are not alone. However, the truth is you can be lonely with a hundred people around you if none of them empathize with you, make you stronger, or help you find yourself.

Too late, we find out that when we really need help and support, we don’t have it. Women spend a good part of their lives helping strengthen their husband’s families. While their own supports are continually discouraged, ridiculed, and eroded.

Our Stories – Mythology, legends, and literature are replete with admirable friendships between men. While Lakshmana walked by Rama’s side until the very end, Sita stood alone. The Mahabharata brims with male bonding. There is the interesting friendship between Karna and Duryodhana. Even the friendship between Lord Krishna and Arjuna the warrior is telling. God bestows his friendship on certain worthy men, but not women.

In English literature, we are all familiar with Horatio and Hamlet, Tom and Huck, Frodo and Samwise, Gandalph and Bilbo. While we admire the friendships between these beloved characters, they do make us wish the world instead revolved around female bonding. This is why books like Pride and Prejudice and Little Women are so precious.

Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, says, “Princesses may confide in a sympathetic mouse or teacup, but they do not have girlfriends. God forbid Snow White should give Sleeping Beauty a little support. Princesses avoid female bonding. Their goals are to be saved by a prince, get married, and be taken care of the rest of their lives.”

Let’s not be that lonely princess. We can make each other strong. Let’s not give up on each other.

Finding Real Friendship

Friendship and bonding among women offers so many positives that no woman should have to go without it. A good friend –

  • respects you for your strengths and talents
  • supports you during challenges
  • doesn’t ennoble silent suffering and sacrifice
  • inspires you to be strong, to grow, to become who you want to be
  • listens to you when she can’t do anything other than offer her heart
  • gives you a hug
  • loves you for who you are
  • is happy to see you engage in other positive relationships
  • wants you to succeed
  • is proud of your accomplishments
  • reminds you of who you are, when you are in doubt
  • opens you up to new ideas and different perspectives
  • doesn’t judge you for your career and relationship choices
  • is overall happy for you because she is happy with who she is
  • is committed to you, spends time with you, and is there for you
  • doesn’t take your friendship for granted, understands that friendship is a like a plant, it needs watering, otherwise it can’t sustain itself
  • communicates through differences with honesty
  • recognizes her own need for friends and friendship time
  • keeps her interests and passions alive and doesn’t lose her identity after marriage
  • makes it clear to her family that she will need and engage in her friendships
  • can be a lifeline in cases of emotional or physical abuse

I did not realize this until a few years ago, when I hit my late 30s. My kids’ friends’ mothers were my friends. My husband’s co-workers’ families were my friends. I realized something was missing in these friendships. I forgot who I was. Conversations with our friends were always about our families, about our children’s or husbands’ needs, interests, and phases. And what did I do when I did meet interesting, intelligent, warm, humorous,  and independent women now and then? I did not treasure them.

I realized I had missed some valuable opportunities.  And if I wanted something, I needed to work toward it. I began to look for and find women who shared my passions – walking/hiking/running/nature, reading/writing. Women who took their hobbies seriously, who believed in preserving their identities and not be defined by their relationships alone. Although these common interests acted as a catalyst to start and sustain the friendship, we did not limit our friendships to these interests. One of my friends crafts jewelry and it’s fascinating to watch her work. Another friend, an engineer by training, loves to bake. After years of debating, she finally turned her passion into her living. I like spending time in her kitchen while she makes breads, pastries, and pies. I realized I needed to laugh like a girl, get silly, do different things, surprise myself.

I realized I needed friendship time without my husband and kids. I learnt to ask for it, advocate for it, and maintain it as an essential part of my life. I gave it a name – ‘health goals’ (as in emotional health) to make it tangible. I put my friend time on the calendar and committed to it rigorously. My family slowly, reluctantly, began to accept and work around it. If my older son needed help with a project or my younger one wanted to go to the park, it would need to be scheduled AFTER my Sunday morning walk with my friends. Same thing with my husband. In the past, I had worked around everyone’s schedules. Now, my activities were up there on the family calendar, for everyone to see, and my needs were prioritized, like everyone else’s.

I hope every one of us has or works on finding strong friendships and can make the effort to be a rock solid friend to other women. It is not as difficult as we think. It doesn’t require some esoteric skills. It is simply about knowing what real friendship looks like. It’s knowing what to look for. And understanding that friendship is a basic human need, necessary for us to thrive. This blog is a small example of the power of women supporting one another. Imagine what is possible with people we can meet and talk to and confide in and bond with in our daily lives.

And friendship with other women and having a good support system is the best defense against patriarchy. For feminism to thrive, friendships between women must thrive.

Please do share some of your great friendships. Or please share your challenges in finding and sustaining meaningful friendships.

Response from Anon Super-wife.

Anon Super-wife’s response to reader’s comments to her email here.
To all your readers, a big thank you, for taking time out to read and ruminate about the situation and to try to help.

