How my South Asian parents unknowingly created a gender-neutral household

Featured Illustration: Nusha Ashjaee for NBC News

grey-line-png-6

The idea of the “typical” family has changed over the past decade, yet insight into immigrant families has only begun to enter the spotlight. Growing up, it was these insights that bonded me to many of my first-generation American friends as we laughed and complained about the shared inner-workings of our homes. Even as I get older, there continues to be an overwhelming sense of comfort when I find joint stories from our childhood. However, there was always one overarching difference that hung between us: our parents.

I remember as a child I would feel confused by this major inconsistency. Our parents seemed to play different roles and I couldn’t make sense of it. My Dad picked me up from dance class in the crowd of everyone else’s Mom. My Mom was the one that worked late at night while my friends’ dads were always the ones away on business. Everything was flipped and for a while, I felt bitter about the dynamic. I thought there was something wrong with me, that maybe they made this pact because one of them liked me more than the other. After a while, I stopped analyzing and went along with it like it was some secret unspoken plan.

School went on and I got used to the routine. More days than not, my Dad would pick me up from school, cook dinner and we would collectively wait for my Mom to come home in the evening. My time with her was usually a few hours a night and the routine would repeat. Due to proximity, my Dad was the first person who I told about my period in eighth grade and the one who would wash the pesky blood stains out of my uniform. My friends would always be shocked by this fun fact, but to me it was normal. My Mom and I had a more career and religion-centered relationship. A lot of our talks centered around my future goals and the importance of prayer when I would cry over a B in high school.

Over the past year I, like many others, have reentered the world of therapy and for many of us, the majority of the work is unlearning harmful messaging from our childhood. We often unearth suppressed trauma and grieve the experiences we didn’t have. Although that is certainly a part of my journey, I was able to uncover a few hidden gems from my childhood; one being my parents’ unknowingly gender-neutral household. I say “unknowingly” because the idea of gender neutrality is far out of my parents’ vocabulary and I doubt there was a joint decision to flip the gender roles before my brother and I were born. I’m grateful that I grew up with a father who felt secure enough to cry in front of me and who enjoyed cooking cuisines from all around the world. Alternatively, I had a mother who went back to school in her 40s and was our family’s breadwinner. It taught me at a young age that gender has nothing to do with our duties inside or outside the home. I knew my existence had larger bounds because it was a matter of what I enjoyed apart from what I was expected to enjoy.

My parents knew what they excelled at and confidently took on those roles without bothering with society’s pre-determined idea of a husband and wife.

As one of therapy’s more positive revelations, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how this could’ve impacted me. For one, I’ve seemed to have fallen into a number of male-dominated industries and hobbies, which until I was in a classroom never crossed my mind. In school, I’ve gravitated toward chemistry, computer science, and venture capital, and outside of school focused on photography and entrepreneurship. Jointly, my idea of womanhood has always been curated — I never felt that my inability to cook made me any less of a woman or my love for blazers and structured clothes was not girly enough: it just was because I liked it. My brother, whether he too uncovered this quality, seems to have also had gender-liberated decisions. For one, he confidently has never excelled or enjoyed sports of any kind and his athletic inability is a continuing joke within the family. However, he does have some linguistic superpowers that allowed him to self-teach Japanese and fly through hundreds of books from economics to literature. Our characters are largely our own, but the benefit is that we were never made to feel embarrassed, ashamed, or out of place when it comes to what we chose to invest our time in.

Speaking for myself, I am grateful that the idea of something being “for girls” or “for boys” rarely crosses my mind. In terms of buying clothes, exploring hobbies, or expressing my interests, they’ve all been chosen free from gender. Whether my parents’ gender-liberated home was curated or simply an accident, it serves as a constant reminder that life gets bigger when you’re less rigid, not more.

Uma Patel

Leave a Reply