I do the wrong things, often and with relish, because after spending years working myself to death for validation I realised the patriarchal agenda had succeeded at reducing me, like many other women, to just one thing. Women are expected to find their identity within roles and justify their existence by excelling at them. This is how it transformed my life the day I decided the roles would have to find their place in my life without changing me.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.
Ever since I was a little girl I found it a bit strange when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. It’s India’s favourite question to ask children, which is weird for a country whose favourite pass-time is ensuring no child is ever really allowed to grow up enough to make their own decisions. That’s not why I disliked being asked that question though, no, I disliked it because I was expected to give only one answer. I have never wanted only one thing from my life, and having to condense my entire worth into one role feels like I am being wrapped up in the unforgiving grips of an anaconda that’s about to consume me. As I grew up and realised the extent of the disparity women had been through in our country, as well as the world, I noticed what we have come to see as a common problem. Women are expected to define ourselves within an exhaustible set of roles.
You’re either a mother, a daughter, homemaker or a wife or if you’re “privileged” you’re given the option to define yourself by your job. The temptation is very strong there. When I was in my early twenties and just starting to work, I felt the overwhelming need to constantly overstate what I did for a living, and that I did something. I’d grown up watching most women be “housewives” and as much as I hate to admit that, I think I looked down on them when I was a teenager. I believed I was destined for a superior path, I wanted to do what men do: Wake up in the morning, have coffee, put on a suit, get in a car and drive off to work. I wanted the stature that comes with having a job, much more than I wanted the money that comes with it. I thought all these women I saw they weren’t working by choice, and more importantly, I failed to recognise that all the work that did go into keeping a home, raising children and supporting a community deserves as much dignity as any other job. All of that came later, when I was younger, I just wanted everyone to know that I had a job, and my job was my entire identity.
I understand the temptation to call me an idiot for this, I think I was an idiot, especially because in my crusade to ensure women were no longer defined by singular roles, I defined myself by a singular role. Before you judge me too harshly please understand where I was coming from, I had seen women valued only for service, sacrifice, beauty and child-bearing most of my life, and I figured ensuring women were valued for their intelligence as well was a step forward. I know how hard I had to work to get the jobs I wanted and how much I had to put in to prove I could do them just as well as a man. The inordinate amount of pressure that is put on unmarried women to justify their unmarried and childless state by having a wildly successful career is hard to say the least, and it puts you in a state of blind ambition and constant competition. You work so hard at one thing that you cannot imagine defining yourself as anything else. All of your confidence and self-esteem comes from where you place your own value and I placed all of my value on my job. It wasn’t helped by the fact that I really truly love my work, and loving it created an additional layer of justification for my obsession with it. After all, we are taught to give everything we have to what we love, and that is what I was doing.
It was a hard day when I realised I had become just one thing. I had placed so much value on the one thing I was that being other things terrified me. I was scared of the idea of marriage because I believe it reduced me to a wife. I hated the idea of having children because if I had to be just mother, I would be giving up on what I considered made me brilliant. I was afraid of learning or doing something new because that meant I would have to redefine and rediscover my skills. On paper I always said that no matter what a woman chooses to do, she has value, but in my actions, I displayed something different. I displayed judgement for those that hadn’t taken the path in life that I had. I wondered why women placed so much emphasis on how wonderfully they kept their homes and how much attention they gave their children because I didn’t realise that we all have the same need for validation and self-esteem, and we take it where we find it. It wasn’t just my approach that was wrong, it was the entirety of this system. It pushes women to justify our existence by doing much more than one person should have to do, and much less than one person should be allowed to do. There are so many restrictions on being more than what you have been deemed to be, that at every step you are left fulfilling goals you didn’t even set for yourself.
