Of late, my Instagram feed often shows videos of mothers teaching their young sons how to do household chores. They could be doing dishes, folding the laundry, or helping in the kitchen. Each of these videos usually has the same one-line message, ‘To my future daughter-in-law: I am raising him so you don’t have to’. Laced with humour, these short reels are funny but, as a mother to a little girl, also make a lot of sense. Because you see, while we are busy raising a generation of girls who are equipped to ‘do it all’, it is equally important to raise our young boys with the same anthem. These fellow moms are trying to balance the scales and potentially unburden these girls in the future who are slaying it at work and at home—because they can ‘do it all’—leading to what we now hear, ‘a generation of tired women’.
One may argue that this is yet another stereotype. Our brothers, husbands, friends, colleagues are different from what their own fathers or uncles may have been. I have not seen my father or father-in-law cook or sew; my husband does both with ease. With urbanisation and growth of nuclear families, doing household chores is becoming a lifeskill and more gender neutral especially in urban set-ups. Yet, gender disparity exists as a strong undertone. So even if a woman has a job and works equal hours as her partner, when it comes to ‘What’s for dinner?’, or there is pending work on a project for the school-going child, the family usually turns to her than him. She is expected to be the primary caregiver.
Development psychologist Aarti Bakshi said that there is a difference between the gender equality we profess and practice. “Young boys who leave home for studies, do everything on their own—cooking, cleaning, getting groceries. If they are in a foreign country, the family would say, ‘that’s how they do it there’. Yet when the son gets married, they find it difficult to accept that he’d continue to do the same,” Bakshi said, “I don’t know how I, as a mother-in-law would feel; will I be open to my son doing everything after he is married?”
Gender biases in the form of masculine and feminine roles are so normalised in our society and within families that any deviance jars our senses, Bakshi went on to add. “Unlike what we imagined, economic independence of women has not closed the gender gap,” she said.
A study published in a research publication says that ‘the strongest influence on gender role development seems to occur within family setting, with parents passing on, both overly and covertly, their own beliefs about gender’. It could be through direct dialogue or subconsciously, through the toys or books we choose for them. “In nursery, all children usually love playing house or with kitchen sets. They both enact different roles. But as they grow older, the gendered influence begins. One of the first places to start are the birthday gifts that they receive,” Dr Bakshi said.
Behavioural expert Sowmya Jagannath, also the founder of Vobble, an audio OTT for kids, added that children learn by example and so “what we do is more impactful than what we tell them to do”.
The Instagram reels that I mention at the beginning for instance show the mother in the background, either reading a book or sipping a beverage while her partner assists their son in vacuuming the house or doing the laundry. It seeks to normalise a woman relaxing or doing her own thing while a household chore is being ticked off.
When I broached the subject in a mother’s group, Sangya, a single parent said that her 10-year-old daughter is not yet aware of gendered roles in households because she sees her doing it all. “In that context I feel that just as boys doing household chores should be normalised, even girls doing odd jobs like changing the tyre of a car or fixing a light bulb should be too,” she said. Nandini, also mother to a little girl, added that boys are particularly influenced by the their fathers. “A father who cooks and does household work is more likely to to raise a son who will do the same without being told to. I have seen it with my brothers,” she said.
Although parental influence is of paramount importance and the ‘apple does not fall far from the tree’, the cycle can be broken. Rabia Sheikh, a lawyer and a mother to a girl and a boy said that little things can make a difference. “For example, when mom is driving, dad can take the passenger seat. Normalise telling your son to talk about his feelings and your daughter to have an opinion,” she said. Sunaina Jain, a school teacher who is part of an online parenting community shared, “Whenever my husband comes early from work to take care of our son when I am busy, or handles the household when I have to go for a workshop, my parents, in-laws, friends all laud him for doing so. Isn’t he as much a parent as I am? Am I not working and doing everything every day? But the social conditioning is such that we highlight these things as exceptional instead of normal.”
Pakistani-American lawyer Shana Sidique whose podcast, Her Kajal Won’t Smudge explores feminist movements in South Asia including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, however insists that ‘social norms are not facts of life and we can dismantle them’. “There are no rules to memorise, just that we need to change our perspective. Literature from economics, sociology show that seeing things differently is essential to creating gender equality,” she said. A programme called Do Kadam in Bihar for instance showed that training on gender equality brought down violence against women. “The changes we bring about at home can be the simplest and the most transformative for little children.”
Schools, added, Shivani Kapoor, principal of Euro International, Jodhpur, can also play an important role in encouraging the shift in mindset. An educator with more than two decades of experience, she said, “Children learn faster from their peer group. So if we talk about gender equality in school, there is a high chance children will imbibe it from an early age. In fact I think schools have been successful in giving children an equal platform irrespective of gender.”
So while we tell our daughters that they can do it all—within homes and outside—it is important to reinforce the same message to our sons and seek to normalise it. The load of expectation will then perhaps be shared. Kapoor said: “It’s a long way to go but the shift has begun."
Azera Parveen Rahman is a writer currently based in Bhuj, Gujarat.