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P/I/K

Mothers who Work from Home/Work for Home

by Sucharita Sarkar

In April last year, during the national COVID-19 lockdown, Amul, the popular Indian butter (and dairy) brand, brought out a doodle advertisement (which is their trademark) dedicated to the urban Indian mother. The cartoon is titled, “Mom is where the heart is” and it shows the mother working at her job from the home and, simultaneously, working for the home.

The cartoon is divided into two halves: in the first half, the mother is cooking while checking her phone at the same time to keep track of her professional work, and in the second half, the mother is helping her daughter, the Amul mascot, in her studies, while working on her laptop and speaking on phone at the same time.

Significantly, the father is absent in both sections of the advertisement, although it may be assumed that even the father is at home and is working from the home because of the ongoing national lockdown. At the bottom corner of the advertisement, there is a slogan, “Favourite all-rounder” referring to the mother’s capacity to smoothly and efficiently juggle the responsibilities of work and home, even, or especially, during critical periods like the Covid-19 lockdown, without any visible (in the text of the advertisement) assistance from the father.

In the advertisement, there is a merging of the stay-at-home mother and the working-mother constructs into the ideal neoliberal mother-worker, the supermom who effortlessly balances work and home, even in extraordinary times like the coronavirus pandemic and the consequent lockdown. Like the Indian religio-cultural optics of the supermom as the multiple-handed mother goddess, the Amul-mother as focuses on the ‘ease’ and invisibilizes the effort and exhaustion of mothers.

What intrigued me was how the mothers I knew responded to this advertisement. There was, unsurprisingly, complete silence about the advertisement in the school WhatsApp mothers’ groups I am a member of. The mothers there have a ‘no forwards please’ policy and the group administrators actively discourage any conversation not directly related to the classroom. However, in the other WhatsApp chats I participated in, the Amul-mother advertisement was hotly debated. 

One mother/friend commented, “This is such a nice way of appreciating what we mothers do! It is like a special Mother’s Day ad!” The Amul advertisement praises the mother as the “favourite all-rounder”: a metaphor that is significantly extracted from the world of cricket. In contemporary Indian popular culture, it is often sporting—specifically cricketing—heroes who are deified.

Metaphorizing the mother as an “all-rounder’ raises her culturally to the status of cricketing idols who can both bat and bowl with ease and success. It was interesting (and disappointing) to see how insidiously successful the consolatory strategy of glorifying and rewarding motherhood is in manufacturing such uncritical obedience in mothers. 

Another friend responded, “At least they are realizing how much work we have to handle. We all know that the fathers will never have the time or inclination to do so much anyway!” Statistics from a 2018 International Labour Organization report reveal that in urban homes, men do an average of 29 minutes of routine unpaid housework per day as compared to 312 minutes for women, one of the most imbalanced gender ratios in the world.

During the pandemic-imposed lockdown, Indian men have done an average of one hour extra work in the home, but there is still a visible gap in the male-to-female ratio, with mothers still working more than fathers.  The Amul advertisement completely erases the existing history of gender disparity and injustice, and, instead, fixes this disparity and the consequent maternal heroization as the dominant and desirable state of affairs. 

Growing up on a diet of Amul products—and supporting the cooperative farmers’ movement that led to the formation of the company—this was a rare case when the butter left a bad taste in my mouth (and mind)!

Sucharita Sarkar is Associate Professor of English, D.T.S.S College of Commerce, Mumbai. Her doctoral thesis investigated mothering narratives in contemporary India. Her current research focuses on issues and intersections of maternity with body, religion, cultures, self-writing, and media, especially from South Asian perspectives.  Her research is documented at https://mu.academia.edu/SucharitaSarkar

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