It has been eight months since I started my MFA at Bennington College. In the last eight months I have cooked half a dozen meals. I pack my children lunches and I clean up the kitchen after my husband when he makes dinner for the family after he comes home from working in a Silicon Valley tech company. Cooking has never moved me. Motherhood has—but not the baggage of social dos and donts that accompanied it. I have done fewer play dates than the meals I have cooked in the past few months, and I rarely go to a birthday party. My husband takes the children to their social engagements. “But is this fair?” you might ask and I answer, “It is not about fairness, it is about what moves you as a person and how to keep that flame of what keeps you alive, burning within you, while negotiating roles in an adult world that still largely favors men over women.” My husband has always wanted to be a father—he is a good father. He can play endless rounds of knock knock jokes with our four year old and he helps the older ones with their science projects. I spend a lot of my time reading and writing, finally able to legitimize my interests because I am in graduate school. In the summer I traveled to Yale for a conference, and then to my residency in Bennington. In total, my children saw me for ten days in June. “How can you do it?” some have asked me explicitly and some with judgment in their eyes. “I must do it,” I say, “to stay alive and be the mother I want to be to my children.” Eyebrows are raised, eyes widen in concern for my choices and their possible harmful effects on my children. “What about home cooked meals? And what about clean houses and laundry and the home and the hearth?” I turn to look at my children when I am asked these questions and they see me staring into space and ask me why I am not studying. “Study, mama,” they tell me.
Women, especially those from more traditional societies, are taught many things in childhood. When I was young, I watched the men in my family as they got more opportunities and freedom, and dominated decision-making. Even though my mother did not insist on household duties, I had to get married when I was not ready so that my younger sister could marry, surely as outdated a custom as any. As an immigrant in America without a work visa, I had to stay at home, watch over my children, fold endless mounds of laundry, cook meals while being pregnant or nursing—and lived entire days with no adult conversation. “What is the big deal?” you might ask again. Millions of women around the world are subjected to conditions that are far worse. And because the world has subjugated women forever, and because women have stifled their voices, wishes and desires, does that mean that it must continue?
Every single day in my life in America, I have missed India but what I have not missed in my American life is freedom. The freedom to be a divorcee without social approbation, the freedom to wear a pair of shorts and run down the street, the freedom to not have to cook, especially when my partner is a better cook than me and a more willing volunteer for the position, to be able to prioritize my studies because that is what calls to me. This is what I want my daughters to learn, to reach out to what calls to them, to work towards that relentlessly, and to find happiness out of prescribed norms. As a parent, we say many things to our children —how to live, how to be, what to do or not to do—but surely nothing must be as real to them as watching how their parents live and struggle. This is what I tell myself when I tire sometimes of waking early to find time for my workouts or assignments; this is what I hope the girls see and will remember when they are women in a world where men largely still get paid more than their women counterparts, where a walk in the night alone in almost every country in the world can still be fraught with danger.
Feminism is a buzzword now. Everywhere one hears it and it is spoken with ferocious pride by those who consider themselves upholding it. But I say, let us just be. Let us women define for ourselves what it means to be free and if that be to wear a burka, to cook, to write, to be a mother, to not be a mother, to stay married or not to stay married—let us decide, because we women, we have a voice and we are nobody’s fool.
Chandra Ganguly is a MFA student at Bennington College. She writes about the meaning and loss of identity and issues around gender and culture. She lives with her family in Palo Alto, California.