The elders in my family are pleased to hear that I’m home raising my children, because, as one of them put it recently, “a mother should raise her children.” But despite the fact that I am at home doing what this aunty thinks is right, the feminist in me balks at this idea, or at least at the way it was so unquestioningly put. The younger uncles and professionals in the family seem to hesitate, for a moment at least, at the idea that I may have wasted my degree; I assume they suspect I went to university to find a husband. But then they too move on quickly. One of my older uncles asks, with mortifying directness, if I am giving my baby “mother’s milk.” In the eyes of many of my relatives, my current role seems natural, and a wasted degree seems a small price to pay for stay-at-home motherhood. Perhaps the fact that it isn’t an issue for them is part of the reason it has become such an issue for me. Have I wasted my degree? If I have, does it really matter? If I were a man, would my family members ask more questions about my retreat from the professional world?
Adding to my frustration is the fact that straight A’s for both boys and girls are revered in our community. Family and community elders used to inquire with interest about my school reports, and to take real pride in my academic achievements. Now that I’m a mother, they seem to expect me to fold these academic achievements into deep storage while I occupy myself with more traditionally female tasks.
I’ve heard rumors that university admissions officers here in South Africa are reluctant to give places in medical school to Indian girls, whom they expect to become stay-at-home moms soon after earning their degrees — if they finish their degrees at all — wasting spots that could have gone to students who actually planned to practice medicine. I know several real-life examples of Indian women who have done exactly this, so it’s hard to know what to think about this kind of ethnic profiling. It harms Indian women who genuinely do plan to practice medicine, but I can see the admissions officers’ perspective.
Among my professionally successful peers who are now stay-at-home moms, too, it seems that many are struggling as I am, to hold onto our former selves, fitting in intellectually stimulating activities during nap time, or whenever we can. I love my kids, but I wish I enjoyed being home more – Sisyphean tasks like laundry-folding, toy-sorting and cooking grate against me continually. Though I want to stay home with my kids, I abhor the domestic work that is needed to make the home around us livable. Despite being raised in a fairly traditional Indian household, I never learned to cook or clean. People tend to assume I excel at these tasks by virtue of growing up with my mom, grandma and great-grandma all living under the same roof. But too many hands in the kitchen meant that I had little opportunity to learn these culturally cherished skills – though my lack of interest no doubt played a role as well.
My family and culture may provide fodder for my angst, but they offer some food for hope as well. I’m following in the footsteps of my mom, who also gave up work for a few years in order to be home with us. She did eventually go back to work, and she also managed to make space in her days to pursue other interests, like sewing (mostly for my kids!). Still, I now understand the guilt and confusion that comes with balancing work and home and children. Add to that the pull between what is expected of me and what I expect for myself, and you have a recipe for exhaustion. This may be a mental quagmire of my own making, but I need to figure it out, for myself and my daughter.