Beyond Labels

Conversations with women breaking gender stereotypes this holiday season and beyond

Sweta Vikram

My generation of women were brought up with labels and told to play certain gender-specific roles. Depending on your sex, it was indoctrinated in a large majority what you would do with your day or the rest of your life. Let us not beat up just Indian society because patriarchy is alive and perpetuated by men and women across various cultures. One of my dear Jewish friend’s grandmother told her recently, “If you make your man work, he will find another woman.”

When the pandemic hit earlier this year, several studies and articles told us that women are disproportionately burdened managing home, work, home schooling, and keeping the family alive. With the holidays around the corner, there is added pressure on women.

How can we change this narrative?

My husband travels a fair bit for work and so do I. The pandemic meant we were both going to be working from home and eating more than five home-cooked meals a week. I love to cook, and Ayurveda teaches us to prepare our meals daily (four hours before we eat). I do that and follow food combinations and Ayurvedic principles of six tastes. But neither do I have the time nor the inclination to cook three meals daily – because we are both working from home.

Child helping in the laundry
Child helping in the laundry. Shutterstock

We love our intermittent fasting, so breakfast was quickly out the window. We figured out how we were going to handle the coming months where neither of us felt burdened. I made it a point to communicate my feelings and hear his. Voila. The chores we do around the house plays to our strengths and has nothing to do with our gender. I love to cook and feed people. I love touching groceries and chatting with the clerk at the checkout counter. My husband finds doing the dishes therapeutic. He runs the laundry and we fold them. It is seamless and there is synergy. On days when we are both tired and extra busy (or cranky!), we order in takeout. Neither of us tries to be perfect.

I do believe that as women we need to communicate our needs and wants to both our partners and children. Some might not intuitively understand so spell it out for them. Reminders help. We need to set healthy boundaries and convey what is doable and what is not. More than anything, we need to abolish gender labels from our homes.

I spoke with three women — all mothers to young boys — whom I admire on so many levels. Their thoughts, their skills, their values, their beliefs, their confidence, their honesty, and the way they have chosen to bring up their sons blows my mind. All three have chosen to discard gender roles when it comes to chores, responsibilities and bringing up their sons. I know that all of their sons have volunteered to cook and experiment in the kitchen – and then some.

Monica Bhide
Monica Bhide

“The roles we play during the rest of the year are the roles we play during a crisis or a celebration,” says Monica Bhide. She is a mother of two boys, works a full-time tech job, and writes beautiful books when she is not playing multiple roles. In Monica’s family, both her boys and she carry their own load. Sure, the boys argue who has more work to do, but they work together as a family unit. She has never mentioned gender to her sons as a way of dividing chores. It’s about who has time and availability.

“When the pandemic hit, I was worried about how to keep my two young sons in high spirits and engaged in life as opposed to the harsh reality outside,” Bhide said. “At first, we would get some take out on weeknights as things were super busy.

But then one day we were sitting and chatting about how much they enjoyed eating new dishes and I thought it would be great if I could get them involved in daily cooking. We could eat new things, save money and they would learn to cook. So, we started one of those services that brings in pre-packed ingredients and both boys fell in love with it. They began to cook every single day and have done so since the pandemic started. We don’t use the service as much now, but it got them into the kitchen and focused on cooking instead of worrying about not having the right ingredients on hand or feeling like a recipe was out of their league. On their own they devised plans on how one cooks and the other one cleans up after dinner.

“My goal is simple: when they grow up, I want them to be self-sufficient, to be able to take care of themselves and their families,” said Bhide.

For Thanksgiving, Bhide and her sons decided they had been doing a lot of cooking, so they wanted to take a break. They ordered Korean Fried Chicken.

“I picked a movie and we sat and ate a very blessed meal together,” she said.

Gitanjali Srivastava
Gitanjali Srivastava

 

Gitanjali Srivastava, a counselor for parents who runs a nonprofit to promote women artists, lives in Lexington, Massachusetts, with her husband and her 10-year-old son.

“We are a small family, and to be together, we have to do things together,” she said. “We take the opportunity of celebration and holidays as well as everyday dinners to come together. In raising a boy, I have been very conscious about his exposure to feminism, human rights, sexuality from an early age.”

Her son often finds time to make a dish or partake in meal preparations with Srivastava.

“He enjoys eating and cooking,” she said. “He was out picking out honey nut squash for Thanksgiving pie. As a child (he was 5), during his summer break, he and I would go through recipe books most days. He would find a dish, we would go shopping and he would come back and try to make it – of course, under my supervision… The most important thing is to let people partake and also take ownership. Let it be fun,” said Srivastava.

Srivastava reminds us women why not to take on the pressure.

“As the holiday season draws closer, the overwhelming enormity of making it special in these dark days falls on us women and we don’t make it easier for ourselves as we have our own expectations to meet and surmount” she said. “Let’s keep the spirit of the holidays in mind. Let’s involve our partners and children to join us in the process of creating the special memories. Let’s keep it simple but fun! Pass down those old family recipes to the next generation and let them carry it forward. Holidays are not about perfection but love and laughter bringing us together.”

Priya Gill
Priya Gill

When I spoke with Priya Gill, a professor at a university in Texas, she said, “I think it is our job as mothers of boys to forge ahead to break stereotypes. During the holiday season many families cook a lot, have visitors and decorate and clean their homes. Instead of taking on all the jobs to make the holidays enjoyable for my son, I make the chores enjoyable, so my son and I do them together – from laundry to cleaning to cooking. By making it fun, I am not only teaching him that housework isn’t a woman’s job only but also am doing it in a manner that doesn’t feel like a punishment for him. He is ten years old, and the fact that he decided to take on Thanksgiving cooking this year by himself, shows that it’s working. As women can be our worst enemies or we can create change for the future generation of women.”

“Gender is a shell game. What is a man? Whatever a woman isn’t. What is a woman? Whatever a man is not. Tap on it and it’s hollow. Look under the shells: it’s not there.” ~ Naomi Alderman