1 March, earlier this year, promised to be a regular Monday. That was until the chief executive officer of the technology startup, which I worked for, called me at 9 am to inform that I have been fired. This was not the first time I had lost a job. But this one felt different. For some years now, I had revelled in being a stable space and did not see this coming. From being a vice president and shareholder in the company, I went to being nothing in seconds.
Being laid off at 42 years of age is not a learning experience. It is a devastating one. But it did teach me a lot about marriage, gender equations and role of unequal men in it. Unequal men in a marriage—even the phrase takes some getting used to. Living it takes much more.
My marriage has always been unequal. My wife is much more successful in her profession, earns more than me and is generally more skilled and respected in her sector. Having grown up in a trickle-down economics ecosystem, I have always loved that about her.
Coming back to March, two weeks after I lost my job, my father passed way. In Odisha, deaths are as financially crushing, perhaps even more so, than they are emotionally crushing. Lavish feasts that feed more than a thousand people are a norm. I had not told anyone about the job loss. My wife silently made the bank transfers. I maintained the façade of being the man of the house, who pays for stuff.
I discovered that the loss of employment combined with the loss of a parent destroys every iota of self-worth that one has. That is where being with someone way more successful mattered. Her advice was not just empathy. I remember my father coming home with all his frustrations from office. My mother offered both sympathy and advice. Two empathetic shoulders in two unequal marriages. But my mother had never seen the inside of an office. Did her suggestion matter to my father as much my wife’s did to me?
It is tough to break down in a society where show of success begets success. Vulnerability is brave but unemployable. Masculinity lies in having agency—you are seen as empowered if you quit a job. Being fired is emasculating.
I told everyone I had quit. It did not matter. Soon, my severance pay was gone. The rent was still being paid from my account. One month she forgot to make the transfer to my account in time. The rent was due. She was under a lot of pressure at work. I had to remind her twice. I remembered my mother asking my father for daily expense while he was in a rush for office.
In the past few months, I was realising the sad inequality of marriages in India for women. As a homemaker, how do you stand up to the one who pays for all your expenses? How much abuse and violence are you willing to take because you value the safety of bills being paid on time? It takes women twice the courage to walk out of abusive marriages in the face of financial insecurity.
I had always enjoyed doing chores. But there was a change in how I saw these tasks in the past few months. I did not want my wife to tire herself out, waste time on housework. She deserved a bigger share of resources than me. Is this why boys are pampered more than girls? Is this why wives in India are made to eat after feeding their husbands? Is this a gendered way of being made to express gratitude for the food and the roof over one’s head?
How do women maintain a functional exterior while everything inside them has shattered? Do women cope with long term depression better than men?
A woman needs to be empowered to get out of the house. What do I need to go through to happily remain confined to one? Currently, I have more questions than answers. A happy-to-be-home husband is bound to walk a gender minefield and drag the entire household with him. What or who do we blow up is yet to be seen.
Om Routray is a Delhi-based writer