We went to visit a family friend who’d returned from Abu Dhabi a week ago.
“Wasn’t he a Software Engineer?” I asked as we were driving back home.
My mother sighed. “He lost his job a few months back. Poor fellow, two kids and a wife to take care of. I just hope he gets a job here…”
My cousin brother snorted derisively. Either that or he’d just twisted the car’s gear-stick in a sadistic manner. I looked at him enquiringly from the passenger seat.
“She had a job though, right?” He said contemptuously.
“Who, the wife?” I asked, twisting around to see my mother look uncomfortable. It looked like she’d already had this conversation with my cousin, for she sighed as though tired of repeating herself. “When you get married, you’ll understand…” she muttered.
Before I could ask any further, her phone rang, and my cousin and I stared ahead for a while. And then he told me the whole story.
So this guy got married to this girl, who was born and raised in Abu Dhabi. He was glad to shift there immediately since his job in Bangalore wasn’t that great to begin with. For six years it was smooth sailing, more or less. And then his company closed down.
“Where was the wife working?” I asked, keeping an eye on the road. My cousin wasn’t the best of drivers, especially when he was worked up about a social issue.
She’d been working for over a decade at an Emirati businessman’s company, technically as a secretary.
“But trust me, that’s just the title. Over the years, she handled meetings, contracts, things like that. It was one of those clothing/boutique things, you know? Like fancy high-end abayas and scarves and stuff for women? So she really knew what she was doing…”
Until four months ago, when the husband decided to shift the family back to India.
“Yeah, well, he’d have to, right?” I asked cautiously. “Without a job how would he have a visa or sponsorship?”
The businessman was ready to provide the visa, my cousin briskly explained. The wife was by now an indispensable part of the company. She practically ran it on a day to day basis. The businessman was ready to sponsor the husband until he found another job.
“Well, that’s fine, but really, isn’t it better for him to get a job fit for his career in India?”
The husband was an IT engineer with around six years of experience, but no qualifications apart from a Bachelor’s Degree. The wife was earning around 18,000 dirhams monthly, plus accommodation.
My cousin harnessed the silence perfectly. He stepped on the accelerator and the car swung around a tottering bus. For the next twenty minutes, neither of us spoke. He knew the thought would stew in my mind. It did…
Let me ask you a question.
Can I be a stay-at-home dad?
So I’m a 27 year old, single Malayalee who aspires to be a full-time writer. If I’m successful, I’ll probably be staying at home, writing, right? And if, as is more likely, I’m semi-successful, mine won’t be a single-income household. So the question is: Can I be a stay-at-home dad?
My mother looked at me warily. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
It means, I explained, that I’ll stay at home, while my wife goes to work.
My mother arched her eyebrow sceptically.
It means, I continued, I’ll look after the kids. Like make their school lunches, pick them up from school, get them to do their homework before their Mom comes home and we all sit down for dinner.
My mother laughed, as though I’d said an ingenious joke.
That’s the problem. Why is this so funny?
Traditionally, men worked while women took care of the kids at home, right? Well, now women are just as educated as men on average (in many parts of our state and country). So what happens if the man doesn’t get a job that’s as lucrative as a woman’s?
There are plenty of young men in Kerala who won’t entertain marriage proposals from women seeking to work after marriage. They believe their reasoning is quite sound. Why does the wife need to work when the husband is perfectly capable of providing a sufficient standard of living for the family? So these men are looking for partners who will focus on taking care of household matters alone.
Assume that’s reasonable for a moment. What happens when the man loses his job and the wife gains a lucrative one?
Many modern, well educated young men will give an earnest, but ultimately evasive answer. If the wife is busy working, that means the family can afford to hire a maid to look after the children. So where does that leave the husband then? Does he watch T.V. in the living room all day while the maid looks after the kids? At what point, financially at least, will the wife be justified in asking the husband to look after household matters so that they can save on an expensive maid?
Most people never have to confront such a scenario. In the majority of households, men are the chief breadwinners. In some households, it might be the woman, but they’ll have better sense than to flaunt that fact openly. Very rarely does it ever happen, due to fate and market reality, that the husband loses a job while the wife still has hers.
So what would you do if you were in that position? What would you do if you were that husband in Abu Dhabi?
