Fatherhood: Where's My Cheese?
Indian-American fathers deal not just with the generational changes in their role but also cultural ones. In the process many of them find that their cheese—in the form of patriarchal privileges and social and cultural norms that their fathers enjoyed—has not just been moved but has disappeared altogether. We talk to several fathers and experts about what this role transformation means for modern fatherhood.
“I remember being in awe of my maternal grandfather, not the least for the sheer amount of reverence he commanded in his family,” says Jai Soni, a suburban father living in the Chicago area. Remembering his childhood in Jaipur, Rajasthan, he continues, “The aura in the house changed noticeably when he came home in the afternoon after seeing his clients in his jewelry business. My grandma, her two daughters, the daughter-in-law, and the children of the household would shift from boisterous laughter to a hushed attention and deference to nanaji the moment he entered the house. It wasn’t that he was one of those who ruled the household through fear. Far from it, he was quite jovial and sociable. And so, soon after the initial hush following his entry in the house, he would break the ice, often by engaging one of us kids in some light banter. The ladies of the house would take the cue, relax and get back to their chitchat, but with a noticeable restraint.”
“The same act would follow when my maternal uncle made his entry a little later in the evening. As soon as he settled down on the cushioned swing in the living room, he’d be handed a glass of water and the newspaper. I can hardly believe that this was just a generation ago,” says Soni* in amazement, being acutely aware of the fact that his role as a father in America of two American-born boys seems ages apart in so many ways. (* name changed by request).
While fatherhood has undergone a generational metamorphosis all over the world, for Indian- American fathers, that role transformation is far more pronounced. They deal not just with the generational changes, but also cultural ones in the move from India to the U.S. Instead of being handed a glass of water when coming home after a long day’s work, the modern father, upon entering the house, finds not a household ready to cater to his needs, but perhaps a baby whose bottle he has to warm and whose diapers he has to change, a toddler he has to entertain or put to bed, and a sink full of dirty dishes. His equally stretched and exhausted wife expects nothing but an equal partnership in child rearing. Joint decisions made by the two, rather than unilateral edicts, are now the norm.
To top it, these fathers also have to keep up with an endless “honey do” list, and an ever-expanding set of functions and files of modern living that their fathers would have had a dizzy fit over—various sets of life and property insurances, ever-changing medical insurances, finances, retirement portfolios, college savings, bill-paying, termite coverage, and what not. All this while also chauffeuring their kids to piano lessons and soccer games. Is it any wonder that modern fatherhood, just like modern motherhood, is a daunting job?
It’s not just that their cheese was moved, but for Indian-American fathers, it seems to have disappeared altogether, leaving many of them lamenting about how easy their fathers had it. Also, it’s not just the physical realities and the demands made on fathers that they find challenging, but also the distinct downgrade in stature compared to the fathers of the past patriarchal generations.
And yet, an optimistic scenario emerges…
Priyen Shah willingly opted for a cut in salary and benefits at his executive level job at Sun Trust Bank to embrace the demands and privileges of modern fatherhood. Seen here with wife Sheetal and daughters Aashna (8) and Aryaa (6).
For Priyen Shah, a resident of Johns Creek, Georgia, and a program manager at Sun Trust Bank, the intensive engagement with his daughters began even before the girls were born. He took the Lamaze classes with his wife, Sheetal, a CPA, and knew right then that his fathering experience would be nothing like that of his own father.
“My dad never changed a diaper; but here it is part of the partnership,” says Shah, who, despite the demands of his corporate responsibilities, learnt to cook to help out with the raising of his daughters. Already a fully engaged father, Shah takes on an even larger “Mr. Mom” role each year during the tax season when his wife puts in long hours at work. From laundry and cooking to chauffeuring the children to dance, sports, and other activities, cleaning the fish tank, taking care of the cat, he does it all—while keeping up with the demands of his own executive-level job.
“I never thought I would have to wear these hats,” says Shah. What has also taken a little getting used to is the equal footing that his daughters put him on with their mother. To illustrate this, Shah points out how naturally his daughters question him about why he’s home late from work when his wife can make it back on time (except during tax season). The unquestioned “authoritarian father figure” that Shah witnessed growing up posed a stark contrast to where he finds himself now—a father in a typical American two-income family where the overlapping of parental roles is what keeps the household running.
