When I had first started working (and when I wasn’t a mom), I remember an incident where a male colleague had asked a female colleague (senior to me and who happened to be a mother of two), whether she was hungry and would go for lunch. “I am perennially hungry and sleepy”, she smiled and replied, going on to explain how she never had enough time to eat or sleep after taking care of two kids at home.
Quite a few years later and having become a mom myself, I couldn’t agree more. There just doesn’t seem to be enough time to even meet basic physical requirements, forget about pursuing other interests and having an occupation on top of that.
Motherhood itself seems to be a full-time job. But aren’t equal sharing and equality at work and home the buzzwords of today? Before I became a mom, it was more or less equal division of labour – my husband and I were engaged in our work pretty much the entire day (both of us being in academics, we would do our research the whole day till hunger pangs forced us to grab a quick bite or cook something together).
Once I became a mom, at a stroke, everything changed – catching even a couple of hours of sleep and gulping down two morsels of food became extremely challenging to say the least (I was actually awake the whole night while our baby was on mother’s milk). And research? Well, if I was awake and could think, but I had probably dozed off by then. Breast feeding was so exhausting, both mentally and physically, that I felt drained all the time.
Things certainly weren’t quite as much hectic and demanding for the father. In “Men Do More at Home, but Not as Much as They Think” (NY Times 12 Nov 2015) Claire Cain Miller asserts, “Men today are much more committed to equality at home, sharing dinner-cooking and diaper-changing duties, than in previous generations. But even in families in which both parents work outside the home, the division of labor at home remains unequal.” And I, like many other working mothers, have experienced this first hand. It isn’t that man doesn’t come forward to help but part of the inequality in division of labour is in fact biological and, remains. It’s just that during those initial months, the main tasks of feeding the baby and putting her to sleep are best undertaken by the mother and many mothers will happily step into their new roles.
For example, since only mother’s milk could put my daughter to sleep, I couldn’t go to any conference that required me to stay away for long hours or overnight. There was no such constraint for my husband. Things get more intense for new mothers with the modern trend to “embrace … intensive, time-consuming mothering: breast-feeding, for example.”
So paediatricians nowadays recommend only mother’s milk, no baby food like Cerelac, not even water, for at least the first six months. Now mother’s milk is rich in nutrients, increases immunity and so on but is not filling enough which meant that I was feeding my baby almost every hour throughout the night and day, catching up on sleep, grabbing some food and even preparing lectures and taking classes, once my maternity leave was over! “Isn’t it amazing that I still haven’t quit?” I used to say to myself after sorting through the logistical challenge of the day. And breast feeding also meant falling sick together.
Any infection that affected one of us, soon affected both of us. So often when we were down with high fever and huddled up together in bed and I couldn’t even gather the strength to get up and prepare some food for my baby, the hapless father would be left despairingly counting the days. But of course, biology is not the whole answer – a substantial part of it is also that conventional societal norms put invisible barriers around stereotyped gender roles transcending which is consciously ruled out at worst or subconsciously not even considered at best even among the most progressive couples.
Cain elaborates how “gender revolution in the workplace” stalls “particularly around the time women start having children” since, in spite of “enormous advances for women in the labor market, they still shoulder much more responsibility at home… Even feminist couples find it very difficult to attain equality, particularly after a child,” said Jill Yavorsky. “Societal expectations” clearly reinforce conventional norms so that “men are expected to prioritise bread-winning after having children, while women are expected to prioritise their families.”
And, as the sociologist Paula England and others have written, the “gender revolution” has largely been one-sided — “women have entered traditionally male jobs, but men have been reluctant to take on traditionally female activities.” How many times have we seen instances of in-laws or the husband not being supportive enough of the daughter-inlaw/wife continuing to work, especially after child-birth? How often have we been accused of neglecting the child, not doing our duty towards motherhood, being careerists, etc.?
If the imbalance inside the house is bad abroad, there are at many measures available that a working couple may fall back on – support available in terms of day care, baby-sitters, baby food, etc., are decent to say the least (even though some of the better facilities can be quite expensive). For example, baby-sitters in and around universities in the US are often undergraduate students who do this part-time job to earn some money. Such labour rewards the student baby-sitter monetarily and brings intangible relief to the mother who knows her baby to be in responsible while she is away – typically students have much more to gain by pleasing professors than just pocket money.
In India however, especially in modern urban centres having many working couples, the quality and availability of child care facilities, both at home and outside, are pathetically compromised. Often one hears scary stories of mothers suddenly dropping in from office to find the door wide open, with children sleeping alone inside while the maid is gossiping next door. There are also rumours of maids adding sleeping pills etc. to milk so that children would sleep and not disturb them. And of course, evidence of maids not feeding the baby but having it themselves.
Which conscientious mother won’t have a chill down her spine with these stories doing their rounds? Would she rather not give up her job than leave her baby with a potential miscreant? How often, if we could peek into a mother’s heart while she is working in office, would we see it torn by the dilemma of choosing between work and her baby?
But of course life is all about hard choices – the one between motherhood and work is an especially hard one. Outside home, nowadays, day care facilities seemed to be mushrooming which immediately calls into question the quality of recruits, standards of hygiene and safety procedures adhered to in these places – often franchises being granted on commercial grounds rather than as recognition of meeting desired standards in service.
As a result, parents suffer from pangs of guilt leaving babies in not-so-hygienic conditions in whatever day-care/creche facilities have come up in the neighbourhood (most offices still do not have child-care facilities mandatorily). There’s no question of fathers quitting jobs to baby-sit, so not having any other option, mothers will often end up choosing to look after the child, prematurely ending what could have been a fruitful and satisfying career.
And part of it is also because grandparents whose help in baby-sitting was almost taken for granted in earlier times are geographically too distant to help. In general, it does seem to be the case that we are ill-prepared to facilitate working motherhood. Even leaving aside the ‘working’ part, we are in fact not ready to accommodate the modern avatar of a mother in our society. So for example, unless one is traditionally dressed in a saree and a blouse, it becomes extremely inconvenient to feed a baby while travelling.
And even though it’s a common sight in airports and other public places abroad, feeding a baby, even appropriately covered in a public place in India, is not common. At least, airports now have designated child care and feeding areas. When I had been in the hospital with my baby, the lady paediatrician (who also was a working mom) had wished me, “Happy Motherhood”…. with a wink and I couldn’t really fathom what that meant. With passing years I’ve realised how challenging (though extremely rewarding as well when one considers the joy of seeing a child grow up) it is to balance child and work, how psychologically and physically draining it is to multi-task needs (like feeding a baby and solving an equation), and how difficult it is just to keep going and not quit in the workplace when male counterparts would surge way ahead.
While facilities at home and outside are not on your side, neither are work and colleagues. One of my male colleagues had quipped sarcastically, “Don’t try to be a supermom”. “I am not. I am just trying to be a mom, without giving up on other things,” I had thought. When will people realise that it’s not easy giving up one’s vocation? But of course, no matter what it is a choice well-made and it is always true (in the words of William Wordsworth) That a child, more than all other gifts, That earth can offer to declining man, Brings hope with it, and forward-looking thoughts, Of course, everything’s worth the hassle – it is true that the baby’s gurgles will make you joyous and her first words will be the sweetest things you’ll remember.
The joy of the journey of seeing your li’l one grow up is unique and incomparable to anything life will ever offer. It would just be a little better if we mothers could enjoy the lisping of our toddlers, and laud their first efforts to crawl, without having to quit work, and without being less groggy-eyed and ravenous.
(The writer is with the Economic Research Unit of the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.)