The Mother-in-law Question

Mansi, one of the readers here, asked the following question:

“We all know that in almost 100% of the cases:- mother in law and daughter in law clash – why is this?  Please do a post on this.”

Mansi’s question appears as a comment in this post:

https://indianhomemaker.wordpress.com/2017/03/02/relationship-with-mother-in-law-an-email/

I will answer the question the way I see it.  I would welcome others’ thoughts, experiences, and perspectives.

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In a patriarchal system, women take up positions of inferiority.  The girl child, teenager, and the young woman is taught or coerced into the following during the formative years(the opposite traits I’ve listed in parentheses):

  • unquestioning obedience (versus reasoning, questioning, analysis)
  • acceptance of fate or destiny (versus proactive problem solving)
  • a sense of weakness, vulnerability (versus strength, confidence)
  • inferiority (versus a sense of equality)
  • shame in one’s body (versus seeing it in neutral, biological terms)
  • shame in the pursuit of pleasure (versus seeing it as a natural human trait)
  • no personal interests or hobbies or achievements (versus encouraging personal accomplishment)
  • assigned pre-ordained roles (versus having choices)
  • constraints on the smallest things (versus having daily freedoms like going for a walk safely, taking the city bus safely, going to college safely, going to work safely)
  • constraints on life decisions (choosing whom to marry, choosing whether to marry or not, choosing not to stay in an unhappy marriage)
  • permission seeking fit for children (as opposed to adult freedoms – permission to visit parents after marriage, permission to work, to not have kids yet, or to not have kids period)

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Some of the above have changed with times, primarily:

  1. education and careers – girls and women now pursue these – but even here the context remains vastly patriarchal – do they have control over their paycheck – do they know how to spend, save and invest their money – do they have the freedom to work where and when they want in a field they choose, the freedom to travel for a job – do they have the supports needed at home to succeed at work or do they carry the triple burden of work, home, and kids
  2. some of the other factors mentioned above have changed for some families (who raise girls as humans that are allowed human joys and weaknesses, and granted equal rights) but remain true for the vast majority to different degrees.

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So, what happens to girls and young women raised with these traits?  They develop low self esteem.  They have been constantly told of their lack of worth and they begin to believe it.  Not just about themselves but about all women.  Their gender is the dreaded gender, they are the unlucky ones.

The all-pervading misogyny is internalized by women.  Different women react to this in different ways.  They develop coping mechanisms such as –

  • judging other women (partly because they genuinely believe women should be judged, society has given everyone the right to judge this group of human beings, but partly because they see themselves in other women.  “She is a lazy stay at home mom who watches TV all day.” because they’ve heard this comment over and over again and unthinkingly repeat it.  Or, “she is too selfish and not a good mother, look at her, travelling so much” because this is another stereotypical comment that they’ve heard over and over again
  • petty competition – women in a patriarchy must compete for male attention to win a few crumbs of freedom – putting other women down has a concrete advantage
  • becoming a martyr – in a patriarchy, you can either be a Goddess on a pedestal or evil incarnate – ordinary human traits like ambition and pleasure in women become evil – self-sacrifice is considered virtuous.  Some women engage in self-denial and sacrifice to feel rewarded by the families and societies they live in.
  • passing the baton – the teaching of these “feminine” rules and traits strangely falls upon women – victims create more victims in the process – women are taught early on “to be a good example to their daughters”.  Every time a woman doesn’t toe the line, her parents and her upbringing are blamed.  There is an entire cannon of virtue that needs to be passed down the generations – and some women assume this role whole heartedly.

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All of the above come into play in the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law situation.

The mother-in-law belongs to a generation of women that have been denied an education, the right to work, the right to choices.  They have been raised with low self-esteem and their most ardent sacrifices have been barely acknowledged.  They have never enjoyed the companionship and respect of their life partners.  Rather they served their lords and received nothing of worth in return.

The typical difficult mother-in-law is not an evil woman – she is an ordinary woman reacting to the above factors related to her upbringing.  She is coping in her own way, trying to find in her own distorted, sad way – some kind of path to perceived happiness.  All her life she’s been controlled by other men.  So she sees control as the singular thing absent from her life.  She tries to exercise control over the one person who is in the lowest rung of the patriarchal ladder – the daughter-in-law.  She fails to realize that genuine happiness comes from control over one’s own life, not control over another’s.

That said, there are mothers-in-law who understand where the problem truly lies – with the patriarchal set up (and not the “bad” daughter-in-law).  Even if they did not live a life of fairness, the better adjusted women (those who’ve developed a healthier response to a difficult life) may obtain happiness by breaking the cycle and treating the daughter-in-law with fairness.  They may themselves have more freedom in their later years – having developed an awareness of their rights and an assertiveness that comes with age and experience.

The mother-in-law versus daughter-in-law problem is not a women versus women problem – it’s a problem created by patriarchy.  The need for male privilege creates the need for female inferiority.  When inferiority is made systemic right from birth and reinforced right through old age, it breaks the psyche and can have extremely unhealthy emotional consequences resulting in unhealthy coping behaviors.

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Here are 2 posts that may shed further light on this:

https://indianhomemaker.wordpress.com/2015/02/26/the-men-in-our-lives/

https://indianhomemaker.wordpress.com/2010/11/28/a-woman-is-not-a-womans-worst-enemy-patriarchy-is/

Postpartum Depression: Break the Silence

Guest post by: Purna K.V., Blogger

(Original Post appeared on her blog here: http://koumudi.blogspot.co.za/2013/10/post-partum-depression-yes-i-faced-it.htm)

Post-Partum Depression. Yes , I faced it and No , there is nothing wrong in talking about it.

Those of you who see my pictures on facebook and think that mine was a happy pregnancy and a perfect delivery and everything was a perfect little dream-come-true…… are wrong. It was actually far from it. I had suffered from a severe prenatal depression in my last trimester and an equally severe postpartum depression after delivery.

It took me a long long time to come back to normal and start living life normally. It took me a long long time to actually come to a conclusion that I should write about it. Yes, there is no need to be ashamed of it. It can happen to any other woman on this planet and it comes without a due notice and we are far from being prepared to face it. Knowledge is wealth and I thought I should provide awareness about PPD ( Post Partum Depression ).

All was well until the starting on my last trimester ( 7th month ). I was working as well in Johannesburg , South Africa, and didn’t have any problems. I moved back to India during the same time to rest at home and deliver in Hyderabad. Ravi came just to drop me back home , had a brief holiday and went back to wind up things at Joburg.I thought this phase would be the most relaxing time of all and was really excited with it. But the travel from Johannesburg to Hyderabad left me with swollen feet and a tiredness which didn’t go away for as long as a month after that. Even my swollen feet took a lot of time to get back to normal. And it is when I was staying at my home in Hyderabad , that depression set in. It started with lack of sleep and a frustrated mind as to why I am not able to sleep. I was bored at home and didn’t have anything to do. I couldn’t travel outside , because I didn’t know driving and the weather change between Joburg and Hyd traffic left me nauseatic. It was better to sit at home rather than travel outside with all the pollution and traffic. And above all , you know what elders say , you are pregnant so don’t do anything without out help. My stamina kept decreasing and so did my appetite. But I thought it was all normal and definitely hormonal. Yes , it was hormonal , but it was not normal and I realised this only in my 8th month. It was the first case of PPD in my family and nobody knew about it.I started imagining all kinds of things and was not happy about it. I always felt that , whatever came into my mind didn’t at all leave me and it only started creating deep impacts and craters in my mind. The ability to control my thoughts was absolutely gone. I felt that my mind was not in my control anymore. I felt that I was some other person and this person is nowhere near to what I am. I felt that something was happening to me and I am not able to stop it. Lack of sleep , lack of appetite , restlessness , no peace of mind and always sad about something which I was not able to apprehend properly. I also had insecure feelings about staying away from my husband and when it was un-bearable , I contacted Dr Vijaya and told her briefly about my situation. It was not only psychological and emotional , it was physical too. I had nervous weakness in my hands and legs , and I was not able to stand and do things properly sometimes. I never felt like waking up from the bed and do something to kill the boredom.

In our society , giving birth to a child and all the pregnancy and delivery phases of life are supposed to be “happy” things. And if it is anything different from it , nobody would want to talk about it. It is all hushed up and the fear of the society seeing you as a “bechara” makes us hide things. But I did no such thing and walked straight into Dr Vijaya’s office and spoke to her. My scared mother accompanied me. I am thankful she did.

May be Dr Vijaya knew already and was suspecting the worst. But she was kind to me and comforted me with her words. She appreciated my outward thinking and the boldness I had to come and talk to her. Because , she said , most women wouldn’t do it. She told me that PPD is a spectrum kind of a thing and almost 80% of pregnant women experience it but at different levels. Some are tolerable and some are not. But mostly , women don’t express it to the gyneac or the midwife. So most of the society doesnt know what’s happening on the inside.

