How the pandemic is changing the role of man
Lhendup G Bhutia | 11 Dec, 2020
At the beginning of this year, Jezreel Pannikot began to make preparations for the birth of his first child. He would be hiring someone to help out with the baby’s care, another person who specialised in massaging and bathing newborns, and then there would be the calm presence of his mother-in-law and his own parents, who would be around to steer him and his wife through the exciting and turbulent world of first-time parenthood.
But all their plans came undone when Noah arrived nine days before the due date in the first week of April, in Mumbai, right in the midst of the pandemic. Not only were they not going to be able to hire someone for the baby and for household chores, but the two, who live by themselves in a flat in the Mumbai suburb of Borivali, would not be able to rely on their parents either, who, because of their advanced age, now had to isolate themselves. The couple returned to their flat with their young son, delighted and terrified.
Both parents had been thrown into the deep end. And like his wife Anita, Pannikot began to kick his way up for air. The days and nights were endless in both their joy and misery. Pannikot had to spend his waking hours juggling his job at a trading firm and caring for his son when his wife was too exhausted, apart from taking on his share of domestic duties. In the night, the baby would keep the two awake. Pannikot would look up YouTube tutorials to learn the correct way of holding a baby during a bath as well as the right method of swaddling one. He would maintain his newborn’s growth chart. Sometimes he would weigh his baby by subtracting his from their combined weight on the weighing machine. The two agonised for days when their baby cried relentlessly, possibly from a bout of colic discomfort. Outside their window, the pandemic raged in full force. Inside, Pannikot and his wife were always exhausted and sleepy.
Nearly nine months since the arrival of their baby, the two parents are more relaxed now. Some weeks ago, Pannikot’s parents briefly moved in to help them out. Now, Anita’s aunt is also there.
“The pandemic situation has been tough. But I think it has been such a blessing for me,” he says. “I’ve been with my son every day. I’ve seen him grow, seen him reach his milestones, bonded so intimately with him. I couldn’t have wished for more.”
For some years now, the idea of fatherhood has been going through a change. Like many other things, Covid-19 has put an electric charge into a social transformation already underway. The father, so often the distant and reproachful figure in our homes, is now, shirt-sleeves rolled up, plunging himself into the care of his children.
Like elsewhere in the world, his role used to be of the breadwinner. The father was at best indifferent, at worst a wrecking ball through the emotional lives of his wife and child. He would smile when his wife approached her delivery date, as friends joked about the end of his former pleasurable life. He would wait outside the labour ward for news of his child’s birth and promptly return to work the next day. After the birth, he remained aloof, someone summoned only to discipline an errant child. He knew about cars and sport, brimmed with stock tips, but struggled to recall the age of his child. Those rare few who did participate at home were often viewed as domestic dunces, figures of hilarity who fumbled around, and proved just why they were an exception.
And then there have been those fathers in the public imagination, so brilliant at their work, but terrifying at home. History is full of them. Steve Jobs was awful to his daughter. Henry Ford appeared to take pleasure in the humiliation of his son in public. John Paul Getty didn’t pay his grandson’s ransom until an ear was parcelled to him, and when he did, it was only as much as was tax-deductible and he loaned the rest at interest to his son.
Or William Faulkner, who, when his daughter tried to intervene in his alcoholism, thundered, “Nobody remembers Shakespeare’s children.” In the public imagination, a pram in the hall is often seen as an impediment. And these cruelties have been excused as a small but perhaps necessary evil for the genius of an eccentric to bloom.
All of this has been changing for some time. Our playgrounds are filled with fathers now. Men make it to parent-teacher meetings and paediatrician consultations. Instagram is filled with pictures of fathers doting on their children. There is also a performative aspect, as with everything else on social media, but it is remarkable when one considers how this private aspect of a father’s life, his doting on a child, has become, on social media at least, such an accepted public display of affection.
THERE ARE plenty of reasons for all this. More and more women are participating in the workforce, smashing old ideas about division of labour between men and women. Joint families are disintegrating and becoming nuclear. All of this has compelled men to pull in some of their weight. There is still not an equitable division of childcare responsibilities between men and women but a significant change has been underway. Both men and women are also delaying having children, ensuring that when they do, the child has their full attention. And perhaps more importantly, in an age of intense scrutiny about the way privilege functions in society, there is a larger enquiry going on about maleness, about what is toxic and what’s not, and whether the identity of the father can be stripped of the symbol of patriarchy.
No news has illustrated the changing nature of fatherhood in India as that of Virat Kohli deciding to apply for paternity leave. The superstar cricketers of the past, like any other father of those times, skipped the birth of their child over a game. Sunil Gavaskar chose to participate in back-to-back tours of New Zealand and the West Indies, which lasted for more than two months, than to be by his wife’s side when she gave birth to their son. And when he sought to fly back home briefly at his own expense after he had suffered an injury, the request was (infamously) turned down. Even as recently as 2015, India’s last superstar cricketer and captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni chose the World Cup in Australia over the birth of his daughter. His wife had to send news of the birth through Dhoni’s teammate Suresh Raina because he wasn’t reachable. When asked by the media if he would like to be with his family, Dhoni’s reply was no different from what most past cricketers would have made. “As of now, I’m on national duty,” he had said. “So I think everything else can wait.”
