Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Becoming Housewife Part 1

This is a 2 part series translated from an article published in S Weekly. It talks about dilemma faced by educated women who find themselves ending up as housewife, and the difficulty transiting into such role.

I grew up in an era where feminists' prolonged quest for gender equality has finally starting to bear fruits. With almost equal education and career opportunity, we were brought up believing we will contribute to the society in the same manner as men.We judge ourselves using the same yardstick as men: how educated we are, how much we earn, how far in advance we are on the corporate ladder.

But as years passed, I start to find this to be unrealistic: Who is going to take care of the child and family with both parents working? Who is going to be the one taking off from work when a family member is sick? Are we going to leave the early education of our child to some strangers in the pre-school while it has been proven again and again that adult interactions in the early childhood is the most crucial part in child upbringing? What about the inescapable maternity leave?

With the fortunate or unfortunate reality of my husband earning multiple times more than me, I found myself wondering about the possibility of being a full time housewife, a career that I never consider, and frankly, once loathed.

Becoming Housewife: Increasing trend of educated full time housewives (in China)
Article by Hong Gu, translated by Jessie Tong.

Wan Dan has never considered a career as a full time housewife. However, on her thirtieth birthday, she quit her job for good.

Wan Dan barely sees her husband during their 3 years of marriage. As a business consultant, she travels often. Her husband works in an investment bank, an industry well-known for long working hours. Having a dinner together during the weekday is an occasion so rare that it deserves a celebration.

Once, when Wan Dan was on a business trip in Inner Mongolia, she told her husband that they have not seen each other for 42 days. Her husband begs to differ. Apparently, he saw her before she left for Inner Mongolia. She was asleep when he came back from his work at 2am. He kissed her, fell asleep at the sofa and left early in the morning before rush hours; while Wan Dan, who woke up later, left with her luggage that has not been unpacked from the previous trip.

The last straw came as Wan Dan's birthday is approaching. Having just finished a huge project and judging from her upcoming schedule, she believes that she can finally enjoy a weekend off. She looks forward to a normal couple life just enjoying some time with her husband, perhaps a candlelight dinner, a staycation or a movie.

On the day of her birthday, her husband removed himself from all commitments, left work early and waited for her at her office building. But after he finished his quick dinner at 6pm, snacks at 9pm and supper at 12am, Wan Dan was still nowhere to be seen. Apparently, her bosses assigned a new task on that day and the whole team was on full force till 2am. At 1am, when Wan Dan finally got the chance to call her husband, his only response is "I have cancelled the hotel booking.".

Both Wan Dan and her husband eventually came to a consensus that they have to change their way of life. As educated adults, they approached this issue rationally and systematically. Each writes down a list of what they look forward in this marriage. Intimacy, quality time, and family life rank top of their lists, while financial gain does not.

It is apparent then one of them has to give up his/her career and devote more time to the family. Since her husband earns twice her pay, she will be the one who do so. They ponder over the possibility of her getting a less demanding job. However, the comparatively meager salary does not justify getting her to spend few hours travelling back and forth everyday, as well as the lost of flexibility in time arrangement.

Thus, one month later, Wan Dan became a full time housewife.

Learning To Become A Wife

Life didn't change much after Wan Dan's marriage. They have been staying together as a couple and the hectic working schedule after marriage took their focus away from married life. There is no time for conflicts. All they want is just more time together.

Wan Dan only started to feel like "a wife" after quitting her job. She would prepare breakfast for her husband every morning and sort out his suit every night. She would cook and bake. Spending half an afternoon in the kitchen becomes the norm. Then it would be the endless wait for her husband to come home from work.

She didn't inform her parents about her decision to stay home. She can imagine their furious. "They have invested so much on my education. And I 'wasted' it by becoming a housewife?!" Nor does her parent-in-laws know about it. "I guess my husband doesn't want them to worry too much since he is the sole breadwinner now."

Her close friends and colleagues are still busy working and she finds it hard to share with them about her new status and thoughts about it. The common impression for full time housewives is a group of women who has nothing better to do, spends all their time shopping and doing beauty treatments. It is difficult to talk about the physical and emotional distress of a full time housewife when most people have more immediate challenges facing them at work.

When Wan Dan finally got the chance to attend her college reunion dinner after quitting her job, she found out that she is not the only housewife there. And it makes her feels much better. 3 out of their 8 dorm mates , including her, have quit their job. One stops working after marrying and relocated to German. Another quits after having a child.

