By Arpita Mallick
From the day my mother upheld the “single” label, as proud as she was to announce it to my brother and I, a conflict arose within. After my father decided to call it quits on us, Ma took a year to embrace her new single woman title. Propelling, falling, rising and grinding she embarked on this rocky road with no one by her side. One may argue that family and friends become support wheels in tough times, but I can assure my audience that my experience has taught me that all journeys to self-redemption, recovery and reassurance are taken alone.
The Repel Effect
Ma had left her job when we were infants and no one told her she shouldn’t have. When worst came to worst she started despising herself for a decision she took years ago. She had to start from scratch and the corporate ladder wasn’t empathetic to a 48-year-old woman restarting her career to support a family of three. She received a slew of reactions that may otherwise suggest a so-called “modern” take on the situation but were underlined with stereotypical views and an institutionalized perspective. On one hand, were suggestions that enforced her independence - everyone told her to get a job, be financially stable and stand on her own feet.
However, when she decided to completely leave the past behind, the same people felt entitled to pass comments on how she can’t lead a life without a husband. That her independence was necessary but tied to a man.
This polarization of provider vs. non-provider had little discretion in who it took hostage. On the days that we were frustrated, we would simply put the blame on an absent father, the “caretaker” of the family. When he wasn’t able to provide for us, my brother and I ranted about how all fathers provide for their families while ours refused to do so.
One day I spoke to my dad about finances. He told me we (or he) weren’t doing well. The burden of this internalized patriarchy fell on him as well. After his decision to abandon us and his regressing financial condition, he guilt-tripped himself into a robotic mental state. Like a machine, he would work his days. People would blame him for being a bad man, but who even is a good man. What is the definition of a good man?
Yesterday in conversation with my friend’s mother, the internal battle of choices endured by women due to years of patriarchy was evident. Arpita, always stand your own ground and don’t let your past define you. Be strong and independent. Shortly after, the topic of leaving jobs for kids came up and I immediately, almost like an act of self-defence or reflex, said that I will never leave my job. She looked at me carefully and said circumstances demand you to leave your job or switch to less laborious professions such as teaching. You cannot compromise on your kid’s growth and childhood.
But You Told Me To Be Strong and Independent
A conservative mindset looms large in the headspace of Indian women. Society’s expectations highly influence their decisions which ultimately leads to dependency and a tacit shift of power. An article by The Swaddle on financial literacy in women said that women are deemed as incapable of making major financial decisions due to their tendency to be over careful. In reality, his risk-averse nature is what proves to be more fruitful and profitable in the long term.
Pop culture jokes and soap operas have subtly portrayed women as financial liabilities. “Oh, she shops so much” jokes are a part of every Indian family gathering and the pressure falls on men to meet their wives’ demands. Men are expected to learn about finances and invest in mutual funds right from their adulthood or early careers while women are not even introduced to bank accounts until absolutely necessary. Before college, the concept of savings and investment was merely restricted to textbook exams and pseudo plans. In college when I had to deal with budget and money, I did poorly and conveniently passed on the responsibility to the guy I was dating. I was inadvertently escaping the onus of my responsibilities via my parents, boyfriends and male friends because it didn’t seem wrong. No one came and taunted me for “not being a man” and the men proudly took it on them to support me. The disbelief and estrangement from fiscal proficiency empower others to oppress and control their monetarily inferior associates. If people from repressed castes, religions and genders are able to bolster their financial grounds and resources, then they have already won half the battle.
In her book Seeing Like A Feminist, Nivedita Mennon says that the conviction that gender is the key to maintaining social order needs to be recognised and dismantled.
For so many years society has used gender as a metric to assign tasks to men and women. When it came to finances, the idea of a woman taking charge of the household budget seemed like giving a woman the power to hold authority. It’s not about power, it’s about basic freedom and the prerogative to be immune. The pervasive pay parity amalgamated with an underestimated sense of women’s financial needs saps their financial growth curve. An article by Outlook revealed that women are paid 10% less than their male counterparts, and Tory Dunlap in her podcast Financial Feminist mentions and reiterates that financial independence is a protest to the archaic social structure nuanced by patriarchal norms. Economic Times states that only 33% of women invest confidently in comparison to 64% of men. All of this shows that the idea of investing, saving and maintaining personal finances is alien to many women due to the lack of knowledge twinned with an internalized belief that it’s innate for men to handle money.
The absence of financial awareness combined with self-doubt leaves young and married women financially crippled when they are faced with adverse financial situations. A few years ago, my mother’s friend lost her husband suddenly and what was tougher than the grief was the lack of financial knowledge. Not only was she kept in the dark about finances, passwords, credentials and funds, she herself never felt the need to interfere when her husband claimed to take care of everything. On his demise, she was too faced with the demise of her financial (in)dependence.
This financial interdependence is mistaken for financial independence, with women often failing to recognize the loose thread their strength hangs by when they leave the financial and asset management to the men of the family. This wave of inter-dependency and a seemingly natural tendency flows on and in its wake washes away the pillars of self-sustenance. However, the real freedom lies in finding your voice. The voice to dictate your own narrative.
Financial security is tightly linked with better mental and emotional well being. There are various organizations and resources that help women budget their personal finances and support their endeavours. SIDBI is one such institution that has various programs under its Gender and Financial Literacy initiatives. Muthoot Microfin encourages and educates rural women in polishing and upscaling entrepreneurial skills. Youtube being one of the vastest sources of knowledge has channels such as Moolah For You and CA Rachana Phadke Ranade that focus on youngsters’ and women’s financial literacy.
Owning One’s Financial Narrative is a Real Thing
I have come to notice that when a woman truly finds her voice, everyone around her feels threatened. A husband’s power is threatened, a child’s demands are threatened, her in-law’s authority is threatened and her colleagues’ intellect feels threatened. She is then labelled with terms such as stubborn and selfish. “Didi aap toh bade bold ho”- Sister, you’re so bold, our house help would often say. People perceived ma not as someone reinventing her way through life, but as a woman breaking the rules. We are so accustomed to following these sets of rules others have coined for women, that if she goes out of the way to do something for herself, she is perceived as rebellious. Ma isn’t rebellious. She simply found her freedom, her voice.
About the author
Arpita Mallick works part-time in a corporate role and is a full-time admirer of essays written by women. She tries to poignantly articulate her feelings on being a single dog mom, the absurdities of human emotions and anxieties that follow her to new cities. Apart from questioning her convictions on feminism and finding her feet in the world, when she’s done self-scrutinizing she freelances as a content writer and music journalist. You can find her on Instagram @_arpitamallick_