August 02, 2013

The Myth of the Supermom

By Shazia Nigar

This year on Mother's Day I came across a cartoon strip that I thought was appropriate for my mother. Two kids were peering into their mother's closet in absolute awe. They had just discovered a 'Superwoman' costume in there. One of them says “ So that's how she does it...”

I, too, have been looking for that answer for a long time. How does she do it? It was only recently that I realised, she does it because she does not have an option. Women do not have a life outside of the family and if they do, it has to be a perfect balance or an imbalance tilting in favour of the domestic. So, in order to earn her independence, to live her life and to be able to enjoy all that she has worked hard to achieve, my mother has no option but to be as much of a supermom as she can be. The merriam-webster dictionary defines supermom as a woman who performs the traditional duties of housekeeping and child-rearing while also having a full-time job. So, if you want your independence, you have to have it all. Thus while my mother runs an international organisation as its country head she has to ensure that the kitchen back home in India is running smoothly. That my grandmother has had her cup of Horlicks. That I am not broke. That my father is taking his medicines.

Men, on the other hand, are defined by their individual accomplishments outside the home. The promotion, the big car, the powerful friends. They do not have to juggle the delicate balance between home and work. They do not have to perform under the intense pressure of living up to the myth of a superdad. If he is not around to see you recover from chicken pox, that’s fine. We all understand. However, if she is not around while her child is suffering, she is a selfish career minded woman.

The traditional idea of motherhood demands that women sacrifice. In a recent interview Rishi Kapoor praises his wife, Neetu Kapoor. He says “ At the age of 22, she gave up her flourishing career and had Riddhima the same year. Which actress would be able to do that?”. Sacrifice. Is that what it takes? That they give up their desires, their achievements and their individual life to prove that they are good mothers. Why is that the ability to sacrifice is a measure of their value in the eyes of their husbands, society, and even their children?

My mother, from as back as I can jog my memory to, has always had to play out this delicate balance between work and home. Sometimes, she managed. Sometimes, she didn't. She wasn't around when I had chicken pox. She wasn't able to make it to the parent-teacher meeting every year. The first time she wasn't home for Eid, it was a big deal. Of course, I had phases where I grudged her absences. While everyone else was getting pampered as their mother fried evening snacks and packed aloo paratha for lunch, I wished my mother was home. To an eight-year-old me it only seemed 'natural' that my mother should also be around. Because, I thought and it seemed as if that is how it should be. She was the only working woman in the family. Of course, my aunt was a teacher in a school. But that didn’t kept her away for days from her family. It was always secondary. To supplement her husband’s earnings, to utilise her education. Not to define herself. Not to create a life that was her own. Never to be independent. That was for my mother to do. And that is what I grudged – that she had a life beyond my father and me.

But, as I grew up I got used to it. Not in a I-can-manage sort of a way. But in a it-is-perfectly-fine-if-she-is-not-always-around sort of a way. As I began to feel the pressure of what it means to be a daughter or a granddaughter as opposed to being a son or grandson, I began to appreciate my mothers struggles better. In an environment, where the domestic is mostly the responsibility of the woman, it is bound to compromise other ambitions she may have. I have felt it irk me when I have been asked to serve guests when I would rather read. Or when my cousin sister has had to fold clothes during her exams while her brother is free to do as he wills. Small examples these. But these build onto larger things. They signal towards what your priorities should be as a woman. And in some way it was these expectations that I was imposing on my mother.

I now realise that just like Superman, the idea of a Supermom is a myth. An urban legend that only makes our lives harder. We cannot have it all. And that is okay. No matter how hard you try, there will be moments you will miss out on. Personal or professional. And that is no reason to allow guilt to ruin the life you have built for yourself. You chose to have a life beyond the family and those close to you need to respect that, not be threatened by it.

Looking at the dictionary definition of a supermom, I think it is time we stopped celebrating the concept. It is time that we challenge the notion of “traditional duties of housekeeping and child-rearing” being the domain of the woman despite the fact that she is as much of a bread winner, if not more. It is time for the woman to stop feeling compelled to play out this balancing act. It is time that we challenged men to rise up to the idea of 'superdads'. Being a supermom doesn't leave you with much to do. The idea dissipates your energies to an extent where you are torn between running a kitchen and ensuring that file is sanctioned at the right time. Besides, the categorization as supermom again restricts the identity of women to the realm of the domestic. That you are a mom, who is also working just by the way.

In a time and space where girls find role models in painted faces gyrating for the male gaze or in mythical ideas of the ' Bhartiya Nari', my mother has taught me the biggest lessons a girl needs to learn. I will not be reduced to being a wife, a mother, a daughter and a sister. These things are important to different women to varying degrees. But, never will it be the whole of me. I will be my own person. I will party loud or seek solitude, just for myself. She has taught me that my life consists of several aspects. Friends, Family, Work and Pleasure. And that never will I allow my relationships to define who I am.

