Tag Archives: work life balance

The Problem That Has No Name


I first read ‘The Feminine Mystique’ when I was in my twenties. I was just out of college and anything feminist had instant appeal. Betty Friednan, I was told, was the original feminist (as it turned out, she wasn’t, there are many claimants to that appellation. She sparked, what we learnt later, a second-wave feminism). But, these were pre-Google days, rather these were pre-the-world-as-we-know-it-today days, and our biggest sources of information were our teachers and, who we liked to call, the Phd-types (we had no idea where they got their information from; it remains a mystery to date). Needless to say, their word was law. If they recommended a book or an author, we would go scurrying to libraries (any that we could get access to, which weren’t many, hence the scurrying) to lay our hands on the them. Friednan was suggested one such friend, who was really a step above the Phd types, she was the sure-shot-UPSC-type (though later I found out that she married her local guardian’s son and proceeded to live an obscure life defined largely by motherhood)

She was the real thing, however, in those days –  the sort who would read ‘The Communist Manifesto’ before bedtime; the Oracle we would go to before any exam in the hope that we would generally absorb the wisdom that seemed to float around her like a glowing, massless orb. She had read The Feminie Mystique like a pop-fiction book and passed it on to me. And since anything she read was Gospel, I had declared my liking for it before she had had a chance to offer it to anyone else (I preferred it to ‘The Communist Manifesto’). I accepted the book with a mix of alacrity and grace, and read it from cover to cover, spouting quotes wherever I could, mainly to make points in arguments and debates. The real feminist book to read, of course, was The Second Sex, but my friend probably thought it too dense for non-Phd types like me, and had thus recommended Freidnan.

Years later, I came across the The Feminine Mystique again. For all my enthusiasm about the book, I realized that I didn’t remember much of it, except the fact that the women being talked about in it were far removed from my life – I didn’t know much about suburban American wives as a twenty-year-old. I remember understanding it, but not being able to relate to it, even if I quoted liberally from it (to appear academically superior to my peers; it mostly worked).

This time, however, I had no such problem. The opening paragraph made my hair stand on end, as I realized that the reason I could not relate to it earlier had nothing to do with geographical boundaries, but to do with the age I was at. I was twenty, single and full of idealism that youth bestows in abundance, blissfully unaware of the realities of life. Now, as  a thirty-eight-year old mother of three who had been on a break from work, I was anything but unaware. And Freidnan’s words spoke directly to me: “The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night–she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question–“Is this all?”

Friednan had hit the nail on its head by asking – is this all? It was the very existential question I had been avoiding asking myself. As I lay in bed at night and thought about the years that had slipped by, as I shopped for groceries, chased my children with spoons, took them to the doctors, drove them to their piano lessons, tennis classes and birthday parties, I realized I didn’t want to ask myself that question; I didn’t want to address the “strange stirring” Friednan spoke of. I felt old, fat and unemployable. After re-reading Friednan, however, there was no getting away from the question. Also, by now my Phd-type, bleeding-heart liberal friends had been replaced with mommies, who were at a similar stage in their lives and who collectively seemed to suffer from a similar affliction as me – with the problem that has no name.

The more I read Friednan, the more I seemed to meet women she was talking of, except these were women who were living fifty years later, and more than twelve thousand kilometers away from the American suburban wife Friednan spoke of. And yet, they seemed to be bound by a common thread; they felt the exact same sense of “stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning”.

