The Unspoken Trials Of Stay-At-Home Fathers In India

The Unspoken Trials Of Stay-At-Home Fathers In India
Anjul Dandekar

I can’t be the only one that was dragged out of bed as a kid by their mother and literally held up in the shower while I refused to ‘wake up’ enough to get ready for school. My mother still jokes about my morning antics as a child, including me then later complaining about her to my father as soon as he’d get home from office – all while sitting on his foot and clinging on to his leg as he’d try to enter the house after a long day’s work. I’m pretty sure everyone’s mothers tell stories we’d all like them to stop recounting, especially in social settings. But that’s just mothers do, and dads go off to work. It’s pretty much what the dynamic has been for centuries and is no new information as such. While not much has really changed on a large scale there are certain shifts that are happening, with many couples switching the societally-set gender roles.

There are multiple reasons why men and women are consciously making decisions to turn mom from diaper-changer to company leader and dad from CEOs to full-time fathers and home-makers – be it unemployment, monetary or a health-related choice, it often becomes the only option available.

While the Pew Research Center has collated the rise in at-home fathers in the US, where they have even created their own supporting system, you won’t find any real data or statistics for India despite it being a real phenomenon here as well (albeit a slow rising one). Homegrown put out a call for stay-at-home fathers in India for a conversation regarding the existence of this lesser-known change in parenting in the country but didn’t come up with much in terms of people willing to talk. We did manage to speak to a number of people that haven’t made the switch of roles and professions as yet but have definitely considered it. In course of research, we came across three at-home dads who did offer us a lot of insight.

India is still a developing, male-dominated and oriented nation where no gender is safe from the critical eyes of patriarchy – while gender bias pulls women down hard in this country men too are adversely affected by expected social norms, codes of conduct and expectations. Toxic masculinity, the silence that surrounds male sexual abuse as men as told to ‘man up’ and bear responsibilities of being ‘macho’ and providers, and being a stay-at-home father is another one of them riddled with stigma. “Most men laughed and made jokes, while most women were surprised and extremely happy about it,” says Lahar Joshi, a stay-at-home dad to beautiful twin baby boys. “There were the usual suspects too who’d ask, ‘are you really going to do housework?’ ‘Do you seriously think a man can handle a baby on his own, let alone two?!’ ‘Will you be okay asking for money from your wife?’ he says.

Having moved to Mumbai in 2007, Lahar started his own branding and advertising firm, PinkElephant in 2013. He never planned on being a full-time father, nor had any intention to do so. Back in 2015, he and his wife were saving up for a vacation, with no planned pregnancy as such when they found out about the bun in the oven about 7 weeks into it pregnancy – the bun was, in fact, twins as they found out after the first sonography! They then realised that her maternity leave would be longer than normal, both legally and physically. Lahar explains that early on in his wife’s third trimester it became clear that her post-pregnancy recovery too would take longer. “This is when I decided that I had to take some time off. I shut shop in January 2016, and my wife continued working well into what was now her 8th month, and then the delivery came out of nowhere, just like the pregnancy did!” In fact, Lahar found out his wife was in labour when he had left for Baroda for a friends wedding. The same day he received a call that his wife was being prepped for a C-section and he took a flight back – their babies were born while he was mid-air.

“My dad thought it was a rash decision on my part,” says Lahar. “He only asked me one question, ‘are you sure?’ And when I said yes, he never asked me again.” Lahar himself had a great relationship with his father while growing up, and the kind of support he got from his following his own decision is uncommon, really something that sounds like it’s out of a movie. Jonathan Braganza* wasn’t as lucky when it came to having a good support system. He had just turned 32 when his girlfriend got pregnant, and when the couple made the happy announcement to his family the reactions were very mixed. “I was still a freelance music composer at the point in Delhi and she was completing her law degree. Her college administration and friends were very understanding and she took time off before she gave birth. Law isn’t an easy thing to study so when she went back to it we both knew the right decision was for me to continue working on a select few projects from home while caring for our son. My parents saw it as me throwing my entire career (which they also didn’t see as legitimate) and life away for a girl I wasn’t even married to over a rushed decision and ‘puppy love’. We didn’t talk for a long time, and reconnected only when my son had turned 3,” he says.

Lahar Joshi with his children

You’re never really fully prepared to be a parent, it is the one job that no education, skill nor training can ever make you fully competent for at first and all your learning is as you go. This isn’t any different whether you’re the mom or dad, a man or woman. “I developed quite a bit of anxiety at first. It was a little easier when he was a baby, he was basically a lump that ate, slept and pooped so the time I had in between I either slept or read every parenting book and blog I could find online,” says Jonathan. Lahar on the other hands feels that it is a misconception that people have. “The only thing you have is time. And given that newborns sleep for 18 hours a day, I now had boss-level time on my hands,” he says. But while this was Lahar’s experience, it’s clear that everyone’s experience is different, and this became even clearer to us when we spoke to Shailesh Velandy, who, like a lot of people, held the same thought of ‘How will you spend the day, doing nothing?’