My mother was totally unprepared to face all this. And she never felt or knew that all this was due to hormonal changes or due to changes in pregnancy. She thought I was saying and thinking about issues wantedly .She was scared with the way I was thinking and manifesting things in my mind and her being scared , made me even more timid and frustrated as to why I was like that. After going to Dr Vijaya , we concluded that it might be the mood swings and depression kinds and was normal and a part of pregnancy sometimes. This comforted my parents and husband… but not me. Because it did nothing to my mind so that the pain and everything could go away. I wanted to be happy and welcome my little child. And the fact that some other things were taking precedence over it made me guilty and that guilt started killing me from inside. I couldn’t ignore it and as it was physical too , I was even more scared as to how I would be able to take care of my baby if I was not even able to walk properly and do things normally.It was pure hell. Ravi pre-poned his trip and returned early. But no matter who was beside me and what they had to say to me , the suffering didn’t go away. I had erratic fears over silly things coming into my mind and it scared the hell out of me.I had frequent fear and panic attacks. My brain would be blank and cold for a few minutes.  I knew that my family was putting a brave face outside but were equally concerned and scared from the inside.

Finally , when I delivered , I wasn’t scared of anything in my life , except the “thing” that I was going through. I gave birth normally  and very boldly. Because I wasn’t scared anymore. I had something else to be worried about. Physically , mine was the perfect delivery that anyone would want. Not a single medicine given to my body and not a single prick from the midwives. But psychologically , I was somewhere else. Nothing gave me happiness , expect for pure and intense sense of care towards my child. I took care of her to the core. May be the guilt that built up inside was coming out in this way. My physical  and psychological symptoms remained , even after delivery and then Dr Vijaya suggested me to a clinical psychologist. She spoke to another lady who gave birth in the same center and also a psychologist. Unfortunately , she was out of town , so she referred me to another elderly man in Sweekar-Upkaar , Jublee Bus Stand , Hyd.

I was breast feeding and my body was in the process of healing. But I had to go to consult him. He listened to me and referred me to take some tests. Not lab tests. Some written tests ( I thought they were like some tests to determine my concentration and mind body co-ordination ) which took a lot of time. I had to leave my baby in the car and go to take the tests , occasionally coming back to feed her. There is a phrase in telugu……….. “ Idemi kharmamooo” anipinchindi. I don’t know about the cure , but the visit to the doc itself can make you feel so low and less of confidence , as to something is seriously wrong with you and you need somebody’s help to fix it. It makes ourselves feel like yuk.  Finally , he told me that , I didn’t have any previous mental disorders and this was something that had popped up only in and around pregnancy and hence will be termed as “Post Partum Depression”. He gave me 2 sessions of relaxing my muscles as I was constantly complaining about the nervous weakness in my hands and legs. I almost begged him to give me a medicine to calm me down and make me peaceful. But he denied it as I was breast feeding. He said , treat it as a punishment from God and bear it for 6 months. My duty as a mother was more important than what I was going through and he asked me to come back after 6 months , if I felt it didn’t go away.

He told us a lot of things. He said that , in pregnancy , a woman’s body undergoes a lot of changes.Some are physical and some are psychological. Some are good and some are bad. Now , we the people , miss the bad part. We always think that having a baby only brings joy to us. Ofcourse it is a happy thing………. But it doesn’t always bring joy to us. It also makes us nervous and all the emotions around taking up that responsibility and doing our part correctly. So , “pregnancy and delivery is a happy thing” is highly overrated. It can be the opposite also and there is nothing wrong with it. Sometimes , the wiring in the brain changes permanently because of pregnancy , he said. And I am unfortunate that I have had the bad effects of pregnancy. Having a baby is a very big change in life and different people react in different ways to it, consciously sometimes and sub-consciously sometimes. Nothing is wrong or right in it. And if the pressure on the brain becomes un-bearable , then it translates into physical symptoms like the ones I had. In the spectrum of PPD , may be I fell into a “more and intense” scale. It happens to everybody and not everybody are vocal enough to go to a doc and express that something is wrong. Because we are bound by families and society. And this insecurity and the “unhappy” part are buried under the name of society and the family’s name in the society.

It took me an year and half after delivery to completely come back to normal. And I didn’t take any medicines. It was long , hard and a challenging journey and at the end of it , I guess I have turned out to be a lot more tougher than before. I was sceptical about writing this post from a long time. But finally could muster the courage to put it in words and provide awareness to others. PPD in a severe way happens only to a very very few people. But we must be prepared to face it J.

Relationship with mother-in-law (an email)

A letter from a reader – I’ve asked the LW if I can share her letter as so many women find themselves in this situation and the discussion could be helpful to many women if it happened here – the LW agreed to share –

As you read the below, ask yourself:

  • what was my experience and how do/did I deal with it
  • what can I suggest to the LW that could be helpful
  • what are some things we should be doing as friends and family of someone in this situation
Dear Priya,
I like reading your blog and your posts on IHM’s blog. I have found myself nodding to almost everything you write and have found strength in your words to listen to my inner voice, to be assertive in order to keep myself happy and content.
I’m a 34 year old woman living outside India with my husband and 4 year old son. I had a very difficult childhood growing up in a sort-of broken household with a non-existent father who emotionally abused my mother every chance he got. My mother( who got married young without much skill or education but a sharp brain) stood her ground and put up with him to give me and my 2 sisters and one brother the best education she could(I’m now in a position to financially support her and help her start a small scale business all because of her stubbornness to not let her girls end up like her).
I got married to a wonderful man who is nothing like my father and has helped me a lot in letting go of the bitterness I have bottled up in my heart.
However I’ve had a very tough time integrating into my husband’s (very educated and status conscious) family following my marriage and have had conflicts with my mother in-law on more than few occasions in my 9 years of being married. She was against her very intelligent son getting married to me at such a young age (we were both 24 and just out of college with our first jobs) without going for higher studies as she had planned. I understand her disappointment but the taunts that we were subjected to went for far too long. I don’t look back to my marriage or my short stay at my husband’s place with any fondness.
Fortunately my husband got a better job offer outside India and we moved out. After struggling for two years we found our footing and got better off financially and things improved considerably between me and them.
This year when my brother-in-law was about to get married in a ‘proper arranged marriage'(unlike ours) to a bride of respectable profession ( read doctor) I voiced out some of the glaringly obvious double standards at display which again took our relationship back to square one. Having learned to be more assertive of my choices over the years, I spoke to them at length and cleared misunderstandings and brought things from the past to a closure (or so I thought). I kept in touch with them and helped them with the wedding prep, had them come over and stay with us for sometime all happy and merry.
I found out that I am pregnant recently and my mother-in-law started giving me well-intentioned but unsolicited advices about how to go about it. I told her very politely how I think I should be left to deal with it as it is not my first time going through the experience. She has been giving me the silent treatment ever since. I tried reaching out to her once but got no response. I would be lying if I said it doesn’t hurt me because it does as I thought we had reached a place where we could have genuine conversations.
I wanted this relationship to work for the sake of my husband who is a great son-in-law himself and my son to whom they are wonderful grandparents. But now the efforts are weighing me down. I’m having some trouble at work and have the additional pressure of this pregnancy plus my regular life that I don’t have the energy to deal with my mother-in-law anymore. Is giving up on this relationship the right thing to do? I would want my children to have grandparents and my husband to continue to have good relationship with his family. I just don’t want to be the only one putting in all the efforts anymore.
Best regards,
A
Repeating questions from above
  • what was my experience and how do/did I deal with it
  • what can I suggest to the LW that could be helpful
  • what are some things we should be doing as friends and family of someone in this situation
  • please share any other relevant thoughts not covered under the questions

Vedic Wedding Rituals and Society – a feminist perspective

Guest Post by wordssetmefreee

After the Thali post, a few readers (Simple Girl, Fem, Aarti, SB, etc.) wanted to discuss the topic of Vedic wedding rituals and society further – so here goes.

Vedic wedding practices are outlined in parts of the Rig Veda, Atharva Veda and the Sama Veda. They are outlined in the Grhyasutras (within the Vedas). Some information about how weddings in the time of the Rig Veda took place can also be gleaned from the description of Surya’s wedding ceremony. Although this is an allegorical tale, scholars think that the rituals described reflect the practices of those times.

There is a startling amount of similarity between Vedic weddings and current day Hindu weddings. Some may find this ability to preserve traditions over several centuries – this sense of rootedness – admirable; others may see this as rigidity and unwillingness to change and evolve.

There are various interpretations of the Vedas and scholars argue over which is the right way to interpret the writings. There are 3 main reasons for this:

  • The language of the Vedas is an archaic form of Sanskrit, it’s exact form and grammar are now lost to us. Scholars must use their knowledge of later versions of Sanskrit and do their best to interpret the text.
  • The Vedas seem to be written in some kind of a code – the literal interpretation leads to one message and the symbolic/metaphorical interpretation leads to quite another.
  • For a long time, the Vedas were of the ‘Sruti’ variety of literature, that is they were passed on through the oral tradition. Later, they were recorded and became a written form of literature – thus a lot of meaning/significance could’ve been lost in the transcription.

