Happy Men's Day (Part One)

We see you, good men of the world.

Hello ji,

So coming up soon is Men’s Day (19 November). I, of course, have some feelings about there being a day dedicated to the people who run all of the other days.

But I am going to keep those feelings aside for this piece.

Things have always been said to me, about me, and about this newsletter - good things and not-so-good things alike. But one of the most common criticisms I have heard is that “these stories are so negative”.

As much as I love being called a gundi(!) I think this is a gross misunderstanding of what Womaning is all about.

Yes, the stories women share here are often uncomfortable - disturbing, even - but they come from a place of anything but negativity. They come, in fact, from a place of hope that we can - and we must - do better as a people.

And what is more positive than hope?


That said, it seems I need to place it on record that I do see, recognize, and appreciate men who are doing better, and even those who are trying to. Being aware of your own privilege is not an easy thing to accomplish, and I have nothing but respect for men who are honest and courageous enough to see their male privilege for what it is.

This edition is dedicated to such men - the fathers, the brothers, the partners, the friends, the colleagues, the bosses out there - who give us a little bit more hope for womaning, just by being the men that they are.


To the dad who makes the morning chai for mom

Trisha’s story

My dad was a unique example of men with compassion. He was a constant solid support for my mum. Mornings in my home started with a chai (tea) prepared by him for her, even before she woke up. My mum returned the favour by pampering him all day as well. There was no distinction my dad made between me and my brother. Dad supported and even encouraged me to do everything I wanted to, without ever holding me back because of my gender. He never stopped me from climbing mountains, or swimming in a pond, or driving a car - he gave me my first driving lesson, in fact. He was a rock-solid backdrop to my teenage years and the perfect granddad to my kids later in life.

On the flip side though, because I grew up with a Dad like him, I wasn't ready for a world full of men who were so contrary to my dad's nature. And I paid dearly for this as I spent years of my adulthood just arriving at the realization that I cannot expect all men to be as supportive as he was.


To the husband ready to move cities for his wife’s career

Gargi’s story

A few years back, I was working with an MNC. There came a point when I was being sent to Singapore. It was a good opportunity, it could have resulted in something bigger for my career. However, my husband was not in a very good place career-wise to move to another country. He is a banker, and he was just beginning to be considered an expert in Indian markets. I was concerned because to me it seemed difficult for him to make that move at that point in his career.

But when I told him how beneficial the move could be for my career, he was more than willing to explore it. In fact, he took leave and went to Singapore for a week to figure out potential roles there, meet people in the financial industry, and build some relationships. So he not only came on board with the idea but even began preparing the groundwork to enable him to transition. He knew he would have had to leave his job. He even said he would be willing to go a few months without a job in case an opportunity did not immediately materialize for him as soon as we moved.

Finally, my company decided on a change of strategy and my move did not happen, but I really appreciated that he was really ready to back my career like that. The whole ‘trailing spouse’ phenomenon is almost always wives trailing husbands to other lands, and rarely the other way around. So I thought it was very cool of him to be willing to be the ‘trailing spouse’ for his wife!


To the father who stands up for what is right

Geeta’s story

Many fathers are great with their daughters - but, at the same time, have limiting views on how their wives or sisters should live their lives. My father is unique - he has been an advocate for all the women in his life.

  • When my mother’s brothers tried to take over her fair share of an ancestral property, he stood by her side and gave her the courage to assert her rights - not for the money, but as a matter of principle. On his own side, when his brothers tried to oust his sister from their ancestral property, he stepped in to ensure his sister got a fair share - despite arguments that his brothers "needed" it more, just to ensure the same principle is followed.

  • At home, he realized early on he needs to share more of the load with my mom, so he started making tea, assisting in the kitchen (including cutting veggies and doing utensils), etc. At our place, we still don't have extra help because of COVID. But he ensures that my mother never has to do any utensils - it is divided among the rest of us - me, my brother, and my father.

  • Around the time I graduated from engineering college, the family was under a severe financial crunch. I secured admission into a prestigious business school, but we weren't even in a position to get bank loans to finance my education. He borrowed money from relatives to fund my MBA. People told him to invest in my wedding rather than extra education which will make it harder for me to get married. He took a stand in front of them and steadfastly supported my education.

