By Shambhavi Saxena:
For most of us, a stay-at-home mum is just a natural fact of life. But what I want you to picture now, instead, is a stay-at-home dad. Yes, a father who packs your lunch before school. A father who picks you up from the bus-stand. A father who lays your clothes out, and combs your hair and takes your temperature and does all the stuff traditionally thought of as ‘a mother’s work.’
Stay-at-home dads are not mythic creatures, and if you’ve heard of Atul Agnihotri, you’ll know right away what I’m talking about. He’s been a stay-at-home father for the last fifteen years and his is an exceptional story indeed. But why should he be an exception to a rule? And what is this rule that governs the way men must lead their lives?
The construction of masculinity is complex, involving societal expectations, economic dimensions, modes of humiliation and conformity, and it’s these same dimensions that create a hostile attitude towards male-homemakers. The domestic sphere has been traditionally seen as a space for women, while men operate in the outside world of business, agriculture and politics. Everyone seems to have simply accepted this more or less arbitrary demarcation of space.
Well, not everyone…
The Centre for Health and Social Justice (CHSJ) documented the lives of a group of men from various communities who were part of a project intervention on engaging men to promote gender equality in Maharashtra. The project implemented by CHSJ in partnership with five local partners was supported by UNFPA. From following obsolete, binaristic views on gender, to challenging the idea that men cannot be nurturers and caregivers, these men’s stories of transformation are significant. For if violent masculinity can be learnt, it can also be unlearnt.
An unequal division of labour has meant that men expect and receive economic remuneration for the work that they do, while women generally do not. This work women are expected to do for free – cleaning and ordering the home, child rearing, cooking, etc – is not expected of men even with pay!
This is something Malegaon’s Atul Kamlakar Deshmukh thinks must be challenged. Sitting on a stone floor, knife in hand, chopping onions, he says: “Earlier when I did chores my wife used to stop me and say that this is a woman’s job. But I explained to her that this is our work – you shouldn’t do it alone, we will do it together.” His wife too weighs in, saying: “If he went to fill water, people would tell him that it is not your job, your wife will do it… This is how the social set up was, but not now. Slowly, people are changing.”
Like Kamlakar, Dadaso Nathuram Gurav, a resident of Savardare (Pune) is happy to share child-rearing work with his wife: “This is my daughter – no one else’s,” he says, smiling at the baby on his lap, “If I can’t take out time for my daughter, then who will?”
It has long been known that evenly divided work between men and women can produce a more equitable society. Much of the economic stress that is foisted onto men, even at very young ages, is connected to our society’s expectations that women are better off at home, or ‘in the kitchen.’ By denying women economic freedoms, freedom of choice and movement, we simultaneously box men into a personhood they are not comfortable with.
But being able to share work can come only when both partners are on the same page about how a man and a woman ‘should’ be contributing to their relationship. “The doctor explained about contraceptives,” says Gurav. “The same information I shared with my wife at home.”
Gurav’s involvement didn’t just spike up after the birth of his child. All through his wife’s pregnancy, he accompanied her on all medical visits, relayed the doctor’s instructions, and ensured she had the right calcium and iron intake, and enough exercise too.
Just as Gurav and Kamlakar became more involved in the household and with their partners and children, one Vijay Kavhe, of Karandi (Pune) became an invaluable support system for his four sisters and even their children, saying that he wouldn’t let them feel alone. This meant helping open post office accounts and fixed deposits, and providing sanctuary from abusive in-laws. It also meant being there for his elderly mother, and helping around the house.
The ability to do any of these things, sharing work, and information and being involved, must come by evolving one’s understanding of masculinity.
“If a father is aggressive and a child embraces him and he snaps back or hits the child, then the child feels that no matter how much they love (him), the father gets angry and so the child doesn’t go to the father again and doesn’t embrace him anymore.” So says Vilas Dalvi, a resident of Shidod (Pune). Dalvi found that adhering to traditional masculinity created only resentment in his heart, and in turn in the hearts of his own children.
Dalvi’s family doesn’t fear him anymore. He has become more involved with his children, taking an interest in their lives, spending time with them and entertaining his children.
One man from Bavkarwadi shared a similar experience. “I feel that these traditional roles suffocate our lives,” says Babasahed Mane, who was also documented by CHSJ. For Mane, not having a son of his own was a source of huge disappointment and anger, anger which he often took out on his wife and only daughter. But understanding the way these traditional roles pigeonhole men and women helped him reform his attitude and actions.
Because of their personal growth and commitment, these five men were able to prove that not only are men entirely capable of being caregivers, and embodying a more involved and loving fatherhood, they also proved that it’s never too late to start.
Disclaimer: The views presented in this article are the author’s, and do not necessarily represent the views of UNFPA.