“What makes you happy?”
“I really enjoyed working before I got married, but I had to stop to take care of the kids.”
“Will you return to work when your kids grow up?”
“I want to, but my husband doesn’t want me to.”
Mrs Mi Mi San, a 36-year-old mother of two boys, was one of the villagers we had met on our first day of Door-to-Door Screenings (D2D) in Shwe Pyi Thar. She graciously invited us into her homes when our team approached her compound in the pouring rain, and even offered to cook fried fish and rice for us in case we hadn’t eaten. Her hospitality was not all that we noticed as we piled into her living room; she was a mother who knew just how to handle her two boisterous sons (one aged 3 and the other 6) while cradling the neighbour’s young infant in her lap.
One woman, and she was the equilibrium point of one baby, two boys, five strangers and the storm – suddenly she seemed so much more than just a housewife.
In an hour, Mrs San gave us a window into her life – she was married 7 years ago and had since stopped working to take care of the children. Her husband, a car mechanic, works 7 days a week at a nearby place and only returns in the evenings after a hard day’s work. She tells us she has been experiencing toothache for the past few months, and chronic pain in her right ankle. Due to a deficiency in vitamins, she also exhibits Beri Beri symptoms in her hands, feet and legs. Other than that, she reveals no other major health conditions.
Seemingly contented, Mrs San responds heartily when we ask if she is friends with the rest of the villagers, to which she chuckles and replies “Yes, everybody is my friend, I know all of them!”. The axis of her life pivoted around the village and her two boys (who were snacking on chocolate bear-shaped cookies while the conversation was taking place), and she appeared to have found a peaceful settledness amidst it all.
It was surprising then, to find out that there was something holding her back from being completely happy – she missed her working life pre-marriage.
There was a slight but palpable shift in mood as Mrs San’s pensiveness permeated the room. She said that she used to work many different kinds of jobs before she settled down and there was a joy in being occupied through the day. It was evident that she longed for it dearly and when pressed further, she admitted that it would be difficult for her to return to work even when her children had grown up because her husband (and parents) would prefer for her to stay home. Our team sat in silence for a while, as we considered the complexity of cultural gender roles and expectations, and even the irony that a mother who seemed busy enough with her 2 kids, and who seemed comfortably lodged in her village community, would crave to return to work outside her home.
She was head of the house for most part of the day – her kids, as active and energetic as they were, were easily managed by her, but yet, sadly her say mattered little when it came to the decision of whether she should work. Despite this, she kept a buoyant grin on her face as she continued to share with us her stories; it was as if nothing, truly nothing, fazes this amazing woman.
Just as we were about to take our leave, she offered us umbrellas to shield us from the rain and proceeded to help scoop water unto our feet to wash the mud away away. From start till end, Mrs San’s openness and cheery demeanour never wavered. As I waved bye to her kids, she gestured towards her younger (more mischievous) son while chortling warmly, as if to comment on how ‘naughty’ he could be, and it was in that moment that I saw what kept her going – her love for her two children. It was love that made her sacrifice worthwhile.
While, of course, we all hope that Mrs San would one day be able to fulfil her dream of returning to work, we know that even if she doesn’t, she’ll make do. Because she has the strength and the love to carry her through.