And, I would like to add that I did solve the problem by doing something I wanted to, but couldn’t because I wasn’t sure that it was right. In my mind, I did want to just speak out in my own way and not just pretend things were okay, but my preconditioning wasn’t allowing me to.

The comments of the readers just got me doing it –  simply by refusing to cook. When despite me cooking, I don’t get to eat, it is only fair that I don’t as well cook.
I can eat a pizza or grab a Mac. let the people who do want rice, roti, rasam and sambar cook it for themselves.

Needless to say, no one cooked and pandemonium ensued. At least I was full and spent more time with the baby. All worth it, I guess.


As for working – I guess this is the way we are conditioned. My gran has always taught us grand kids to “tolerate, keep quiet, and understand” – this she says works miracles in any marriage. After a lifetime of seeing women that way, little wonder then, that we understand that this is the way it should work.
My mom who always wanted me to be financially independent – because, she thought that it would help me chart my own course – also implicitly gave me the same advice. Earning is important if something untoward happens, it isn’t something that you use, to wriggle out of your responsibilities. It is ingrained like religion is, or fear of putting your finger into that electrical socket is, you follow it without a question.

Practically it is difficult for me to get a maid, because I need things to get sorted by 8 AM and trust me when I say the leading set of people who give IST a unique meaning is this sect of maids. Where are they when you need them?

It’s not that I resent doing the work at home. I enjoy keeping my home clean I enjoy cooking for my husband, I do stuff for the MIL because I understand she’s worked hard at her place and I would like to let her relax when she comes visiting.

What I do not like is the attitude that says, “This is YOUR home, YOU and YOU alone are responsible for this home”. So, when food falls short, or when I’m working late and cannot handover the milk coupon to the watchman, or even when I’m rushing to office and cannot water the plants – it’s probably ONE time – the ONE time in a month that they have to do it – but it is MY home you see, MY plants. When I don’t have milk for tea – no one notices, hell! no one even notices if I’ve had tea or not (she can always drink it at office) but if for some reason the undergarments aren’t color coded and folded the way they have to be, I’m a “lazy girl”, “always in front of her laptop girl” or just plain “Sigh  … I never can seem to find anything at all …. old age might be. In India, we always spend half our lives searching“.

And you know what they say? That tidal waves are influenced by the waxing and the waning of the moon? They should also add something like – husband’s MCP factor is influenced by the coming and going of his mother. (actually, scratch that – the effects linger long after the mother has done the damage and exited the building). (Another post discusses this here – IHM)

So, to all your comments and suggestions, yes, this has to change. maybe the workload, but definitely the attitude.

I am not conditioned in a manner to raise my voice at home – like I said, “The finger in the electric socket syndrome”, but I know this has to change.

The reason I reached out to you, is because  I wanted to know if you felt the same way I did.

So are the men offended?

Believe it or not, there are many who think the Star Plus anthem is great because the woman is being allowed to work, to have a girl-child, fly kites, jog, wear track pants, dance, blow kisses at her husband from her terrace; her husband finds her worthy of his attentions, her in laws don’t object to this, (because) her mother in law is not abusive, and her family cares to celebrate her birthday.  What more can a woman ask for?

And in return of all these privileges (which the rest of the family always had anyway) all she has to do is be a never tiring, ever smiling, uncomplaining super woman.

GB explains why it’s okay for a woman to not be perfect and still expect to be loved.

I’m really tired of seeing women who don’t get tired. Or pissed. On some days, I just wake up feeling pissed. I make carping statements, I invite fights, I act like my hair is on fire. In short, I make life difficult for people around me.

But I also believe that I’m effing worth the trouble.

I don’t need to be an angel to be wanted or loved. Because the people around me are not angels either. And I put up with their drama because I care about them. So why in god’s name do I have to keep smiling … in order to be the perfect woman? (Click to read the entire post.)

Preeti Shenoy wants to know,

“Why is she so happy that she has to wake up before everyone else while that lazy lump of her husband sleeps blissfully and then she also has to give him his towel in the shower between cooking her children’s lunches!” (More on Buzz)

Amrita of IndieQuill wonders,

What’s the kid going to grow up thinking – “My mom works and cooks and cleans and dances and sings and is nice to all the birdies in the sky. My dad… um… he drinks tea and goes to work.” Way to be a hero to your kid….


Seriously, it’s men who should be offended.

I wonder what the men think.

____________________________________

To read my interview with ‘Spark’ click here.

The interference of parents in the married life of their daughters…

Pallavi shared this link.

‘The interference of parents in the married life of their daughters has become a major cause for playing havoc with the lives of young couples post marriage, the Delhi high court has said.

Daughter are supposed to become paraya dhan once they are given away in kanyadan, and any Indian man and his family would be justified in wanting a divorce if a woman’s  parents forget that.

