In the tug-of-war between a mother’s guilt and a working woman’s exhaustion, Arasi Maran gives in to guilt just about every single time, on pretty much every aspect concerning her child. She offers an example. “No matter how tired I am, I don’t formula feed my baby. I stick to tradition and nurse him because I feel guilty if I don’t,” says the South Carolina-based mother of a newborn boy.
Maran, who also has a toddler, believes it’s more stressful being a mom than being a cardiologist because she comes from a patriarchal culture that has clearly demarcated gender-based expectations.
Her mother and mother-in-law, like most Indian women of their generation, stayed at home. So being a working mom is mostly uncharted territory for first generation Indian-Americans who try to replicate everything their mothers did for them, and additionally assume the avatar of a hard-working, high achieving Asian immigrant at work.
“Our mothers don’t understand what it means to be a working mom. Even husbands have extremely high expectations because their mothers were homemakers and took care of their every need when they were kids. So Indian moms with full time jobs have this super star image of themselves; that they can do everything. I wish I had the courage to break that image, but I don’t,” Maran says, ruefully.
Maran’s situation is by no means unique. Recent doctoral research by Sundari Balan of the University of Michigan found that upwardly mobile first-generation, immigrant Indian American working mothers are highly stressed (exhibiting depressive symptoms and anxiety) because they idealize motherhood. They are over-worked and under emotional pressure as they face marginalization on three critical fronts: race (Asians are perceived to be more hard-working); immigration status (immigrants are usually expected to work harder to succeed in a foreign land); and gender (women are expected to do the lion’s share of work at home, though they put in long hours at the workplace. Many refer to going back home after a long workday as a “second shift.”)
Balan, who has a young daughter and son, surveyed 289 Indian American women between 18-55 years of age with mostly science and technology jobs, and who had at least one child under the age of 16.
Participants in the study were surveyed anonymously and were not interviewed for this article due confidentiality agreements with the University of Michigan. However, their situations resonated with other working Indian moms across the country.
“I am living the stress this study talks about on a day-to-day basis,” says Mridula Sundaram, who works at a school in Minnesota.
Sundaram, a single mom, says her background as an Indian mother makes her feel as though her son’s entire future is her responsibility. “Just that stress is enough to keep me up at nights,” she confides.
Sundaram’s concern is consistent with the traditional ideology of motherhood, which regards mothers as being responsible for their children’s futures, a belief well-documented by sociologists like Sharon Hays. The women surveyed also felt their own careers were more malleable than those of their husbands,’ and therefore were much more willing to make adjustments in their work environment to accommodate raising a child.
Connecticut-based doctor Jayapriya Krishnaswamy believes that Indian society expects working mothers—not fathers—to compromise on their careers. When Krishnaswamy learnt she was going to become a mother, the first thing she did was give up her coveted nephrology fellowship in New York in what she calls “a knee-jerk response to long ingrained social expectations.”
Formerly the chief resident at the University of Connecticut Health Center, Krishnaswamy has held a stellar academic record since her school days in Chennai, India. The highly competitive fellowship was a dream come true. “Yet I gave it up even before my son was born, even though my husband was supportive, because of my own expectations from myself. I felt I would be more available to the baby,” she says. “But if I was the man of the house, I probably would have had both the fellowship and the baby. Somehow, I would have worked it through.”
Krishnaswamy believes that there are many Indian men in the United States who, like her husband, are supportive of their wife’s professional aspirations. But older women in the extended family send subtle, traditionalist messages. “They expect younger, high-achieving women to make career compromises because that is what they themselves did,” she says.
Other women say gender-based expectations exist not just among older women, but even young, educated men in the community.
Priya Natarajan, cosmologist and tenured professor at Yale University (who happens to be single), says it’s a catch-22 situation for career women because it’s often harder for them to find partners who are comfortable with their success, and if they do, it’s very tough to balance motherhood with the demands of a career.
“What we really need is cultural change. Ambition and professional success attained by women need to be seen on the same footing as that of men,” Natarajan says. “There is often a strong dichotomy in South Asian families. It would be great if, as a community, we could lead the way in transforming social attitudes.”
Radha Jalan, CEO of Woburn, MA-based Fuelcells, Inc., did just that. Always unafraid to swim upstream, Jalan took over as the CEO of the company her husband founded when he died suddenly of a heart attack 20 years ago. Her background (she has a Ph.D. in education) shook the confidence of a number of senior executives who walked out the day she walked in.