Due to the above reasons, there is a lot of disagreement over the meanings hidden in the verses and it becomes difficult to draw conclusions about Vedic culture. For instance, was Vedic culture egalitarian or was it hierarchical? Were women treated as equals or were they subordinate to men?

I will list and briefly describe just a few primary rituals (there are many others).

Kanya Danam – the father “gives” his daughter as a “gift” to the groom by placing the bride’s hand in the groom’s hand.

The Kamasukta verse recited here is:

Who offered this maiden?, to whom is she offered? Kama (the god of love) gave her to me, that I may love her May the heaven bestow thee, may the earth receive thee

The words “that I may love her” are beautiful but the remaining words – ‘offered’, ‘received’, and ‘bestow’ seem not to indicate independent agency for the bride. Was kanyadaanam a mere formality or was the ownership of women a fact of life? We don’t know.

What we do know for a fact is that the concept of kanyadaan exists even to this day. It remains not only symbolic of the ownership exercised over women by the male members of her family, but also translates to practical life. Women are infantilized both by their birth family as well as by the husband’s family. Many married women are still required to take permission even to step out.

Pani grahanam – a ‘holding of the hand’ to symbolize marital union.

The Vedic chant here is:

I take thy hand in mine, yearning for happiness, I ask thee, to live with me, as thy husband, Till both of us, with age, grow old, Know this, as I declare, to the Gods, that I may fulfill, my Dharmas of the householder, with thee, This I am, That art thou, The Sāman I, the Ŗc thou, The Heavens I, the Earth thou

All of the above lines are acceptable – I especially like that he ‘asks’ her hand and I also like the line about growing old together.   Is the Heaven/Earth analogy meant to be lyrical or does it indicate gender hierarchy? There are several other verses in the Vedas where the men ‘give’ and women ‘’receive’, expressed through imagery.

Kankanabandhana – tying twin bracelets to each other as a symbol of their union and to ward off evil. This practice has a ring of equality to it. The groom AND the bride wear identical ornaments that signify commitment. But why did this practice disappear over time?

This was the practice that seemed to have evolved much later into the tying of the mangalsutra or thali where the tying is done ONLY to the bride. The thread also came to be linked to the husband’s health and long life.  There is no marriage ritual that prays for the health and long life of the bride. Did we become more gender hierarchical over time?

Sapta padi – there are many interpretations of the seven vows, here is a nicer/saner one from Hinduism Today:

  • The first step is taken to earn and provide a living for their household or family.
  • The second step is taken to build physical, mental, and spiritual powers and to lead a healthy lifestyle.
  • The third step is taken to earn and increase their wealth by righteous and proper means.
  • The fourth step is taken to acquire knowledge, happiness, and harmony by mutual love, respect, understanding, and faith.
  • The fifth step is taken to have children for whom the couple will be responsible and to blessed with healthy, righteous, and brave children.
  • The sixth step is taken for self-control and longevity.
  • The seventh step is taken to be true to each other, loyal and remain life-long companions by this wedlock.

Completion of the seventh step is the moment of completion of the marriage ritual.

And here is a misogynistic interpretation: http://varan_bhaath.tripod.com/Pages/Saptapadi.htm When I recently asked our family priest at my niece’s wedding to give me an English translation of the Saptapadi, he gave me something very similar to the above.

Note that the nicer version replaces “sons” with children, for instance. The use of ‘You’ and ‘I’ (with separate roles and responsibilities) is replaced with ‘we’ and common responsibilities. Once again, there is a lot of confusion and disagreement over the “correct” interpretation.

Surya’s wedding ceremony – although this tale is said to be symbolic of cosmic events, scholars also think that the wedding rituals described were reflective of the times.   The bride’s journey to the groom’s home is described in great detail.

Raibhi was her dear bridal friend, and Narasamsi led her home. Lovely was Sūrya’s robe: she came to that which Gatha had adorned. Thought was the pillow of her couch, sight was the unguent for her eyes. Her treasury was earth and heaven, when Sūrya went unto her Lord.

Surya journeying to her husband’s home indicates patrilocality. We don’t know if this is a one off instance or if this was the general trend in Vedic times.

What we do know is that patrilocality is an important part of present day marriages in our society. Women are routinely expected to give up their jobs, move to another city/country, or move in with the husband’s joint family.

Origin and Timeline of the Vedas:

The Vedas were written over a period of time from 1500 through 1000 BC by nomadic Indo-European Aryan tribes as they crossed the Hindu Kush mountains and migrated to the North Western parts of the Indian subcontinent. The Vedas were passed through oral tradition in an old form of Sanskrit long before they were written down.

Content:

The Rig Veda is mostly composed of hymns to various Gods. Most of the Gods were the same/similar to other Indo-European Gods and were nature/element based (fire, earth, sky, water, wind). Thus we can see close similarities between these Vedic Gods (Indra, Agni, Soma, Mitra, Vayu, Varuna, Yama, etc.), Greek Gods (Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, Hermes), and Persian and Nordic Gods.

The remaining Vedas contain more hymns as well as other poems, allegorical tales, and philosophical explorations in the physical and spiritual realms.

Ideas Espoused in the Vedas

The Vedas contain rational/scientific/skeptical elements as well as ideas that would be considered regressive/questionable in current time. We don’t know if the latter represent mis-interpretation of the original ideas, added on at later stages, or if such ideas are actually part of the Vedas.

Scientific/Philosophical/Literary Elements

There is a lot of philosophical questioning and agnosticism. The Nasadiya Sukta or creation hymn questions the very existence of God and describes the origins of the universe in ways that run parallel to what modern physicists believe. Many prominent quantum physicists such as Schrödinger, Bohr, and Einstein have written that they were influenced by some of the ideas proposed in the Vedas. There are also parallels between plasma physics and the Vedas. Carl Sagan said that Vedic Cosmology is the only one in which the time scales correspond to those of modern cosmology. The concept of a genderless God (Arthanareeshvara) is unique to Vedic thought.

The story of the Great Flood which appears with Prajapati as the Matsya (later versions identify Vishnu as Matsya Avatara) is said to signify evolution, as the earliest forms of life were aquatic. Similar stories of ‘The Great Flood’ appear in other cultures (Mesopotamian, Sumerian, Babylonian, Mayan, Persian, Greek, Biblical). Another interpretation is that the people of ancient times must’ve experienced a natural disaster and passed this experience down the generations in various forms and variations.

Long before there was science, there was philosophy. Philosophers were the scientists of ancient times – they asked questions, they observed. They lacked scientific methods, accuracy, precision, and data collection. But they had endless curiosity and a love of learning.

The Vedas are not the word of God (like the Gita, Bible, and other later religious texts) but the words of man – man’s thoughts, troubles, explanations, and interpretations of the world he lived in. There are no rewards and punishments, no heaven or hell. There are more metaphors, allegories, personifications, and symbolism here than the combined works of Homer, Sophocles, and Dante. This is the refreshing aspect of the Vedas.

It is a fascinating thought isn’t it – that someone just like you and me, sat down at the end of a tired day, looked up at the night sky, saw the same constellations as us, as they composed these intriguing poems. They wondered about the same things: Who are we and where do we come from?

Precursor to the Caste System

And yet, the Vedas also contain concepts that are the precursors for so many troublesome/regressive/misogynistic/discriminatory aspects of current day Indian society.

  • The Vedas were composed/written in such an esoteric form that the possession and understanding of Vedic knowledge could only belong to an elite class of scholars. This is never a good idea for any society – knowledge sharing must always be a democratic process.
  • The power struggles in the Vedic period became the precursor for the caste system. The warrior class reigned supreme in the beginning, but later the priests became important as rituals became more important.
  • Philosophical exploration and questioning became less important and rituals became more and more significant. Rituals also became less symbolic, more literal, and twisted to favor those in power.
  • Other (Nastika) schools of thought (Carvaka, Buddhist, Jain) tried to overcome the dominance of the priestly class and their excessive adherence to rituals, but were sidelined and Asthika schools of thought became the predominant form of Hinduism.

Treatment of Women

Like all other ancient societies, our stories from the Ithihasas (Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Puranas, which came after the Upanishads which came after the Vedas) indicate that women were not equals to men. Draupadi was gambled away in a game of dice, literally reduced to a pawn in a war between men. (Some scholars postulate that the disrobing scene was absent in earlier versions and was added later during the Bhakti movement.) Sita, who loved Rama with all her heart and soul, was suspected of unfaithfulness and humiliated by being asked to ‘prove’ herself. Women in our epics are portrayed as being treated unfairly. Men were blessed “Ayushman Bhava” (may you live a long life) but women were blessed (Akhada Sowbhagyavathi Bhava (may your husband live a long life) and also with the famous “May you be blessed with a hundred sons.”

When did this preference for the male child begin? In Vedic times? If so, how do we reconcile this discrimination with egalitarian concepts of Adi Shakti (primeval feminine omniscient power) and Arthanareeshvara (androgynous/genderless God) and Durga (Goddess and slayer of demons)?

