“Dear Daughter, I Wish I Could Make It All Better” [LINK]
— Interview with Preethi (name changed)
On a sunny afternoon, with her 2 year old son napping beside her Preethi and I sat to chat about Patriarchy and her life experiences. Preethi lives with her husband and two kids in New York. She has been living here for the past 15 years and calls New York her second home. Preethi was very happy to revisit her childhood — “ Its nice to talk about things back at home, it brings back lots of memories.” She recalled her thoughts with all smiles — “I consider myself very fortunate to have grown up in a family. Even though, we were poor, they let me study just like my brother.” She also discussed how her parents expectations were different for her and her brother — “my mother constantly used to remind me that I will be going to another home after marriage so I should learn to do all household chores and so that I will be respected by my in-laws.” At an early age, girls were asked to learn household chores especially cooking and were expected to be gentle in whatever they did. She mentioned “I loved to run and jump around, but it was not allowed. There were lot other restrictions such as not going out after 6.00 P.M, not to talk to men, look at the ground and walk. The usual rules!” These restrictions are common in India, I am sure many Indian women will resonate with this thought. Associating femininity with subordination and self-restraint is almost natural. Thus, experiencing gendered restrictions and expectations were not only accepted, but also expected parts of being a girl. Families often place a great deal of importance on how to rear a girl with only goal of preparing her for marriage.
Speaking about her marriage, Preethi expressed her difficulties in managing the transition in family practices. “I was completely lost, I almost felt like being pulled by different people in various directions– lots of pressure from all the sides. It was nothing like I imagined. Only after coming here to USA was I able to breathe.” Marriages are the most important ritual in Indian tradition; family elders mostly arrange them. Passing respect and responsibility onto next generation becomes the mantra for married women. Preethi became emotional on how as a mother she might be passing along traditional belief to her daughter and how yearns to turn things around — “I wish things were different for my daughter, but it is not. I can’t go and change others and make things better so I want her to be prepared, to learn everything and study hard. I want her to be able to manage and be independent after marriage.” Even in the modern era, there is a cultural pressure to maintain these aspects of the traditional female identity. Not adhering to these expectations often translates into perceived failure and dishonor to the family. Gendered expectations are influenced by culture even for those residing outside of India. Preethi also strongly believes that the stress of the patriarchy can be reduced when women become financially independent. She is very positive and hopeful that this might be the case for the future generations
As I started writing this article, I remembered my own childhood — My mother talking to me and I wonder — “Was she happy or was she angry about the society, the system like I do today? Was she enchanted by dreams about my future?” I suddenly I realize how silly I have been. I have grown up to be just like my mother. Everything seems to be exactly the same — I am none other. I am my mother. I am realizing the ways mothers pass a part of themselves unconsciously to their daughters. Yet, today, especially in America, we are responsible for their ability to flourish as empowered women. “Dear daughter, I wish I could make things better for you. I will try!” I am trying!
About the author: Pavithra Viswanath
Pavithra is pursuing Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University, with a specialization in Maternal Mental Health. She is passionate about understanding critical issues within social justice movements for women, and its relationship to the modern society. She is always drawn to the narratives and experiences of women related to these issues. She believes that there is pressing need to explore the status of a woman as a mother from various dimensions such as economic status, religion, culture, and society pressure in developing countries like India. She is also in the process of completing her ‘Sexuality Women and Gender certification’. During this fall she will be interning as a Sexual assault advocate at SAKHI for South Asian Women, New York. In her free time, Pavithra enjoys cuddling with her 3-year-old daughter, reading her favorite Tamil literature or listening to music. (Keep reading below: Pavithra’s essay Modern Day Patriarchy: Experiences of Indian Mothers).