This post is part 3 of a three part series on the conundrum of modern motherhood. Read part 1 and part 2.
Can I Have It All?
I get conflicting messages from women like Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, telling me to 'lean in' to the male-defined workplace, and stop being held back by my perceptions of why, as a mother, I can't participate in the workforce in the way that I'd like.
Then there are women like Anne-Marie Slaughter, lawyer and professor of international affairs at Princeton University, who feel that the world, as it exists today, does not have room for women who want success at both, the workplace and the home.
These arguments are a little more nuanced in India. Childcare is cheap and readily available but not necessarily trustworthy and definitely under-regulated. The threat of prosecution isn't real enough for a daycare centre or maid to do their jobs well. Meanwhile, the invasion of modern technology in our professional lives ensure that we stay turned on and tuned in 24/7.
It's an internal debate that every woman with a child has. Am I doing the right thing by my child by being an officewife/housewife? Does it have to be either/or? Why can't I have both?
Women in leadership positions attribute their success to making a commitment to their profession and sacrifices for your family. They will tell you that if you marry the right person, and sequence having a baby and a career right, it truly will be possible to have it all. After some prodding, they'll tell you that they have their in-laws or parents or a fantastic nanny taking care of their responsibilities at home. See? You can have it all.
And then I meet other women, real women with real lives that journalists don't bother about and I've noticed a pattern. They are all highly educated, have spent a reasonable part of their adult lives abroad, and quit well-paying jobs when they had their babies. Some of them went back to work for a year or so after becoming mothers but left when they felt that their choice to work was trumping their choice to be a mother.
One mother told me about how all she felt as a working mother was guilt. She felt guilty about gleefully escaping a teething toddler but guiltier still when the other toddler in the building, three-months younger than hers, was speaking in perfect sentences while her son would grunt and point at dirt. She decided to quit when her son started saying, 'ayyayyo,' to express frustration because that was the word he heard most often from his nanny. And not 'ayyayyo' in the cute way that South Indian kids often do. The 'ayyayyo' of maids.
These Indian SAHMs now wait till their children are off to school to forge their own careers, trying to blend their passion with financial independence. They know in their hearts that a return to an office environment will clash with their desire to be present for their children and have made the choice to stay at home while also seeking professional fulfilment.
A month ago, my ex-boss reached out to me. He remembered that E would be around two-years old and wanted to know if I was ready to come back to work. I was thick in the middle of all my hand-wringing and worrying about the impact being a SAHM would have on E and her evolving ideas on gender stereotypes when this happened. Without my having to ask, he said it could be part-time and gave me the freedom to transition to full-time as and when I felt my family was ready.
I love my new old job. I'm relishing grappling with issues that don't involve paint in the dog's fur. But now I feel my organised household slowly slipping out of my fingers. Things don't get put away immediately, counters aren't wiped down each night. Because I'm either working or caring for E. And so this brings on another wave of dissatisfaction.
Until I realised that it's almost as though we believe that each of us has, within ourselves, an infinite promise to be whoever we want to be, doing whatever we want to do, and because of that, we owe it to ourselves to utilise every bit of it. So it can't just be ragi mudde. It has to be organic. And bought on the way back from the gym. Prepared 30 minutes after getting home. While taking pictures for Instagram. All this before getting ready for a full day of building our businesses while also tending to scraped knees and hungry stomachs.
And if you choose one or the other, you've not just failed yourself but every woman who fought for your right to choose. If that isn't a paradox, then I'm a wise fool.