Men in Kerala are being pilloried by feminists for playing spoilsport in Sabarimala. However, for many working wives of Malayalis, their husbands are quite a sport and support. A sea change in familial equations in Kerala, where a large chunk of the population is working overseas has led to the househusband syndrome becoming pervasive.
In the small town of Peruva in Kottayam district alone, there are over 20 such families. In similar towns and hamlets across the district the story is the same, which makes Kottayam the nurse factory of the state with the largest number of professional caregivers working abroad.
Forty-five-year-old Babu Joseph does not think being a househusband is a very big deal. “My wife Ancy and I worked in healthcare in England and were doing pretty well for ourselves. After the children were born, we realised juggling work and looking after them was tough. Childcare is hugely expensive in the UK while the family support system back home is very good. We decided one of us will have to return to India,” says Babu, who now lives in Kerala while Ancy stayed on in England, and works as a nurse at a hospital in Lanchanshire.
“She was earning more than me and growth prospects in her career were better. Hence, I came back. Being a househusband was tough in the early days. But I had the support of my parents and in-laws. Everyone did their bit and we managed to streamline family affairs,” he says. He is now eagerly looking forward to Ancy’s four-month visit.
According to a study conducted by the Thiruvananthapuram-based Centre for Developmental Studies, between January and March 2018, 117 men opted to remain back as stay-at-home-fathers in Kerala. While another study conducted by a private organisation states that the numbers are above 10,000.
Househusband Valsan George, an insurance agent, also believes there are many men like Babu in Kerala who prefer to run the household since their wives are earning well abroad. “Many parents would leave their kids behind with the grandparents because of the high medical and living costs abroad. Now this trend is changing. Parents are not always confident of their children adjusting to their absence well and are not sure they will bond with the grandparents,” he says.
Romance brought 30-year-old Yeldo Varghese and his classmate Reena into marriage, while career compulsions now keep them apart—though quite willingly. “Reena applied and was offered a good job offer with a hospital in the US. However, we realised it would be impractical for both of us to leave home since our parents would be left to fend for themselves. I decided to stay back and got employment as a medical technician at a local hospital in Karinjarapilly. But after the kids were born I gave up my job and became a full-time caregiver to not only my kids but also to both sets of our parents,” he says. Reena comes home every year on a two-month holiday.
“Those two months are the happiest for me and the children,” he says. Reena feels her heart breaks each time she returns to the US leaving her husband and children behind.“As the holidays come to a close, my heart begins to beat frantically. I don’t want to leave them, but the money there is good. We manage to save since I don’t have to spend on rent, food or childcare,” she explains.
Yeldo says a househusband does all the work a housewife does. “From cooking, getting the children ready for school, cleaning the house, doing the laundry to getting groceries, the list is unending. It’s when I began the chores I realised the amount of work a woman has to do at home,” he laughs. The plus point is the kids become very attached to their father and also respect him a lot, he adds. And for the absent mother, too. Says Babu, “In the beginning itself, you realise taking care of the home and the kids is not easy. The things that men usually take for granted such as coming home to a clean house, being served hot tea or coffee and scrumptious meals without even asking for it become tasks that consume you. But the results are positive and rewarding. My sons and I have developed a great deal of respect for my wife,” he says.
Househusbands have hobbies too. “I spend time gardening and also keep a small flock of goats,” says Babu. He finds nothing emasculating in role reversal.But mother being away does take an emotional toll on children. Ebin, son of Beena Mathew, who works abroad as a nurse at a hospital in Texas, says there are days when he wishes his mother was around. “There are certain things you can tell only your mother. But now I have developed such a relationship with my father.”Home is also where the man is. Kottayam knows.
Living abroad is expensive since housing and childcare is a major chunk of household expenses. “We put our heads together and came to the conclusion that the person earning more should stay back while the partner returns home with the kids. Since we have a house of our own in Kerala and our relatives live nearby, childcare is not a problem,” says Alice, a nurse in Worcestershire, UK. And once the children grow up, the husbands take up part-time jobs and supplement the family income. Such families have little financial problems.
Even if the fathers are emotionally and practically involved with the lives of the children, kids do miss their mothers. The negative in single-parent households headed by the man is the family does not always feel complete. Says Beena Mathew, “Whenever I Skype with my family, the kids keep repeating ‘Mummy, when are you coming home?’. It breaks my heart. But since the pay in Indian hospitals is meagre compared to what I can earn outside, I stay on.” Grandparents do not always bond with the kids.