Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Other Side of the Coin

The Mad Momma recently wrote a post on being a stay at home mom and while I do agree with some of her points, it made me uncomfortable. The discomfort did not come from being defensive, guilty or offended but from a feeling that it was a very one-sided point of view. I thought long and hard about whether I wanted to write a sort of a rebuttal and I have decided that I do, if only to present another, equally valid point of view and to help people understand why we choose to do it this way.

I would like to start by saying that I personally do not judge either Stay At Home Moms (SAHMs) or working mothers. I think there is a choice to be made when you become a mother and neither of the choices is bad, neither for the mother nor for the child. As will all choices, both options have their pros and cons

The other thing with this whole comparison business is that most people rarely do it in a fair and just manner. Most SAHMs compare themselves to the ultra career woman who puts her career first, spends an hour or less with her kid everyday and would not take a day off even when her child was sick. Similarly, working moms will tend to glorify their choice by pitting themselves against highly domesticated women who are frumpy, uni-dimensional and don’t even know what’s going on their own backyards, forget about the rest of the world. But the situation is rarely so black and white – there are many shades of motherhood between Career Bitch Mom and Domestic Dumb Belle Mom. And when we, as moms of either denomination, make these unfair comparisons, the biggest disservice we do is to ourselves.

Without much further ado, let me get on with my take on some of the myths that abound around working moms. Since I am no expert in this subject, this is largely based on my own experiences as well of those of my mother, a successful working mom.

Myth: Working moms love their kids less
Even though it’s not often voiced this bluntly, this myth is often silently lurking behind most arguments against the working mom and typically what the other myths tend to add up to. I can honestly say that there was never a day in my childhood that I felt unloved or less loved because my mother worked. I also know for sure that I love Ayaan as much as any mother I know who doesn’t work. Whenever Mad Momma waxes eloquent about her maternal feelings and love for her Brat, every word she writes resonates with me.

Myth: Bringing up their children is not priority number one for working moms
The SAHM puts her kid ahead of her career but that does not necessarily make the reverse true – the working mother does not put her career ahead of her job as a mother. She has chosen to let something else be almost as important, the operative word here being ‘almost’. For me, Ayaan always comes first and when he needs me (doctor’s appointments, sick days, first day at school, etc.), there can be no meeting important enough to keep me away, damned be the consequences for my career.

Myth: Working moms think spending time with their kids is a chore
Which honest mother will not admit to the tedium of reading the same book to a child 15 times in a day and I am sure almost no woman in her right mind would have loved the job of changing 24 soiled nappies in a day! The point I am trying to make is that there are parts of motherhood that can get a bit wearying, but that is something that both working mothers and SAHMs share. But while there are moments that are less than exciting, I find almost every moment I spend in Ayaan’s company thrilling and fun. I just may not want to spend every moment of every day doing that.

Myth: Working moms rely on others to bring up their kids

Bringing up children is about a lot more that being there with them 24/7. I may be a working mom, but I have no doubt about who is bringing Ayaan up – I have people who help me out but the decisions are still all mine. I decide what Ayaan eats and when he eats it, when and how to potty train him, which days his hair is washed, and almost every other trivial and non-trivial detail of his life. I have very firm and particular views about how I want to bring him up and brook no arguments on this, even from his grandparents. There is also the belief that working moms are unable to instil good values into their kids. I think one must recognise that this is the most fuzzy and difficult part of parenting and if anything, this is the one that is the least about sheer physical presence. If you have a good value system and are committed to passing it on to your kids, then it will happen – working mom or not. My mother worked all through my childhood years and still managed to instil a very strong code of ethics into us.

Myth: Children of working moms are lonely and neglected

This may be true if your kids are the original latchkey kids who come home to an empty house and a cold lunch. Whose parents work to the exclusion of everything else and just about manage to squeeze in a perfunctory amount of time to spend with them. And spend the whole day at office when their child is sick at home. But when we are talking about such parents, we are again looking at rare extremes. Most parents I know are not like this at all. I know I would not have gone back to work had I not found the right nanny for Ayaan – a person who was caring, efficient and came with good references (in this case, having worked for a friend of a friend). I am a 100% sure that Ayaan never wants for anything when he is in her care. As for my time, I wake up with him everyday and leave only after I have fed him breakfast and make it a point to be home to feed him dinner, bathe him and put him to sleep as well. Two meals are a lot more that most SAHMs I know, who delegate a lot of the physical part of mothering (feeding, bathing, sleeping) to the household help. I take him to the park atleast 4 times a week and if I travel overnight, I try and compensate by taking a few days off here and there to do something special with him. Once he grows up a little and can hold his end of a phone conversation, I plan to call him when he gets home from school everyday so that I can get an immediate update on his day and make it a point that one of us gets home early if he is either upset about something or needs some help with his homework.

