Work-life balance for working mothers – an urban myth?

“I’ll tickle your toes and check for the monsters

I will show you the stars and how to reach for them”

There was a time when I used to stay with my parents, go to University, meet friends, get home, study and eat what my mom cooked, go to sleep. During that heavenly (only on hindsight) time, That was the time when I had a handwritten note stuck to my room door. It said – ‘Would you like your tedium, rare, well-done or medium?’ And the truth is, I was not the kind who wanted to be a mother more than anything. I liked kids well enough, but only as long as they were other people’s kids. I could shower them with gifts and time, just so long as I had a bed of dreamless sleep to go back to. The reasons I gave myself for not having a kid while my entire retinue of family and relatives and older friends went on harping about it varied from, ” We need to see Egypt, they won’t allow a kid on the cruise”, to ” Shit, we have no money, how will we bring the tyke up?” to ” how on earth will I handle a screeching-like-a-wounded-banshee kid day after day after day?”.

That was then. Much water has flown under all kinds of bridges. From entire days thinking ‘this can’t be true, this little whimpering mousy thing can’t be my kid, and anyway, I can’t have been born to do this’, to willingly taking the snot out of his nose with bare hands and not even remembering how I used to be grossed out by bodily fluids from either ends, to not sleeping at all when my child has a fever, even when he is sleeping, I have come a long way. Today, a working mother of a pre-teenager, I would not know tedium if it came and bit me on my face – it seems someone else’s reality altogether, a luxury I can’t afford. But then again, today I would not trade my son for the world – he is the fulcrum of my world. No, he IS my world.

Times have changed. From the time the husband earned, and the wife staying at home. To the time now when the husband earns and the wife earns too. But the wife still cooks and washes and runs the house. So, how does she balance her work with life at home?  

Although, over the years women have struggled to establish an identity & create a mark in the social as well as in the organizational platforms, educational institutions training more and more women to enter professional careers have drastically changed the scenario. In fact, between 1991 and 2001, female employment in India has increased by 3.6% per annum. And these are only very back-dated Indian figures and do not reflect on the rest of the world. 

But, the transition from computers to nappies is not an easy one. I have a fridge magnet which says: “there is no such thing as a non-working mother’. Very true, but try being a working mother – the kind that has another full-time job apart from the one at home. And while your male colleagues will always tell you that it is all about time/stress management, I can guarantee you at least 80% of them are saying it from their viewpoint of going home (quite late- they do have loads of office work to do) and getting ready-made tea, meals, and nicely bathed, cute children jumping up to greet daddy. He does not see the work that goes behind creating that wonderful homely scene. He does not see how his wife’s life is like a treadmill with stops at monotony, the kids’ bedroom and the kitchen, interspersed with calls from the office. That is why he comes bounding in with a smile and a report of his day. And while he tells you about the million dollar deal he struck, try telling him about your day – aha! The audience has shifted to the nth one-day international match on TV! 

For women with children, the combination of work and all the complexities of raising children entail a high-pressure lifestyle that exacts remarkable balancing skills. With the traditional role of breadwinner no longer confined to the father, we now have a scenario stuck in a cusp – where most fathers are not the sole breadwinners, but they are not doing much – or sometimes, any – of the housework, and most working women have assumed dual roles: pursuing a career and economic independence while continuing, for the most part, to bear the brunt of household work. My article is not about criticizing men – it is just about understanding the pressures under which a working mother operates.

Yes there are exceptions, but that is it – they ARE exceptions which prove the rule. And if you are a woman holding a full-time job from home, God help you (cause no one else will) – the expectation from the family- as well as those at work, is that you now have this wonderful privilege of a 38 hour day without any stress at all. Even your own parents will quite easily tell you 

The problems are legion – finding affordable and good quality child care for smaller kids who have not yet gone to school, (and in India this is a lot worse than in the West, unless you have a parental set-up to support you. But then when you do, the guilt of dumping your child on your aged parents eats you up), the emotional and psychological toll of juggling two roles, the unrelenting pressure and strain of their working day averaging anywhere from fourteen to sixteen hours, the frustration of not having enough time off when children fall ill and guilt over the little time you can devote to your children while having even less time (or almost no time whatsoever) for yourself. 

I used to treasure my personal space. Read a book when and if I want to, listen to music. Hah! Dream on, fair ladies – when you get back home after a full day’s work (or if you are at home continuing your full day’s work, as I do), your son will pounce on you because his science project needs finishing, – then when, as a cop-out solution, you help him out – because you want it finished ASAP, you actually do some of the drawings. And then, your partner will come home and get all sanctimonious about you doing the child’s homework being bad for him etc., while not helping out at all.

When your child has raging high fever, you are the one usually who stays up nights tending to him, getting his medicines, checking his temperature. And then going back to work the next day. If you whinge, you are told to strike a right balance, maybe even give up your job. And just so you know, most of this sort of advice comes from the female species. It does not strike anyone that the man could also give up his job. When that happens – and in rare cases it does – in most cases, you have truckloads of ego hassles to handle. I know a couple of them, so yes, I am not speaking/writing through my non-existent hat.