What I must add here is that these were affluent women, much like their American counterparts (and for this Freidnan has faced criticism, but that’s for another story). They lived comfortable lives and had most things desirable – rich husbands, big houses, rocks on their fingers, luxury cars and all that came with being married into wealth. What they lacked, I realized, was a sense of self, a sense of accomplishment and purpose. And, that was exactly what I lacked too. For us (them and me) motherhood had been all consuming, but it had not provided the sense of fulfilment that society supposes it should for mothers. I cannot remember the number of times I have been told that I was doing a terrific job as a mother, the innuendo being that it is something I must continue to do, to the exclusion of all else. Motherhood, women are brought up to believe, is defined by the sacrifices you make as a mother – and this is exactly what The Feminine Mystique addresses – to the fact that women are/were trying to conform to some ideal image, despite their lack of fulfillment.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not belittling mother hood. I know, only too well, what it takes. My problem, so to speak, is with the picture that society paints of a mother – a sacrificing, patient, selfless, long-suffering woman– one who puts her own aspirations on hold for the sake of the ones she loves. And the problem with this picture is that little girls grow up believing this to be the image to aspire to. Worse still, little boys too are led to believe that there are predefined roles and definitions for men and women, ideas which they carry into adulthood.

Which brings me back to “the problem that has no name.” Women, whether in the previous generation, this one, or the next, will continue to feel a sense of restlessness (and depression), as long as they are made to be subservient to men, as long as they are expected to live their lives by rules defined by others, and as long as they try to conform to an ideal image of a woman, a mother, a wife.

The Feminine Mystique inspired a women’s movement in America. It irreversibly changed attitudes about women’s role in society and led to widespread activism for women’s rights and equality. In India, we need such a manifesto for change. We need to spell out the “problem that has no name”, or, as a first step, identify that there exists a real problem, only then can realities change. And while I didn’t read The Communist Manifesto at bedtime, a line from it leaps to mind, which I modify here:

“Women of India unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains”

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Homework and the Monster Mommy


Homework is usually my domain, though the husband does chip in a fair amount too. However, every once in a while it does lead to a you-do-this situation.

Like one Saturday, a few weeks ago, there was some Hindi homework that my ten-year-old daughter needed to get done. Now I am quite aware of the fact that homework is for the child to do and all that, but the truth is that when it’s Sunday night and the blank sheet stares you in the face as your lachrymose daughter informs you, amid bursts of tears, that the work most definitely needs to be given in the next day, somehow the bigger picture that she-must-learn-to-be-more-responsible blurs and all you want to do is fight the fire at hand.  Having been in a few of these situations, I try and not let homework linger on till Sunday evening – the afternoon being the absolute cut-off.

This particular Saturday presented a somewhat tedious Hindi homework and since I was busy with the younger twins’ respective work-sheets, I asked my husband to help the older one’s work. Or, to tell the truth, after an aborted attempt at starting the homework with her and my husband wondering aloud about why mother and daughter were fighting again, there was a slight change in plan on who would tackle this behemoth.  Little did he realize that his question would land him the unenviable job of supervising the Hindi homework. After a few exchanges between us about the merits of patience and of letting her figure it out, I handed him the sheet and said “all yours”. He looked at me helplessly at first and then, in a show of bravado, said that he would “make her do it without a problem”. I smiled and left the room with the alacrity of a cat that had licked the cream. I knew just where this was heading.

I returned twenty minutes later to find my daughter staring out of the window and my husband reading something about start-up ventures on the web. It seemed to be a serene and happy kind of coexistence. There was such calmness in the air that I, for a moment, contemplated leaving them in this idyllic state and returning to the twins’ homework. That noble thought, needless to say, passed quite quickly, and the peace was soon shattered. Father and daughter, lost in their own worlds, didn’t quite realize that monster mommy had made her dreaded entry, so I had to announce it myself. When I asked for a progress report, my husband jumped out of his chair and said “she’s almost done”. I looked at my daughter’s desk and saw the worksheet, clean as a slate. She looked at me with her large, eloquent eyes and said “I am thinking mama”. My husband sensed my mood, looked at my daughter in suppressed panic and asked her what happened to the useful inputs he’d given her. She looked most alarmed and said “dad, you didn’t tell me to write anything!” Ah! this was just the Claire-in-Modern-family-moment that I’d been waiting for– the time when my husband would face the same aggravation as I do with the kids (now you know why mommy yells?) But, there was no yelling, no stamping of feet, no, you-better-look-at-me-when-I-talk-to you exchanges. The air was tense and there was some fraction in the ranks, and while that briefly put into question the enduring unity against the common enemy, which would be the bad-cop, aka mommy, it didn’t last long enough for me to celebrate the sweet reversal of fortunes. The situation was quickly stabilized as my husband clarified that they had mentally gone over what was to be written and all that remained was to pour it out on paper. My daughter was quick to pick up the cue and wholeheartedly endorsed this fact. I rolled my eyes, sighed and gave them an ultimatum. I was to return in twenty more minutes and the pouring-out on paper better have happened till then.

