As a child, I remember playing seven stones with boys every evening post-Maths tuition, often having taken pencil hits at my knuckles for not knowing tables by rote. With a tear-stained face, I would run to my happy place, the dusty, quiet street flanked by gulmohars, to an affable band of boys from the neighbourhood, followed by a very disapproving nanny. None of the other “good girls” in the avenue played with boys.
If any of the boys cried while bleeding through their teeth or a gash, they got teased with “Are you a girl?” I would see them fighting their tears, nostrils inflating, red in their face as if being hurt itself was their fault, a weakness. I, on the other hand, garnered significant attention because of the accompanying nanny, who saw my fraternising with boys over cricket, badminton and climbing trees and hanging from branches as neglect on my parents’ part. Even if I tripped on my own two feet, my nanny scolded every passerby and baffled cadet playing with me, right there on the street, that “She is a girl! Don’t let her be hurt on her face in case it leaves a scar.” I never understood the fuss over it then.
I was slowly made to quit cricket, basketball and water polo lest I get an irreparable injury that might pose a difficulty in finding “a future family”. I didn’t mind any of this until I had to take home science to learn “something useful” and I raised hell at home. Finally, I had to relent after being asked by my teacher to leave the computer science class and head to the home science lab. I topped home science in my 10th grade and won immense praise at home for it having changed my life, taught me to be a girl, as I knew so many exciting things about home, laundry and cooking. Without realising, my happy place changed.
From the time I was a little girl, I observed differences in rules of engagement, meanings, purpose and etiquette that were clearly stated and accepted as normal around me and honestly didn’t hurt me that much.
And that I see as the problem.
We not just accept but often enjoy the privileges that come with the cookie-cutter roles. Until inequality starts to hurt, stigma interferes with desires, as far as roles are concerned, both men and women fit themselves in this comfortable familiar space, cooperate and comply without enquiry.
This is not a discussion on traditional gender inequality or biased social norms, not leading to why women get paid less or have fewer seats in parliament houses. While that is equally significant, today is the day we need to have a talk with ourselves, about rejection of vulnerability and tabooed expression, as taught to us by gender role expectations.
As girls grow up to draw self-worth from nurturing, managing, balancing and functioning beyond capacity, without complaining, men applaud us women for the same and reinforce it. Similarly, not only do boys believe that they are men when providing, deciding, and portraying strong manly characters but often women too, expect their men to not express or exhibit any kind of weakness, reaffirming no room for honesty about vulnerabilities. Gender roles are thus relational. Gender characteristics do not exist in isolation, but are defined in relation to one another and through the relationships between women and men. Simply put, sex refers to biological differences, whereas gender refers to social differences.
Over the years, many, not all sessions with couples I saw for counselling started with the man saying, “I don’t have a problem, she wanted to talk”. “I’m ok. She is not.” “I can handle it Doctor, she is struggling.” Women wept, screamed and expressed openly. I often exclaimed that “not expressing” was the bigger struggle.
There were of course some men who reached out to deal with stress but those were mainly attributed to job stress, children, their academics, addictions or financial loss, and they would repeat this externalisation ever so often. They were there because of some tangible and external reason, not because they were not able to cope with it.
Women came a lot more, frequently traumatised and burnt out with constant caring, nurturing and balancing work, home and social responsibilities.
When the nasty coronavirus infiltrated our societies and saw no difference in gender, caste or affluence, we were all jolted out of our snug cocoons of entitlement, safety and perceived roles of existence. It brought to surface a deep-seated denial of vulnerability and show of strength we unknowingly prided ourselves over our gender roles.
Therapy in the last few months has been very different in many ways than in the last 16 years for me. I saw men break down, express and enunciate delicate details of their life. I heard women complain about the workplace, making crucial family decisions regarding health, finances, prioritising self and allowing litter and imperfections to take a breather. I felt men and women just be human, be vulnerable, be themselves.
This viral crisis has been so enormous in magnitude that it has shaken up a bred-in-the-bone social stigma and I wonder if this might be an opportunity to review this chronic, inveterate syndrome.
Men must be strong, brave, protect and solve problems. Boys don’t express emotions. This expectation itself makes them so vulnerable to stress and stress related problems. Expressing emotional pain, suffering, and other perceived vulnerabilities and weaknesses are often thought to be “feminine traits”. Men are taught to suppress emotions because expressing them are viewed by others as non-macho, weak, unmanly, damaging to their image and even abnormal. Incidentally, men have reported just that over the pandemic, overcoming the barrier of demonstrating emotional strength.
Being nurturing, giving, hardworking without complaining and taking care of the family was the role women unthinkingly complied with and many enjoyed it. Recently most of the women I have counselled have reported a breakdown due to stress over exactly those traits, nurturing kids, family and home-related responsibilities, expressing guilt over, I quote “feeling like running away”, “not taking care of anyone” and “not smiling all the time.”
Looking within, accepting vulnerabilities and coming in touch with our complete authentic selves, not devoid of broken, painful or fractured parts of us, requires immense courage. Hiding behind a facade of perfection, appearing happy at all times, is the biggest lie we tell ourselves, our families and friends, that we are worthy since we are always strong.
With time, the economy will bounce back, jobs will come back, treatment for this deadly disease will be formulated, life will go back to normal like we have seen historically post-World Wars, stock market crashes and tsunamis.
The loss of people is irreparable. The stress manifested is unbearable.
But after every crisis we have bounced back. This time, however, when we bounce back, can we do so with less judgement on vulnerability. The reality is that there is an innate vulnerability in all of us, men and women. Knowing it, allowing it and embracing it is the first step to healing and reforming, not just individually but also socially. Being vulnerable is not for the weak-hearted.
Crisis has led to revolutions, innovations and freedom. This time round, what revolution do we want to bring about, what falsehoods can we free ourselves of?
(The author is a Mumbai-based psychologist and psychotherapist)
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