No Supplements, Please!

Why should a woman have to choose between motherhood and a livelihood? A mother-working shares her experience to raise critical questions about the choice available to women in society today

I write as a woman of today – someone who has had diverse experiences at different stages of my life. I have been a corporate woman, a stay-at-home mother, and a part-time working mother, all on my own terms, as I juggle raising a 9-year-old pre-teen daughter with trying to achieve a work-life balance for myself. 

In most roles in my life, there was a clear independence of choice – I could choose what I wanted to do, how much of it I wanted to do, and how I wanted to do it. But this changed when I became a mother. Motherhood reshaped every part of my life – it changed my every day, and redesigned my career path in a way I could never have conceived for myself. 

The corporate woman in me used to be a workhorse, constantly strutting up the corporate ladder and always hungry for more. However, the mother in me wanted to trim the working hours, keep a constant watch on my child, and ensure that everything about her routine was planned and followed to the T. While I absolutely adore motherhood – being a mother is a privilege like no other – I was constantly questioning myself on the care I was giving my daughter, and also reassuring myself, that I was supplementing enough for the lack of my omnipresence. 

My need for overcompensating could have been the result of having been born in the early 1980s; we in the Millennial age have seen our parents live a dedicated life of working, taking care of children, and meeting every day challenges head-on. Of course, unlike our lives, their lives weren’t cluttered with a constant flow of information, never-ending demands of social communication, and the consumerist attractions of Sunday brunches and low cost EMIs. 

However, now that I was saddled with the task of being a full-time mother-working (yes, the ‘mother’ is before ‘working’ for a reason), I found myself baffled trying to figure out ways to do enough for both, my daughter and my career. On the home front, I sought support from hired help. But to be candid, that truly wasn’t much helpful. On the office front, I found myself growing increasingly empathetic towards other working mothers. I would take a stand for them with the business managers (mostly men and unmarried single women) and advocated for more flexibility. It wasn’t long before the ‘sharks’ in the business started seeing me as the non-aggressive, possibly even high-maintenance, team member, and sidelining me for the younger, hungrier workhorses. 

What ensued further was reminiscent of what I witnessed myself post the 2008 global financial meltdown. Amidst the cost-cutting, my senior colleague, who was a mother-working and had recently delivered a child, was one of the first ones to be let go. And I, back then a career-hungry workhorse, soon filled her place. However, within a year’s time, the same situation rolled on to me, with a younger, hungrier, workhorse taking my place. The reminiscence hit me a couple years later, when one fine afternoon I got a call from the woman who had replaced me, expressing how things were changing for her now that she was expecting a child. 

One fortunate outcome of seeing my corporate career come to a close was that I got the opportunity to be a more hands-on mother. I limited my work roles to consulting and smaller-scale entrepreneurial endeavors, bringing my working hours down to about 3 or 4 per day. Even then, I was often juggling between a sick or needy child, the hired help falling sick, school holidays, visiting relatives, or other day-to-day disturbances. Each day I was realising what a gigantean task motherhood is and how unappreciative of it we are as a society.  

One could argue that companies today have various policies designed to help working mother cope with the stress of the office and the home. However, the truth is that most such policies are ineffective, to say the least. Yes, there are options such as flexible working hours, maternity leave, paternity leave, and so on, but they seem to have been designed keeping an ideal situation in mind, one where the mother is a superwoman and not an actual human being (and the child is considered to be happy with the bare minimum time dedicated to her). And we shouldn’t need to clarify that just as there are no super-heroes, there are no super-women either. 

The brunt of these failed policies is actually borne by the children and the families, and most heartily by the working mother, who find themselves torn between childcare and career each day. Let’s take an example of the revered ‘work from home’ policy, which is certainly helpful for some working mothers. However, for those in a client facing or managerial role, this policy is nowhere near an effective solution. What is a lactating mother supposed to do? Take her child to the client’s office or put up with the guilt of not being around for her child? Doing this day in and day out will obviously bring her closer to quitting the job and giving her complete self to the more important task of raising a child. 

Similar loopholes are seen in often-suggested solutions like creches and playschools, or the absurd idea of keeping 1 and 2-year-old children busy with activity classes and tuitions. 

Some say women could use the time to upskill themselves, and take on PhD or higher education. However, most PhDs are residential and demanding, and are practically impossible for a mother to sustain, just like a corporate job. The result is that women do take on PhDs, vying the 240-day maternity leave guaranteed by the Ministry of Human Resource Development during this time, but end up dropping out mid-way or not completing their thesis. On the other hand, if a mother was to go for a professional degree to upskill, she wouldn’t make the cut at most renowned colleges around the country, given the level of competition and the college’s expectation that applicants must be working full time. 

Another suggested option is a supposedly balanced public sector job. But those come with age-limits to application, making them an improbability for a mother who is likely 35 or 40+. Amongst other suggested options is part-time work, which is often scarce and hard to come by. Even here on once a project starts maturing the need to be available for work typically becomes same as a full-time job. There are the Olas and Ubers of the world offering gig-economy jobs to people, but one has to ask themselves how practical are these options for a working mother?! The only options that do seem doable are backend jobs such as translation and academic project outsourcing, which neither pay sufficiently nor provide women the exposure needed to stay up-to-speed with the work environment. 

Most of these policies and infrastructural changes that are meant to help women and empower working mothers are half-baked, or rather sometimes completely uncooked. This is because the ones on the table, making the decisions, are mostly men. The glass ceiling is still very high, and very very few women make it. And the ones who do make it have to forego either fully experiencing motherhood, or somehow manage to juggle the super woman expectations from a working mother. Must I say, such managers expect others also to be the same. We don’t only need more women above this glass ceiling but more mother-working.

Motherhood should be a matter of choice, certainly, and no woman should be placed in a position to choose between motherhood and her career due to half-baked corporate policies and unsupportive professional structures. Both motherhood and fatherhood are rights given to people by nature, and we as a society must learn to respect them earnestly, and not push, procrastinate, or supplement them, unless absolutely necessary. 

Instead, we must learn to harness the prudence and unique potential that motherhood and fatherhood bring out in people. This experience makes them better at understanding customers, vendors, clients alike. It gears them up to deal with complicated situations. It makes them more amicable bosses and leaders and fosters them to handle challenges that their previous selves could only be perplexed by. 

Today, as a society, we need to not only rethink the components of motherhood, but also bring back the flavour of pride to it. We need to do away with the idea of making adjustments and being super women, juggling the home and the career, and instead spend time developing more practical policies and infrastructures that support working mothers. It’s not about having it all. Instead, it’s about saying no to supplements and asking for the real deal. 

Knowledge is power, and our intention is to bring the power to you. We have initiated a thought movement that aims to strengthen democracy by bringing to you direct voices of important trailblazers and pathmakers, and reclaim deep and patient reflection as an important seed for relevant and sustainable action! Help us take this movement forward. Support Inter-Actions today for as little as Rs. 100.
Donation to LILA is eligible for tax exemption u/s 80 G (5) (VI) of the Income Tax Act 1961 vide order no. NQ CIT (E) 6139 DEL-LE25902-16032015 dated 16/03/2015