Nothing natural about parenting

The argument that women are better at parenting is less privilege, more social oppression


Parenthood is a predominantly a social experience, since parents themselves are products of the society they live in.
Parenthood is a predominantly a social experience, since parents themselves are products of the society they live in.

A recent article I read on women who graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology in the 1990s left me wondering about parenthood. These women, who battled multiple odds to graduate as an engineer (including, in one memorable case study, not having a senior class Mathematics teacher in an elite all-girls convent school), were among the earliest who broke the professional ceiling in a newly liberalized India. And, while many of them went on to have successful corporate careers, they dropped out, or scaled back their professional ambitions after childbirth. Their husbands, meanwhile, continue to lead successful careers.

Why do we assume that growing a child up is a woman’s business? Surely times have changed enough now for both, men and women, to share this responsibility equally. For some no doubt, as in the case of a 37-year-old woman who recently moved back to Mumbai from New York, where she held a high-profile job with a leading fashion brand, it is a matter of being practical. She was pregnant with her second child when she moved to the city on account of her husband’s transferrable job, and “hates not working,” but it made sense for her to take care of her baby for a while before joining the workforce. However, she needs to find a good childcare service in the city first, she says. Her husband, a hands-on father finds it more difficult to take care of his child in this city than when they lived in New York. Companies are not flexible with working out of home, he rues. The couple had earlier moved to New York on account of her job, and at that time her husband had quit his, to join her there.

In the case of another Mumbai-based couple, who has been married for over 16 years and have a 14-year-old daughter, the wife left her job when they moved to the city eight years ago. She made a pact with her husband then—if she were to be the one looking after the “home front”, she demanded he look at it as work that was equal to what he did in his investment firm.

The absence of workplace infrastructure to support women—and men—as parents is odd, given the stress that our culture places on parenthood and marriage as a means to achieve that most ultimate, and we’re assured, satisfying goal.

And while both, men and women working professionals face this problem, it’s hardly thought of as a real concern because women naturally, have babies and would ‘naturally’ stay back to care for them. ‘Naturally’ the logical fallacy continues, men don’t have what it takes to rear their own baby. Our blind spot lies in not questioning the ‘natural argument’.

Parenthood is a predominantly a social experience, since parents themselves are products of the society they live in; social and cultural mores affect how children are raised and how parents think of parenthood; laws governing the protection of children’s rights shape the way society is required to think of and protect childhood; the economics of family structures play a role in the number of children that people may have, and how money will be proportioned between them. Universally, people rejoice when boys are born because boys keep the money within the family, while girls, who marry into another family, don’t. Hence the phrase ‘paraya dhan’. One of the ways that patriarchy operates is by controlling a woman’s womb. This is evidenced in the pressure that urban youth face (marry by 25, first child by 28, down payment for a house by 29) for instance. After all, patriarchy is not just about gender inequality; it is about keeping an entire system of inequality and social hierarchies in place. What is natural about this?

Within this system of inequality, certain relationships and roles are accorded primacy over others. Heterosexual couples over single men, women and transpersons. Biological parents over adoptive. Marital relationships over same-sex coupledom. Women as parents over men—although this last is less privilege, more social suppression. This argument that women are naturally inclined to be parents by virtue of having given birth also performs a very important function besides child-rearing—it ensures that the man continues to have the economic power in a family.

There are arguments, besides economic ones, that disprove the various assumptions about parenthood. Innumerable blogs, personal accounts, scientific studies and reports are testimony to the fact that motherhood in fact, could be highly stressful; co-parenting by same-sex couples highly rewarding; and fatherhood, when performed equitably, could be satisfying. In each case, it’s the opposite of the common assumption that’s being proved—motherhood doesn’t feel naturally rewarding, fatherhood is not an awkward affair of silences and distance and same sex couples, who chose to eschew traditional heterosexual modes of relating often distribute the tasks of parenting more equitably.

For, after all, parenting is a list of tasks—as most of us who are parents, or have experienced other parents at close quarters can attest to. And if all the tasks fall on one person, it is only as fair and natural as it would be for the boss to assign all tasks to one male worker in a team. Imagine the uproar we’d hear then.

The people interviewed for this blog requested anonymity.

The Sex Talk is a fortnightly blog on gender, sexuality and blind spots.

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