Last year, in a survey titled "Who want's to be a housewife", they found out that out of 20,000 female participants, more than 1/3 have spent a certain period of their life as a housewife. This figures roughly tallied with Wan Dan's dorm mates' experiences, where 3 out of 8 women are staying home now. Among the women who choose to stay home, 22.09% do so to take care of their family, 21.32%  is due to pregnancy and childcare, 15.10% fed up with the stress at work. However, in Wan Dan's age band, the main reason for women to quit their job is related to childcare.

In China's main city, the cost for hiring a full time helper increases much faster than the pay of an office worker. At an average wage of 5,000 yuan for a full time helper, it is not a small sum for working or middle class family to fork out with. Wan Dan's dorm mate - an accountant previously - decided to quit after calculating the cost. Of course, they can always ask for help from their parents. However, differences in living style and children upbringing philosophy force them to double think about such options.

It was particularly interesting that Wan Dan was not close to this dorm mate at all during their college years. Both of them were high achievers and were too busy with their goals, thus lacks of interactions with each other. But now they are more appreciative of each other. "No one understand what you are going through as a housewife. Acquaintances will think that you are enjoying a care-free life; Close friends might feel sorry for you for not able to do what you are trained to do. But eventually, nobody cares about your daily ups and downs, perhaps not even your husband."  

Anxiety and Emptiness

After one year of staying at home, Wan Dan's anxiety reaches the peak. As a highly-educated person, she can't bare to spend all her time dolling up and waiting for her husband to come back from home. She has learnt flower arrangements, obtained a barista license, practices yoga every two days and even adopted a dog. Just walking the dog alone will take 2 hours of her time everyday. Yet, she still fell lonely. She will chose to walk to the wet market 20 minutes away to get her daily needs instead of the store nearby, so that she can talk and bargain with the sellers there.

Such loneliness is totally different from what she faced when writing her thesis alone in the icy and chilly Canada. "You have hopes and dreams during that time. You never thought of spending your life cooking and washing when you are 32."

"Life breezes through when I was working. Time flies. Now, it feels like the day never ends." Wan Dan thinks that she is experiencing such emptiness because there is nothing for her to look forward to. She used to gain satisfaction from small things like an additional day off, a lazy afternoon or an end to a project. Now, she has nothing. Her husband had earned a pay raise, they have upgraded their car since then. Since they agreed not to have children before they got married, she have nothing related to childcare to worry about. They went for a trip in Maldives, but her worn-out husband preferred to spend his holiday sleeping then sight-seeing. New dishes does not generate the same excitement from her husband as it used to be. He started taking her for granted.

Wan Dan's dorm mate thinks that not everyone is suitable to be a full time housewife, just like not everyone is cut out to be a career woman. She planned to return to work once her son enters kindergarten. Wan Dan is not so sure about returning to workforce. Although she was bought up believing that having her own income and career is important in building her self-worth, and she has her fair share of unhappiness over her current status, she is not that sure whether she is really meant for throat-cutting soul-eating working life. She had fallen in love with her current way of life and paying her full attention to her family. But is this all it is going to be for a housewife?

There are a lot of similar women in Wan Dan's situation. You can see them in the gym, shopping mall, coffee shop, spending their time wandering by themselves or with their children when they are suppose to be in the office. Some are comfortable with their current situation, others are depressed, while some - like Wan Dan - are anxious.

Wan Dan tries to envision housewife as a career. " Like a career, you will have ups and downs, bottlenecks and breakthroughs." She is probably facing a bottleneck in her career as her housewife now. However, where's and what's the breakthrough? Is bearing a child the only solution?

Wan Dan watched "Desperate Housewives" twice. Despite all the challenges faced by the women in Fairview, at least they are comfortable with their social status. Wan Dan not sure whether she is the only one feeling lost with the idea of being housewives, or it is just that the society in China is not ready to accept their existence?

"My mother generations, as long as you are educated, you are brought up believing men and women are equal and will contribute to work and society equally - very few women will voluntarily give up their place in either work or society."

"In our generations, we never learnt how to be a housewife or take care of the family. We might be great in school or work, but we are clueless on how to manage a family. There is still a great deal to learn before we can live our life as a housewife to the fullest."

To be continue....

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