Fifteen minutes later, as I was telling the twins to put back their pencils in their drawers, father and daughter entered the room holding the finished sheet, save for one last question. They said that they’d done it all but needed my expert guidance on one question. It was evident that this had been planned in an effort to make the home/cabinet secretary feel that any task was incomplete without her astute leadership. They both looked at me helplessly, and I played my part with such skill that it would have put Michelle Pfeiffer to shame. I heaved a sigh, took the paper and reluctantly agreed to complete the task.

“Thank you mama”, said the father-daughter-duo, “we were a bit lost without you”.  The battle won, I agreed to put the matter to rest, but not before I’d given my husband the look. The score stood at the usual – Mommy one, daddy Zero, as Salman Rushdie would say.

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The Guilt of a Woman

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Ever since I’ve started full-time work, I’ve been grappling with a nagging guilt. Not that this came as a surprise to me. I’ve always said (here and on many other occasions) that there’s a weird connection between guilt and women. It never leaves us actually, this guilt – we carry it like an eternal and cursed burden, like the rock of Sisyphus. It’s ever-present, at the back (sometimes in the front) of our minds, and, unlike Sisyphus, who lets the rock roll down the hill, we never let go of our guilt. Not for a moment. We nurse it, we feed it and we often we let it tear us apart.

As I write this, I can think of a million things that I could tear myself apart for. I know this sounds extreme, but it is true. I grapple with guilt on multiple fronts, everyday (as do a lot of women I know) – for not calling my mother, for not going for lunch with my sister, for leaving work early, for leaving work late, for not being home with the kids, for not supervising their homework, for yelling at them, for not accompanying my older daughter to her piano class, for not having met one of my closest friends who was visiting from out of town, for declining another friend’s invitation to tea, for not having run this morning, for not having visited the local electricity office for a over-charging, faulty meter, for having forgotten a friend’s birthday..the list is endless. Maybe it’s me, or maybe it’s a phase, but I do wish I could do more with my time, do more for the
people I love and somehow, magically, at the same time, do what gives me a sense of accomplishment as well (the two are often on parallel paths)

The reason I am feeling more guilt than ever is because now that I am working, I get less time for anything else (don’t get me wrong, I had guilt when I was not working too). I enjoy going to work, but I do feel that the house is suffering because of it. The other day my daughter got some math sums wrong – she knew them but was doing her homework distractedly. Earlier I would be around to make sure she sat at her desk and focused on work. Now she runs around the house and finishes her homework in spurts. And while I know she has to learn to work on her own, the fact that she got her sums wrong upset me. Not so much because she made mistakes, more because I took that as yet another sign that my leaving the house had been detrimental for the kids. yes, I know I am overthinking this. And it’s complicated. Because it’s not like my not leaving the house was ideal for the kids either – that too was detrimental, though in a different way – unhappy mommy, unhappy kids kinds of thing.

So I am not sure what the solution is. And I am not sure I am even looking for a solution. I am just pouring my thoughts out in order, I guess, to get some clarity in my own head. And also, maybe, to feel a little less guilt in the process. Writing about an issue helps me deal with it better.

I know that getting out of the house was the best thing I did for me and for the family. It comes at a cost, but everything does. So if my working means that there are winter clothes sitting on my chair waiting for me to find place for them in my cupboard, or the fact that my kids sometimes get their homework wrong, or that the winter plants are not planted yet, or that I miss going for the kids’ lessons, well that may not be so bad when I weigh it with the fact that I am much happier now and have this sense of purpose that I was lacking before and thus when I am with the kids I am much happier, if a bit tired.

