A Hands-on Father among the men who would like to tow the patriarchal order

Alka Gadgil
Shahapur, District Thane

UNICEF is focusing on the role a father can effectively play in raising the child. Studies show that fathers who spend quality time with their children from day one not only significantly boost the physical and mental development of their little ones, but they themselves experience lower levels of stress in an otherwise demanding daily routine. A father can easily develop a strong bond with his child, get attuned to their likes and dislikes, and become confident and capable caregivers. They have a unique style of interacting and parenting, and those who enjoy a good relationship with their father as children grow up to be secure, well-adjusted youngsters, capable of handling life’s challenges.

During the Poshan Fortnight Celebrations, Charkha organized a meeting with a group of 9 men from Washind village, Shahapur block in Thane district. The objective of the meeting was to explore and understand their views about the role of father in child nurturing.

At the venue, the ever-dependable women in pink and white sarees – the Anganwadi Workers (AWW) and the Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) workers were busy in making arrangements for the opening programme. Inside the hall, groups of pregnant women and adolescent girls had gathered for the celebrations of the Poshan Pakhwada.

Primarily a tribal block, Shahapur is home to Kokna and Mahadev Koli tribes – the original inhabitants of the region. Every year after monsoon, most families migrate for work either to brick kilns or to harvest grapes. “When the families migrate, it’s usually the health of the women and children that takes a beating owing to poor living conditions and the lack of access to healthcare,” shares Seema Dive, AWW.

District Child Development Project Officer (CDPO) Vivek Choudhari and Swachh Bharat Prerak, Sufiyan Amin flagged off the celebration by breaking a coconut – an auspicious Hindu ceremony and address the gathering.

A group of men was waiting for us in the primary school. We reached the school and introduced ourselves. Afterwards, when Charkha’s team opened the floor for discussing the role father/men can play in pregnancy and childcare – a spell of silence filled the room.

We requested the schoolteacher to initiate the discussion. Suresh Mali, 39 and teacher of the primary school said, “participants will take some time to get attuned to the issues which are traditionally associated with women”. With the objective of breaking the ice, he put forth his opinion, “Well, the husband has to help his wife in case she’s alone specially in nuclear families – he should accompany her to the health centres during pregnancy. He certainly should help in the absence of women relatives – like mother or mother-in-law.” This made ways for others to contribute to the discussion.

‘Ideally, the man should be involved into the regular pregnancy check-ups of his wife. However, for a working father, it’s not always possible. He is the bread winner of the family. He’s busy in his professional or office work and travel takes a lot of his time. So, it’s somewhat difficult for a man to lend any help to the woman. After all these issues are women’s issues,” shares Jeevan Meshram, 38, a government employee.

After Mali and Meshram, other group members echoed their views and felt they didn’t have a major role to play in pregnancy and post-delivery care. “Mother or mother-in-law is there to care of her. Men are not needed in such a situation. Of course, we will be there if there’s an emergency or problem” was the opinion of the majority of the participants.

But should the woman bear the burden of cooking and cleaning, pregnancy and childcare all by herself? Should the man not shoulder equal responsibility?

Ganesh Shelke, 33, who works in a private firm turns out to be an attentive husband. He would take his pregnant wife to the local dispensary for regular check-ups. “During Savita’s (his wife) pregnancy, I went to the dispensary every time she was due for check -up. When it was time for my wife to deliver, I was around to give her support.”

Ganesh was excited to take over once the baby came home. He loved holding and cuddling the new-born. He would take her out every day for exposing her to early morning sun rays. After the baby completed six months, he took on the responsibility of feeding her complementary food like rice cooked in milk or mashed vegetables and dal. On the immunization day, he alone would take the baby to the dispensary. “Besides tending to the baby, my wife has other household responsibilities to shoulder like cooking, washing utensils and other chores that keeps our house in a good shape.”

Hemant Sawant, the 25 year -old unmarried youth who had volunteered to participate in the group discussion, was totally silent. After a lot of persuasion by the Principal of the school Jatin Purav, he opened up only to say that he doesn’t have anything to share as he’s unmarried but feels that men should help women when it’s asked for.

Ashok Dhawad, a 45-year-old private firm employee shared that in joint families, responsibility of children and household work gets divided. But, in nuclear family the man has to take responsibility of helping the wife in household work and raising children, when it is required.

Except for Shelke, the other participants, young and old, believed in the gendered division of labour. They also felt domains of pregnancy, child nurturing belonged to women. “The rest of the chores like cooking, cleaning are the responsibilities of women and that men have little to do except for lending ‘some help’ and that too when the woman is unwell.”

Patriarchy still reigns supreme; few men would like to concede that men should participate in pregnancy care and child nurturing.

Yet it was heartening to see Shelke owning up the responsibilities of childcare and domestic chores. Among the rest of the participants who towed the patriarchal line, Shelke defied the code and assumed the role of care giver.

(names of all the persons mentioned have been changed to protect their identity)