You’ve lost your job. You’ve decided to shift back to India, maybe try your luck in Cochin, Trivandrum or Bangalore. There’s bound to be an IT job for you there. But what about your wife? Forget for a moment about her feelings. Imagine you are governed by pragmatism, economics, and cold hard facts. What are they?
Your wife is earning approximately 2.75 lakh rupees right now. Imagine there’s no way you’ll earn half that with your qualification, in India. Do you still move? Do you subject your two children to a new school system, your wife to a new society? All so that you can get a job that pays lesser and gives a lower quality of life?
I thought the answer was clear. I thought the husband from Abu Dhabi was clearly in the wrong. I knew I would do differently. And that’s what I told my mother.
“I’m clearly not qualified for a high paying corporate job of any kind,” I began, knowing that a bit of self-deprecation would buy me the goodwill required to verbalize my thoughts. “And odds are, any woman I get married to will be educated and qualified enough to perhaps secure a job. If that job is lucrative, I am certainly prepared to stay at home and take care of household activities while she works.”
“Oh, you’re being silly!” My mother said, laughing dismissively.
“No, I’m not! It’s my dream to write full time, anyway! So it’d actually be a boon for me!”
“So you’ll clean the kitchen, do the laundry, cook food, change diapers, bathe the children, take them to the park and feed them three times a day?”
“Yes!” I said, thinking it was obvious.
“They’d starve otherwise, no?”
That stumped me for a moment. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“Do you plan to do it for a year? Two years? Or till they grow up?”
For the first time, I began to hesitate.
“Because once a few years pass by,” she said, as though reading my thoughts, “you won’t be able to return to the work environment. You won’t have the experience or knowledge for any proper job by then…”
That’s how the chink in my armour of self-righteous feminism began to grow.
A day later I thought about that same husband from Abu Dhabi.
He lost his job. He’s at home, first sincerely searching for a job, then halfheartedly pretending something will work out. Eventually, he stops. He stays in a foreign country, not as an expatriate, but as an expatriate’s stay-at-home husband. Money doesn’t come into his account. He does the shopping, but on his wife’s credit card. He drives his wife’s car, picks up his children from a school his wife is paying for. He does this day in, day out. On weekends, who does he hang out with? He has no work colleagues. His old friends have their own schedule. Forget weekends, what does he do on weekdays when the kids are at school? Does he watch T.V. serials/soap operas? Vanambadi, Kasauti Zindagi Ki, or Days of Our Lives? Or all three? If there are people in his neighbourhood, they’re probably all housewives, right? Will he join their gossip or cooking sessions? As the token male?
That’s how I realized I didn’t have the answer. It’s easy to say what should be done when it’s all in the abstract. If the husband is earning less or nothing compared to the wife, he should stay at home rather than uproot the family and lower the overall quality of life just so he can find a job and save his ego.
But how important is saving ego? Is it better to live in a smaller house, send your children to a lower quality school, spend your days in a more crowded, less comfortable city, if it means you can hold your head up high?
That’s when a comment my mother made resurfaced in my mind. “…It’s not ideal, but if the husband is not happy, it’ll cause much bigger problems later on…”
At that time I’d brushed it off as a remnant of a patriarchal mindset, one that upheld societal norms over common sense thinking. But now I’m not so sure.
I might as well want to do the sensible thing and stay at home to take care of the kids while my wife works. It makes financial sense. It’s the best outcome for my children, my wife, and my comfort in life. But will it slowly chip away at my sense of worth? Will there be snide jokes from my male friends? Will someone quip, “Yo, make us all some tea, will you?” when we gather together? Will my best friend message me asking, “Will your wife let you come for a movie with us?”
Stay at home dads, at least in Kerala in particular, and India in general, are rare. I wonder if I’ll be able to buck the trend and go ahead with it. I wonder if I’ll be able to put my money where my mouth is. But even now, I know I won’t be able to do this alone. Perhaps if there was a great movie starring Fahd Fazil or Dulqar Salman that glorified the stay at home dad, it’d make it all easier for me. Or if more people came out and owned the uncomfortable truth. If we had an open conversation about it around the dinner table and over social media platforms. That sometimes, wives have better jobs than husbands which means there’ll be a few stay-at-home dads. And that there’s nothing wrong with it.
So basically, I wanted to ask you….will you help me be a stay-at-home dad?