Myth: Children of working moms are less intelligent
There is research for both sides of the story but statistics are just numbers at the end of the day that hide rather than reveal the real truth. In my case, both my brother and I have done extremely well for ourselves both academically and career-wise, meeting and exceeding all the aspirations that our parents had for us. The same is true of Jai and his siblings as well. As for Ayaan, I guess time will tell but so far it is looking good. He was slower to talk but has more than made up for that with a vocabulary of over 100 words developed in the last 2 months. And I can trace over 80% of those words to having been taught by me rather than the maids or the grandparents, when they visit. Overall, he compares favourably with other kids his age - physically, intellectually and emotionally – including those who have been going to playschool since the age of 18 months.

Myth: SAHMs understand their kids better than working moms
I find I understand Ayaan as well if not better than SAHMs I know. I can hold my own in discussions on the detailed nuances of our kids and often find myself able to advise other moms on many a topic and often have to control myself from crossing the line over into preachy. Even though I am not at home to witness it all, I am mostly able to figure out why Ayaan is behaving a certain way and tell the nanny how to deal with it. For example, when Ayaan screamed blue murder on being put into his high chair after months of peacefully eating his food there, I quickly figured out it was because he wanted more control over the process and fixed it by letting him fasten the belt himself and giving him an extra bowl and spoon with some food in it.

Myth: Working moms are stressed out and as a result impatient with their kids
I feel it is the other way around. SAHMs are much more likely to get stressed out and impatient with their kids. I have come across many SAHM blogs that talk about how the moms are literally standing at the door waiting for their husbands to come home so that they can get away from their kids for a while. Their kids are likely to watch a lot more TV because it makes for a good babysitter so that they can get a few moments of peace. A working mom on the other hand tries harder to make every moment count and though she may be stressed out or tired, she will still go that extra mile to never let the kid know it though any negative behaviour on her part towards him.

Myth: Children of working moms resent their moms for working
On this, I have only my experiences to go on and those of Jai and other friends with working mothers. We didn’t resent our mothers for working; in fact we were inordinately proud of the fact. I used to love telling people that my mom worked and would then feel all superior when I got the response of “My mom’s just a housewife”. I think it’s all about the balance the mother herself is able to strike to make sure that she is there when the kid needs her. On Mad Momma’s post, I was surprised to find many people who echoed this theme of resentment, but there seems to be a common thread of the mothers having gone back to work later, rather than earlier. Maybe it is more traumatic for a child to get used to the paradigm of a working mom when they have got used to their 24/7 presence. Just a thought.

Myth: Children of working moms are insecure in comparison
Just come and watch Ayaan at the park and you will know that this is not true. He is one of the most confident and assertive kids that I have seen. I see 3-year olds who are petrified of slides but Ayaan has been merrily climbing them since he was 16 months old. He does hate to lose sight of me when I at home and I used to feel this might have been because he is insecure about my presence and affection but I have talked this over with a close SAHM friend who is at home all day and still has to contend with a tantrum for her right to visit the loo in privacy or go for a walk in the park. Separation anxiety is a well-documented fact and kids feel it no matter how long you are away from them. It is also a phase and they get over it.

Myth: Children of working moms are unsafe
The world is getting to be an unsafe place for children to be in. Or maybe it always was but we knew less about the various dangers lurking around the corner. But that doesn’t mean that the children of a mom working away from home are less safe than those of a SAHM. As a working mom, you just have to be a little more careful about the infrastructure you set up for your kids when you are away from home – only hired help who come with good references, no male servants, more than one maid so that they can act as a check on each other and surprise visits during the day to make sure that all is well. I also believe teaching your kids to recognise danger, protect themselves from it and feel comfortable talking to you about it will do far more towards keeping them safe than keeping them wrapped up in the cotton wool of your apron strings.