“You can’t have both—have your wife working and taking care of the kids all by herself. Something has to give.” That something, for Shah, was a willing embrace of the new role of fatherhood. He took quite a hit in his salary and benefits so he could be with his family and experience life with his children. The motivation to adapt to his reality, said Shah, came from a “core (within him) that makes you change based on circumstances.”
Dr. Anuj Manocha with son Ajay (14), wife Bindu, son Nikhil (13), and daughter Shefali (16).
Dr. Anuj Manocha, a gastroenterologist in Smyrna, Georgia, affirms the same when he says that being the breadwinner alone doesn’t cut it anymore for fathers. He has had to learn to multitask, and prefers it that way. “I think we have become more of an equal society, and that innate desire of fathers to relate closely with their children has come about now.”
From birth onwards and even prior to that, it is never too soon for such a close father-child relationship. “It’s not that newborns need so much more special care,” says Suzanne Braun Levine, author of Father Courage: What Happens When Men Put Family First, “but that the parent who doesn’t get in the game will have a harder time later picking up the language, codes, the rituals.” Parenting, according to her, is a learning process, and it changes with every stage of life from infancy through adolescence. “It simply isn’t possible to go with the flow if you aren’t in the water to begin with.”
Having made the conscious decision to bond with his children emotionally, Manocha jumped in the water from day one. His journey as a father began with a four-week paternity leave at the time of his first-born. Now a father of two boys and a girl, he believes that women give children emotional strength, “but an immense amount of strength and confidence also comes from fathers, along with attitude, persistence, and the ability to handle stress.” He believes fathers help children become “self-sufficient adults who can function in this world.”
Rahul Bali with wife Dhruti Contractor and son Shyam. Bali put a rising career in journalism on hold when Shyam was diagnosed with a condition that required constant monitoring.
Being highly involved fathers like Shah and Manocha is one thing, but being a stay-at-home full-time dad takes the contrast from the prior generation to a whole new level. Rahul Bali, of Augusta, Georgia, is a journalist with an impressive set of accomplishments in his field. Having worked at WSB radio, CNN, and Georgia Public Broadcasting, Bali has covered Senator Ted Kennedy’s funeral, two presidential inaugurations (including the historic first term of Obama), and several presidential elections. Yet, that did not prevent him from leaving all of it behind when his son Shyam, at just seven months old, was diagnosed with infantile spasms, a form of epileptic seizures that required constant monitoring. Because his wife is an orthopedic surgeon and an army captain, Bali reasoned, it was much easier to put his career on hold than hers. “I married my wife knowing she was serving in the military. You can’t walk away from the military.” So within a week of Shyam’s diagnosis, Bali quit his job to become a stay-at-home dad. He said his son’s condition was unexpected but the steps he took seemed logical and everything automatically fell in place. “It wasn’t some grand decision I made.”
For about a year-and-a-half Bali attended to his son’s every need, from nappy rash and feeding to medication and therapy. Now that Shyam’s condition has been improving, Bali is finally looking forward to rebuilding his career. However, he remains the primary caregiver and the one to take Shyam to therapy, where he is one of the rare dads amidst an overwhelming majority of moms.
And so it is that in a single generation Indian-American fathers have seen their role morph from a patriarch who was catered to, to an equal in a joint partnership. Add to it other changes—such as the fact that domestic help, which was plentifully available in the time and place they left behind, is simply not a part of the equation of their current lives. These dads who had not seen their fathers pick up their own dishes are now commonly the ones in charge of taking out the garbage—amongst a long list of other responsibilities around the house.
How do the fathers feel about their changed role?
“Look, if someone tells me that there is not at least a small part of them that doesn’t lament this change, I am not too sure I’d believe them,” says Soni. “At least at a certain level it is a loss of privilege and status.”
“But what I have come to learn over the years is that I wouldn’t have it any other way,” continues Soni who is the father of two young teens. “It’s like this: Who likes to work out or eat healthy? But we all know that it is good for us. For me, the demands placed on me as a breadwinner, father, husband, butler, cook, chauffer, tutor, bookkeeper, and a whole lot more have been hugely character-building. I grew up quite lazy, and if not for all these demands upon me, I would have never found out what I was capable of.”
