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What Living With Food Intolerance Taught Me About Dependence

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By Unmana Datta:

One recent night, after coming home late from work, my husband tidied up the house, set up the new microwave, and did laundry and a few dishes, so that I would have it easier the next day. I had stayed in bed much of the day, reading and texting with friends, and had gone out in the evening to run an errand and meet a friend: all activities that made me feel like I was slacking off. The next morning, I got up late as usual, and went into the kitchen to make breakfast, where I saw evidence of my husband’s exertions.

For the last eight months, I haven’t had a job. But my husband continues to do his share of the housework. We don’t have a schedule or count pennies. I do some cooking and most of the laundry when I’m feeling well; when I’m not, I stay in bed and become depressed and irritable, and he does his best to take care of me after long days at work.

Guilt. Gratitude. These are two feelings I have about this arrangement. Neither of which seems quite right for a romantic relationship, although I suppose they’re both common enough.

Eight years ago, I was so sick — and admittedly, stressed out by an unpleasant workplace — that I quit the job I was doing then. It took me a few more years to figure out that I was intolerant to several common food ingredients: most importantly, wheat and dairy. But at the time, all I knew was that I was often too unwell to get out of bed. It also took me years of managing my diet (so that I am now much better) to realise that certain foods have a direct effect on my emotional well-being, triggering anxiety or depression, and often both.

I tried to do some freelance work, but I had no energy or motivation. For the first time since I was 23, I was financially dependent on someone else. One day I snapped, and accused my husband of resenting me for not earning. When I had calmed down enough to listen, he pointed out that he had not indicated any resentment. I had been projecting: I’d felt so resentful of my situation that I’d assumed he had too.

This guilt hit me on two levels. Women are constantly told that they have to be the ‘caring’, ‘nurturing’ partner. They are expected to take care of the people they love, and not only in sickness. It’s a sexist double standard, but it’s one that we’re all socialised into. It is a picture that offered me some semblance of control, of purpose. But instead, I was the one in bed or on the sofa, feeling frustrated by this unnamed lethargy that I could only name — and curse — as laziness.

My feminist guilt hit harder, although my feminism at the time was rudimentary, rooted in quixotic notions of gender equality and female strength. I had vowed I wouldn’t make the same mistake as my mother, whose husband — my father — refused to let her work and then treated her with contempt for her lack of income. And then I became dependent, financially and physically and emotionally, on a man. The financial dependence was hardest to swallow.

The guilt increases because I know most women have to do so much more work than the men they live with, and my partner willingly does more than his share. We joke sometimes that I’m the husband, though a nice, modern one who doesn’t mind the wife coming home late from work. But while this joke makes me feel better — we’re laughing at gender roles that don’t apply to our situation — it doesn’t work when I’m out of a job. Isn’t the husband supposed to at least earn?

Description: A painting of a young woman lying in the grass, with her head resting in her hand
Description: A painting of a young woman lying in the grass, with her head resting in her hand. Credit: Amrita Sher-Gil [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Just as feminism seemed to condemn me, it has also saved me. I now have friends who are feminist and who join me in questioning these assumptions, whose love saves me from feeling worthless. I have a therapist who points out the guilt I carry and asks me to love myself when I don’t know how.

This year, without a full-time job to go to, I’ve spent much more time with friends. I’ve spent hours working next to one friend or another so we would both have company; I’ve spent days and weeks in friends’ homes, melding my life into theirs. And I have been amazed, over and over again, by the kindness I have encountered.

Being unwell is a part of my life: each time I eat something that my body rejects, I have to wait for days, sometimes weeks, to feel better again. I am used to being taken care of by my husband: it’s relatively new to have friends look after me when I’m unwell, physically or emotionally. To be fed when I feel incapable of feeding myself, to be comforted when I am in tears, and to be reminded over and over again that I am loved and not alone.

And I realise how rewarding it can be to allow yourself to be dependent and vulnerable in some ways, as long as it’s with the right people. I had spent so much of my life protecting myself from people who would exploit my vulnerabilities to hurt me that I had almost forgotten that this is a necessary part of any relationship. That what we do for those we love doesn’t have to be equal or similar to what they do for us, that accepting a friend’s help can be as much a gesture of love as offering it.

My ‘family’ of partner and friends consists of people with varying degrees of ability, and while this might limit our capacity to actively care for each other in some ways, it also expands our understanding of each other, and perhaps makes us more effective in our care.

One of the reasons these friends make up my family — the people who are closest to me, the people I let myself be seen by with all my flaws and vulnerabilities — is that they are full of empathy. And some of that empathy comes from having various issues to deal with of their own, and learning that everyone, every body, has different needs and paces. Even for my more able friends, having awareness and empathy is key to their capacity for love.

For instance, one of my best friends lives with chronic pain and sometimes cancels on our dates. But even though we can’t meet every week, her affection (often in the form of emojis and gentle mockery of my self-doubt), her willingness to be honest and available and vulnerable, her insistence on demanding more from the world, make my days immensely richer. And it strikes me (even though my husband has pointed this out to me a hundred times, but some truths you only believe when you arrive at them on your own) that this is similar to what I do for my husband.

Therapy has helped me learn to give myself credit for what I do. So I ask my husband, yet once again, what I do for him. This is what he says: You don’t accept the world as it is. You expect more from yourself — which gives me the courage to keep working to be better. You kept showing me that relationships are important and need our time and attention, by planning vacations or dates, by reminding me to do something nice for my parents and siblings.

I remind him that I don’t do that last anymore. And then I realise that’s also part of being a good partner: drawing a line and saying I’ve done enough, you need to step up.

So I finally admit, we take care of each other. When I’m unwell, which is typically several days of the month, he willingly takes up the bulk of the cooking and laundry and anything else that needs doing — we are also lucky and immensely privileged to have a wonderful domestic worker who does most of the cleaning.

Most importantly, he is kind and gentle — always, but even more so during those days. I spend much time reading or watching TV, partly because some days, that’s all I have energy for, and I point him to things he might like. I continue to try to be a good partner (even though on some days I fail), which is exactly what he does for me.

What I do for him and for our relationship is not less important than what he does for us. Dependence is too messy to measure.

The answer perhaps lies in something I’ve learned from the disability rights movement as well as feminism: anyone who thinks they are independent is kidding themselves. What we need is more circles of mutual dependence, where we can lean on each other in different ways. We need communities and families that we build based on our needs and interests and the love we find as adults.


Unmana Datta lives in and loves Bombay. She writes (mostly) non-fiction, and plays with colours and music and words.

This post was originally published on Skin Stories.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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