There are a few women scholars and ascetics mentioned in the Vedas – Ghosha, Lopamudra, Maitreyi, Gargi – but then these women are always portrayed as outliers and needed to stand up against society’s norms and expectations in order to be recognized and accepted. Women in many verses were also required to be “pure” and perfect” which can hardly be described as human.

Androcentrism

So, the question continues to haunt us: Is Vedic culture egalitarian/feminist or patriarchal/sexist?

An interesting answer is provided by the following paper.

Anya Gurholt at Westminster College argues in her paper, “The Androgyny of Enlightenment: Questioning Women’s Status in Ancient Indian Religions” that the fundamental ideas and theories in the Vedas are egalitarian but Vedic society and philosophical organizations were patriarchal and sexist in their interpretation, practice and implementation of the ideas . The reason she gives for this is androcentrism – the original Vedic ideas were recorded, interpreted, discussed, translated, and established in society by men.

Quote from her paper: “This fact is referred to as androcentrism, which is, viewing the world from a male perspective, whilst women are viewed and treated as passive objects, rather than active, subjects of history.”

Gurholt concludes by saying that the (patriarchal and sexist) PRACTICES of Hinduism and Buddhism are in contradiction with the original egalitarian PRINCIPLES of these philosophies. (The related reference is included at the end.)

This is why we also need female historians, scribes, professors, philosophers, priests/clerics/rabbis (besides male ones) so we may avoid bias and retain objectivity and truth.

Conclusion

This post seems to have raised more questions than provided answers. I personally feel that the Vedas (like any other ancient text) should be treated as a piece of ancient literature that reflected the big questions and struggles of that ancient time. To me, it is futile to make literal translations of these beautifully composed hymns riddled with multi-layered metaphors and turn them into rigid prescriptions on how to live (which is what the later Hindu sacred texts like the Upanishads and the Puranas tended to do).  The Vedas should be studied from a historical/literary/philosophical perspective for their many intriguing elements. Insisting on literally interpreting and following 10,000-year-old rituals is akin to resisting evolution.

Evolution is a beautiful thing – it created humans with complex brains. Without evolution, we would be Neanderthals, or going back further, we would be Primates, and if we kept on resisting evolution, we would still be unicellular organisms.

Perhaps the great sages and philosophers who composed the Vedas – if they could see us today – would be surprised and disappointed at how irrational and dogmatic we have become.  How much our present day culture fears questioning and truth seeking, which ironically is the essence of the Vedas.

How we live and let live should be guided by current knowledge of the world, and shaped by the accumulated knowledge and experiences of the past seven to ten thousand years, the time that has passed since the writing of the Vedas.

References – research papers, books, articles, Wiki entries related to this topic

Hawley, John S., and Wulff, Donna M. 1996. Devi: Goddesses of India. Berkeley, CA

Kinsley, Davis R. 1993. Hinduism: A Cultural Perspective

Lalita, K., and Tharu, Susie. 1991. Women Writing in India (600 B.C.[E] to the Present).

Lang, Karen. 1999. Women in Ancient India. In Women’s Roles in Ancient India

A Critique of the Early Buddhist Texts: The Doctrine of Woman’s Incapability of Becoming an Enlightened One. 2002. Asian Journal of Women’s Studies

Barnes, Nancy S. 1987. Buddhism. In Women in World Religions, edited by Arvind Sharma. Albany, NY

Cabezon, Jose I. 1985. Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender. Albany, NY

Falk, Nancy. 1974. An Image of Women in Old Buddhist Literature: the Daughter’s of Mara. In

Women and Religion: Papers of the Working Group on Women and Religion, edited by Plaskow, Judith., Joan Arnold Romero. Montana

Gross, Rita M. 1993. Buddhism After Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction Buddhism. New York: State University

Anya Gurholt, The Androgyny of Enlightenment: Questioning Women’s Status in Ancient Indian Religions, Westminster College

H. Wilson’s Rig Veda Sanhita (1800s)

Ralph Griffith’s The Hymns of the Rig Veda (late 1800s or early 1900s not sure)

‘Rgveda for the Layman’ by Dr. Shyam Ghosh, and Vedic Physics by Dr. Ram Mohan Roy (for those interested in the physics angle).

Harvard Oriental Series – 50 volumes that discuss different aspects of the Vedas.

http://www.metaphysicalmusing.com/articles/rigveda2014/plasma.htm ( for those interested in Plasma physics – this link gives many other references)

Writings by/Biography of Niels Bohr

Creation Hymn: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nasadiya_Sukta

Letting Go of Past Wrongs

Guest post by wordssetmefreee

A couple of weeks back, I received an email from J1289 that described some of her difficult /abusive childhood experiences. As a child, she was constantly blamed for things she had no control over. She was belittled, compared to others unfavorably, manipulated and controlled in ways that were a clear abuse of parental authority. She went out into the world, began to question and re-think many childhood misconceptions, and began to form a different (more coherent) view of the world and herself. Despite the abuse, she re-built her self-esteem, a remarkable feet considering many adults (who haven’t suffered abuse) may go through their entire lives without a clear sense of who they are and what they want.

But, how does one forgive those that let us down? How do we forget their meanness, their ignorance, and their selfishness? These lines from her email really stood out for me –

I do admit I have those horrid memories I have suffered in the past come back and it’s hard because you feel so alone in your thoughts, and think it’s only you.  It fills me with disgust, anger and hatred towards my family members and want to cut of relations with them. Sometimes it gets to me so bad that I have no idea how I can keep it in since I cannot vent it to anyone.

Experiencing abuse can leave scars that are difficult to erase.

Not everyone undergoes abuse – but many people face difficult, painful situations at some point in their lives, when they have been wronged in some way. We may have been betrayed by a close friend. We may have felt abandoned by a loving family member, when they failed to stand by us in a crisis. Someone we looked up to may have let us down, disappointed us. Such experiences can be unsettling and hold us back from seizing happiness.

It is common to harbor feelings of resentment, perhaps even hate, against those who were supposed to love us and be there for us. Over time, these feelings begin to take a toll on us. Negative thoughts can eat into a big part of our day. Our experiences begin to influence how we interact with others. We may find it hard to trust other people long after these harsh experiences. We may be wary in relationships, fear emotional intimacy and have difficulty forming deep friendships.

So, how do we get past our past? Simplistic advice such as ‘forgive and forget’ or ‘the past is past’ is not very helpful. Other nice sounding but unhelpful advice includes –

  • “forgiving is a choice”
  • “don’t cling to negative feelings”
  • “you can’t change the things that happened to you”
  • “it’s not worth it”
  • “you need to move on”
  • “put your energy into something that helps you”
  • “anger and resentment are unhealthy”
  • “start on a clean slate”
  • “focus on the present”
  • “change the things you can”

Let’s think for a minute about why this is not helpful. ‘The past is past’ sounds hollow because the opposite is true for the one who suffered in the past. For this person, the past IS the present. The past continues to haunt. It has shaped who he is today. It continues to shape current interactions and relationships.

‘Forgive and forget’ doesn’t make much sense either. How can we simply forget? We can’t just erase certain memories from our minds. They’re still there, whether we like them or not. How can we just forgive? Someone did something wrong. If you examine their actions today, they are still wrong.

And yet we know, all of us, that it is not healthy to constantly harbor negative feelings, to let past wrongs have a hold on us.

So, how do we free ourselves from this pain? How do we lighten our burden?

There are several things we could do to help ourselves –

Understand the past

Yes, this requires us to remember the past rather than forget it. Understand what exactly happened. Was it emotional abuse? Was it abandonment? Betrayal? Humiliation? Disappointment? What exactly happened and who is responsible for what? What was the other’s role in it? What was your role in it? If you were a child, you did not have any control over the situation. If you were an adult, you did have a role. This is not victim blaming, it’s trying to understand how you came to be victimized.

Acknowledge the past

Now that you have a clearer understanding of the past, acknowledge it. Burying it does not help. Acknowledge the fact that you were wronged. Remember how you felt – fear, shame, sadness, anger, pain, guilt – we try hard to bury these feelings, but the minute you acknowledge and accept them, they begin to become less burdensome.

Forgive yourself

Although it is irrational, we tend to blame ourselves (on some level) for the bad things that people do to us. Children often think it is their fault, when they are abused. They must be “difficult” or “bad”, and they deserve to suffer. There is no such thing as a “bad” child. Here, the responsibility rests with the adult, never with the child.

If you were abused/wronged as an adult, forgive yourself because you did what you could, given what you’ve been given. Not everyone is born assertive or spirited. Many of us learn assertiveness through experiences. Very few of us are lucky enough to have strong and supportive role models. Abusers also know how to tap into people’s vulnerabilities and cut off their support systems. So, give yourself a break.

