If I asked you to imagine a typical happy family, what is the first image that would pop into your mind? Perhaps, programmed by years of social stereotyping, we would picture the following:
The breadwinner husband with a six-figured annual salary, and a smiling stay-at-home mother, who despite running after a toddler and the wailing baby strapped on her shoulders, is impeccably dressed, right from the floral frock she wears down to the gorgeous pearl set around her neck.
Now imagine what would happen if you flipped this so-called “traditional and typical” family image on its head, and ended up with a wife who is the primary [or even sole] breadwinner and a husband [not in a floral frock, hopefully!] who’s taking care of a baby while, say, cleaning the house or folding laundry.
A stay-at-home husband? Outrageous!
I’ve asked a lot of people about this hypothetical scenario. The general consensus has been that it sounds unrealistic, comical and perhaps even displays shades of a marriage that isn’t functionally accurate. At first, I was amused by the initial responses. However, as more and more people chimed in with similar responses, the amusement slowly changed to anger; perhaps just as you’re feeling right now. Sadly, this cuts a very sorry image of the society that we live in; one that, despite all their educated decisions and tolerances, refuses to acknowledge that there is a wave of role-reversal in process.
Over the years, I’ve been asked plenty of uncomfortable questions; some just plainly intrusive, some others seemingly harmless but bundled neatly in a tone that I can only describe as mocking. The query of “how it felt to be stay-at-home dad” was one of the latter. Initially, I was surprised and rather shocked. But, as it went on, I started to take it in my stride and would often respond with a sarcastic reply. The truth, though, is that I am not sure that there is a definition that can do it justice. I have to be honest and say that it isn’t something that I’d fantasised about as a young kid. So, it wasn’t like I woke up one day and decided that I wanted to be a homemaker while my wife went to work. It sort of just happened.
Gender roles are set in stone
Even as I took on the role of the primary caregiver, I knew it wouldn’t be an easy ride. What I had not imagined was how difficult being a stay-at-home dad could be, in a society such as ours. Perhaps it’s because we’re too deep-rooted in our misguided beliefs. Such as the one that says it is preferable to have a man as the primary or sole breadwinner, while the woman is pushed to stay within the confines of the house. Or maybe it is because there is a stereotype that a man’s sense of self-worth is somehow ingrained in his ability to provide for his family. And what about the woman’s sense of self-worth, I hear you ask? Well, she’s just treated as a second-class citizen, isn’t she?
There is even a marked difference in the way women are addressed. The men are given a fancy term such as stay-at-home dad, while the mothers are just labelled homemakers. Personally, I find it demeaning. But then again, we are largely a patriarchal society. However, I’ve come to realise a discerning fact. Despite all the talk about feminism and the need for women to be at-par with men in our society, we find it difficult to stand up to that ideology of true equality. Often, when I enter a room that is predominantly [if not entirely] filled with women, there is an air of confusion, distrust and eerie silence. While they don’t say anything that makes me uncomfortable, the expressions on their faces often betray their thoughts. And that is something that I’ve really struggled to come to terms with.
Still the odd dad out
But as the saying goes, “practice sort of makes it perfect”. So having been a stay-at-home dad for almost two years now, I am used to being the odd male in a sea of women. Truth be told, it does make me feel like the Hindu god Lord Krishna, frolicking amongst his Gopis. Except for the fact that the “Gopis” here are mostly mothers or nannies, this “Krishna” has a naughty toddler who insists on doing the very opposite of what he’s told; and the “frolicking” is often a conversation about either illness, foods that the kids eat, the school they go to or a combination of all of the above.
What I’ve realised is that the more we constantly harp on about gender equality, the more we seem to be open to the idea of women joining the male bandwagon. However, we are still miles away from men doing activities [or even professions] that were once stereotyped as being for women. So in essence, the transformation or movement is only in one direction. Perhaps, it is to do with how society views us. They say it is acceptable for women to be homemakers, or even all right for women to be one of the earning members of the family while continuing to be care-givers. But should a reversal of roles occur, all hell breaks loose.
All guts and little [or no] glory
During the initial period, I was shunned by stay-at-home moms, who understandably found it odd to have a male adult in their midst. Other dads isolated me too and would conveniently steer the conversation towards their jobs, politics or sports—three areas that are, once again, stereotypically “male territory”. Between being labelled as a weakling and hen-pecked for lacking a heavy dosage of testosterone, I’ve been called a lot of things on this journey of being a stay-at-home father.
However, the biggest lesson that I’ve learnt is that you need bucket-loads of guts, confidence and courage, to rebel against what society accepts as a norm. In fact, it takes a man who is wholly secure with himself to go against the grain and do something different in the name of equality.
Of course, you will have to first make peace with the stares of women at the playground and the men who socially ostracise you. Oh, and then there are the teachers who insist on talking only to your wife about your offspring’s development. In fact, during the first PTA at our son’s new school, the teacher distinctly told my wife that she was unsure how to talk to me.
“Just as you would talk to any parent!” was my reply, as I walked off.
This was first published in the November 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.