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Mum’s the word

If Mother’s Day is to have any real meaning, it must go beyond platitudes. Years after the women’s movement hoped to bring about equality, nothing much has changed, writes Namita Bhandare.

india Updated: May 15, 2007 01:37 IST

If Mother’s Day is to have any real meaning, it must go beyond platitudes. Forty years after the women’s movement hoped to bring about equality at the workplace, nothing much has changed.

For the life of me, I can’t remember the first time I ever heard of Mother’s Day. I think it was when I was a student in the US many, many moons ago, and if my memory doesn’t fail me, my instinctive, somewhat supercilious reaction was: what a stupid concept. How convenient to have a day for remembering moms and dads after throwing them into old age homes!

By the turn of the millennium, Mother’s Day had become an official Indian festival – as Indian as gulab jamun or mogra flowers in the summer. Until a few years ago, it was perfectly legitimate for newspaper supplements to have special ‘advertorials’ with various B-grade celebrities commenting on what their mother meant to them (the world) and articles on ‘novel’ gift ideas on Mother’s Day (‘a day at the spa’, ‘a makeover’, ‘no carb breakfast in bed’).

Circa 2007 and motherhood has become a brave new area even for the main newspapers that this year devoted entire pages (I weep for the trees) on various aspects of motherhood: women who are great moms, women who choose not to be moms, the most influential moms and so on. It was easy enough to understand the supplements going into overdrive (the articles were linked to revenue-generating ads) but for the life of me I simply couldn’t fathom why whole pages in the main paper went ga-ga over what they themselves have often enough dismissed as a ‘Hallmark festival’.

But what about the real issues? What does a day set aside for mothers really mean for women who run from office to home, struggling to strike a balance between full-time parenting and full-time careers? An essay by Nanette Fondas

(www.usa.mediamonitors.net) goes beyond the bouquets and ‘what to gift your mother’ articles to talk of some of the real issues: forty years after the modern women’s movement hoped to deliver on the promise that women could participate as complete equals in the workforce, this notion is divorced from reality. For most working mothers the sad truth is this: the workforce is decidedly masculine with long hours, mandatory company off sites, networking dinners and ‘let’s discuss this over a drink’, making the situation clearly loaded against moms.

Do men experience the same dilemmas between choosing an important company offsite and their kid’s quarterly tests? Do fathers who routinely put in 14 hour days justify their hours away from home with the excuse that they’ll put in quality time ‘later’? And, do we constantly tell our children: “Oh, but daddy’s got an important meeting, he can’t possibly make it to your sport’s day, but of course he’ll try.” I’m sure they do. I have read the articles about those fathers who’ve chucked their jobs to become – what’s the term? – ‘house-husbands’— and really, from the bottom of my heart I blow them a thousand kisses. But just how many of them are out there?

The media are full of images of the ‘complete man’ – the man who takes a minute off his meeting because his son has come to proudly tell him about his ‘first shalary’ (can you imagine the horror if it had been a daughter not son reporting her first salary: girls after all aren’t brought up to think of the importance of earning). The moms smile as they cook up a storm with atta noodles for their children. They cook and clean as they bring up a whole new generation of ‘first shalary’ earners.

Years ago in an attempt to put her down, George Fernandes had dismissed Sonia Gandhi as a woman whose only contribution had been to give birth to two children. In Parliament a bill to reserve seats for women draws the occasional angry feminist comment but nobody really believes it will be passed any time soon. Renuka Choudhury, the minister for women and child welfare (a ‘soft’ ministry that is invariably headed by a woman) tells of how a member of Parliament (male) asked her in all earnestness: “If women come to Parliament who will look after the house?”

Yes, there are those women who’ve beautifully managed both homes and careers. But these are so few and far between that they’re no more than an interesting statistic. Gifted with incredible husbands or incredible bosses or both, they’ve become ‘role models’ for the average, harassed mother desperately multi-tasking her way through life wondering if ‘children come first’; wondering if she isn’t taking a crazy risk by putting her career plans on hold (Will she get child support if her marriage fails? Will she lose out on seniority if she takes a break from work? What happens when the kids move on with their own lives?) Is it any coincidence that women in public life — Mayawati, Jayalalithaa, Sheila Dikshit, Sonia Gandhi — are single?

Truth be told, I have nothing against Hallmarks or Archies making a few extra bucks on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day or Love your Dog day. I have nothing against coffee mugs emblazoned with ‘World’s Best Mom’. I do draw the line at cuddly teddy bears but I guess I can live with them. But if Mother’s Day is to have any real meaning, it must go beyond the platitudes.

Email Author: namita.bhandare@gmail.com