  • When I started earning money, we heard a lot of "beti ka paisa" (daughter’s money) type comments and this was the only time I saw him struggle with what he considers "equal". After a dialogue with me, however, he agreed he must treat his son and daughter equally - and that included accepting money from my earnings with the same comfort with which he would accept money from my brother’s.

  • My father was the one who made me aware of unseen gender biases around me - long before even I was aware of them. He would point it out to me when an issue I faced at work was because of my gender and not my fault - from everyday stuff like office temperatures being attuned to men’s bodies, to asking for raises and promotions that men around me got without asking - he always made me find my voice.

He continues to stand up for all women around him, thinking deeply and - most importantly - growing with the times. He counsels other men in the family and lends courage to the women around him.

I have often wondered where it came from since he grew up in a traditional family in a small town. It was probably the other men he saw - like his grandfather encouraging his mother to continue studies after marriage. Also the strong female role models women he grew up around - who exerted their independence even within traditional housewife roles. Of course, the fact that he chose to marry an outspoken woman who valued democracy over "peace" has enabled his own journey as well!


To the boss who is a Dad first

Ahana’s story

My boss comes in early to work, and leaves early every day. He has taken over the primary responsibility of his young son (even though this wife is in a flexible role too). He believes that it is his responsibility as a father to be the primary caregiver for his child. Even at office parties and family get-togethers, we see him doing the entire caretaking for the child - feeding him, playing with him, engaging him when he cries, etc.

And since he is playing this role himself, he truly respects everyone else's need for flexibility as well. He has created a work environment that doesn’t exclude any woman. We have a colleague who is working part-time while supporting her daughter - he ensured she had every support she needed from the organization to perform both her roles with ease and efficiency. Following his lead, the other men at my workplace are also slowly changing their ways.


To the father who pours his daughters’ first drink

Hiral’s story

My father raised my sister and me as strong independent women. Instead of ordering us around like many fathers, he encouraged us to think for ourselves and guided us through our decisions when we needed help.

  • One of his pieces of wisdom that I still live my life by is, ‘The worst thing you could do to yourself is aim low and achieve it. Always aim higher and give it your best. You might not win every time, but YOU WILL push yourself every time, and that is a greater victory.’

  • When we grew up, he had only one financial target for our careers: ‘Whatever your lifestyle demands - no matter how frugal or fancy it is - you should be able to sustain it yourself. You shouldn't depend on anyone for this, not even your husband.’

  • He was a doctor and I was the studious kid in the family. So I was the only one he might have hoped would follow in his footsteps. But when the time came, I was more interested in engineering. It might have broken his heart, but he never stopped encouraging me to pursue my dreams.

  • Even within engineering, I was drawn to Mechanical Engineering. My college authorities started pressuring me to switch to Electrical Engineering instead because ‘there are no girls in mechanical’, and I would ‘mess up the college placement statistics’ because they believed I wouldn't get a job. My father wrote to the Dean urging them to let me pursue the field I was interested in, and assumed full responsibility in case I didn't get placed.

  • In college, I met the man I knew I would marry. I felt comfortable enough to tell him about our relationship as soon as we committed to each other. He had faith in my choice and gave us his blessings. Today, we are married with two kids and I could not have found a better partner.

One summer, just before I left for college, my father sat me and my sister down… for drinks! He said, ‘I know you will feel curious about this and would want to try alcohol at some point in your life. I would very much like it if you try it with me instead of a stranger.’

Incidentally, both of us did not enjoy drinking from the very first day! We might have felt a pointless attraction to it had our father made it a forbidden fruit. But I think it was his openness that encouraged us to be honest about our tastes as well. And we have both been lifelong teetotalers since!


To the friend who understands ‘male gaze’

Jamila’s story

I work in advertising, that too on a beauty brand. I have a friend with whom I have had a lot of enlightening conversations about my work, the media, and gender bias in public life. Each time, he helps me understand how our world is biased against women, and it has helped me ensure that my own work does not exacerbate these issues.

He showed me - through examples like the Justin Timberlake-Janet Jackson scandal or the Bill Clinton - Monica Lewinsky scandal - how our media, pop-culture, and our very social consciousness tend to blame women even when a man is equally, or even singularly responsible.

I was always aware of the casual sexism, objectification, etc. in our movies. But I never realized how much the male gaze was at play even in basic cinematography (e.g. how the camera focuses on a woman's back or waist and only later zooms out to her walk and then maybe to her face or character, if at all).