There’s no ideal state, I am old enough to realize that. But there is always guilt, no matter what the state. A friend came over the other day and I asked her if she felt the same. She did, but she said that she had learnt to let go of her guilt, because otherwise it could overpower you. I am not sure if I can reach that state – because it’s not easy to do.  And I am not sure I have it in me to say – ah well, I’ll just not let the fact that I could not call back my mum when she needed me bother me. It bothers me big time.And I still hope for that Utopian state when I will have ticked off all the things from my feeling-guilty list. Not going to happen anytime soon..


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From Kids to KPIs

G4 and womans hands

The past few months have been interesting. I’ve been working full-time, sometimes more than that. And all that I feared would happen, has happened. Kids have fallen sick, maids have gone on leave, weekends have been awash with work. Yes, I am quite the working mom now and it’s amazing how I have slipped into that role like I was always doing this. The truth is five months ago I was your typical stay-at-home-mom, quite reconciled (if grudgingly) to the idea of never setting foot in an office again.

And how dramatically that’s changed.

I know I’ve said this before, but I am already facing a lot of pressure – mostly from myself. So on the back foot am I that I feel I have to constantly prove something – that I am serious about my work; that women who return to work after a hiatus may not be able to ace power point presentations, but they do add a lot of value to a company. And in my blind wish to prove this I have gone and done something that I now find impossible to get out of – I have poured cold water all over the negotiations that I made when I joined work – that I would leave at 4 and work flexi.  Not only do I not leave at 4, I also had a washed-out weekend where I worked flat out for a deadline, while my younger twin lay next to me with high fever. On Sunday night at 11:30 when she finally looked at me with watery eyes and asked me if I had the time to lay next to her, something in me snapped. I know there are good days and bad days and I was determined to not let anything get in the way of me proving myself – but when I saw her tiny face, all I could think of was the fact that she needed me. I sent off one last slide to my boss and shut my computer down. I was tired. And I thought about how much my life had changed.

I guess this was a test, of sorts. To try and work when you have a sick child tugging at your clothes. I did it, but with a lot of guilt. But, guess what, when I shut my computer, the guilt did not vanish – it merely shifted base – to work. I wondered if my boss would think I was shirking work – the fact that I worked the whole weekend with a sick child was not enough I guess. And I didn’t even want to tell my boss that my daughter was sick – because, in this flu season, my kids have been falling sick one after another and I didn’t him to think that it would affect my performance.

Anyway, long story short – the basic point I am trying to make is that a working mother has to constantly shift gears – from work to home and back to work, and to home again. It’s a constant cycle and I am still getting used to it. I am trying my best to do both, but there’s always guilt – of leaving the kids, of leaving work – that I haven’t been able to escape. And I doubt I ever will. It’s a woman thing.


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From a Stay-At-Home-Mom to a Working One

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I can tell you this – that I never thought it would happen. I never thought I would get back to real work. Yes, I was pretty sure that after ten years of being at home and looking after kids, I was good for nothing else. That no one in their right minds would hire me, which was quite alright, because, in my opinion, I was quite un-hireable. That’s what being at home does to you – you start to believe in the stereotype.

Well, I could not have been more wrong. Neither was I un-hireable nor had my being at home taken away from the person I was. Yes, I had been sucked into the demands of my home (and that was a choice I made, for whatever reason) and for a while I was that mother in the park who befriended others like her and thought that she would never be able to escape from the unending cycles of birthday parties, piano classes and fixing the mixie. But that was a period in time when I could not think beyond that. And while it may have temporarily lulled my grey cells into talking about maids, mothers-in-law and electricians, it really did not really make me into the person I thought I had become.  When I went back to work, the real me (ya, I know, it’s a cliché, but it’s true) just wriggled out of that home-mommy skin and rose to the occasion – something I never thought I could do.

