When Roles Blur

Prema Jayakumar

The world is changing much more rapidly as time passes. Changes that would have occurred over a couple of generations earlier are now taking place in the course of a couple of years. Maybe because the dissemination, whether of information or infection, is worldwide in a matter of weeks or even days.

And yet, attitudes seem to be taking the same time as they used to change, often creating a mismatch between expectations and realities. The old certainties have been shaken and yet are still being clung to. This is especially true of the average man’s attitude to society as a whole, to the workplace and to the family. The old idea of the wise pater familias, of the infallibility of the head of the household, that old saw of ‘He for god and she for god in him’ has changed. No father (or mother) expects their children to obey them unquestioningly any longer. The children seem to have achieved some sort of independence. And yet, and yet, the divide of the duties of the two genders is still in force. The expectations from the men and women in the household are different. This is unfair to both the sexes. While the burden of domesticity often falls on the woman, the expectations of success weigh heavily on the men. A failure in the workplace is much heavier on male shoulders than on female shoulders. This is going to cause a lot of unhappiness, mental stress in the post-pandemic world where jobs will be lost, expected promotions will not happen and many will be left discontented and despairing.

If we want to create an equitable society in which everyone can thrive, we need to give boys more choices when they are young. A certain amount of change is coming about, but as said earlier, attitudes are taking more time to change than the world permits today. To let boys develop a gender-dictated birth right that will most likely, be automatically whisked away from them by high-achieving girls is a recipe for resentment that probably makes foreruptions of anger and violence. As it is, we hear that domestic violence has been on the rise during this enforced incarceration. The reasons may be many – the lack of occupation, shortage of money, the forced sharing of limited space, all of it. But, why does it result in violence? Why does blame fall on the weakest in the home? Counselling and treatment have been mooted, but that is only palliative. We need to address this problem in every home rather than in the outside world. And we need to address it before the boys go out into the world and face harsh realities about competition and success.

Possibly, this lockdown has done something that was not its primary intention which was to prevent people from going outside. The unintended result has been that people, families, have been forced to stay inside their homes, the members thrown into each other’s exclusive company, forced to share the domestic chores as well as the limited space. The sheer physical burden of day to day life has been brought to the forefront as it has never been in living memory. I don’t know how many men were really involved in the running of the household before this lockdown, but definitely post-lockdown, most men have been forced to acknowledge and familiarise themselves with the nitty gritty of daily life at home – how the cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, sourcing vegetables and groceries and the rest of the daily round takes place. Whether they help or not in this daily routine, they too have been made conscious of a life other than the surface awareness of activity that provides their needs and comforts. Which is all to the good.

It was Anne Saxton who said ‘I was tired of being a woman, / tired of the spoons and the pots, /…tired of cosmetics and silks/I was tired of the gender of things.’ Maybe the boys today are saying, ‘I am tired of being a boy, tired of having to achieve, / tired of macho posturings / I am tired of the gender of things.’ Which would be a really worthwhile result of all this pain and suffering.

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