Myth: Staying at home with them is the only ‘natural’ way to bring up kids
This argument does serious disservice to the women who made it possible for us to even consider having a career in the first place. Don’t get me wrong – I am no rabid feminist. But I also do not believe that being a working mom is against the way nature intended things to be. It’s only in these modern times when technology and household help have made things easier have these choices become so sharp. I meet a lot of consumers in my line of work and I find that as you go down the socio-economic strata, the definition of a SAHM is closer to what my nanny does rather than the ideal picture painted by Mad Momma. A common question I like to ask these women is ‘What would your kids miss about you if you went away for a few days?’ and their responses typically revolve around good food and clean clothes. Without household help or washing machines, these women toil from dawn to dusk to tasks of feed, bathe and clothe their families – they would find the idea of having the time to read to their kids or talk to them about their day beyond comprehension. I would find it easier to categorise them as working moms rather than SAHMs. So then who is anyone to say what is natural when 99% of the SAHMs in our country see their role in their kids lives as largely administrative and transactional? Can the 1% of affluent mothers who choose (unlike the rest who never really had a choice) to stay at home really define what’s natural?

Myth: Children of working moms are spoilt and over-indulged
This is the most common myth of all. The common perception is that working mothers compensate for their time with money and give in to every demand that their kids make, almost before these even leave their mouths. This is also possibly the one that is very often true. But it doesn’t have to be. I never saw this kind of trade-off in my relationship with my mother. I was denied things all the time, at times just to let me know that I cannot have everything that I want. I also try hard not to let my parenting style get influenced by the fact that I work. Most of the toys Ayaan owns have been bought by others and I never think twice about putting him in the corner when he misbehaves, even if it is just 5 minutes after I have come home from office. I have always believed in the need for healthy sleep habits and my sleep techniques and schedules (while controversial) have aided the transformation from a grumpy, sleep-deprived baby to a hyperactive and happy toddler. And I stick to these in the face of my varying schedule – I will not keep Ayaan up till 11 o’clock in the night just so that I assuage my guilt at having spent longer at office than usual.

Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that I have often expressed the desire to be a SAHM and may be wondering how that fits in with what I have written today. But to me, the desire to be a SAHM is not because I think I am being an inadequate mother while I work. It comes from a more selfish desire to be the first one to see each of Ayaan’s milestones. It’s also the control freak in me that wants to do that - I want to change every nappy, feed every meal, and give every bath. But in the final analysis, I can put my hand on my heart and say that I am being the best mother I can be, work status notwithstanding. And based on my experiences I completely believe in a woman's ability to be a great mother, while also balancing a career.

To round up this extremely long post, I would just like to try and make those who don’t understand the reasons behind my/our choice to work. The reasons like financial comfort, career advancement, optimum use of educational qualifications and intellectual stimulation are all pretty obvious and have been debated ad infinitum. They are important but for me there is more to this choice than these tangible benefits.

  • I honestly don’t believe that I need to be with Ayaan ALL the time in order to be a good mother. Discussions on quality time and quantity time can get fuzzy but the important thing is to invest the necessary time to ensure that the things only you can do get done (which include everyday things like teaching table manners and reading books as well as occasional crisis situations like sick days and annual days at school).
  • I wanted to be a mother, I chose to become one and it is a bloody important part of who I am. But I do not want that to become the only part of me. Being a mother is one of the things I do. It is the most critical and special thing I do but it is not my only thing and I would like to keep it that way. This is not about some arbitrary feminist stand nor is it about being a hard core careerist. I just want to be more and do more and I don’t see anything wrong with that. And I certainly don't feel it makes me a lesser mother.
  • I would like to spend a little more time with Ayaan than I can currently and the day something that allows me to work more flexible hours comes along, I will jump at the opportunity. But I don’t think I would be a happy mother if I spent all my time with Ayaan. Above all, I want to do my best by Ayaan so that I have no regrets about how I brought him up. And the first step to being a good mom is being a happy, fulfilled person. And I don’t think I could be that if I was a full-time SAHM.

My submission, in a rather roundabout fashion, is merely this – different strokes for different folks. We are all different individuals with different needs, personalities and perspectives. We all have our own, very good reasons for making the choices that we do. We may not understand the choices of others, but let us atleast accept that these choices come from a good, caring place backed with the desire to be the best mothers that we can be.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


I really must post more often. I feel terrible about how I have been neglecting the blog, especially since I compose posts in my head all the time and then lose them before I commit them to Blogger. As usual, I do have my very good excuses for not having posted - a week away in Brazil, back with a bang to mothering a sick and clingy child, never-ending jet lag and catching up with all the piled up work and e-mails. Anyway, now the jet lag has gone, Ayaan is much better and the pile of work is starting to look manageable so I guess it is about time I told you about my trip.