Soon Jalan reversed the stress-inducing work culture by enabling work-life balance. She herself left work at 5 p.m. to spend time with her second daughter, who was then in high school. Her unusual management style led employees to question her methods but, today, Fuelcells develops technologies for heavy weights like NASA.
Jalan showed the same tenacity in raising her two daughters. “Indian women are raised to please others at a cost to themselves,” she says. “I tell the women who work for me that they cannot be everything to everybody. They will burn out.”
She offers an example of how she made a conscious decision to break free of cultural conditioning. “As a single mother without an extended family, it was okay to eat out or cook simple meals at home,” she says.
Social scientists say ethnic and gender perceptions play out in South Asian families in several areas such as meal preparation. Ramaswami (Ram) Mahalingam, associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, says authenticity is an important factor in the idealization of motherhood. A mother could interpret authenticity as making idiappam and kurma (an elaborate rice noodle and gravy) for breakfast on Sunday, rather than the easier, and quicker, toast and cereal.
He says the model minority perception translates into high pride, high pressure, and high stress, as parents push their kids and themselves to excel at everything they do.
Jalan managed to avoid that by steering clear of social comparison and refrained from pressurizing her daughters academically or enrolling them in numerous after-school activities. “My priority was my children’s psychological, emotional, and social wellbeing,” says Jalan, whose background in education and cultural anthropology made her an outsider in a culture geared toward engineering, medicine, and the sciences.
In fact, Balan’s study found that social comparison led to the perpetration of the model minority stereotype.
Indian women used social support networks, particularly friends, as a basis for comparing their children’s achievement of academic or developmental goals. They then used this information to structure their own chidlren’s activities and ambitions.
Can’t Do it All
Women in Balan’s study felt they were primarily responsible for raising their kids because they believed they were more competent than their husbands. One woman even revoked her spouse’s bedtime story-telling duty because she thought his voice lacked emotion.
Some women do realize that they can’t do it all. Meena Malladi, a business analyst in New York, says her Indian background has taught her to make her kids her number one priority. “But I don’t attend to them as much as my mom did with me,” she says. “Unlike my mom, I’ve been letting my seven- and four-year olds do a lot of things themselves—eating, changing, cleaning their room etc—because I can’t be a super woman and do all those things for them. In they process, they are learning to be independent.”
But Malladi is an outlier. Balan found that the participants in her study indicated that they did everything with their children, which they said made them different from other working mothers. For example, they did not hire babysitters. “In this way, they created a rhetoric of indispensability for their children,” Balan infers.
The idealization of motherhood, as revealed by Balan’s study, plays out in different ways. These include: • Pressure to ensure that their children are ranked at the top of their class both academically and in co-curricular activities.
• Added responsibility of being transmitters of culture—native language, ethnic values etc.
• Perception that Indian mothers are “more patient” than their husbands and thus have superior parenting skills. This belief led women to take on more parenting duties.
• Lack of flexibility in work schedule to include motherhood responsibilities was a major source of stress.
• Emphasis on authenticity and trying to do everything for their children just like their stay-at-home mothers did for them. This idealization of their own childhood in India led them to develop a belief system that “valorized their own group” and the role of mothers.
Balan points out that the construct of Asian Indian motherhood takes shape at the intersection of race (pressure to fit in a foreign land) and gender (patriarchal social values).
Balan says the primary goal of the women in her survey was to maintain the image of a model minority, which she refers to as a “façade.” And as with any façade, the pressure to keep up appearances—the model, high-achieving immigrant professional and the doting, sacrificing mother—eventually takes a toll on one’s physical and mental wellbeing.
The lesson for Indian moms who also work outside the home? Relax. Enjoy raising your kids. Teach them to be independent, confident, strong, and happy. Don’t worry about keeping up with the Ramans or the Joneses or whoever your reference group is. And ladies, it’s okay to hire babysitters. It’s okay to eat take-out food.
And it’s really, really okay to let your husbands change diapers, help with homework, and do some chores around the house.
Sujata Srinivasan is a Connecticut-based writer, reporter, editor and educator. A sample of her work is at her website www.sujatasrinivasan.com.
Survey Participants Required
Participate in a national online survey for Dr. Suniya S. Luthar’s new book Who Mothers Mommy? Luthar, a professor of psychology at Columbia University, writes on her survey website http://www.tc.columbia.edu/faculty/index.htm?facid=sl504
“In developmental research, women are typically considered in terms of their behaviors as mothers—rarely in terms of their own personhood. This survey will explore how you feel about your different roles—not only as a mother, but also as a spouse, a friend, a worker (in and out of the home), an individual with various hopes and fears—and how you cope with the challenge of balancing multiple roles.”