Growing up, I’ve constantly been bombarded with almost unattainable expectations. Don’t misbehave, study hard, and get perfect grades. Get into a good university, but learn how to cook and clean, because you’re a woman. How is any man going to make you his wife if you don’t know how to make a home? Oh, but never forget– no boyfriends! Why distract yourself from your studies by entertaining men when you need a good education?
My father’s contradictory advice in celebrating my education yet wishing me a traditionally feminine life has left me with metaphorical whiplash. The clash between his pride in my academic achievements and his desire for me to have a nuclear family often seemed antiquated as well as challenging to reconcile.
The dichotomy is evident in his pleasure at boasting of my accomplishments, but sighing in disappointment that I didn’t choose a more conventional path like medicine or law (I study languages and linguistics). His vision of my future seems to involve a shift from beavering away at a successful career to a life centred around childbearing and homemaking. And to all who know me, this prospect certainly isn’t appealing. I am about as domestic as a houseplant and absolutely useless in the home. This is not to say that women can’t or shouldn’t embrace the traditional role as homemaker, but the contrary: women need to be given the choice to do so. I already know that it’s a lifestyle I don’t want for myself, and I won’t bet on “changing my mind” as many have told me. While my dad waits for my “maternal instincts” to kick in, I know a dog is as close as he’ll get to a grandchild.
Recently, I came across a play called A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen. A student I’m tutoring studied it as part of his English Literature IB course, and I was shocked to find out that it was written over 200 years ago. Set in Norway, 1879, A Doll’s House follows housewife Nora and her husband Torvald, a recently promoted banker.
Nora, the protagonist, is trapped in societal expectations, initially portraying the perfect wife and mother. Torvald is oblivious to the fact that Nora had previously taken out an illegal loan to pay for his medical treatment, and has been secretly trying to repay her debt. Nora hides her fraudulent activity from her husband, insisting that she will one day come clean when their love is running dry: it will be a way to win back his love when she is no longer deemed desirable. Instead, she is blackmailed by Torvald’s lawyer (who we later find out loaned her the money), as he wants a high-paying job at the bank he is working for. When her secret is exposed, Torvald initially gets angry but soon forgives her as long as his career is not compromised. Out of frustration and a satiation for independence, Nora ultimately chooses to leave Torvald to find liberation from her marriage.
The story is both a beautiful and heartbreaking one. Throughout the play, Nora is constantly underestimated and infantilised, perceived by Torvald as a simple “sweet little girl” who needn’t concern herself with such masculine business-like matters. Her life revolves around her family and her only job is to be the pretty perfect wife. Torvald and his peers seem to consider Nora’s troubles menial and not even worth worrying about, leading her to feel incredibly misunderstood and disrespected.
Nora’s character, though portrayed as scatterbrained and uneducated, represents the restricted choices women face due to societal norms and limited access to education. Her lack of legal understanding leads her to commit a crime unknowingly, driven by the desire to be a good wife. Her actions, even when ultimately saving her husband’s life, go unnoticed and unappreciated. The character of Torvald epitomises the dismissive attitude towards women’s concerns and aspirations, a husbandly figure you wouldn’t wish upon anyone. It brings me great joy for Nora to find peace within herself, having the strength to leave a relationship that no longer serves her.
Despite the clashing opinions within my family and societal expectations, I recognise the privilege of pursuing higher education at a prestigious institution. The stark contrast becomes evident during visits to Asia, where studying abroad remains but a distant dream for many. While my family grapples with conflicting views, I find solace in the progress towards a society where being a mother and a businesswoman can coexist. Although there’s still a long way to go, I am grateful for the choice to pursue both paths (even if I ultimately choose one over the other)- a luxury denied to characters like Nora in a bygone era.