BANGI, Nov 16 – Work-life balance is often discussed as something that should be addressed by employers at work to address the imbalance that results in a person’s job.
It can overwhelm other aspects of employees’ lives, leaving little time to focus on their family and other pursuits outside of their full-time employment.
However, according to Nurul Izzah Zainol, Syariah lawyer and managing partner at Asyaf and Associates, who spoke at the Seminar Keluarga Negeri Selangor organised by Wanita Berdaya Selangor last September 21, there is another kind of imbalance that can exert undue pressure on a marriage and negatively affect women’s mental health, which also needs to be urgently addressed.
“While it is not commonly spoken of in Malaysia, marital depression is mentioned frequently overseas.
“The internal pressures experienced in a marriage are different from external pressures and can be caused by factors such as children and a dysfunctional spouse,” she said.
Due to their unique biological function, women have a specific role and responsibility in a marriage that cannot be undertaken or shared by their husbands.
“Only she can get pregnant and conceive. There is no option for me to carry the first child and then say it’s your turn to carry the second one. Or I’ll carry the child and when the contractions start, I’ll pass it to you,” said Nurul Izzah.
While this is a responsibility they have to bear on their own, women still end up being the breadwinners in many families, oftentimes due to the incompetence of their spouses.
At times, women are forced to accept the fact that they are not going to find a husband who is completely competent and end up settling in their marriage, according to Nurul Izzah.
When this happens, they end up not only taking on the biological responsibilities of conceiving children, but also having to look after the children and provide for the family.
“This may be fine in the beginning but eventually marital depression becomes a reality,” said Nurul Izzah.
Women Sweep Their Feelings Under The Carpet
Nurul Izzah said that through hundreds of consultations with women in her capacity as a lawyer, she found that many of them found it too overwhelming to think about their hopes and plans for the future, because they were already depleted by their daily responsibilities in the present.
“Do not talk about wanting a big bungalow, having a big retirement fund, when just getting through each day is a struggle. (They say) don’t talk about tomorrow, I don’t know if it exists or not.
“When I ask them what they are struggling with, they say: everything is on me,” she explained.
“This means they are up by 4.30am, preparing breakfast, getting the children ready for school. They are the transporter, maid, and also wife.
“They come home at 6pm driving through heavy traffic on the way back, but when they get home, they have to make sure dinner is ready, clean the kitchen…all that is on her.
“Yet they (spouses) are both working and the worst part is she is the one paying all the bills,” she said.
Eventually, this will take a toll on women who have a tendency to sweep their feelings under the carpet and not seek a solution to address their depression.
Toxic Positivity Is Everywhere
“After all, toxic positivity is everywhere,” said Nurul Izzah, adding that women are often told they have to be patient because “their husbands are the gateway to heaven. When they seek intervention, they are also told you are lucky not to get a violent or a hard-drinking husband.
“Then, she’ll have to accept and say: ‘Oh, it’s my fault. I’m not grateful enough’,’” according to Nurul Izzah.
However, people should not underestimate the level of burnout a woman can experience. Marital depression can not only cause a woman to walk out of her marriage, it can also have more severe consequences.
“It should not reach the stage where she has suicidal thoughts. So while we talk about work-life balance, we also have to look at how women are being imbalanced by the burden in their marriages,” said Nurul Izzah, adding that while she wanted to avoid using the word burden, “we have to get real, it is a burden. However you try to describe it in a more positive manner, it is a burden.”
Personal Experience With Depression
Drawing on her own experience juggling family and work, Nurul Izzah said she was once diagnosed with MDD (major depressive disorder) while pregnant.
“I’m a mother with two children and a husband. I also own a law firm and go to court. At the same time, I also sell insurance – money is not enough as a lawyer, so I have to top up with part-time work,” she said, adding that she also works with NGOs when she can, “taking up invitations that can add to my income like today’s event”.
When she was diagnosed with MDD, Nurul Izzah said she thought it was because of work or finances. She then discussed with her partner the possibility of taking on a helper.
“You know what? It turned out to be about housework. After taking on a helper, 70 per cent of my burden was lifted.
“Women are happy to go to work. I tell you, that’s the me time that we enjoy,” she said, adding that outsourcing housework can help alleviate the stress and pressures brought on by daily work and family responsibilities.
Nurul Izzah said relevant stakeholders such as policymakers and state governments should consider the angle of marital depression when they formulate solutions to help women address the imbalance they face in their own households.
This is especially important when women are simultaneously shouldering the role of breadwinner and taking on child care and domestic responsibilities.