Don’t erase pain

Pain is undesirable and we would not wish it on anyone. However pain has a role to play in our lives. Just as physical pain acts as the body’s warning system and protects us, emotional pain, when handled with the right perspective, helps us grow. It makes us stronger. Pain makes us understand what is really important. It simplifies things. Pain reminds us of the things we love and value. If you have gone through a lot of pain in the past, it may always be there inside you. You can never erase it completely. Therefore it is important that you use it to become stronger and more connected with yourself and others.

Separating your current self from your old self

A curious thing begins to happen if you have taken an honest look at your past, acknowledged it, and forgiven yourself. You begin to feel a separation. You begin to observe yourself objectively, like an outsider. You are able to finally separate the past from the present. That was you then and this is you now. This separation creates distance. You still remember the past events but the feelings associated with those events are less intense.

Let’s take a detour here and consider the example of an ordinary setback, removed from abuse, betrayal, or anything deeply traumatic. You are 5 years old and you just broke up with your best friend. You came home and cried as if your heart would break. For the next few days, you did not play with anyone at school. You stayed in your corner and sulked. By the end of the week, you were neither sad nor happy; you just went about your day in a cynical way. By the following week, you even laughed at something goofy someone did. By the end of the following week, you probably made a new friend. The anger and hurt may still be there. But alongside some positive feelings (new hopes, possibilities) crept in unnoticed and pushed the hurt into the background. Years later, you may even recall the good times you had with this friend you broke up with.

Our minds are interesting – they are geared to both remember endlessly and forget quickly. What we remember and forget depends on a complicated set of parameters such as our own nature, our perception of the event, our age, the context, the people involved, our feelings towards them, and our state of mind. What we remember also depends on what our conscious mind chooses to suppress in attempting to protect us.

Applying the ordinary setback and separation you experienced at age 5 to a more traumatic incident -as you begin ‘separating’, you will be able to recollect the incident without the same intensity, without the gut wrenching pain that you felt during the event or for many years following the event.

Being able to recollect a painful experience without the same intensity of pain is the first sign of freedom from the past.

Change in perspective

Separation leads us to start seeing ourselves differently (we are no longer victims, we feel more in control) and therefore we begin experiencing things differently. We now know what to look for in people. We are more trusting because we are more confident of protecting ourselves in relationships. We get better at drawing boundaries but we also get better at breaking through constraints and self-imposed limits.

Seek positive, affirming people

It is helpful to surround ourselves throughout these stages with strong, positive, supportive people. People who themselves have struggled with something but have come out strong make the most valuable friends. Avoid people who are insecure or tend to be dismissive of your struggles. Love (from a close friend or family member) can be a powerful healer.

Embrace nature

We use the expression “natural” to describe a picture of someone being unselfconscious or just being in the moment. A lot of our stress comes from being disconnected from nature, and therefore from ourselves. Pain has always been a part of the human experience but nature was a refuge, a haven of solitude that healed us, one which we are getting farther away from.

Nature can be your best friend. Take a walk in the woods. Spend time gardening. Hike up the hills and watch the world below. Nature is both calming and invigorating. Observe a tree. Notice how the branches are asymmetrical. The texture varies dramatically from the rough bark to the smooth leaves. Nature is imperfectly beautiful. Nature reminds us of our humanity and helps us accept our weaknesses.

Nature changes so imperceptibly that it is impossible to just sit there and watch the leaves turn red in fall. It is impossible to find the exact moment when the sky begins to lighten (just like one’s healing). Yet, you know these things will happen, with time. Thus, nature imbues us with patience and the confidence that time heals.

Seek new experiences

As you begin to trust people more and as you begin to enjoy your own solitude more, seek out new experiences. Travel if you can. Experience different cultures. Try something you’ve always feared. If you are uncoordinated like me, try a salsa class. If you are uncomfortable in water, take a basic life skills swimming class. New experiences challenge us to keep growing and evolving – and when we keep evolving – are we not moving ahead, are we thus not separating ourselves more and more from our painful past?

Forgive those who wronged you

Ah … the final step to freedom! Forgiveness is supposed to be one of the hardest things to do. Especially when the person who has wronged you does not realize it or admit it. But if you have gone through all of the above stages, forgiving someone is a natural progression. The stages may take months or years depending on the intensity of the pain inflicted, your vulnerability at the time, as well as your perception of the incident/phase. But once you’ve understood the past, achieved separation, undergone a change in perspective, and opened yourself up to new experiences and people with trust and confidence, you’ve gone a long way in healing yourself.

You are now strong enough to forgive. You begin to see the person who wronged you as being human rather than evil, as ignorant rather than malicious, as limited rather than insidious.

Remember, we are not forgetting our past, but we are finally able to look at it with different eyes, more perceptive eyes. It is no longer a raw, painful wound, but a scar that will always remind us of how far we’ve come. A scar that affirms our strength, so we can continue to go places.

Please share your struggles and experiences with letting go of past wrongs, disappointments, failures, disillusionment, and other painful experiences.

Imagine

Guest post by wordssetmefreee

 

Imagine a world where you are judged

Not by your skin color or what you’re wearing

But by your human strengths

For your wit, compassion, and caring

 

Imagine living on a street

Where your opinions can be bared

Without fear of being silenced

By casual denial or malicious stares

 

Imagine having friends

Who listen, validate, make you strong

With whom there are no feelings

That are shameful, taboo, or wrong

 

Imagine living in a community

Where other’s stories shed light

and learning happens unintentionally

Transforming you, in plain sight

 

Imagine a world where sharing

Is welcomed with knowing, accepting hearts

Where expression lends clarity

Piecing together your jagged, hurting parts

 

Does this sound too Utopian?

But such a world isn’t far away

It’s the world of blogging

Where you and I meet everyday

 

Let them not sideline or suppress

Your inner battles, your outer skirmishes

Speak, question, think, and express

Your unruly thoughts, your untamed wishes

 

Let not your voice and mine

Be drowned out in doubt and fear

And lay buried in an obscure shrine

Forgotten in a tomb of despair

 

Let them not lock your thoughts

Take the key and set yourself free

Keep reading, writing, thinking, speaking

For you are the queen of your destiny

Changing Someone (or oneself)

Guest Post by wordssetmefreee

When I was a kid, I remember watching movies where a woman changes her irresponsible or alcoholic husband to become her dream life partner. She accomplishes this through forbearance, persistence, and faith, qualities that tended to glorify her and epitomized womanhood. Movies are just a reflection of prevailing social attitudes. Since our culture expects women to adjust and make marriages work at any cost, it follows that a woman trying to mold her husband is/was seen as a positive and proactive way to finding happiness.

In real life, however, is it possible to change someone? Is it even fair to attempt to change someone? What are some situations where we might wish to change our loved ones?

  • We might want them to be fairer (sharing house work and parenting for instance), more responsible, or more committed to the relationship. These are reasonable expectations.  Let’s call this the reasonable zone.
  • We might want them to exercise, eat better, and relax more, out of concern for their health. Although this is reasonable, we are now entering the sensitive zone of personal choices.  What if someone’s personal choices impact our happiness?  What if your spouse is overworked and constantly irritable?  On the one hand, a healthier, happier spouse does have a positive impact on our own happiness and the health of our relationship.  Yet, where do you draw the line here?  What if someone is happy with their excess weight or their no-so-great eating habits?  Do we worry about the future impact of their habits on their health (and consequently our happiness)?  Or do we let them be because it’s their choice?
  • Some of us may even be occasionally tempted to change their tastes and preferences, and may go so far as to tell them to change their feelings about something.  This is a clear cut ‘wrong zone‘.

Expecting one’s partner to be more responsible, fair, and committed is completely reasonable. Wanting them to modify their lifestyle or character (become more disciplined, more relaxed, or more diligent) is going to be somewhat problematic, even if it is well intentioned.

However, asking them to change their tastes and preferences is completely unfair. Expecting them to change their feelings about something is not only unreasonable, it’s downright impossible. People have no control over their feelings; they only have control over their actions. They may despise someone. They can choose not to yell at this person and they can certainly choose to not hit the person. But they can’t change how they feel (intense dislike/hate).

When attempting to change someone close to you, ask yourself, ‘whose problem is it?’ If your husband likes to get up late on Sundays, take a late shower, go unshaven all day, dress sloppily, then that’s what he likes to do. It is not your problem to own. Let him be. If your wife likes to watch a certain show that drives you nuts, leave the room. Let her be. In both cases, don’t attempt to change the other’s tastes or preferences.

So, let’s assume that we remain in the reasonable zone or venture into the sensitive zone – we want someone to change because it makes them healthier, happier, less frustrated, it makes our life better, and it makes our relationship better. Even this is extremely difficult to do. Many people resist change for many different reasons. It is therefore crucial to understand the factors that constitute change, before we attempt to change someone or ourselves.