But Kohli is now exemplifying a new age of the superstar father. You can be the most competitive man on the professional field, the best really in the business, a symbol of the stereotype of aggressive Punjabi masculinity, but you can also be a tender male at home. A man comfortable in the skin of fatherhood, for whom a pram is not an impediment to genius, and one who is willing to put his home before work.
He is, of course, not the first cricketer to do so. Rohit Sharma, for instance, availed of paternity leave around this time two years ago. England captain Joe Root took one earlier this year, and New Zealand captain Kane Williamson, it appears, could take one by the end of this year.
But Kohli’s decision to avail of such leave has become a big talking point. He is arguably the biggest brand in the country at present, someone who carries with him a certain cultural cachet, and through whose body and action, everything from new ideas about masculinity or athleticism to a new packet of chips in the market flows.
When he endorses something, it carries a certain weight. When he tells people he is moving to a vegan diet, it puts forth a new idea of athleticism and nutrition. When he tells people he is going to skip a marquee series to perform another role, that of the father, this idea of a new fatherhood acquires a new currency.
WHEN THE news of Kohli’s decision came out, there were two distinct reactions. One group of people were very happy to hear this. Here’s a couple, both with very successful careers, and the father has decided to take some time off. Of course he should,” says Nadir Kanthawala, a father to a young daughter, and who, along with Peter Kotikalapudi, another father in Mumbai, runs a podcast (Pops in a Pod) on fatherhood. “But there was this other group on social media who couldn’t stomach it. They were saying, Kohli has chosen his family over country.”
According to Kanthawala, Kohli’s decision has brought to the fore the rarely discussed issue of paternity leave, which, since it is not legally required, is provided by just a few progressive companies. Even when paternity leave is available, often, as Kanthawala points out, men will not take it or only take a few days off. “It’s this whole culture of ‘Wow, look how dedicated (to work) this guy is. He became a dad just days ago and he’s back in the office’,” says Kanthawala. “And in many cases, fathers don’t take leaves worried that they will lose out on a promotion or something.”
In the early noughties, when AK Srikanth became a father, it were these same fears of career setbacks that kept him from taking time off from work. Currently the CEO of KLAY, a network of preschools and daycare centres across India, Srikanth was then based in the US working for a health-related firm. “Five days of leave, and this included the day of the birth at the hospital, and I was back at work. Back then I used to make a lot of international trips. And shortly after the birth of my boy, I was back to travelling again, being gone for months. And this was in the US, where you would imagine it would be better for new parents,” says Srikanth. “Even those five days of leave really went running around to buy things. I was just playing the role of the provider.” When he became a father for the second time, the same script played out.
According to Srikanth, while there has been a lot of societal change in the last 15 years, with more men becoming involved fathers, laws and workplaces haven’t kept pace. “We need workplaces to become more accommodating and flexible to allow men to embrace their roles as fathers,” he says. The fear that men will misuse provisions of paternity benefits to dump all childcare work on their wives and relax at home is an archaic and misguided way of looking at how young working parents can be provided more support, he says.
There is certainly not much legal sanction behind the idea of paternity leave. A Paternity Benefit Bill was introduced in Lok Sabha in 2017, which, according to reports, proposes that all workers in both the unorganised and private sectors be allowed to avail paternity leave of 15 days, extendable up to three months, is yet to be passed.
Some progressive private companies allow paternity leave. In many others, fathers dip into their allotted privileged and casual leaves. Most take a few days off, spend these preparing their homes, and soon enough are back at the office, amid jokes of the end of the good days.
Kanthawala and Kotikalapudi bonded, when they were working in the same digital agency in Mumbai, over their shared interests in caring for their child. Kanthawala had become a father a few months before Kotikalapudi. This interest, coupled with what they call the absence of any material that looks at parenting from the father’s perspective, led the two to create their podcast. Almost all parenting content is from a mother’s perspective, Kotikalapudi says, or when it is for fathers, it tends to be superficial advice. There is nothing, he says, for involved fathers like Kanthawala and him. “What we have seen (through the podcast) is that there is this silent community of fathers like us out there interested in the things we are interested in,” Kanthawala says.
Kotikalapudi believes he takes such an active interest in his son’s life because that is what he saw growing up himself. “I grew up in the Gulf and my mom would have to leave quite early for work. So my father would prepare me in the mornings, wash, dress and feed me. It was only later when I became older that I saw this wasn’t as common,” he says. “My wife’s mother worked too and her father did stuff for her. And my wife was clear that she wasn’t looking for a husband who would take a backseat when a child came along.”
