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Thursday, Oct 02, 2003

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For better, far worse

R. Sundaram

Narayanasami and his wife were filled with pride when their just-married daughter in the US called up one morning to say that she had landed a job despite the downturn there. How lucky!

That was what they thought till they visited her. They soon realised that in the US there was no way a wife can avoid going to work. And, unlike in India, she would be bored stiff if she sat at home. The doorbell never rings. And if the phone rang it was the pesky telemarketers.

In India, however, there is never a dull moment for the young wife after the husband goes to office. The demands of opening the door for vendors of milk, vegetables, and fruits as also the "iron man", "spinach lady" and courier people are enough to keep her on the fly.

The woman in the next flat, after she sees the husband going to the office, will come to chat on the pretext of asking for the phone directory. All social and religious functions are organised by the stars and the moon, mostly on weekdays, to keep the wives busy.

In the US, however, for all the polemics of women's empowerment and emancipation, the women have really the Hobson's choice as far as deciding to go for work. Reasons are both economic and social. Double income is a must for paying one's mortgage of cars and house. Socially, the wife will feel left out when her contemporaries gather for a chat and exchange all the gossip about who won, who lost, and so on. Indians, never the ones to avoid asking blunt personal questions, will go as far as saying, "You mean to say you are doing nothing. Come on, you must be kidding." When the stork calls and the kids arrive, the lot of the working woman becomes unenviable, as she has to juggle career and family.

The real victims of this seemingly inexorable social phenomenon are the children. In the 1960s, 70 per cent of the families had at least one parent who stayed at home. Today, it is just the reverse. Seventy per cent of the families have either two working parents or a single working mother. Children are admitted to regular schools only after they are six. Even if they go to school, they finish at 3 p.m., and most children return to empty homes. Day care, is expensive and of uneven quality. Qualifications for being employed as a manicurist are reportedly more stringent than for looking after children. Further, employers in the US are hard taskmasters compared to those in India and elsewhere. With the spread of the Web they are not spared even when they are at home. Evenings are spent sending and checking workplace e-mails or telephoning. Even those who opt for part time jobs are frustrated being assigned dead end positions.

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