24 June 2014

Why should we have to choose

My generation of mothers is not the first one to have a full-time job and raise a family. I can’t speak with any authority of what their work-life balance looked like. This post is only about Indian mothers like me in this day and age, who live in cities, are looking up in their careers, and want to be always there for their children. In short, those who do not want to be forced to make a choice between work and womb.

I have seen our types tackle work and motherhood in about three typical ways:
  1. Give up job as soon as they become mothers or even get pregnant.
  2. Hold on to a part-time job and become full-time mothers.
  3. Neither give up job nor motherhood and come to resemble a full-time circus.

I belong to the third group. My child is now two years and three months old and the worst seems to be over, in terms of sleep-deprived nights at least. And, though I willingly continued working full-time after my maternity leave, I’d be lying if I said I never thought of giving up the job or at least consider a part-time option. It took all the grit I could muster to get to work day-after-day, irrespective of how the night had been and how my own health was. And I didn’t feel that gritty or that inspired every day.

The silver lining was my child herself. She is a remarkably manageable kid and made it as smooth as possible for me, but it only went so far. Yet, I am grateful as she could have easily been more difficult.

I work from home for an American company, which had its pros and cons for me, the new mother. I was technically always around the baby, if she needed me. Initially, within the first year, this worked quite well, but as soon as she started to talk and crawl around, she’d ask for me and this would tug at my heart. Working for an American company also meant that I had to devote evenings for calls with my colleagues. So, in the morning, I would be busy with the baby. I’d start work at noon or so, go on up till dinner time, then take over the baby from the family, and immediately post-dinner start the lullaby routine. As my daughter reached the 1-year milestone, she seemed to keep awake for longer and putting her to sleep in the night could take anywhere from 30 minutes to 1.5 hours! On tougher days and there were quite a few of them, I had to put in an hour or two of work, after she went to sleep.

Yes, I had my family to support me but as anyone who has relied on family will know that it’s not like professional help. That is, you can’t ask them to follow the schedule you want and have to accommodate their need for rest and non-baby time, too. For the working mother, of course, there is no down-time, except for 5-6 hours at night at best.

I can hear all those mothers out there who did get professional help in India and learned that it was hardly professional, after all. And, this is where Indian working mothers are severely handicapped from their Western counterparts. Of course, not all help in the US or UK is great and when they are, they come at very high prices.

But in India, at least as far as my own experience goes, it’d be highly risky to leave your baby under two years under the full-time care of a stranger with no family member around. Unsurprisingly, mothers choose the well-being of their kids and give up the job. Work-from-home options are few and far between and even when they are, they rarely match up to the pay and perks of a cubicle job.

My situation has made me think of why there are so few, quality childcare options in India and what employers are doing about it. It’s not that we don’t have playschools or cribs, but there are not enough good ones, in terms of security, cleanliness, nutritious food, trained teachers, and a teacher-child ratio of not more than 10 children per teacher. At least, not that everyone is aware of. And, if you want childcare at home, you hardly have a choice with the ayah the agency is going to send you. In an earlier generation, the domestic help would double up as daycare provider, but that’s not to be counted on today.

Why don’t we see some start-up energy in this service? I feel there's immense scope for a company that provides professional childcare, full information of their staff and lets you choose and then rate them in a transparent way? Or an app that lets you compare childcare facilities available in your city? I know that a few employers in India provide crib facilities at the workplace and offer flexible work options, but why aren’t there many more? (NASSCOM seems to have a dedicated report on the topic, but it’s behind a firewall.) Why doesn’t it become a norm than stay something fancy that only a few women can avail of?

Many women in all classes of society have to leave their homes and work for a livelihood. They have often no one but their in-laws or parents to care for their children. Those who don’t have this support often disappear from the workforce. This report that I found rightly says this is not a problem with ramifications only for the productivity of India’s workforce, but that of the world’s, as many of the white-collar jobs that Indian women do are actually for global companies. Perhaps we can never dream of anything like the family-friendly policies of Nordic countries, when our country is supposed to have a surplus of workforce, but let’s not forget that by losing women, we lose highly skilled communicators, multi-taskers, problem solvers, and the possibilities of varied viewpoints.

All the education, rigorous training and competing with men comes to naught, if childcare is not provided. Do we have a discussion of these problems in feminist studies? If anyone knows, please enlighten me. Because, this really is the problem of the educated, middle-class, modern Indian woman. 

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