Published: Mother’s World Magazine, May-August 2012

You take the big leap – have a child – and the next step is uncertain for many new mothers. Should you begin work right away, should you wait and play it by ear, or should you quit completely and just put all your time into raising a child? Do you even have that choice? Knowing that there can be no cookie-cutter solution, we find that some young working mothers are willing to talk about what worked for them and the battles that they faced – and we’re not talking just about losing vacation days.

A good home support system

Unless you are comfortable leaving your child in a day-care center or with a hired nanny, it is generally far easier to return to work if you have a good family support system. 32-year-old Shamira Mavany, was back at work at Elan Pharmaceuticals, in Philadelphia (USA) when her first daughter was two months old. She relied heavily on her mother or mother-in-law alternately taking care of her daughters Simrun (2) and Zara (1 month in November), while she returned as a full-time manager to her job. Delhi-based Jyoti Verma was back to being a consultant at a multi-national company six months into parenthood – “I have a very supportive husband so we share the responsibilities. I’ve also had some family support for when I needed it the most – the first few months of coming back to work.” With having in-laws around the corner and good staff at hand, for Shayonee Banerjee, when her son, Armaan, began going to school, taking time for work became automatically easier. “At least I know he is in an environment which is safe and enjoyable and that allows me to work peacefully.”

A workplace that understands

Working mothers unanimously describe flexible work environments or easy-going bosses as key to being able to balance parenthood with work. Mavany recalls how having an understanding boss really helped: “I remember being very exhausted when I returned to work after my first child turned two months old. Lack of sleep and the constant demands of raising an infant along with working full-time were taking its toll on me. There were times I felt I was not able to perform well at work and was not being a good mother either because I was just so tired and sleep deprived.”

Banerjee, who has just switched jobs and is now a marketing manager at IBM, enjoys great flexibility at work. “The days Armaan is not well, I work from home. If there is ever a need for me to return home from work, early, I do it. The company has implicit trust in its employees and the idea is to get the job done…not how and where the job is done.” Verma – like the others – chooses less-travel-oriented projects. “Luckily for me, I work in an organization that allows me some flexibility in choosing assignments and the group in which I work has provided me all the support I need. Contrary to my earlier beliefs my appraisal ratings haven’t suffered despite my being a little inflexible with regards to work-related travelling etc.”

Earlier the better?

Unfortunately, pediatricians and working mothers are not in agreement over the ideal time to rejoin the workforce. And ideal time aside, work places are not likely to extend maternity leave for more than six months at the most, unless they provide for a long-term sabbatical, with most expecting their employees back in two or three months

Banerjee admits it’s never easy to find the right moment to leave home for the job. “I would think getting back to work when your baby is little is far easier – both for you and your baby. Your baby is probably too young to understand and realize your absence and that makes you feel a lot less guilty. I was lucky to have fabulous help when Armaan was little – that allowed me to get back to work when he was all of eight months. Today he needs us much more and I feel guilty now – but I explain to him, that I need to go to work just like he needs to go to school everyday. There are days when he’ll turn his head round and say, ‘Bye, Mama’ and there are days when he will just bawl.” Verma feels that there is no golden truth. “Every child is different and copes in a different way. Every parent is different. All jobs have different demands. A parent needs to do a lot of thinking based on their personal circumstances and take a call.”

Pediatrician, Dr. Nihar Parekh of Cheers Childcare, talks about the ideal situation from the child’s perspective. Exclusive breast-feeding until six months (unless your work-place provides for expressing breast milk and arranging to send it home) means that is the bare minimum that a child should have his/her mother around as primary caregiver. After that, stranger anxiety sets in at around six-seven months and peaks at 10-12 months, where the child’s mind tries to differentiate between family and non-family. It is at this stage that direct family members should be around as primary caregivers. This is where the seeds of behavioral issues are sown. In an ideal situation, the mother should (if possible) wait until her child is fifteen months (and at a far more secure stage in his/her personality) to rejoin the workforce.

At the end of the day, it depends on how much one trusts the caregiver to manage a small baby – acknowledging that infants need constant attention and care, and older children need sufficient disciplining and monitoring – and at all stages babies need familial security.

Multi-tasking superwomen

While managing a baby full-time by itself is not an easy task, creating two sets of responsibilities has increased challenges. It means more pressure in terms of decision-making, greater amounts of multi-tasking and accepting that both areas of your life will require some adjustments and time-management. Mavany has learnt over time to reach out to family members for help. “I have also learned to prioritize and get the important things done first, along with accepting that I cannot get everything done perfectly all the time. For example, it is okay if the house isn’t always spic and span, or if we have to order pizza instead of having a home-cooked meal for dinner.”

Verma attributes more changes in the work-place: “I’ve deliberately taken up a role that allows me to balance my work and personal life and cater to the needs of my daughter, although it wouldn’t otherwise be one of my preferred roles. I feel my perception towards work has changed. I was one of the go-getters, seeking to excel in what I did and earn myself a name and reputation, even though it required a lot of extra effort from my side. Now, I only look to achieve what is possible without compromising on my child’s needs.”