Why I’d worry about any such biased and generalized statements. Because they encourage Indian parents to continue to disown their married daughters. Happily-Married-Daughters bring approval of the neighbours’ uncle’s nephew’s third cousin’s grandfather, so even if a married daughter is unhappy, she is advised to please adjust, or die trying. Having no one to turn to, makes her less equal and exposes her to abuse, exploitation and harassment.

Also, even if the parents were interfering in the case mentioned, it does not mean that this is becoming a trend. The idea that a woman’s parents have no right to support her once she is married, and an adult male needs to be mothered all his life, is changing and this change should be welcomed.

I wonder why there was no mention of ‘parental interference’ in these cases.

1.

Allegations that the mother-in-law kicked the daughter-in-law with her leg, told her that her mother was a liar, poisoned the ears of her son against the daughter in law, had been giving perpetual sermons and threatened her with divorce. [link]

2.

Bombay HC held that in-laws’ insistence on sari can’t amount to cruelty under the Hindu Marriage Act. [My response here.]

Deciding what an adult son’s adult spouse wears is not interference?

3.

Another mother “filed an affidavit that the daughter in law works 8 am to 8 30 pm, but does ‘no additional work’ at home.

Was this seen as interference?

*

And just how much do an Indian daughter’s parents interfere for it to have ‘become a major cause for playing havoc’ with their daughter’s marriages?

In Haryana a son beat his wife in the presence of her parents, for wearing jeans when she went shopping with them.

‘…the police promptly dispatched the battered woman … to her in-laws house, terming it as a “family matter”. No case was filed.

Promptly dispatched to her in-laws house, a paraya dhan‘s rightful home once she is married.

*

Bollywood went out of it’s way to show loving a married daughter could lead to breaking her marriage.

How would you see this scene from ‘Phagun’ (1973)  if Waheeda Rehman was the husband’s mother and not Jaya Bhaduri’s?


Related posts:

No Jeans for Indian Daughters in law.

Can’t end marriage over sari.

Loving sons who devote their days and night to maintain peace in the family.

(and many , many more)

My Dreams Are More Precious Than Yours?

Nimmy’s comment in my post on Feminism made me wonder why women call staying at home and taking care of their children a sacrifice, and why some women who work hard all day still feel guilty.

This is why.

A senior citizen I know, once told me she wanted her daughter-in-law, in the US to quit her full time job and to find something to do from home, because with both the son and the daughter-in-law working, they hardly get any time together. She said she told her daughter-in-law, when she visited them last, “This won’t do.

I suggested, “These days most couples are working, I am sure they will find someway … maybe whoever is earning less considers something part time …”

How can HE leave his job, he is the husband, this is not how things are done … I have spoken to her, she should know her priorities …”

I was totally impressed! “You mean your daughter-in-law is earning more!! He is an Investment Banker I thought he must be earning a lot! She must be brilliant!! What does she do?”

She explained.

I was still gushing, “Times are changing, Indian kids waste their youth for their careers! You have seen my daughter! She is working so hard, she hardly has a ‘life’, she stays up till late, you have heard me crib about her crazy hours? I wonder how she would feel if she has to give it all up! Who knows what happens in life, in future? Girls should be self reliant too, I am sure your daughter-in-law must have really worked to reach this position … there has to be a more balanced solution … and aren’t they making good money? “

“Money isn’t everything. My son says, he misses the way hot food waited on the table when he got home from school, I was so well read, but I was content to just look after them …

“LOL I am sure your daughter-in-law misses hot food on the table too :) These days parents love both girls and boys, they are brought up to be self reliant … they will find some way to make it work in a way that suits them both.”

Girls should know their careers are not as important as their husbands. Men have egos.

I don’t know, I have seen my dad support my mom and generally if one person is happy while another is forced to give up her dreams, will they be happy? Why not let them decide?

When we are there, all day we are alone, there are no maids. .. and living in India I am just not used to doing any house work … and this younger son of mine, he was very close to me, I got the cook to make whatever he liked to eat, now he cooks dinner, I don’t mind that but …

I wanted to ask if his wife wasn’t brought up the same way too? But I did not argue.

I could not get this daughter-in-law out of my mind, and later asked a close friend, a successful professional, (without revealing any names) what she thought of such a situation, and why did it bother me so much.
She said, “IHM if she is pressurized to give up her job, do you realise how resentful and bitter she might become? Why force her to sacrifice!!! These days my husband stays with our son, on leave, because I have to go for this seminar … I have worked so hard to reach here, my success is a part of me, it makes me feel so good. … but it would have all been so difficult if my husband hadn’t been so supportive. I would do the same for him, any day.”
She kept her word. Today, because she is doing so well, her husband is able to dare to start a new venture, she will never read this blog, but my best wishes to them :)

But wait, the story doesn’t end here. The Mother-in-law I mentioned above went to the US again, and do you know which bank her son was working for? Lehman Brothers. He is not unemployed, he is doing very well still, but this time when she called she didn’t say anything about about her daughter-in-law giving up her job.