And this is not about me being some super star who could rise from the ashes and go back to work because I was some genius who’s been rescued from the interminable demands of domesticity.  No, I am like every other mother who makes a choice to be at home, but that so-called choice is not really one. Because a choice gives you options and let’s you pick what you like. When someone like me chooses to be home, she’s doing to because she has nowhere to leave her child – really not a matter of choice. I’ve heard so many people say to stay-at-home moms that they made a choice, and I always find it interesting – the use of that word. Given a real choice, where the woman can get back to work and be allowed to be flexible as long as she delivers the work, many women I know would have opted to be back at work.

But what I do want to say to women is this – stay mentally active, that’s key. You will find something to do once things at home settle a bit. No, it’ll never be fully settled, but that’s ok, you’ll learn to deal with it. This last week my daughter had been ill, so I left work early and came home. Then I worked at night and on Saturday from home and completed some tasks. And yes, I still have to do the birthday stuff, the homework, the classes and all that comes with being a mum – work has to be managed with all that. But you know what, you learn to do it. Sure there are days when you feel overwhelmed, but nothing in life is easy. I’ve wanted to get back to work for so long and now that I have done it, the other things will have to be fitted in. The people around you learn too – your husband, your kids, your help – they all start to do their bit to help you. That’s what I learnt – they see that you are happy and they want it to stay that way.

I underestimated the people around me. I always thought that things would fall apart if I plugged out. But they don’t – somehow it all happens. And yes, I’ve learnt to let-go of a few things – the dust behind the cabinet for one. I don’t care if it gets swept once in a few days. It’s just not important anymore. Working on a presentation for a client beats that any day.


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Life Changing Moment


This April my twins started full-day school. It was, as they say, a life changing moment. Or, that’s what I thought. That moment, actually, lay just a little ahead. Full day school was great, but what came after is what’s really changed my life. It arrived, without warning or signal, out of the blue, like my mother always told me it would (ya ya she was right). Let me just go ahead and say it – I’ve started working. Yes, it’s true. Just like that.

If you read my previous post, then you’ll put two and two together. I started this Monday, and I now await Saturday like I have never before, or so it feels. It’s a start-up. Which means many things. The first being the pay, but I am not thinking about that right now. It also means that you have your finger in many pies and, as I am discovering now, leaving at 4 is not going to be easy. Sure those where the terms of joining, but if a project is not done, what are you going to say? Time up? I don’t think so. Because then you’ll be looked upon as the one thing that will make you squirm – as an unprofessional mommy who could not commit because of her “limitations” (see previous post). No, I’d rather get biffed on the head with a brick!

I came to a realization a long time ago – that a woman trying to make her way back into the workforce is hardly in a position to negotiate terms. It’s sad but true. She’s just so glad that someone opened the freaking door, that she’ll take it. She knows she’s capable, and she knows she’s worth a lot more, but the gaping black hole in her resume is such that it has acquired a life of its own, as it crawls into her bed at night and haunts her in her dreams. It reminds her, constantly, that it’s growing and, like the mythical Hydra, sprouting more heads with each passing day. I know this, because this is exactly what’s happened with me. And now when someone has shown confidence in me and the only thing I can say to myself is “don’t let this go!”, and that this will never happen again. It’s a panic-stricken moment when this happens, because you wind yourself into a frenzy thinking that this bus will never come down the road again (hell, you’ve been waiting many years), so whatever it takes, you have to get on it. Otherwise you’ll wander aimlessly for the rest of your life, lost in the labyrinths of domesticity that will lead you to a long, lonely road, where you will find yourself once the kids fly the nest and your husband is neck-deep in his venture. Yes, I was all too aware of that road and when I saw even the glint of that bus coming down the road, I told myself that no matter what, this one I had to catch. And so I did.

So, long story short, I have a job and I love it. The honeymoon is not going to last I know, but I am, for once, not thinking too far down the road. I like where I am and I plan to take each day as it comes. The summer vacations begin tomorrow and they stretch long ahead of me. Let’s see how that goes. The guilt is yet to rear its ugly head. It will one day soon. It’s only a matter of time. Till then I’ll enjoy this golden period. And the weekend, it’s almost here.