The immense strength and resilience women show in organizing and handling what are in effect two full-time jobs is remarkable. I actually had three full-time jobs for the last two years, so believe me I know. They get up early and go to bed late. They rush to feed and prepare their children for day-care or school and then get ready for work themselves. They adjust their timing to beat the morning rush-hour- traffic. They often skip lunch to make up hours missed from work when they have to handle emergencies related to their children. Chances are, even if your partner is a doctor, he will depend on you regarding not just the decision to vaccinate your child (which is really quite crazy) against, for instance, Japanese Encephalitis, Hepatitis B/C etc, but also the time when this can be done. Mothers – when work is done, they rush to pick up their kids if they are in day-care before the day-care centre closes, or, as in many Indian scenarios, get the kids off the hands of the parents, hurriedly make dinner and then play or do homework with their kids. In some cases, the fathers spend 15 minutes of ‘quality’ time reading to the kids, when they are nearly asleep anyway. When the children are asleep, the mothers go on to do the housework. If their children are small or ill, they have the additional burden of sleepless nights to contend with. A good part of their weekend is devoted to getting chores done and shopping for food, delivering the children to and from birthday parties because when was a mother ever entitled to weekends?  Even my mother does a disapproving tch-tch when she hears me complain.

One of my earlier bosses had once asked me learn to multi-task, a term which was then just becoming fashionable. I told him he does not begin to understand multi-tasking. Multi-tasking is not skipping from one ppt. presentation to read an email to answering a phone call. Multi-tasking was answering his phone call with all the details he wants, reading emails, having something cooking in the oven, while trying to see that my child was eating propped on his high chair and changing programs of Teletubbies or Tweenies so he remains entertained. My boss, bless him, had the sense to agree with me. 

How many fathers do you know who take time off because his child has caught a virus? The only option left to the mother is to take time off work, which means it cuts into her annual leave. Which is not time off work at all, they just are sleepless nights spent looking after your child – you would not let anyone else do it, for sure, but that does not make it any less stressful. And then the fathers get trifle annoyed because the mothers don’t feel up to take an activity filled holiday. Can you blame her for wanting to just curl up in a corner, read a book, and pretend she is living a different life when she can? Holidays would also mean packing, cleaning, unpacking, cleaning – thrown in with conversations like ‘ how could you forget to get three pairs of socks? Didn’t get any snacks to munch on?’ And when the said father is ill, has a fever, the mother is supposed to ensure he has the silent room to sleep out his fever. The mother though, regardless of the mercury shooting, has to think of what the child eats and whether the child eats. Often the paternal parental unit takes the easy and popular option of calling in for Pizza. For a day it is fine. But for longer than that, it is not. So the mother has to get up and going.

And I am not even getting into how it can adversely affect her career progression, Researchers have studied the effect of employment on the physical and mental health of mothers. A study conducted by the Duke University Medical Centre shows that “stress hormone levels in working mothers rise each morning and stay high until bedtime, putting them at higher risk than other working women for health problems such as heart attacks.” Increased stress levels, researchers say, are related to increased strain at home but add that the psychological strain extends over the entire day. 

Let’s first define what work-life balance is not. Work-Life Balance does not mean an equal balance. Trying to schedule an equal number of hours for each of your various work and personal activities is usually unrewarding and unrealistic. Life is and should be more fluid than that. Your best individual work-life balance will vary over time, often on a daily basis. The right balance for you today will probably be different for you tomorrow. There is no perfect, one-size-fits-all balance you should be striving for. The best work- life balance is different for each of us because we all have different priorities and different lives. However, at the core of an effective work-life balance definition are two key everyday concepts that are relevant to each of us. They are daily Achievement and Enjoyment, ideas almost deceptive in their simplicity. Work is a way for you to get a life, it is not life itself! 

Today’s career women are continually challenged by the demands of full-time work and when the day is done at the office, they carry more of the responsibilities and commitments home. The majority of women are working 40-45 hours per week and 53% are struggling to achieve work/life balance. Their lives are a juggling act that includes multiple responsibilities at work, heavy meeting schedules, business trips, on top of managing the daily routine responsibilities of life and home.  

Often, working women drop out of the work force when they are doing well, simply because they want to stay at home with their children, or care for an ageing parent. Or for both reasons. And then there are women who have children later in life because they want to work for reasons of personal satisfaction or for the money. So, can a woman have it all? The working woman should refuse to take on too much. She should adopt a sense of priorities. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get, – reality very often does not cooperate with dreams and aspirations- but if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things can happen. Grit, determination, and standing up for what you believe is fair and right will get you the way there. Whether going after an important project at work, or making sure your child is receiving attention from her teacher at school, you need to believe in what you are doing or asking to be done. There are no prizes for being a mother. There are no prizes for being a working woman. So don’t expect any prizes for being a working mother. 

On that note, let me go check whether the chicken which my son will eat when he gets back from school is done. And then let me take my dog out for a walk and a piddle. And come and finish this report I need to finish before I am sacked from my job – the one that pays me (in absolute, cash terms)                                                                                                                        


3 thoughts on “Work-life balance for working mothers – an urban myth?

  1. Hi Lali, I came across this post when googling for urban myths regarding working mothers. I think you pretty much nailed it! I will link up this post to something i am going to publish tomorrow if that’s OK?

  2. Your post reminded me of a speaker I had heard at a seminar on gender issues. She was from Bangladesh and worked on women’s rights. A survey had asked men and women in rural Bangladesh what work did they do; while the men described their various professions (farm laborer, construction worker, shopkeeper etc); the women said that they did not work when asked the same question. The follow up question, naturally, was what did they do all day and the answer was that they started their day at 4 in the morning to do various chores such as collecting firewood, fetching water and feeding the animals and they didn’t get a chance to rest until 10 pm at night. Someone churned up some numbers and found that women did 25-30 percent (I forget the exact number) more work than men. Mind boggling at several levels.. isn’t it?
    Keep writing! Teesta

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