It was a bright, chilly morning in March 2013 when Janani Sundarrajjan, 35, a New York-based finance professional, found herself sobbing uncontrollably at the wheel of her car.
She was parked outside the daycare where she had dropped off Neil, her five-month old son. Janani, who had resumed working after a six-week maternity leave (during which she was given only 60% of her salary as part of the “disability” pay) had at first enjoyed an excellent support system in her parents. They had arrived from Chennai, India, to care for Neil for the first three months and her in-laws had taken over from them and cared for him for the next two months. Even then, Janani had never imagined how hard it would be to resume work after a baby. “It was a very emotional time for me,” she says. “It was not easy to leave Neil behind, even with my parents. It was so much harder to leave him in daycare. I remember feeling confusion, anxiety, fear (though I can’t quite understand nor explain why it is was that I felt so scared). I was doubtful about whether I was doing the right thing and worried incessantly about whether I was being a good mom to Neil.”
The Maternity Cultural Conflict
It took Janani two weeks to stop crying after the drop-off, but she is grateful that Neil was such a good baby and that they settled into a routine fairly quickly. Most working women around the world can relate to this intense separation anxiety that follows birth. But in the case of Indian-Americans (and first-generation immigrants such as Janani), the dilemma is further complicated and compounded by conflicting cultural values. Even today, an Indian upbringing often involves a specific kind of social conditioning—one that demands women put their homes and children before their careers, period. Despite the changing times, one cannot deny that the ‘ideal’ Indian mother is still someone bound to home and hearth, exclusively nurturing children—an image that most working mothers (especially in the United States with its trying maternity laws) find disturbing, difficult and impractical.
“I’ve refused several offers of marriage because my job is important to me and I’ve seen how professional fulfillment and financial stability rarely go hand-in-hand with the expectations of motherhood,” says 26 year-old Ashwini Kumar* (name changed to protect identity), a software professional working in Philadelphia. “Perhaps I may feel differently at a later date, but for now, I’ve worked too long and too hard to get where I am and I am reluctant to give this up.” Not surprising, then, is the news that top tech employers such as Apple and Facebook (with more corporates expected to follow) are offering women employees a chance to delay giving birth by bearing the costs of freezing their eggs.
Working Women and Changing Dynamics in Personal Relationships.
For many working mothers in the United States, a career isn’t a choice, but a basic necessity, especially when you need to pay back staggering student loans, not to mention keeping up with the high cost of living in big cities—something only a double income can cater to. “I earned my master’s degree, spent a lot of time (not to mention money) to get an education and didn’t want to waste it by not working,” says Janani. “Financial independence is extremely important to me and I wanted to share the burden of household finances. Also, I didn’t want to compromise. I want to give the best for my child, to provide him with a good education and other opportunities that my own parents gave me while growing up.”
Many modern couples are now beginning to understand the immense value a working spouse can bring to her family. Interestingly, this has created a shift in the dynamics in marital and interpersonal relationships, especially so in the Indian-American community, which, like its counterpart in India, veers towards patriarchy. Earlier, it was considered a sign of weakness if men relied on their wives to help support the family, a school of thought that is now changing.
As many women are assuming greater, and more demanding, roles in the workplace, they are quick to acknowledge that at the heart of this change is the new age Indian man—in the guise of an understanding and accommodating spouse.
Sapna Aravind is the Vice President and Product Director at AllianceBernstein, a premier global asset management firm, headquartered in New York. Juggling myriad responsibilities, both at work and at home, as a mother of two energetic boys, (aged nine and four), Sapna describes her world as “a constant tug-of-war for attention and time; and these are scarce resources.” And yet, when she decided to attend business school at MIT in Boston, a few years after the birth of their first baby, her husband, an investment banker, offered to pitch in and care for their then-two-year old. “We had decided I would support him when he went to business school and he would support me when I did the same. So he stayed in New York with our then-two-year old and played Mr. Mom. I manage because I have a wonderful husband who understands that his wife loves, wants, and needs a career!” says Sapna.
Finding a partner who is truly an equal is a rare feat, but it can be a critical to a woman’s success and peace of mind after marriage. This factor is stressed by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook in her popular book, Lean In—Women, Work and the Will to Lead (2013). In an ideal world, both men and women would share the responsibilities of work and childcare equally, writes Sandberg. Not doing so would put women at a severe disadvantage, limiting their ability to get ahead in their careers. Perhaps that explains the dismal statistics that speak of a complete lack of women in the higher echelons of corporate circles in India.
“In India, women hold about 5 percent of the directorships among the 100 companies listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange. 11 percent of the top 240 Indian companies had female CEOs,” writes Sandberg.
Dealing with Difficult Decisions
As women climb the corporate ladder, tucked away amidst spiraling ambitions and myriad responsibilities, are some very difficult decisions, involving more than just childcare and the work-life balance, though these continue to be top priority.
A working woman’s life is riddled with contradictions,” says Dr. Savitri Ashok, a former Associate Professor in English at Middle Tennessee State University, who has contributed an essay to the book India and the Diasporic Imagination. “She is required to be assertive in the work place, to perform well and get ahead. Yet she must be submissive and dutiful at home. When women’s lives change (and they have), men’s lives and expectations have to change too. When this does not happen, all kinds of tensions could erupt.”
