We roamed the mall side by side, me in my elastic waistband lounge pant and she in her jeans. We gawked the name brand stores, stepped inside H&M and walked out with bags. We sat by the water fountain, cups of coffee in hand and a box of pretzel bites on the table before us. The bags lay to the side. Her face was clear, her eyes lined with kohl. My reflection in the store window behind her showed a tired face with greying hair by my ears.
Sipping on the hot coffee we rested our legs and talked about our respective lives. She about what it was like to hold on to her career and try and balance home and life. Home as defined by a place across the globe. Her eyes had a faraway look when she spoke of her girls. One on the cusp of teenage and the other ready for kindergarten. The worries that weighed on her slipped away one sip at a time even if just for the moment. We mused on what it like to grow up a girl in India burdened by expectations of parents.
Raised to study hard, compete with the boys, make it to the working world only to step back as marriage and motherhood descend on us. She looked around as couples walked past us, her eyes wistful. The ache she felt for her family flowed from her in waves enveloping me. I wished I could reach out and smooth it away, reassure her that it will all work out. That her family will be together again in quite the way she wanted it.
As we got in the car and worked our way through the winding exit, talk shifted to parental influences and how they have impacted us as adults. She of parents who wanted her to excel at studies and work, to shatter glass ceilings and me of parents who were laid back and wanted me to have a good married life.
We spoke of the influences we have on our children. Her voice halted as she spoke of how she decided to pursue a career opportunity out of the country despite hurdles so her children would know that there is no stopping dreams, that it is possible for women (and mothers) to have a career that is not limited by their gender. My voice was quieter when I spoke of wanting to let my children know that all work mattered, even ones that were not paid, that the effort that went into making a home for them to come to each day, though invisible, was just as valuable as the one that I had held in the past.
Night fell and with it, our thoughts were trapped in our heads. Our identities are so intricately tied to our gender roles that sometimes it feels like feminism is indeed a battle. A struggle to just stay in the same lane without being swept off the race. Some problems have no clear solutions but sometimes, just sometimes, setting the gender aside helps us gain clarity on what we should be doing.
“What would a man do?”
This is the question I pose her and the answer is stunningly simple. Simple does not mean easy though. Even if we struggle to unlearn the biases that are strongly embedded in us, perhaps these questions will make it easier for us to be conscious of what we hold up for our children to emulate. Perhaps, that will give us the strength to forge ahead when otherwise we would be content to linger behind.