“It’s a misconception that most people have, and I myself had, but no one realises that you actually have no time at all. It’s a full-time job!” shares Shailesh. Father to a lovely five-year-old boy, a regular weekday for this stay-at-home dad would start with getting up his kid up and ready, then eat breakfast and dropping him to the bus stop. “The philosophy that my wife and I go by is that for the first few years of a child’s life, ideally five or six is when the core psychological makeup of the kid is formed and developed. So it’s imperative that one of us is with the child. Now, he’s five and a half years old, we’ve started sending him to daycare post school and slowly I’ve found myself moving out of the full-time father role,” says Shailesh.

There’s no ‘how to be a perfect parent’ guidebook regardless of where you live in this world, and while the US has now got a network of at-home fathers to share their parenting tips and support to each other, there is still a sense of alienation and even prejudice that still looms over Indian full-time fathers. “I think I seriously confused our house help by being the one that’s at home with the baby while Aisha* went to work at her law firm. The bai tried to ask her indirectly in hushed tones on a few occasions whether I was fired or depressed or something and how she could ‘fully trust’ me alone with the child because, after all, she was the mother who would automatically know how to do everything,” says Jonathan. But other than the snide comments and strange looks what Jonathan felt was a feeling of isolation. “It was difficult because I didn’t know any other full-time dads, and the moms in my neighbourhood would flock together at the playgrounds to chit-chat and there was never a place for me in that group. They would always look at me suspiciously like a strange man just hanging around young children. My girlfriend was as supportive as she could be at that time but she worked long hours at her new lawyer gig and I just didn’t have anyone to talk to about what I was going through. My male friends definitely couldn’t relate.”

Jonathan started therapy soon after to deal with depression and anxiety, and when his girlfriend soon became his ex-girlfriend, details of which he didn’t want to publically disclose but what became problematic were matters of custody of their child without the legal backing of a marriage certificate. What he does share is the feeling of emasculation at the start when he fully adopted the role of a full-time father, giving up whatever projects he was taking up professionally to pay full attention to his growing son. “I wasn’t doing what I had been socially told to do growing up by being a man in Indian society. It took time for me to adjust, but there were my own mental hurdles that popped up because of my own conditioning. It doesn’t matter how open-minded I was at the time, years of being told certain things and certain behaviours are what define you as a man, and then doing the complete opposite isn’t easy.”

Media often portrays at-home dads as lazy bums that leave all the housework for their wives to do after they work multiple different jobs to keep the family afloat, and while this may be the reality for some it isn’t really the case for most. “When people ask me what my job is I tell them that it’s being a father, and it’s bloody difficult. I may have gone from breadwinning to diaper-changing, but I am responsible for the upbringing and moulding of a whole other human being and what I do, my decisions for them is going to be a large part of who they turn out to be as adults. There’s a lot to keep track of while trying to maintain your own sanity with the little time you have left on your hands. My job is to make sure my son grows up to be a kind, responsible human being and that’s what I work for,” says Jonathan.

To do so takes meticulous planning and definitely a lot of multitasking. Vacations are the most challenging and stressful, as Shailesh explains, children have A LOT of energy. His wife and he try to keep a good balance between sending him for classes/extracurricular activities, going outdoors, enabling him to develop a relationship with nature and his surroundings, while also having a curated TV time.

“My relationship with my father has been great,” says Lahar, and his only hope is to make his own relationship with his kids every greater – “if that’s possible!” For him, fatherhood changed his base perspective on everything and made him a better person. “Being a father is like being the captain of a sports team. The team is suddenly the most important thing in your life.”

While for Shailesh, the difficulty of being a stay-at-home father was returning to his professional life and establishing his own NGO. “After being with the child for 5-6 years, I’m sure it’s not going to be easy getting back into that space.” But Shailesh has no regrets, there’s nothing he says he would change – “Knowing and seeing it all in front of your eyes, what your contribution is to the development of your child, I wouldn’t have it any other way. When you see that, and then if you could go back in time and change it you, you wouldn’t.” Is the switch between focusing on your career and on your family (and then going back to work) easier for those working in the creative industry? Would a more male-centric profession with a traditional structure and set-up, like banking or the civil services, that women have just about broken into in a big way be as understanding when it comes to such ‘new age’ left of centre parenting decisions?

Childbearing is an innately feminine biological process, but raising a child isn’t. There are good days and bad days, regardless of the parent’s gender. The good days are like rainbows and sunshine, but when the bad days hit, they don’t discriminate. Being a stay-at-home father is no different really than a stay-at-home mom when it comes to responsibilities and raising kids, there are perhaps things that men could do even better. While societal rules that hold women’s place in the home as caregivers and men at the office as providers are changing, there is a long way to go. Truth be told, being a good parent doesn’t really depend on one’s gender, sexual orientation or the roles we’re expected to play in life. And being a full-time parent is definitely not the easier route, because however much we may have rolled our eyes every time our mother or father pointed out that parenting is the hardest job in the world – it’s true, and you don’t get sick leave or days off.

*Names have been changed at the request of the contributor

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Featured illustration by Anjul Dandekar.

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