Factors that Influence Changing Oneself or the Other

1. Self awareness

Change begins with self-awareness. The first step is for the person himself to feel the need for change. When I feel tired because I’m overworked and realize it, I’m aware that I need to take breaks. When I feel emotionally distanced from my loved ones and realize it, I’m aware that I’ve been spending less time with them and paying the price for it. Awareness is therefore an important prerequisite for change. If you want your partner to change, help him/her become more and more aware of the problem. When discussing this very sensitive topic, try to be helpful rather than judgmental. Focus on how a certain behavior or habit is impacting him or those around him. Stay away from offering solutions, because interfering with the process of self awareness and self-motivation to change can be counter productive. You can’t really GET someone to change, but you can help them LET themselves change.

2. Desire and Commitment

Awareness leads to desire (to change) and desire leads to commitment. In the desire stage, we start thinking about what we want. If only I could find time to go for a walk. If only I could enroll in that programming class so I can feel more adept at my work. If only I could practice my violin. Visualizing what we would like to do can be extremely motivating. As a partner, help the other visualize what he/she would like to achieve. Of course, dreaming can only take us so far. A practical plan is necessary to execute. Strategize on what can be done to make the change happen – what are some obstacles, what are some possibilities, is there a Plan B when Plan A fails, would intermediate goals and rewards help. Review the plan daily, acknowledge successes and don’t let your partner be intimidated by setbacks along the way.

3. Be the person/change you want to see

Gandhi was right. Modeling change can be powerful. If you want your children to read more and watch less television, ask yourself how much you are reading. Children who see their parents reading a lot also tend to become avid readers. If you want your partner/spouse to exercise more, offer to go for a walk with him. If he prefers to go to the gym, offer to go to the gym with him (at least initially, to get him motivated).

4. Environmental modification ( for children)

Removing temptations from the environment works wonders, especially with children. In our kitchen, we don’t stock junk food because we want everyone to eat healthy. There are tons of fruit in the fridge if someone wants to grab a snack between meals. We made a conscious choice not to have cable. We do have our DVD player to watch movies because it is so much easier to control movie watching than cable television with its constant transmission. (We get the news on our car radios on our way to work.)

Just as negative elements and distractions can be removed from the environment, positive elements can be added to it. When my kids were very little, they had 2 choices for their free time – they could stay in and read or do art or they could go outside and play. Our home has always been stocked with lots of children’s books and there are plenty of art supplies and a whole play area where they can really get messy with finger paint and other art materials. I took them on lots of outings – walks, parks, museums, aquariums, and read lots of books to them. As they got older, they willingly enrolled in team sports like basketball, soccer and cross country, which keep them pretty occupied. They’re not addicted to screens because they got so used to healthier ways to entertain themselves.

Please note that environmental modification can be used as a positive parenting tool, not a controlling tool.  It is not just about ‘removing’ things from the environment but also about giving children lots and lots of choices (positive ones).

The above are some straightforward ways to bring about positive change. But what do we do when change is hard to actualize? What if the person is resistant to change?

Some factors that create resistance to change

1. The underlying self-image and correcting it

Sometimes people are a certain way because that’s how they see themselves. We all carry these self-images of ourselves at an unconscious level. Sheela may see herself as inept at her work and feel like she’s getting by without really being productive. If she is offered a promotion (because her boss genuinely appreciates her diligence), she may see this as further confirmation of her fakeness. Ravi may see himself as an uninteresting person. If his friends ask him to go on a trip with them, he may see this as their attempt to rescue him from his boring life, as an act of sympathy. Children who are controlled a lot and have to fight for every little thing may soon get labeled as obstinate, difficult, or rebellious. Soon, they come to believe these labels, and may continue to rebel throughout their adult lives, even when it’s unnecessary. We hold on to our self-images (even when they are negative) because they are familiar and grounding.

As adults, it is therefore important to change our self-image if we want to change ourselves. Or help the people we love or work with change their self-image. If you want your co-worker to be more precise with numbers, praise her in the instances when she does demonstrate precision. If you want your son to be more considerate, notice and comment when he helps you clean up after dinner. If you want your friend to be more committed to your friendship, draw attention to the wonderful time you had together when she did make it. Complaining about what’s not happening confirms people’s negative self-images. Offering genuine praise challenges people to question their negative self-images. When you start noticing and drawing attention to their good side, they will begin to accept the idea that developing their good side is actually possible and doable.

2. Difficulty with taking input and being a ‘doer’

Some people are somewhat resistant to taking input. They feel cornered when you just “tell” them that something makes sense. Even a gentle suggestion may seem very forceful to them. Such people tend to be ‘doers’, that is they like figuring out things for themselves. It is much better to ask such people what they would like to do. Chances are they will choose the sensible path, once they are free of having a “solution” thrust upon them.

My older son is one of these people. He would typically waste a lot of time after he came home from school, then had to stay up really late to finish all his work. High school syllabus along with extra curricular activities demanded much more speed and efficiency from him, which he did not possess. As a result, he was sleep deprived and tired all day. To me, the most obvious thing to do was to start work early so he could get a good night’s sleep. But can I suggest something simple like this? Not with him (I now know that from many years of experience with him:-). Instead, I tried to nudge him toward finding his own solution. Our conversation went like this –

When he complained about being tired at school, I said, “Yeah I can imagine. You were up so late last night.”

He said, “These stupid projects and assignments! What are these teachers thinking?? How the heck can I get so much done in one evening??”

Me: “It’s certainly a ton of work!”

Him: “Yeah. It does require a lot of time.”

Me: “Uhuh.”

Him: “Maybe if I could start in the afternoon ….”

Me: “Hmm…”

Him: “I could eat my lunch quickly, then get started. Let me try that today and see how it goes.”

And it did go very well. He went to bed at a decent time that day and felt better the next day at school. He started doing that everyday and began managing the work load better. There would be days here and there where he would slip into the old habit of wasting time. But, once again, I simply acted as his sounding board. He would then self-correct himself and get back to a more efficient routine. I needed to accept that it’s simply his nature to be independent in the extreme, try out everything, and decide for himself what works and what doesn’t.

3. Simple for one is hard for another – being aware of differences in learning/abilities

Remember that what is simple for us can be hard for another. And vice versa. Being organized is easy for me but incredibly hard for my son. Making small talk and pretending to be interested in and managing large social groups is easy for my sister, but hard for me. Show understanding when the other struggles with change. Work with them. Help them find ways to problem solve. Don’t let them get discouraged when they fail. Keep reminding them that change is a process.

When my younger son wanted to play on the soccer team, it was incredibly hard for him to focus on his teammates directions and the ball simultaneously. His autism made it hard to separate or tune out the other team’s instructions to each other. Since he has autism, everyone around him is understanding and supportive of this. We solved this problem by assigning him a ‘buddy’ on the team who gives him instructions. The buddy works (practices soccer) with my son one on one before the game. This makes my son more attuned to his friend’s voice. During the game, he is better able to attune his attention to this single source of auditory input.

But how understanding and supportive are we of each other’s struggles when we don’t carry labels? We may be neurologically typical and yet, most people tend to struggle with certain skills. Being aware of this simple fact helps us persist with our goals without giving up and finding the right supports to facilitate the process.

4. Model willingness to change

If you want your partner or friend to change in one area, pick another area that is difficult for you to change. I wanted my friend to read more fiction and poetry (because that’s what I love discussing) and not just non-fiction (which she tends to enjoy). So, I began signing up for hiking up the hills more (I tended to prefer flat trails) because she loves making it all the way to the peaks (of some smaller, local hills). Once she started seeing me do things that did not come easily and naturally, she became more willing to step out of her comfort zone as well. Willingness to change ourselves motivates those around us to change. It also builds empathy in us for other’s struggles.

5. Assign responsibilities according to strengths/talents/interests

In my MBA class, we were part of team of 4 that worked together for the entire 2 year period. In my team, we had the analyzer, the (detail oriented) fact checker, the (big picture) strategic planner, and the writer/presenter/charmer/people person. Each of us excelled at our roles and tried to learn from the strengths of the others. Work environments frequently categorize people in teams along similar lines/strengths. At home, I hate doing dishes but I’m the better cook. When we share household tasks, I do more of the cooking while my husband does more of the dishes and laundry.   Many parents also divide child rearing duties to match their strengths – one parent may be involved with studies while the other manages sports and other interests/classes. Here, there is no necessity to change one’s style, and different styles can be complementary.

6. Ignore weaknesses by remembering strengths

There are some things that are either impossible to change in ourselves or are so difficult to change that it’s not worth the effort. It’s best to ignore certain weaknesses if they do not interfere with our lives or our loved one’s lives in a major way. My co-worker’s husband tends to be very fact oriented in his conversations. She wished more than anything to be able to have more fulfilling conversations with him at a deeper level. For him, her getting promoted would be just that, a simple fact that deserved to be celebrated. For her, it would lead to a discussion of the effort that went into it, a proper evaluation of the outcome, the dynamics of a motivating work environment, future career options, and change management. After several failed attempts at trying to change this aspect of him, and a lot of frustration for both of them, she stopped trying to change how he converses. She is now content that they do have a very loving relationship. He is always there for her and supports her in every way, in her career, in her personal life, in her interests. She has joined a book club to get those deep conversations that she enjoys (and while she is busy with her deep discussions, he gets happily busy restoring his 1960s Thunderbird in the garageJ).