“For the Indian-American woman, the clash between what she experiences in the world she moves in and what she has seen in her parents can be pretty strong, sometimes devastating,” says Dr. Savitri Ashok. “This could result in tensions within herself and in her relationships. Perhaps this tension is more intense in young girls who have grown up in United States, but whose parents were first immigrants. A man’s success is measured in a straight forward fashion, by the job he holds and the money he brings in. For a woman, especially for an Indian woman, success is an elusive beast. This is because Indian culture and tradition, despite arguments to the contrary, have assigned compliance and duty as fundamental ‘feminine’ qualities.”
There are days when it seems completely impossible,” says Sapna. “Äll around me, I see moms giving up their careers. Not that there is absolutely anything wrong with staying with the kids when they are growing up and need moms the most. I’ve done it myself—twice!” When her eldest son was four months old, Sapna decided that she could not bear the thought of putting him in daycare, so she left her well-paying job at Lehman Brothers (where she was employed at the time) to care for her baby. She returned to work after his first birthday. “I was happy to return to work after my older one turned a year old because I felt the relief in knowing he was well taken care of in the daycare right next to where we lived.”
With her second baby, the transition was harder, says Sapna Aravind. As he was even younger when she returned to work, the family opted for a qualified nanny. “But I’m lucky that I’m in a senior-level position, work-wise. I know what needs to get done and I simply get it done. I don’t have anyone breathing down my neck making extraordinary demands on my time or resources. But it has not been an easy road and help has not always been forthcoming from many quarters.”
In 2011, a research study conducted by Nielsen (which tracks global trends) titled the “Women Of Tomorrow” revealed that even as women were empowered to reach their goals and felt a more hopeful future in terms of progress and education for their own daughters, they were crippled by overwhelming stress. Women who were perceived as having it all (kids, a well-run home and a successful career) weren’t as happy as one would expect them to be. The study mentioned that a whopping 87% of Indian women in particular suffered from severe stress and as much as 82% felt that they had no time to relax. “Women across the globe are achieving higher levels of education, joining the workforce in greater numbers and contributing more to the household income,” said Susan Whiting, Vice Chair at Nielsen, in a statement to Reuters.” Women tell Nielsen they feel empowered to reach their goals and get what they want, but at the same time, this level of empowerment results in added stress.”
Switching to Self-Employment
Traditionally, Indian women aren’t risk-takers, but the demanding nature of straddling childcare and a career are actually driving more women away from well-paying tech jobs and mid-level management positions to set up their own businesses and consider the entrepreneurial route.
“I decided to start on my own business as I felt I was not giving a 100% to my job or my home,” says 33 year-old Shwetha Arjun (name changed to protect identity), an independent designer who lives in Boston, MA. “No one was happy and I was completely stressed out trying to please everyone. With my own business, I have the opportunity to create my own schedule, plan meetings around my kids’ schedules which allows me the flexibility to drop off and pick up my kids, and attend important events.”
Establishing a fine balance is possible, but requires good communication between spouses and evaluating family and lifestyle choices, feels Dr. Amlani. “It’s very easy to be seduced by a promotion, bigger business etc, however, happiness tends to come from living more balanced lives,” he says. “This includes more time for physical activities, sports, getting together with friends and family, eating meals at home as a family, being involved in each other’s lives more fully and devoting certain amount of time in community service and spiritual growth.”
As Indian women around the world are now on the brink of change, many are discovering that all it takes to meet challenges is to dream big and plan ahead. Finding your passion and striking a harmonious balance between home and work, (pursuing both with equal vigor while supported ably by your spouse) play a vital role in defining new age success.
Kamala Thiagarajan writes on travel, health and lifestyle topics for a global audience. She has been widely published in over ten countries.
Are you thinking of getting back into the workforce? Here’s what you need to put on your checklist.
. Know Your Mind: You’re not doing your children any favors if you deeply resent your decision to not work, but is a full-time career or being a stay-at-home mom what you really want at this point? Weigh your decision carefully before you take the plunge. “While I was home with my first, I realized I wasn’t capable of being a stay-at-home mom,” says Shweta.“It was depressing, not having anyone to interact with or to engage my mind doing something I love.”
. Pick the right childcare option: Don’t opt for daycare if you’re not entirely happy with what’s available. Consider hiring a personal (but competent) nanny. Take your time to scour childcare options and pick the appropriate one, because this can give you great peace of mind while at work.
. Don’t allow guilt to color your parenting decisions! It is natural for working mothers to find themselves compensating for their absence, by pampering or spoiling their children. Instead, giving them quality time and engaging in issues that matter to them is important, feels Sapna. “I do my best to attend my older son’s Publishing Parties (where they demo their written work) or Poetry recitation competitions or plays.”
. Find ways to “lean in”: If you don’t see yourself resuming work immediately after birth, consider a more flexible option of working from home or freelancing with the occasional drop-by at the office. You don’t have to bow out professionally if that’s not what you want. Find ways to cut back while still keeping in touch with your core skills.