Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in India, the period that witnessed increased urban female participation in the labor force with a simultaneous shift in social acceptance and strong encouragement for a working woman, the girls of my generation, certainly the ones in the educated, middle-class, liberal India that I was raised in, grew up confident, competitive, and career-minded. We were provided the best possible education and taught that we were no less competent than the opposite gender. Being a professional was intricately tied to ones’s identity and societal worth. Hence, the intense hours spent preparing for the board exams, the IIT/JEEs, the medical entrance exams, the CATs, the tears at missing a few and the joy of being accepted at the other few, the excitement of graduating from college, the thrill of blowing off the first salary on something completely trivial… the list of professional endeavors and pleasures goes on and on for many of us. There wasn’t a second thought spared to not taking up a career or not being financially independent. And I certainly did not spare it a second thought until almost a decade later!
The next decade passed by in a blur – job, marriage, kids, and working towards a college degree kept me more than occupied. The decision to step back from a busy professional life was an easy one, initially. I had a five-year old and had just had a newborn. I was as pre-occupied as any new mom would be and was reveling in the satisfaction of completing a Ph.D. I had all good intentions of re-entering the job market as soon as my baby grew up. I still do, except now my “baby” is four!
The four years as a stay-at-home mom, which evolved into a longer hiatus from work than orginally anticipated or planned, have brought unexpected delights, enormous relief at not having to make tough, daily trade-offs, and an opportunity to engage in meaningful activities that I’d put off for way too long. As I stepped back from work, I stepped up my gym visits, reading, writing, and getting involved in my children’s school and extra-curricular activities – and I’ve realized that there is no dearth of work. Far from it, as I’m sure mothers of all generations and places will attest to! However, what is omitted is a sense of accomplishment and a sense of identity that is so intricately tied to an individual’s work. However much I try to convince myself that I am currently engaged in probably the most important and deeply-impacting work that I am capable of, it doesn’t stop me from sometimes laying awake in the middle of the night wondering – “What am I doing with my life?” Despite these occasional misgivings and moments of purposelessness, I am not yet ready to trade in the happiness and the comfort that I derive from not just taking care of my family, but equally important, taking care of myself.
My decision to stay-at-home is not a completely random, isolated one. There is increasing evidence of mothers who are choosing to put their careers on hold, or are reducing their work hours, while they take care of their kith and kin. Although small, this trend has appeared on the national radar – the Bureau of Labor Statistics points to a drop in the labor force participations rates of the number of married mothers with small children after hitting a peak in 1997. It’s important to bear in mind though, that till fifty years ago, mothers staying at home to care for their children, was the norm. The exceptions were the poorer households or the highly educated ones. The female labor force participation rate steadily increased in the western world since the beginning of the 20th century, but really took on a life of its own in the 1950s and 1960s. There were many factors that contributed to this increase, such as, increased availability of part-time work and increased social acceptance of married working women. In many parts around the world, including India where I grew up in, the 1970s marked a wastershed period during which urban female labor force partication rates increased steadily. More important, globally, there was a shift in the expectations and aspirations of young women, which increasingly included a professional career as fundamental to their notion of societal worth and personal identity. As more and more women entered the workforce, for many of them, working became less about a job than a career with long-term goals and aspirations. This also meant that many working mothers tried very hard to “fit everything in.” It meant work-life balances, juggling long hours at work with the relentless time demands on the home front. In response, working mothers, especially in the professional and managerial jobs have gradually become more willing to put their careers on hold, while they take care of their families. They “new” stay-at-home moms are different from the homemakers of the past, in that, many of them are well-educated professionals and have made the conscious decision to opt out of the ramp, while maintaining the intent to return to their professional life at some point. The decision to opt-out may be driven by the need to reduce the stress of juggling work-life, the desire to spend more time with children, or the lack of a support system for children while the mother is at work. For many immigrant mothers, who do not have an extended family close-by, the last reason becomes paramount for opting out while the kids are young. The lack of flexible, part-time work arrangements is also key in inhibiting women from going back to work. An ideal arrangement for many mothers, inluding me, would be to find a flexible work schedule that would accomodate their need for intellectual stimulation, financial independence, and time for their young children. Until that happens, there are two primary goals in my life: set the right example for my children and stay engaged.
Much as I am enjoying this phase of my life, I had a wake-up call when my son, about 7 at the time, asked my sister, who works at an investment bank, why she worked, as, in his words, “all mothers stay at home and dads go to work!” What was more worrisome was the message I was sending not just my son, but my daughter who would grow up picking mixed signals from her mother about what she is capable of and expected of in life. Setting the right example, especially as it pertains to work ethics, is something that stay-at-home-moms have to be especially cognizant about. These are habits that children pick up inadvertently from their parents. For this, I am grateful to all the women in my life who work and on whom I can depend on to tell my children that these are the different choices that you can make in life and that it’s OK as long as the choice is a good one for you and for those around you. And till I get back to work, in my attempt to be a good role model, I try to maintain a daily regimen during the week – gym visits while my kids are at school, writing and/or reading to satisfy my intellectual quest, school pick-ups, homework time, extra- curricular activities for my kids – the day goes by pretty fast! As most at-home mothers will tell you, there really isn’t much time available for lazying around. The fact that you are at home also means a greater sense of responsibility to get the household running as smoothly as possible. In addition, many stay-at-home mothers, including many of my friends, are budding entreprenuers, bloggers, freelancers, and volunteers in charity and civic events. Staying engaged and active is certainly possible for a stay-at-home mother and there are many avenues available, even without a job, to do so.
Despite the see-saw of emotions that sometimes accompany the decision to stay away from work, I am immensely grateful for the ease with which I was able to make this decision without having to worry about major lifestyle changes. Socially too, my generation of women have a tremendous advantage over women of the previous generation who fought hard to gain acceptance as accomplished professionals and who would view my generation of at-home mothers as a regressive step in the fight for gender equality. I, however, view it as a step-ahead. We have to thank the previous generation of women, globally, for sparing us the need to prove that we can be as effective a worker as any other. Although gender equality still remains a goal in many ways (we could certainly do with more companies that are smart enough to tap into the huge pool of smart, well-educated moms by offering flexible-time employment options and equitable opportunities for women), the path paved by many who travelled before us has enabled us to be more comfortable making the choices that we do, without being burdened with self-doubt about our capabilities and our choices. Although largely spared from self-doubt, what raises my hackles is how we tend to be so judgmental about work-life decisions that other women make in their lives. Depending on where we are at the moment in our lives, we can be deprecating towards a working woman’s decision to work. At the other end of the spectrum is the society’s perceptions about a stay-at-home mother. Particularly true in the urban Indian community, where there is tremendous societal pressure for professional success, the term housewife conjures negative images of a woman who is inept, or worse still, lazy. Growing up with a mother who straddled both these roles at different points in her life with grace and dignity, and as I try to do the same with mine, I can vouch for a fact that staying at home does not mean being intellectually bankrupt or unproductive or lazy nor being a mom with a career translate to being selfish or neglecting children. As mothers, we do the best we can for our children. Hopefully, by offering our diverse choices and lifestyles as examples we will be able to convey to our children that there is no “one choice fits all” stereotype. Instead, we should be free to make our own choices in life, make that a heartfelt one, and follow our passions and desires to the best of our abilities. And hopefully, by the time our daughters grow up to be mothers, the distinctions between a working and an at-home mother would’ve blurred – ’cause aren’t we all working mothers?