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A Woman’s Little Limitations


An HR executive called me the other day and told me about this job where the employer had liked my profile, but (isn’t there always a but) he was wondering if I still had the “limitations” I did six months ago. Well, I thought of saying, that if you mean my kids, sure I still have them. They’ve grown a bit – my kids, I mean, not my limitations (paradoxically as kids grow, the “limitations”, sort-of, go down). So yes, I told him I am still a mother of three, but if it helps to know, the limitations now have full day school, so I am, you know, limitation-lesser, if you will.

He didn’t seem fully convinced or frankly satisfied with my answer. I wasn’t sure what he had wanted me to say. Did he expect me to tell him I’d packed off the kids to boarding school, or that my husband had decided to become a stay-at-home-dad, or that they’d taken a sip from the “Drink Me” bottle and grown up in an instant and were, thus, not limitations anymore, or, in a more believable scenario I’d managed to convince my mother to give up her life and come run mine? (sore, sore point)

I wasn’t sure. I did tell him that things were a lot better than six months ago. I could now be at work from 9 to 4, which was not bad. Then I could carry work home, if needed, and stay longer when needed too. Sounded alright to me. He, however, did not receive my suggestions with the alacrity I had expected, and told me he’d call me back, which, I was quite certain, he would not ( I suspect he did expect me to come up with one of those wonder stories above). Many an HR agent/employer have been scared off before, so I am now quite used to it. I have even come to love the look in a prospective employer’s eyes when I say I have three kids. They have this uh-oh, holy-crap look. And I love to sit back and watch him/her get out of that one. It’s ace really, as David Mitchell would call it.

Anyway, to my surprise, he called back. The employer, apparently, was alright with my flexi-timings (who said anything about flexi?) because he was running a start-up and he didn’t mind people working remotely (were you not listening, I didn’t say remotely!). The man had apparently expressed a wish to meet me.

Great I said, I was willing and ready to meet. He responded with similar contrived positivity and got off the phone in a bit of a hurry.

And so it was arranged. I wore my Sunday best and went to meet him on a Saturday (it’s a start-up, they don’t believe in weekends, but they are a “fun-place”. Right). It was a pleasant meeting and we spoke about this and that and the work, the profile and blah blah. I made all the right noises about my interest and abilities; he responded amicably, telling me all about entrepreneurship, finding talent, attrition and doing meaningful work. We parted well and I came home feeling quite satisfied.

Then the HR fellow called me again. He too made the right noises about the guy liking my work and all the rest of it, but (there it is again) he was wondering about my issues. I didn’t say anything about my issues, I said. “Yes, but you had some limitations..”. I cut him off and told him that I had sorted those out – how and what was my problem. I suddenly realized the game that was being played – Flexi was euphemism for low-pay (it’s a start-up, duh). The penny dropped and I told the bugger that I was willing to go into the office everyday and stay late too (a part of me was going WHAT??? STOP NOW!) but I stifled any voice of reason in my head and caught the bull by its horns (lean in girl I told myself). Sheryl Sandberg’s face was now staring at me, right into mine.

The truth is that while I was talking to him, the whole limitations crap finally got to me – when I realized that it was just a ploy to put me on the back foot while making me feel good about being able to work remotely! It turns out he does not even have enough space for me to come in to the office right now! He was trying to get me to say it first. But I didn’t.  I just called the bluff and said I would do full-time, worry not.

There was silence at the other end. This was not something he had been prepared for. He’d expected me to expand on my limitations, not make them disappear! But I had decided that even if it meant not getting on this bus (which I really wanted), I would stand my ground. Limitations my foot.

Anyway, long story short, I he arranged another meet with the boss. I am supposed to meet the employer again in a few days. He wants to hire me, it seems, but also would like to “iron-out” some minor details.

I am guessing these details would be about minors.


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