Soni goes on to add that the diverse responsibilities thrust upon the modern-day fathers cultivate a well-rounded, independent person. “In so many ways my dad was completely clueless without my mom. In the name of patriarchal privilege, I feel it was actually a curse to the fathers of that generation that they couldn’t even get out the door without help from their wives or the hired help. Of course these are broad generalizations. Fathers in all generations come in all kinds. But broadly speaking it may be safe to say that fathers of that time and place were dismally dependent in most domestic matters. Many couldn’t (or wouldn’t) even make a cup of chai for themselves.”
Expanding on the theme of independence, Soni now believes that the availability of household help in his childhood days in India was also not as much of an advantage as he thought it was when he first moved to the States. Having done their own dishes and other household chores for years now, the Sonis have come to realize that they like not being dependent on anyone. During a recent visit to India, the servant at the home of their relatives called in sick. The immense stress that he saw his aunt fall into on account of that news made him realize how terribly dependent they were on this help. In contrast, “I actually have come to like my time doing dishes. It is one of the few times during the day that I can afford to be meditative—instead of always rushing to the next thing,” Soni admits.
Shah, too, sees the benefits of this expanded role that Indian-American fathers have taken on. He wants his daughters to grow up to be strong, confident, and independent like his wife, and his own acceptance of the changes in his role as a father will be a major factor affecting how his girls turn out. He likes that he can better influence his daughters thanks to an active and alive relationship with them as opposed to a casual and distant one. There are fringe benefits, he says, such as being able to encourage his daughters to focus on extracurricular activities like sports apart from traditional dance and music.
In terms of psychological and emotional bonding, fatherhood has changed from being distant and a tad formal to being communicatively open and emotionally close. Jayant Kamicheril, an account manager for a food ingredient company in Reading, Pennsylvania, has children who are now young adults; he remembers bridging the gap with them while they were growing up by spending more time with them, playing games, and encouraging them to express their feelings and give full play to their competitive spirit. He joined his children in games of Dumb Charades and Scrabble, sometimes tossing in taboo words that are often off-limits in families. “Something out of the ordinary,” he explained, that would bring hush-hush topics out in the open. He also acted goofy on purpose to break down the walls. “You want their guards to be down, in order to communicate.”
“I’ve had a ball. I wouldn’t have wanted to give up that enjoyment for anything,” says Dr. Beheruz Sethna, a trendsetting father, about being a highly involved and engaged father. Seen left, and below with daughter Anita, wife Madhavi, and son Shaun.
A strong endorsement for the changed role of fathers comes from a veteran father who also happens to be an exemplary, high-profile citizen of Georgia. Dr. Beheruz N. Sethna, President Emeritus and Regents’ Professor at the University of West Georgia, who has been recognized as one of the “100 Most Influential Georgians” six times by Georgia Trend magazine, likes to say that he has “69 years of fathering to his credit” (the combined age of both of his children)! And even at the beginning of this journey over 40 years ago, Sethna was a trendsetting father. The Sethnas had just migrated to the U.S. They both had highly demanding jobs. Despite “sweating tenure at a research university,” he was a willing secondary caregiver from the time his children were babies. There were two phases in their upbringing when he even took on the role of the primary caregiver. Also, when his daughter was in middle school, not only did he wear the hat of a Girl Scout leader but he took up the position of President of the PTA—the only male in a room of 100 people.
Sethna views the gradual end of role-bound stereotypes of fathers as “awesome.” He believes the traditional role was not conducive to a positive involvement of the father with his children. “Beyond the physiological difference between men and women, I don’t think there’s much difference between a loving mother and father,” he adds. He feels children now have a chance at a better relationship with both parents.
Speaking for himself, he points out that his relationship with his children is healthy enough where he can have fun with them and be serious with them in equal measures, depending on the need of the moment. He recalls he used to change diapers, feed the babies, and baby-sit them while balancing the pressures of his “24-7” work. That, he feels, may be responsible for a closer relationship with them compared to the father-child relationship he had observed in India. He highlights that his relationship with his now adult children is born out of “mutual respect.”