If you’re working, you must work so much and so ardently just to be able to compete with an adequate male employee, because women are fired from jobs with so much more ease than men as society doesn’t view us as being “breadwinners” only suppliers of supplemental income. If you’re a wife you must clean, cook, report on your whereabouts, embrace a whole other family, dress like one, behave like one, sacrifice your wishes, be ever-present, never let your husband see you without make-up, wake up before everyone else in the house, the list is endless. If you are a mother just must conform to a sense of dignity afforded to motherhood, sacrifice yourself for your children, be there everyday to deal with every issue they have, feed them, clothe them, always be a ray of sunshine for them. We all may choose to embrace these roles differently, or not at all, but the societal expectations on all of us are the same, and we face the same condemnation for acting differently within these roles. Ultimately, it is all the same, we must embody a limited set of roles. We must be broken down to a set of nouns.
My life changed drastically the day I decided I wanted to be a set of adjectives instead. Nothing monumental happened. There wasn’t a big moment of realisation, nothing terrible or wonderful preceded it, I just realised there was so much I wasn’t doing because I was working so hard on justifying my right to exist. Like every other woman, I was doing too much within just one role, just so that I could feel like I had the right to the space I took up. I went back to the question I was so often asked as a child: What do I want to be when I grow up?
That list used to be so long, and the only part of it I had embraced was my job. I wanted to be a journalist and I was, but that’s all. That’s all I was. I also wanted to write, not the news, I wanted to write pain and emotion and stories of all the people in the world. I wanted to dance. I wanted to learn yoga and martial arts. I wanted to fall madly, insanely in love. I wanted a house full of animals. I wanted to speak five languages. I wanted to keep studying and rack up a wall full of degrees so intimidating they could speak for me. I wanted to take long walks and regularly get lost. I wanted to travel, not for work, but just because it’s Sunday. I wanted to contribute to local politics. I wanted to feed the hungry. I wanted to run a marathon. I wanted to really get to know people and learn to care about them. I wanted to win awards and give them back to the government because I don’t approve of their policies. I wanted to paint my walls black. I wanted to quote Anais Nin and lust after Victor Hugo. Heck, I want to be Victor Hugo, I want all the brothels in a city to be closed the day I die, that’s the fucking dream. I wanted to go to protests. I wanted to be arrested. I wanted to satyagraha. I wanted to indulge all the creepiness and macabre that I enjoy much more than one person should. That’s who I wanted to be.
That’s who I decided I would be.
I refused to govern my life in anticipation of the roles that I would have to one day embody and instead I designed a life where I did what I wanted and the roles would fit in. I wouldn’t change my life to be wife or worker or mother, I would be who I wanted, and those things would only happen if they fit into my life. The day I decided not to care about whether I fulfil my roles well-enough was the day I truly embraced freedom, and it worked marvellously. I did get married, but nothing in my life changed for it, I love my husband for who he is and he loves me for who I am. No one moved, no one changed their name, we kept living in the same house and having the same legal identities. I didn’t change how I dress, work or travel. We don’t limit one another, we marvel at each other’s adventures instead. Our house is often dirty and we just hope the other one remembered to throw together a salad for lunch. We travel without each other, and we love each other shamelessly with abandon. I work whatever jobs I feel like working, and I find ways to make more money than I ever could have working just one, I only do what I enjoy I refuse to define myself by what I do. I did go back to college in a weird place, and I love it. I did have a child, I didn’t birth him, he came from my husband’s first marriage, but I didn’t become mother. He stayed who he is and I stayed who I am, and we learnt to love each other. I learnt to parent, as I would, with swear-jars and walks on which we feed all the dogs in all the neighbourhoods. I never learnt to do the “right” things, but I learnt to be honest about everything I do. I learnt to respect everything anyone does, no matter what it is. I learnt to love my life, and not limit myself but what life is supposed to be. I refuse to be worn out by my child. I refuse to grow to hate my partner. I refuse to be exhausted and limited by my job. I refuse not to grow. I refuse not to join a karate class for children just because it’s too late for me now.
I won’t take on roles, they are welcome in my life, but I will be who I am, and they will adjust around that. I will never be able to answer the question about who I am, because the answer is not a word, it’s an essay. I am vast, I contain multitudes. So do you.