She has taught me that to seek joy outside of the family is an important aspect of being empowered. Work provides a sort of empowerment that is often measured and justified. A woman is allowed to work to earn, to provide, for a purpose. But seeking pleasure, for oneself. For the sake of it, not justifying it, is another degree of being empowered. My mother travels with her friends during holidays; she lives alone, hosts friends, goes cycling and learns the guitar. In today’s world, it is still a rarity. The sad truth often is that once women become mothers, their lives are expected to be all about this all important role, motherhood. My mother has taught me that it need not necessarily be so. And I am forever grateful for that.

To try to be my own person. To own my life. To create an identity for myself. To seek pleasure in travel (although she does get paranoid over tickets/trains/hotels/co-passengers whenever I travel), in photography, in earning my own money and in splurging on myself. To have a life beyond the family. To live. These are the lessons my mother taught me. And I won’t hold a grudge against her for not being there when I had chicken pox or for every parent-teacher meeting she missed or for having a life beyond my father and me. For, she couldn't have taught me these lessons otherwise.

Shazia Nigar is a journalist. Having completed her Masters in Media and Cultural Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, she has worked with Tehelka Magazine in the past. Her articles have previously appeared in Kafila and Counter Currents.

9 comments to The Myth of the Supermom

  • Rushabh

    Very nice and absorbing article, truly from your heart! Can connect with it.

  • Shanker Ramanathan

    It is always interesting to read articles like these which paint a pciture of woman who is often confined to the kitchen without any choice. Ther are nosolutions offered or alternates offered. I am sure if there were satisfactory alternates to the woman as a home maker mankind wouldhave found them by now.Of course women have career aspirations there are alternates available even to child bearing these days which are options.Butit has been time and again estabilished that nurtuting the childthrough its growing age is a primary roleof the Motehr and men wouldonly end up messing itup.

    Maybe there is something in women’shormones which make thembest suited for the role. These are my views and amwritng them at the riskof being labelled a na MCP

    • Shazia Nigar

      ” I am sure if there were satisfactory alternates to the woman as a home maker mankind would have found them by now.”

      -That was the point of this article. That women need not necessarily be home makers. My mother was not always around while I was growing up, and that hasn’t messed me up (although I am messed up, but for completely different reasons). The alternative lies in men taking a more active role in nurturing the child.

      “nurtuting the child through its growing age is a primary role of the Mother and men would only end up messing it up.”

      - What do you mean by ” men would only end up messing it up”? That is a very narrow and condescending view of women and men. While you are restricting the woman to the domestic you are also implying that men are not capable of caring and being sensitive to the needs of another. Do you mean to say men are inherently selfish and self obsessed? I have been fortunate enough to have seen men in the role of caregivers and they have done an excellent job of it. It is patriarchy that prevents men and compels women to be home makers, and not science or nature!

      “Maybe there is something in women’shormones which make thembest suited for the role.”
      - Again : It is patriarchy that prevents men and compels women to be home makers, and not science or nature!

      “These are my views and am writng them at the riskof being labelled a na MCP”
      - You are right on this one.

  • It is an excellent viewpoint. Women, once they become mothers, are expected to be mothers first, wife second, and a career-woman only later. It is obviously unfair.

    However, in the institution of a family, men are always expected to be the workhorse, to be able to complement the women in their lives. Men staying at home full-time (?????), rarity isn’t it?
    Nobody ever gives a man the option to stay at home and take care of the kids. If you do it, you ain’t man enough, is what other men say. It’s time more men step up to become primary caregivers to children and be the primary homemaker. Only then, can the idea of independent women fully realize.

    Having said that, even implementing this is a problem. How would you imbibe the idea in men that they can stay at home and have the option of not being the breadwinner? You have to imbibe that in them as boys; you have to raise boys in the way girls have been historically raised. Seems whacked out, doesn’t it? Give this a thought.

  • JayBee

    I love this article and I wish more women (and men) would think like this. Absolutely beautiful sentiments.

  • Mallika

    Well written and straight from the heart. Children usually emulate their parents! Here’s hoping that more and more parents become aware of the diverse roles that women play, and encourage them to have an independent fulfilling life (without fostering selfishness), so that the same values are inculcated by their children, grandchildren and the generations to come thereafter.

  • Himani

    Well written article. It is encouraging to find more data points of children who grow up happy and well adjusted and in sync with their working mothers. As a mother i have read all these books about the importance of spending time with young children, of watching over their diet and TV habits, about being involved with them. Two questions come to my mind – firstly why is that only i am reading these books and feeling concern about the upbringing of my children and not my spouse. secondly why arent there as many books about the need for women to remain an independence of mind and leisure outside the family. About their mental health and long term happiness. Do women stop being important once we are no longer children??

  • Well-written Shazia. As a new stay-at-home mom, I echo your sentiments. I am grateful for my parents who raised me to be my own person first.

  • shobha

    Congratulations Shazia for this excellent (and so true) piece. I agree with each word. Women are fooled into a state of martyrdom which they are expected to exult in–and all hell breaks loose if she wants to break away from this mould. Those who have sons will have to raise them in a way different from the present patriarchal style. Women will have to stop being emotionally blackmailed and start living for themselves also for a change

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