To start with, there was the travel. It’s over eight hours of flying time to London, atleast three hours in transit and then another 11 hours to Sao Paulo. Thankfully I got promoted last year and that allows me to travel by business class. And I have to say that the British Airways flat bed in Club World has got to be the most awesome invention since air travel itself. Thanks to that, I was tired but not exhausted since I managed to sleep a lot during the flights!

I transited through Heathrow both ways but it almost felt like I was back in Mumbai. The number of Indians that work in that airport is beyond amazing – I would not be exaggerating too much if I were to say that the place was run by Indians. The guy at the luggage x-ray was an Indian. So was the lady at the Boots counter. The bookshop counter was manned by two Punjabis chatting away to each other in their native language. And I overheard two cleaners bitching in Hindi about the mean canteen lady!

I did not get around much in Brazil itself. The meeting was in a small town called Campinas that is over two hours away from Sao Paulo and there really wasn’t much to see over there. I could have taken some time off and seen the sights but at a week, I was already stretching the limits of the time I could spend away from my other job as a mother.

Even in the free time I did have, we were not encouraged to go out on our own. Most of Brazil is too unsafe for foreigners to just roam around on the streets. Walking out of your hotel for a leisurely stroll is tantamount to asking to be mugged. It is pretty common for thugs to hold a gun up to you and demand that you hand over your money/ car and if you value your life, it pays to comply. Most of the houses and apartment buildings in the prosperous parts of town are protected with high walls, razor wire and electric fencing. Mumbai suddenly felt like a really safe place – heck, Delhi suddenly felt like a really safe place! Additionally, the local guys don’t know a single word of English so if you were to get lost, there was a good chance you’d stay that way.

So on the day I arrived, the office arranged for a car to take us to the biggest shopping centre in town. It was nice and all that but it was….well, it was a shopping centre, just a lot larger and more expensive than anything in India. I actually had more fun when one of my Brazilian colleagues took me to a supermarket to stock up on the local goodies – coffee, chocolates, a local liquor called cachaca (pronounced cashasa) and the mix to make a cocktail called caipirinha with it, and a local energy drink called Guarana, that I totally fell in love with.

The amount of meat they eat in that country is just not funny. Everything else is a side dish. There was meat for lunch, breakfast and dinner and just in case that was not enough, there was meat for the coffee breaks as well. I think I ate more meat in the four days that I was there than I normally eat in an entire month. On one of the nights, our hosts took us to a restaurant called Montana Grill. The menu card there actually had a cow drawn on it with arrows pointing to various parts and mentioning the delicacies originating from each of them – I can imagine how anyone who is not a hardcore non-vegetarian like me could get severely turned off by the place! The only thing I missed out on was the Brazilian national dish known as feijoada – I believe that they take a really long time to prepare it and so it is prepared only on Saturdays and I left on Thursday.

The people there are really nice. They are warm, friendly and hospitable and went out of their way to make our trip enjoyable. The men are quite nice looking but it’s the women who really catch your attention. They have the most lovely skin colour – like a bit of coffee mixed in milk and they tan really beautifully. (I got the ultimate compliment - a waiter at the restaurant asked one of the guys if I was Brazilian!) The men are really chivalrous too – I have got quite unused to men holding doors open for me or waiting for me to pass through before they do – I have to admit it is something I could get used to. It makes you feel quite nice. The other interesting bit of social etiquette is the kissing. I am used to greeting people at work with a handshake at best but in Brazil, a kiss on the cheek is the standard way to greet even a colleague at work. It took some getting used to but it felt quite natural and not at all inappropriate by the end of it. It makes sense doesn’t it – you’d be much less likely to have a nasty confrontation with someone at work if you had just kissed them!

I learnt some very minimal Portuguese, which I shall now proceed to show off:
Hola (hello)
Si (Yes) and Nao (No)
Obrigada (Thank You) and Por Favor (please)
Grande (Big) and Pequeno (Small) – very important when they come at you with huge chunks of meat in the restaurant

And finally, to make up for complete lack of pictures from my trip (forgot to carry the camera), I leave you behind with this piece of blog trickery…

Your Sexy Brazilian Name is:

Samara Torres