What the experts say about involved fathers
“With the exception of lactation, there is no evidence that women are biologically predisposed to be better parents than men are,” says Dr. Kyle D. Pruett, author of Fatherneed: Why Father Care Is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child. He believes infants are prewired to connect with both men and women, and it’s the social conventions that are responsible for the traditional division of parental responsibilities.
Levine refers to this new generation of men as “male jugglers.” “They are learning to deal with conflicting priorities and new working relationships like the women before them who entered the workforce not too long ago.”
“Marital experience and cultural background,” according to Pruett, “both play a larger role in sculpting the man as a father than they do in shaping the woman as a mother.”
Dr. Neha Navasaria.
This certainly seems to be the case for Indian-American fathers. Dr. Neha Navasaria is a child psychologist on faculty at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and a co-director of CHAI Parenting Initiative, a project addressing the parenting needs of the South Asian community. Based on her extensive fieldwork and a national survey she conducted in 2011 with 130 Indian-American mothers, she reports that Indian-American fathers have adapted to the demands of the role quite well, and that the stigmas surrounding involved fathers have lessened in the community. For example, in social settings, “if fathers excuse themselves to tend to their child’s needs, it is not frowned upon or seen as a ‘woman’s job.’”
Not always easy
“Thirty-five years ago the Indian family was extremely structured,” observes Sethna. “It was a role-bound society. The father’s role was to earn the money and the mother’s role was child rearing. At the time there was no appreciation for the male role in child rearing.” For men, being highly engaged with children was considered abnormal. “It was considered too feminine, and frowned upon,” he adds. Even here in the States, Sethna encountered such deeply entrenched traditional attitudes. During the eighties, when he was single-handedly parenting his kids while his wife was finishing her studies, he said, he felt disapproval from some of his friends, even doctors and pediatricians. “People thought something was wrong with me. I ignored the chauvinism and went against the grain.”
Kamicheril, who said he had been an engaged father even back in India, faced the same challenges. Taking care of children was looked down upon as “women’s stuff” by other men in his village. “Initially it was painful. It hurt. But I brushed it off.”
Sethna believes that “the few fathers who broke the norm are the ones who now make it the norm.” Commenting on contemporary India, he remarks that a westernizing India takes the credit for the breakdown in rigid family structures and opening the floodgates to challenges to stereotypes in parental roles.
What do these changes mean for the fathers and the children?
Is this role transformation beneficial? After all, in organizations a clear division of labor is often valued. And that was the case for parents in the prior generation: a mostly clear division of labor between mother and father. Now that their roles overlap, how does it affect the children? Which model serves them better?
“It is difficult to say one environment is better than the other as there are pros and cons to both,” offers Navasaria. “It is not necessarily about the amount of time each parent is involved with a child, but the quality of time spent. In my clinical work with parents and children, I’ve found that children thrive when they have open communication, positive relationships with their parents, and consistency in their lives.” And these, according to her, are possible in both models: divided or shared parenting roles. According to Navasaria it is the quality and degree of communication between the parents that matters more than role segregation or the lack of it.
The changing needs of today’s Indian-American family have paved the way for a new kind of father. Admittedly, he does not enjoy the exalted position a patriarch did in a traditional Indian home. But the fully hands-on modern-day dad, physically and emotionally engaged as a nurturer and competent as a caregiver, has managed to gain something that the men of previous generations never could hope for—a rewarding parenting experience that leads to a closer bond between father and child. He may have lost his “cheese,” but has gained something far more precious instead.
Speaking of the joyride he has had, Sethna says, “I’ve had a ball. I wouldn’t have wanted to give up that enjoyment for anything.” Which is why, when Dr. Sethna’s children used to thank him for something, and that continues even now, he would look them in the eye with a smile and say, “That’s what God made Daddy for!”
Anju Gattani is an internationally published freelance writer based in Alpharetta, Georgia, and the author of a novel about a modern Indian woman’s tug of war between Duty and Desire. See her work at www.anjugattani.com. Parthiv N. Parekh is the editor-in-chief of Khabar.
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