After talking to him, I realized that - much like a marketeer - a movie maker is clearly thinking about his target audience. The assumption is that majority of movie-viewing is done by men, and things are created to please (heteronormative) men. Of course, such movies also do the incendiary job of teaching men what they should like watching.

My friend helped me realize that - no matter how strong a woman I am - I too have inherent social conditioning that I may not even be aware of. He has helped me become more aware of my own biases and the role media plays in creating/reinforcing them. I now make sure I speak up about this when shooting my ad films, especially in the beauty industry!


To the cheerleader husband

Shilpi’s story

My husband has always been a huge cheerleader of my career. He has never done or said anything that indicated that my career was less important in any way. He knows how passionate I am about my work, and I control it fully.

  • This one time, I was offered a very ambitious role and my imposter complex kicked in. I remember telling him, ‘I'm pretty sure I got this role because I am a woman. And I am pretty sure others are going to be thinking the same.’ He calmly told me, ‘I am pretty sure you got this on the basis of your capabilities. As far as others are concerned, I know you will soon prove them wrong.’

  • In 2012, we had both joined the same company - him at a level senior to me. He got visibility to a senior position opening up soon. He immediately spoke to the concerned person and told them about my qualifications and to consider me for the role as well. I was skeptical, but he persuaded me. He said, ‘I know you took a less relevant role because we wanted to relocate to a new city. But you are like a shark in a swimming pool in your current role. I don't want you to get suffocated.’

  • A few years later, I got an even bigger opportunity for a global role. My husband had just joined a new company and was still finding his feet. Yet, he encouraged me to give my best to the opportunity. He said, ‘It is not just about you. The organization is putting a lot of faith in you, and a lot of people will look up to you. Say yes, we will figure the rest out, just like we always have.’

Another area where he has exceeded all my expectations is as a father! Since the day we came to know we were expecting, he has been a vocal advocate of equal parenting, often attracting the ire of his colleagues, bosses, his own family.

  • Since we were both working since the day we got married, he made sure we sat down and charted out a plan for dividing the household tasks equally after the baby comes.

  • To this day, he follows that division. Ordering groceries and laundry are his tasks. He manages everything in these areas including the mental load.

  • When we both had to focus on work in different timeframes, we discussed and reallocated the house tasks to make sure we supported each other's work commitments.

  • The amount of planning he did because he wanted to take the full paternity leave, and the way he faced his colleagues who berated him for doing so was phenomenal!

My husband has been my biggest strength. Today, I am a mother of two. People from within the family, the workplace, and everywhere else tell me I need to slow down at work. But having a partner who says ‘we will figure it out’ gives me the belief that I can truly do anything.


To the boyfriend who helps you stay the course

Krupa’s story

I lost track of my goals too often over the last two years. I stuck with a job that was eating at my mental health. I justified long nights with flexible working hours. I didn’t write a single word despite announcing to myself and the world: ‘I am a writer.’

Through all of this, Harshdeep, my partner set up little signboards to nudge me back on track. No milestones, just signboards. He enrolled me in a writing class, urged me to go to bed when deadlines haunted me and took care of all the decisions that I didn’t have time to take.

I recently started a community library. When I started talking about it, he managed to source three cartons of unbelievable books off Instagram to seed the library. It was no longer a conversation, it was a dream carved out of my words, that he pulled into reality. I’m getting out of 2021 with more mental space to spare, a few thousand words written, a vision justified. Oh, and he makes me the best cup of tea whenever he senses I need one!

Thank you, Harsh. It would have been longer and much more cumbersome without you.


To the boss who helps the new mom get her groove back

Shreya’s story

I am a doctor. My boss and I were a two-person surgery team, so I told him early on when my husband and I were planning a child that I intended to start my family which would translate into my absence or reduced contribution to surgical work over the next two years. He was supportive from the very beginning. He helped me achieve work-life balance pre, during, and post-pregnancy.

I had a baby right around the beginning of the pandemic and took an almost year-long maternity leave. This meant that I ‘sat out’ on a large part of the pandemic. When I got back on duty, I faced passive-aggressive behaviour from everyone in the hospital -except him. I would often be treated as a liability to the hospital for being a mother. But he helped me focus on, utilize, and showcase my strengths. Within a couple of months, I got my skills and career back on track. If more team leaders did this for new mothers, more women would have a chance to resurrect their careers post-childbirth.