Non-negotiable Situations – when trying to change someone is futile (Black and white areas)

It is important to note situations where we cannot change the other and the healthy/sane option is to leave the relationship:

  • in all cases of abuse, emotional or physical, it is best to leave – counseling can help in a few cases, but as soon as one realizes that counseling is not helping, it is best to leave
  • when you find out your husband is gay and you happen to be straight (No, you cannot change someone’s orientation, it is like left or right handedness. Your husband may have gotten married out of parental pressure; he may be fearful or in denial or selfish or good hearted or all of the above – it does not matter, just leave)
  • when your spouse is alcoholic (he needs counseling/help, and again in some cases, this actually helps, and when it doesn’t, you need to leave)
  • when your spouse is selfish, mean, is aware of this and is unwilling to change because it suits him – patience, understanding, and supportiveness have no place here. He is the way he is because it’s convenient. By staying, you are rewarding him for his selfishness. Nothing you do is ever going to make a difference because there is no desire or commitment to change.
  • finally trying to change someone’s tastes, preferences, feelings, opinions, and personal choices that have no impact on others’ lives is wrong, unfair, and when done with persistence, can constitute as abuse.

Most relationships may not be those non-negotiable black and white situations. They may fall in the grey area – where your spouse, friends, parents, children, or co-workers are not really selfish and have good intentions but may be making choices that either impact them or both of you in a harmful/negative way. In these situations, understanding what factors constitute change, being empathetic to the challenges in engendering real change, and knowing what expectations of change are fair versus unfair can go a long way in shaping our relationships to fulfill our needs.

Please share your thoughts and experiences with trying to change some part of yourself or someone you love or care for.

Related Posts:

I hope the following links drive home the point that change cannot be used to gain approval/validation, to alter one’s personality/preferences nor can it be used to make a failed/abusive relationship work.  Change is pertinent in primarily 2 broad situations – (1) when we ourselves are unhappy with the existing state and wish to change – and (2) when our behavior directly impinges on another’s rights.

Can a woman marry and change an uninterested man into a loving and responsible husband?

Taking responsibility for improving (?) men’s sex lives empowers women?

Does loving someone mean we should improve them?

How do we go about accepting ourselves just the way we are?

“I think most problems in life are when we look for approval and validation outside of ourselves.”

“10 years ago, the girl would have been counselled on how to change her dress sense for the boy, how to do as he says.”

Who would you never ask for advice?

What are you criticised the most for?

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.

Recognizing Emotional Abuse

Guest Post by wordssetmefreee

The last post and some recent emails brought up the subject of abuse within families.  I’m glad that the email writer moved out.  She is able to analyze her situation quite rationally, which indicates that she got out in time.  Although the majority of these emails tend to come from women, men can also be victims of abuse.  One recent email from an American woman detailed how her Indian boyfriend was being emotionally blackmailed by his parents.  Many commenters advised her to stop dating him because he needed to gain control of his own life before entering into a relationship.  In my own extended family, my cousin, who I grew up with chose to not get married.  After delaying his parents’ attempts to get him married for a few years, he finally came out in the open and declared he doesn’t ever want to get married.  He is an only child and  has been subjected to emotional blackmail (such as daily threats of illness and suicide, hysteria, self-starvation) from his parents.  Five years since he announced his decision, they are still around, but I do see that he is worn down, tired, and stressed most of the time.  He was a happy, fun loving child, always following me around (I’m eight years older to him) asking me to play hide and seek with him.  It bothers me when I see him become a hollow version of himself.

Emotional abuse is a potent method of damaging someone’s psyche, especially a person’s sense of self worth and dignity.  It is potent because it often goes unrecognized.  Its incognito status allows people to inflict substantial damage on victims – as much as that through visible forms of abuse such as aggression and violence.

Socially sanctioned forms of abuse are the hardest to recognize.  In many cultures, parents have unlimited authority over their children.  Any situation where authority goes unchecked is a fertile environment for abuse.  Another culturally sanctioned form of abuse occurs with other authority figures such as teachers, boarding school staff, clerics and law enforcement officers.  This is not to say that all parents, teachers, clerics and police are abusive; but if their authority is not subject to checks and balances, there is potential for abuse, and support when it does occur.

It is important to note that in the case of parents, spouses, and intimate partners, they may not always be aware that they are turning abusive.  Although it is difficult to empathize with the abuser, he/she could also be caught up in a destructive cycle that cannot be voluntarily broken, without professional help, and distancing from the victim.

In the Indian context, parental abuse often goes unrecognized because there is an entire network of constructs, rules and operations that have been built around it.  Recognizing parental abuse threatens so many existing power structures that cultural walls have been built around it to safeguard the unquestioned authority of parents.  Accusing one’s parents of the smallest wrongs is tantamount to treason.  There is so much fear and guilt surrounding this discussion that many sons and daughters don’t dare to broach their parent’s fallibility.  Any attempt at doing so is often accompanied with tremendous guilt and self-reproach on the victim’s part.

However, problems, especially when they are deep-rooted, cannot be pretended away.  It is important for us to recognize abuse.  People are often shocked at the word ‘abuse’ when it is used in the context of their loved ones.  Ironically, it is loved ones who are the most likely to inflict abuse – their increased proximity to the victim and their sense of entitlement, and in some cases, co-dependence make intimate relationships more prone to abuse than relationships that are one step removed.

Who can inflict emotional abuse?

– Spouses/partners

– Parents on their minor children

– Parents on their adult children

– Adult children on their aging parents

– Relatives on children in the family

– Siblings

– Bullies at schools, colleges, and in cyber space

– Police on people in their custody

– Teachers and school authorities on children

– Managers on their reports

What forms does emotional abuse take?

– humiliating, excessive judging/criticizing, shaming, slandering, ridiculing, being dismissive, labeling, condescending

– controlling, taking away choices (requiring permission for going out, controlling spending, controlling routine choices like dressing, showering, eating), infantalization

– accusing (being overly suspicious, reading into every move), blaming (holding victim responsible for abuser’s problems and happiness)

– unreasonable or impossible demands

– emotional distancing, silent treatment, alienating, emotional abandonment or neglect (withholding affection, love, support, withholding communication and expecting mind reading)

– excessive codependence (treating the other person as an extension of themselves, not respecting boundaries, knowing what is best for you, being constantly needy)

– threats and intimidation (loud voice and aggressive body language meant to induce fear, direct or indirect threats to the other person, her reputation, her children, her parents, her safety)

– emotional blackmail (threats of suicide, ill-health or becoming an alcoholic), hysteria (disproportionately intense reaction to mistakes), and self-injurious behavior or threats on self-harm (cutting oneself, burning oneself)

– baiting (deliberately provoking anger through false accusations, preying upon weaknesses)

– creating no-win scenarios (asking someone to choose between two bad options – “you either starve or you apologize for something you didn’t do”, “you either cut off with your brother or cut off with me”)

Some less common forms of expression

– Symbolic suffering (setting fire to a toy or favorite object) – inflicting suffering on an inanimate object or a small animal meant as a threat or intimidation

– Engulfment – showering excessive and suffocating amounts of attention, constantly checking whereabouts, inducing guilt (when victim enjoys something) and fear, exhibiting pathological jealousy

– Stalking – either physical or via phone/email

– Gas lighting/brainwashing – omitting or twisting information to favor the abuser and make the victim doubt their own memory or understanding of events

– Recruiting – making the other person an accomplice in questionable activities

What It Feels Like

The victim often feels confused, hurt, and frightened.  (I will begin to use the female pronoun but this applies to both men and women.)  She loses confidence and begins to doubt herself.  She may doubt her own opinions and beliefs.  She may even begin to doubt facts and her own memories.  There is a sense of one’s reality slipping away.  This makes the victim feel powerless.  Most of the victim’s energy is focused on “being careful” around the abuser’s moods, trying to “read” his signals, and working hard to earn his approval.  The victim is filled with a feeling of dread; there is always the feeling that something may explode (even when things are going well).  The victim begins to blame herself when things get ugly (“if only I had been more careful, if only I got home earlier, if only I cooked his favorite meal”).  The abuser and victim go through cycles of “good” and bad phases.  During the “good” phase, the abuser regrets his actions, tries to flatter or please the victim, and makes peace.  The peace is invariably temporary and is shattered for the smallest and most unpredictable “reasons”.   Initially, the “good” phases serve the purpose of locking the victim in the destructive relationship; however in later stages, the victim begins to understand the hollowness in the kind gestures, begins to recognize the pattern to the point of being able to predict what is coming next, but is unable to break out of it.

How To Cope

There is only one way to cope with abuse.  And that is by putting physical distance between oneself (victim) and the abuser.  At first, this might mean leaving the room and refusing to engage in abusive interactions.  Eventually, moving out of the abuser’s life is necessary for survival.  Leaving requires 2 things – planning and support.  A practical plan is necessary – where will I live temporarily, how will I earn my living, etc.  The victim also needs the support of another human being – a close friend or relative who will help the victim not give in to her fears and go back to the abuser.