The pandemic has been difficult for both Kanthawala and Kotikalapudi. The fear of contracting the virus and passing it on to their families made them anxious, and the burden of professional work and parental chores sometimes made them irritable. But the positives far outweigh the negatives, Kanthawala says. “I feel terrible saying this given how much pain the virus has caused. But I’m seeing so much of my daughter. I’m seeing the things she says. No one in history I think has had the opportunity to spend so much time with their children. And I have loved every bit of that.”
Recently, both Kanthawala and Kotikalapudi managed to put the gloom of the pandemic away briefly when they went on short holidays with their spouses. In Kotikalapudi’s case, his son travelled along to enjoy the wide spaces and relatively empty beaches in Alibaug. But in Kanthawala’s case, while he and his wife travelled to a vineyard in Maharashtra, his daughter decided to travel to Pune with her paternal grandparents. “This was the first time she (the daughter) was away from us. And I would keep calling to check if she wasn’t missing us, until my wife told me to stop it,” he says.
According to Rakhi Kapoor, a Chennai-based antenatal counsellor and the author of a book that serves as a guide for men whose wives are pregnant (Expecting Daddy Delivers), fathers make for exceptional caregivers. “We often tend to be dismissive of fathers. But many men want to help. Given a chance, and with some guidance, they can be very good parents,” she says.
Kapoor points out that the modern Indian father has come a long way since she began her antenatal classes about 20 years ago.
“Then it was a new concept in India and everyone would say the (pregnant) mother was fussing too much by joining these classes. The men who came to pick up and drop their wives were also reluctant. And those men who were supportive, their masculinity would always be questioned for allowing their wives to fuss (about their pregnancy),” she says. Many of Kapoor’s sessions are now tailored to also include the expecting father. And during the lockdown, when she had to move her classes online, she watched with amusement the husbands of her clients in the background doing household chores. “There would be this guy in his jocks, oh my god, and he wouldn’t realise I could see him. And while his wife was doing yoga, he’d be there in his jocks doing some cleaning work,” she says.
For Prithvish Rajamani, a 50-year-old single father based in Coimbatore, the pandemic and the closure of schools have rekindled old memories of a time when it appeared the world consisted just of him and his son. It had not immediately been easy—he had struggled after his separation from his wife sometime in 2007, learning to cook and care for his then three-year-old son—but it was one based on love. “I didn’t know how to run a house, to even switch on a washing machine,” he says. Once he even attempted to dry his son’s wet socks in a microwave oven.
Rajamani quit his marketing job to look after his son Talish. When money became hard and he tried to look for jobs, he was advised to put his son in a school hostel or remarry. “I had fought so hard for the custody (of the child), why would I send him to a hostel or bring a new person (a second wife) into the relationship?” he asks. Rajamani took up freelance jobs instead. Gradually, things began to ease.
Just before the lockdown, Rajamani was struck by a bacterial infection that required three surgeries and about 42 days of hospital stay. His son sat by him those days, preparing for his Class 10 board exams. “That period was tough. But with the lockdown, it’s actually been good. I’ve been recovering while my son is with me all the time. Just like the old days,” Rajamani says.
For Aditya Tiwari, a father whose son suffers from Down’s Syndrome, the pandemic has been hard. All of his son Avnish’s routines got disrupted. A few surgeries for some health-related issues were being planned but these will now be performed later. When the pandemic struck, Tiwari, who lives with his son in Pune, travelled back to his home town of Indore. “It was tough to explain to my son why we can’t go out now. But we have been using the opportunity to do other things that he likes, such as gardening and terrace farming,” Tiwari says.
Tiwari adopted Avnish back in 2016. He had been trying to adopt him since 2014, he says, when, as a 27-year-old on a visit to an orphanage in Indore, he came across the young boy whom no one was willing to adopt. Then, adoption laws did not allow anyone below 30 to adopt a child. So for the next couple of years, he travelled from Pune, where he worked as a software engineer, to Indore nearly every week to meet Avnish at the orphanage and visit government authorities to plead his case.
Once the age criterion for adoptive parents was reduced to 25, Tiwari says, despite discouragement from several quarters, he brought Avnish home. That was in 2016. Some months later, giving in to parental pressure, he also got married.
Tiwari quit his job to care for Avnish. Now he uses what time he gets to conduct workshops and raise awareness about children with special needs. “Avnish has changed my life,” he says. “Whenever I think about it, I don’t feel like I chose him. But that he did.”
A few weeks ago, back in Mumbai, Pannikot finally mustered the courage to take his eight-month-old son Noah for a stroll outside the building. Apart from drives to get his vaccination shots, this was the first time the toddler was stepping out. Pannikot carried his son and stepped into the lift where a young girl of about three tried to talk to them. Noah hung his lower lip and bawled.
“It was the first time he was seeing someone apart from us (parents and some relatives),” Pannikot says.
Such encounters of infants and children, once so commonplace, now feel rare and even overwhelming under the cloud of the pandemic.
Pannikot held his baby and consoled him. And as they moved out of the lift, the little girl followed, asking what had gone wrong.