To the teammates who give wings to their boss (#ProudOfPun)

Ankita’s story

I was posted as an Engineering Officer at an Air Force base in the North East, comfortably serving in a helicopter unit with other men and women. A year into my tenure, I got movement orders: I was to take over the armament section of the base. An independent charge, this post was traditionally helmed by a male officer and the decision threw me off.

How would I manage a job no woman had done?

Would the team of airmen that I was supposed to lead even listen to me?

I know this sounds strange coming from a woman who chose to join a male-dominated organization in the first place, but I was able to stretch my comfort zone only so much. A few colleagues also remarked how it was unusual for them to see me at the helm of bombs, missiles, guns, and bullets. For them, as for me, these were boys’ toys.

Turns out, it was business as usual. Greater responsibility (explosives, after all) came with the job, but that had nothing to do with my gender. Once I let go of my own insecurities, I learned quickly and started enjoying the autonomy and sense of ownership. Throughout this journey, the CEO and the senior leadership (all men) treated me as they would any armament officer - appreciation as well as criticism where they were due.

I remember one time when he called me up at 9 pm. There was an emergency operation underway and we had to prepare and deliver a massive number of bombs in time for take-off early in the morning. Within 20 min, our entire team was in the field, prepping bombs and then loading and securing them on trucks. We worked through the night with all hands on deck. That night, my CEO did not care that I was a woman among a group of airmen working in the middle of the night. My team did not question being supervised by a woman on an all-nighter. It was their faith in me as an officer and a professional, irrespective of my gender, that made the impossible possible.

Now, when someone remarks how women shouldn't be in combat for some lame reason, I am able to argue better. I might have always had the passion, but these men - my seniors, and my team - gave me the teeth.


To the truly equal partner

Suchi’s story

If I had to use one word to describe my marriage it would be “equal”. My husband and I really don’t have any gender roles in our marriage. We are both capable of doing most things - whether it is financial planning or cooking. Who ends up doing it depends then on who has more time or interest at that point in time. While we both try to do things equally - I can honestly say he takes up more than 50% responsibility in keeping our house running. This is because I have had a more time and effort-consuming professional life than he has had. This was not something we planned - but just something that happened. If in the future, his work is more hectic, then I will hopefully be nice enough to do the same.

Of course, we have argued when the balance has gone out of whack for too long, but what is never part of the discussion is the fact that he is The Man and I am The Woman in the relationship.

Instructing domestic helpers, planning meals, keeping the kitchen stocked, ordering regular household items - all these chores usually fall on women. And they can be a huge amount of mental load. These are things that my husband is more than capable of doing and does very regularly.

It is a little comical whenever we get a new helper - they are always stupefied to see the man of the house instructing them and ask “didi nahi hain kya?” (Where is the woman of the house?) a few times. But eventually, everyone gets used to it.

We follow the same principle when it comes to our respective families. While we don’t have any long-standing issues with either set of parents, whenever there are any issues, we’ve dealt with our respective parents. For example, my in-laws had issues in the beginning when they saw that their son was doing a lot more at home than was socially acceptable. But I never had to deal with it because my husband did. And he didn’t just explain to them, he continued to do what felt right to us. And now my in-laws are fully onboard with our lifestyle.


I tried resisting the urge to point this out, but here goes - None of these would even be stories worth telling if the roles were reversed, which they usually are.

A woman leaving her job to follow her husband’s move to another country. A mother teaching her son that sky is the limit for his career. A mother starting work early in the day and wrapping up early to go home to her child. This happens in every family and every office, every day of every week. And we accept it as a woman’s essential role - even criticize when it is not done ‘perfectly’.

And yet, when men do the same basic stuff, we write newsletters about it. Why? Is this not hypocrisy? Is the Gundi of Hope losing her touch?

Well, all of that is true, and yet we write such a newsletter for two reasons.

One, because we want to acknowledge that it is not easy for a person born with the privilege to live a life of comfort and blissful ignorance of the women around him, to step out of this bliss and take over the arduous job of walking a mile in their uncomfortable shoes.

And two, because we have a not-so-hidden agenda that some men somewhere will read these stories and drive some inspiration from them, making womaning a little bit more hopeful all around.

A second criticism I often receive for this newsletter is that it seems like I hate men. Which is, of course, not true. And to prove just how not true it is, I am going to write another Men’s Day special edition next week.

Watch this space for Part Two.

Until then, Happy Men’s All-The-Days, you beautiful men.

Mahima


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