Even after getting away from the abuser, many victims continue to suffer the effects of abuse – they will continue to suffer from a lack of self worth, make harmful or self-destructive choices, become close to people who are another version of their previous abuser, and continue to be unhappy.  Victims need to work with a counselor and take the support of strong, reliable friends/family and work on the process of self-healing.

The abuser can recover only through psychological counseling and doing the hard work of recognizing, understanding, and modifying his own destructive behavior patterns.

Victims of abuse cannot be told or expected to “snap out of it”.  Recognizing and dealing with abuse, and supporting the victim practically and emotionally are the only ways to authentic healing.

Workplace Equality requires Equality at Home

Guest Post by wordssetmefreee

If you are a mother who works in a conventional office setting, the scenario in the following article by Katharine Zaleski may sound familiar to you:

http://fortune.com/2015/03/03/female-company-president-im-sorry-to-all-the-mothers-i-used-to-work-with/

Two telling excerpts from the article:

“I secretly rolled my eyes at a mother who couldn’t make it to last minute drinks with me and my team. I questioned her “commitment” even though she arrived two hours earlier to work than me and my hung over colleagues the next day.”

And

“I sat in a job interview where a male boss grilled a mother of three and asked her, “How in the world are you going to be able to commit to this job and all your kids at the same time?” I didn’t give her any visual encouragement when the mother – who was a top cable news producer at the time – looked at him and said, “Believe it or not, I like being away from my kids during the workday… just like you.””

Zaleski’s article makes some great points on

  • the attitude of younger women/male and female non-parents/male employees with kids(fathers) toward employees who are mothers
  • the very little empathy and support that mothers receive at the workplace
  • the condescension with which they are viewed when they have to cancel a meeting or need to take an unexpected day off

However, this successful, professional woman ignores the role of fathers in parenting: What I find disappointing about this article is

  • The author reserved her condescension (in the past) only for mothers, and did not extend it to fathers as well. Many men in senior management tend to be married with kids. Yet no one questions them if they have to cancel a meeting because it is assumed that the cancellation has nothing to do with parenting responsibilities or family time. This is representative of many people I’ve known here, both men and women.
  • Why is the role of fathers never discussed when we talk about over-burdened mothers?
  • When we say workplaces are “male-oriented”, what do we mean? Do we mean that they revolve around the needs of men, with little understanding of the needs of women?
  • Does this imply that taking care of kids should not be a male concern and only women workers must worry about childcare and parenting?
  • Why can’t we start using the term “parent-friendly” instead of “mother-friendly” to refer to workplaces that provide flexible schedules, work-from-home options, and more autonomy to their employees?

The change in perspective that Katharine Zaleski experienced is commendable. She started a company, PowerToFly that matches women with technical skills to remote jobs that they can perform from home. I’m glad she is doing something to make it possible to tap into the talents of countless women who lack sufficient supports at home.

However, we need to start having discussions on the role of fathers in parenting. Even in the US, men and women still play very traditional roles when it comes to parenting.

Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In is in the same vein – it talks about how women need to be more assertive in the workplace but doesn’t discuss how fathers need to do their fair share at home.

We seem to be fighting for equality in the workplace but remain content with inequality at home by turning mothers into supermoms.

How can we expect people at work to treat women (and mothers) as equals if we don’t change our gender based attitudes toward housework and parenting?

———————————————————————————————————–

Some experiences I’ve had in this regard:

Everywhere I go, I’m seen as being solely responsible for all tasks related to children and home.

My children’s pediatrician, a woman, always concludes the visit with a list of instructions meant for me alone, even if my husband is present.

“Make sure he takes this 3 times a day with meals, “ she says, looking at me, then turns to my son and says, “Mommy’s gonna get you all better buddy!”

I encounter this at my kids’ school on the days I volunteer in the classroom.

The teacher says to some kids, “Oh look what mommy packed you for lunch today! You are one lucky kid!”

All emails from the teacher to the volunteering parents are addressed, “Dear Ladies”, and unfortunately, most of them ARE ladies.

I encounter this at my workplace too. Even the compliments are suffocating.

“I don’t know how you do it all!” (I DON’T do it all. I do my fair share of the work, my husband does his fair share and we let go the things we can’t do.)

A recent conversation with my friend, a full time working mom:

She works full time at a very aggressive company with an extremely stressful work environment. The other day, she was complaining about taking home work again over the weekend.

She said, “My boss is such a slave driver. Lucky for him, he has a stay at home wife to take care of his kids.”

So, she puts another woman down for her legitimate choice but doesn’t hold her own husband accountable.

I said to her, “They must’ve made a joint decision on that. When one parent chooses to stay home, the family takes a huge cut in income. The advantage is more work life balance, with one parent taking care of earning, while the other takes care of home duties. When both parents work, they must share cooking, cleaning, and parenting duties.   Either way, people should do whatever works for them. In both cases, both parents should share the overall work fairly. “

To this, she said, “The problem is, my husband can come home and relax, but I can’t. He doesn’t feel guilty about not spending time with my daughter or if there’s no food at home. I do.”

This then is the crux of the problem. Women are finally getting more choices and opportunities work wise. But we come home and nothing much has changed. Women still need to make those meals and care for their children. And if the working mother fails at achieving this impossible state, then she punishes herself with guilt. It’s still her job and her job alone to cook, clean, do dishes, laundry, and parent the kids.

Another seemingly small incident that brings to light the casual guilt inducing culture mothers are surrounded by:

I was in line at the grocery store. A woman in front of me with a child in tow placed 3 frozen food type of lunches, 2 cans of soup, and a carton of milk on the counter.

The cashier, who was probably just making small talk with her, said breezily, “I guess you’re not cooking today!!:)))”

The woman looked slightly stricken, and then went on to painfully explain why she was picking up those frozen food lunches and soup cans. “Well tomorrow, I’m expecting guests so I have to clean my entire house and prep for the elaborate meal I’m going to make. So, you know …. (smiles apologetically) …. I’m trying to simplify at least today’s meals.”

The cashier and the customer are probably unaware of this exchange as being guilt inducing. But it’s all around us. I’m sure he wouldn’t have made that comment to a man buying those frozen items.

Or worse, he might’ve said, “Guess, your wife’s out of town!!:))”

———————————————————————————————————–

For this mindset to change, we should start changing workplaces not only to support mothers but to also change our expectations for fathers. We need to start building a workplace culture that encourages work life balance – a place where a father can proudly say he needs to leave early to attend his daughter’s soccer game.

To a smaller extent, I do see this happening. One of my colleagues, a marketing manager goes for a run with his daughter on Wednesday afternoons (which is a short school day) to help her train for marathons. Another colleague, a graphic designer, alternates short and long working days with her husband, so they take turns picking up the kids and cooking. My husband and I do the same thing. I know one dad in the autism support group that I run who does business consulting work (for startups) from home and takes care of the home and kids, while his wife has a full time in-office type of job.

Sheryl Sandberg’s next book, “Lean In Together” talks about how men need to do their fair share at home.

“About time we discussed that!” was my first thought, when I heard about the book’s release – although a little voice in my head said, with the kind of money Sandberg and her husband make, did they ever have to worry about household chores when they can hire fantastic help?:-)  What do they even know about the struggles of everyday kind of families?  But let’s ignore that for a moment and look at the advice.

Although she gives suggestions that make sense (share the house work 50/50, be equally involved with your kids, etc.), the overall pitch of the book seems a bit salesy. The “perks” of gender equality at home include “better sex for spouses and better profits for companies (due to more satisfied, productive employees), more promotions to go around and 5% growth in our GDP”. This to me seems like a desperate sell to get men to do their fair share of work. Or a bid to get privileged, white boys club type managers to look down kindly on their male subordinates going home earlier to do “a bit more” at home.

Gender equality at home may not bring higher profits and higher profits and productivity and benefits to men should not be the driving force behind gender equality.

The REAL positive outcome for men from gender equality at home? Dads get to give their children hugs and wipe their tears. Dads get to cheer their kids at sports. Dads get to really know their kids and earn their trust and respect and love. Moms get to be human because the work is shared fairly. When moms feel good, they can bond better with their husbands. Husbands “benefit” too from this emotional bonding and warmth. This is not exactly in the category of “profitable” but it’s an awesome feeling and you can’t put a price on it.

But all of the above benefits to men – better bonding with their spouses and children – are things that flow from doing the right thing. We must do the right thing simply because it’s right, not for a benefit.  And I think it’s not just important to bring about change, but to do so for the right reasons, so that the change is genuine and long lasting.

Gender equality begins at home. And it matters because it’s fair. Because women deserve equality. Like everyone else. It’s that simple.

Please share your thoughts and experiences on the sharing of housework, parenting, and workplace attitudes.

I talked about my experiences in the US. If you live elsewhere, in what respects are your experiences different/same in Europe and other countries in Asia (Singapore, China, Japan, India, etc.)?