This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while.
I have met highly educated, career-driven, articulate women who once they are married find themselves face-to-face with patriarchy. The most common complaint is expectations from in-laws to be the perfect wife and daughter-in-law, to bring in the bucks but to keep a well-run home, cook nutritious food, keep in touch with relatives, be the repository of culture and tradition ideally of the man’s family and eventually, to have children and rear them, sacrificing whatever it takes in the process.
When I got married was the first time I came up hard against patriarchy. From the assumption that the boy’s side and their traditions take precedence, to comments that “this is your home now”, to pressure to make tea and serve it round for relatives, to a stream of recipes coming my way, to enquiries of about when I would have children. Admittedly, I struggled with it.
Until I realised that I really didn’t need to conform. And that the more I conformed the more I would be expected to conform. That nobody was really holding a gun to my head. That really the worst that could happen would be that my in-laws wouldn’t like me.
Well, hey, they didn’t seem super-pleased with me to start with. So how much did I have to lose?
Thus, began my journey of doing as-I-pleased, of doing what I thought was fair and right. I decided I would split vacations to India so I spent more time with my family, and some days with the in-laws (and my husband would do the same). I decided I would call my in-laws when I felt like and not feel obliged to do even monthly calls. When they visited, I would not feel obliged to cook, just to provide food if needed.
The weird part is I have a less strained relationship with my in-laws as a result. Maybe it’s because I stopped resenting their expectations, simply by discarding them. For their part, maybe their expectations have sunk so low that whatever I do is welcome. Mainly I have stopped caring what they think.
All this within limits, of course. I realised that I don’t need my in-laws to love me, or even like me. I just need them to be civil to me. So to maintain cordial relations I do what’s required. For example, I realised that in my in-law’s house I have to make a show of “helping”, even if there is little to do. So I do that, but I restrict the time I spend there.
Admittedly, it’s much easier because I don’t live in the same city as them. I have to face them, and their disapproval, less. But I think that had I been in the same city, I would still take the same attitude.
I know so many women who complain that their in-laws expect this and that. They complain but they conform. For a newly-married person, the weight of expectations is something that’s hard to deal with. But I see women continuing in this mode forever.
I understand that the level of pressure varies. The man one is married to also makes a huge difference. I am lucky to be married to a man who is largely fair and progressive. He would love for me to be the perfect daughter-in-law and for me to have a close relationship with his parents but he accepts that I don’t. At some level, he realizes he doesn’t make that much of an effort with my parents either – and if he were held to the same standards life would be very painful. But I wonder how many of these women have actually tried to talk to their husbands.
I don’t think freedom always comes easy. It has to be fought for. Sometimes you just need to dig in your heels with your husband and say “sorry, this doesn’t make any sense”. Women seem to live in fear of losing their husbands. But are our husbands really that weak? Would they choose some clearly biased tradition over their wives? And if they do, do we really want them? I’m speaking here of couples who have chosen to marry each other, who knew each other well before getting married and where both husband and wife are financially independent.
And with in-laws, even more I believe it’s not necessary to be liked at the expense of your sanity. I’ve heard women say “my in-laws don’t like me to wear certain clothes”. So? What’s the worst that could happen if you don’t do what they want? Mostly, I think it would be the odd snide remark, or they’d bitch about you. Easy to ignore. Or if it gets too much, distance yourself from them. Chances are they’ll get the point and mellow.
With husbands, there has to be more of a give and take. Sometimes you give in on some things (like I am giving in on the last name of my baby) but I still see most of the give coming from women, and then I see the women moaning. And I wonder, is this really deserving of sympathy? If all your education and financial independence does not empower you to put your foot down and get yourself a fair deal in life, then really, what is the point?
I think the problem is our innate desire to be liked. We don’t test the waters or push the boundaries because we are so scared of not being liked. Sure, it would be great if we could make our choices and everyone patted us on the back and loved us, but the reality is, there are always going to be people who don’t approve of what you do.. and this doesn’t apply to marriage alone. Why then are we so conformist in marriage? Why not suck up the odd disapproval in favour of a more satisfying and fair existence? Maybe it’s time we realised that freedom and equality are not going to be handed to us on a platter, and if the small sacrifice we have to make is social approval, then that’s not too much, is it?
Part 2: in the workplace