Going on a guilt-trip

Culturally, women are often made to feel like homemakers rather than career-oriented individuals. After a child, perceptions tend to lean towards women as primary caretakers and not as working professionals. Banerjee, who comes from a familial background of successful professionals (including all the women in the house), was encouraged to rejoin the workforce after having a child. Not all are in the same boat though. While Mavany admits to having a guilt-free return to work due to the support of her mother and mother-in-law, there have been times when family members and friends have questioned her decision to go back to work and to travel for work leaving the kids at home. “I have felt judged and misunderstood by some friends and family members. Feelings of guilt have swamped me at times because of what others say about my decision to continue working full-time, and as my daughter grew up and wanted to spend more time with me. I have had to remind myself that I am doing what is best for myself and my family and that my husband s
upports me whole-heartedly in my decision. I believe that as a working mother, I am helping my family financially and I am also ensuring that I am not losing my own identity as a professional who enjoys her work. If I stopped working and stayed at home with the kids, I think over time I would be frustrated and disappointed with myself which would probably be worse for my family.” Verma is also plagued with worries. “Thankfully my baby doesn’t cry when I leave home. I don’t know what I would do if she would! Even then, when I leave her with her caretakers even for a bit, I am unable to do it without some guilt. I worry about her all the time when she is not in front of my eyes. I tell myself this is a passing phase and things will change when she grows a little older. My little one is a friendly baby and is not very clingy. I hope she remains this way because this makes it easier for her as well as us when we are not together.”

More Stress and Less Play

It’s not possible to cubbyhole your life into neat compartments, either. Work life and personal life will tend to spill into each other, sometimes not without a bit of chaos or frustration. “In spite of tremendous support from family, I am exhausted most of the time,” says Mavany. “I had to learn to accept that I could not get everything done perfectly all the time and I would have to live with it, for example it was okay if the house was not spic and span all the time, or if we had to order pizza instead of having a home-cooked meal for dinner etc. Even when I am travelling for work, there is never a moment when I am able to switch off mentally or emotionally from the kids and my household. There have been numerous occasions when I felt like I was bringing home work-related issues and vice versa. Yoga and a good night’s sleep really help me de-stress.

Mothers tend to lean on their husbands for support emotionally and as sounding boards. Most admit that without their partner’s support, this decision wouldn’t be possible. After a tough day, Mavany turns to her husband to talk about what bothers her. “If there is a work-related issue on my mind, I will take the time to discuss my feelings with my him and get his perspective on it. After that that I try my best to put the issue behind me and to deal with it at work instead of letting it bother me while I am at home. On the flip side home and family related issues tend to stay on my mind until they are resolved.”

For Mumbai-based Shainta Bhansali-Mehta who rejoined her old workplace as an advertising executive when her first son was three months old, and enjoyed flexibility at work, still felt like it was like a stressful race trying to reach early at work and returning home fast and trying to cope up with everyone’s demands. “There have been times when I may not have given 100 per cent at work or at home but if you have good support it can get easy to deal with. The best thing that worked in my case was to discuss these situations with my team at work and with my family at home.”

Banerjee sticks to prioritizing: “Some days get very busy and no matter how long you’ve worked, it just doesn’t finish. In my job, I’ve realized I will never get done with my daily to-do list. However, that has also helped me prioritize what is critical and what I’ve got to finish now. The rest can wait till next day morning.  Also when I do feel like work is stressful, I just put longer hours to get it done.

The downside: sleep is now a privilege.”

Less play, but more me-time

Can a woman feel complete without sufficient time to herself? Many women suffer from a sense of loss, depression and incompleteness because of what they have given up to become a mother. Others realize how their life can become even more difficult if they lose parts of themselves to parenting that they valued before. Mavany is very clear that it was very important to go back to work to regain normalcy in her life. “Staying at home and being with kids all the time was not easy for me. I was itching to go back into the corporate world and have adult conversations and get something constructive done. Yes, I feel empowered as a working mother. My work keeps me motivated and I derive my identity and confidence from my professional accomplishments. I wonder how some mothers choose to stay at home to take care of their kids because I would find it very hard to stay at home.” Bhansali-Mehta feels the balance provides a mother with a “normal life, self-confidence and her own identity” and would end up being beneficial to the mother and child in the future.

And then there are those working mothers who feel that the ones who don’t work are the empowered ones. Verma feels that stay-at-home mothers are able to give 100 per cent to their child. “I sometimes fear my child won’t do as well as theirs and may have a ‘could-have-had-better’ childhood to remember. Despite this, I chose to be a working mother because I realized I’m not the kind of person who would be happy being a full time mother at home and my unhappiness could affect my family too. I need work to keep my mind stable. And I don’t know any other work than what I do currently.”

Women often feel that babies are a life-changing experience, not just because of the joys and trials a little rug rat brings, but also because it means that the primary caregiver – who in most cultures, particularly Indian ones, is the mother – has to change her life to accommodate another person. The constant attention required means choosing between working, an active social life or a career and being a stay-at-home-mum. It’s never an easy choice. But it’s important to remember that the choice is yours.