With a look of complete disbelief and bafflement Rahul looks first at his wife Manasi seated beside him, then at Dr Stephen sitting across the table from them, and back again at Manasi. "Come on, you must be joking," he says softly, to the doctor. "Manasi does nothing, she just stays at home, I am the one with the stressful job. How can she develops stress-related ulcers?"
True, as a top-level executive in a multinational company he has a tight and stressful schedule. She is a housewife, with no office to rush to, no board meetings, no deadlines, no cross-country tours at short notice. But she is the one who has been diagnosed as suffering from stress-related stomach ailments. Her persistent cough, occasional giddiness and abdominal pain, the doctor has just told them, are all caused by "too much tension" in her life.
Far from joking about it, the doctor assures Rahul that he is dead serious, and that he has seen other women like Manasi with similar stress-related syndromes, when it is their husbands who are supposed to be leading stressed lives.
Stay-at-home wives, popular conception assumes, have it 'easy'. They do not have to clock in to sign a muster, or keep appointments with clients or clear files before the boss asks for them. Even the 'housewives' syndrome that feminists talked about two decades ago, pertained only to the feeling of emptiness and lack of self-worth in women who did not go out to earn a living. The focus was on the absence of stimulation, the absence of stress, the 'nothing-to-look-forward-to' boredom of the daily routine.
Manasi's problem is not lack of stimulation or emptiness. Far from it. It is too much tension. As Dr Stephen points out, if one member of a family is stressed, the others cannot but be affected (including children).
Rahul's boss calls him at 5 pm to say that he should take the first flight to Delhi the next morning, to do some trouble shooting for a client. Manasi and he had been planning to take their six-year-old son for a check-up the following day because of a nagging worry about the boy's weight loss. An appointment with the specialist is difficult to get, and she will now have to take the child on her own and get tests done.
She also has to pack Rahul's travel kit, which is additional work for her, as is getting up at the unearthly hour of four in the morning, to see him off. Rahul has also had to stay back late at the office to clear files in anticipation of his absence from his desk for the next two days. Which means Manasi has to cope for all practical purposes like a single parent, not only during his absences but also when the pressures of work at the factory take up Rahul's time.
"When the pressure of work builds up and makes him tense and irritable, I can't remain untouched, the tension spills over to me too, as the spouse," she says. When he developed hypertension, she was worried sick, especially when he had to be hospitalized briefly.
When his expected promotion didn't come through for a while, she was just as stressed as he was. His odd hours, rushed meals, erratic schedules and frequent long travels, were all throwing the family's routines for a toss. "I never know where he is going to be in two days' time and can't even plan a relaxing outing," she says.
Marissa is not a stay-at-home housewife, but neither is she holding a high profile, stressful job. She is a saleswoman at a boutique, her duties restricted to showing customers different designs and helping them choose. But again, as with Manasi, the fact that her husband is in a sub-contracting organization where his take home pay depends on the commissions he earns, it makes life stressful for Marissa.
When her husband is at the office late, she frets and worries about their two sons (aged 7 and 9) who will be home alone. On days when he has to leave for work early, she has to take on his chores at home, like clearing away after breakfast or watering the plants or escorting the boys to school. Making it to the boutique on time becomes a tense, touch-and-go race, which leaves her stressed. "My own job is not stressful, but my husband's work-related tensions do affect me, both physically and mentally." The result is painful migraine headaches that leave her drained and exhausted for three or four days every month.
If it was the husbands who had developed Manasi's or Marissa's health problems, the doctor would have advised lifestyle changes, but since the husbands are not the patients, treating the wives is often seen as 'funny'. And yet, the problem is just as real as the effects of passive smoking, psychologist Dr Ajit points out.
Men living stressfully under the compulsions of modern go-getter lifestyles can also be loading their spouses and families with stress syndromes, Dr Stephen points out. Referring to the young son of a well-known sportsman who is going through a rough patch, he reveals that the boy has developed a chronic cough because of the 'transferred stress' syndrome. And, cautions the doctor, defusing stress is important not only for the stressed individual but also for the physiological, psychological, and emotional health of the entire family.