An online letter to my mother who is too busy doing motherhood offline

Dear Amma

I am doing something so typical of our times, which is writing an online letter to my mother, as opposed to just saying this aloud to her in person or on the phone. But then, like so many other things that seemed alien in the beginning, for example, the concept of  “parenting” or “work life balance” or “gender neutrality”, I think this is also one of those. You have so much to say to your mother, that you may as well put it out there, on the World Wide Web , so others can find a vocabulary for their feelings too. And it also becomes clearer when you write, doesn’t it? Although I know you believe in the philosophy of show, not tell.

First off, I salute thee. You are a true rock star. You had three children (two of who were twins), a real job, that you managed to keep for 36 years (I am guessing that was enough time for us to turn into adults), you kept our big fat south-Indian family together (in-laws, out-laws, the whole deal) and you are still the glue, you had friends for life (some of whom you still speak to every day), you made every birthday memorable (you still do), you never let go of traditions and rituals and when I look back, I wonder: how did you do it?

mommygolightly with ammagolightly

mommygolightly with ammagolightly

You got Appa to be an equal partner in parenting and got him to be a hands-on daddy before hands-on-daddydom existed. You just threw him into the deep end, he figured the rest. You and Appa defined gender neutrality for us before the term was even invented. It was never a case of who did what. Things just got done, whether it was cooking or time spent with the kids or markets or planning holidays. Never once in our growing up years was the boy-girl divide as strong as I experience in a sometimes overt, sometimes covert way in Re’s world on a daily basis. The two of you define ‘leaning in’ for me.

Yes, sometimes when I was growing up, I longed for the words “I love you”, words I say to Re often enough so he doesn’t forget it. But you made up in actions what you didn’t say in words. I remember you would always tell me, “You will only understand when you become a mother,” and I always thought there was a veneer of martyrdom behind those words. There were times when I hugely underestimated how much you were capable of understanding me, times when I wanted to run away to the hills and start growing coffee and starting a bookshop, times when I wanted to remain forever single, times when I changed careers before you even understood what I did.

I love you for raising me to believe that every cloud has a silver lining, as opposed to every silver lining has a cloud hiding behind that some parents did. I love you for never getting in my way and for all the PTA meetings you never came to, for you trusted me completely and allowed me to be the person I was. I love you for never praising me enough; it was the only way I could have polished myself the way you wanted me to.

There are also times when I get into turf issues with you on Re, and there were enough of those when he was a baby (oh, how much you believed in maalish and swaddling!). There are still times, when you indulge him and I feel like the bad cop, but then I realize, just as I expect you to let go, I must let go too.

grammies are the best!

grammies are the best!

( A version of this post appeared here)

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Confessions of a working mom’s child

BY ARTI GUPTA

The age old debate between the working moms and stay-at-home moms, or WMs and SAHMs, as they are known in internet-speak continues to ignite web wars. Very little I write could add a new perspective to this much discussed topic.

So, as a working mom, I would love to share the one reason that keeps me going and convinces me that I may have made the right choice. It all begins with my own mother.

She was a working mom in an era when working moms weren’t the norm. And she didn’t have the work-life balance job of that generation, i.e. teaching. Unfortunately, she didn’t come from great circumstances and never quite got the education that would have allowed her to be a teacher. That, and between you and me, she would have made a terrible teacher, so several hundred kids were spared in the process. All good.

My mom chose to work to supplement my dad’s meagre railway services income – as a family of limited means, it ensured that my siblings and I got the best education they could afford that we went to good colleges and got the degrees that allowed us our breaks in life. It was a game changer.

Armed with her matriculation education, a tailoring class she attended as a teenager, and some filmy inspiration from Nirupa Roy, she started a tailoring business. It started small from the house but grew quickly. She had to set up a shop and even outsource some of the jobs to meet the demand. It certainly achieved the purpose of adding to the family income. It also meant long hours for her, an impossible routine that required her to work 12 hours a day, another 3-4 hours of housework and somehow by some crazy magic, she also managed to be the chairperson of our cooperative housing society. Some of her customers who came from low socioeconomic backgrounds found in her a social worker who would help them get ration cards, piped water connections and housing loans. And throughout, she always worked those 12-13 hours a day to earn an honest living.

It also meant that we grew up on pao or biscuits for breakfast, meals cooked once a day, several skipped PTA meetings, homework done sitting in her shop, and a list of errands on our plates. There were no bedtime stories, little homework assistance (although there was ample help from her shop on craft projects), there were no hot chapatis straight from the kitchen, there was no time for mother-daughter chats that many of my friends seem to cherish as childhood memories.

There was a lot of grit and hard work, and there certainly were dark times. Did I compare my mom to others’ moms and feel bad? I sure must have. You see how I say “I must have” – because I just don’t remember those parts too clearly. When I try to look back at my relationship with my mother, some memories shine bright. The Diwali mornings when we made rangolis – something I love doing to this day, when she cooked that fancy meal on Sunday and had us licking our fingers. I learned to stay up at night to study and get stuff done, because that is exactly how she did it, and I continue to do that now. I remember how she focused on satisfying her customers and building loyalty – I later also learned that at business school and in more structured business environs but she was my first teacher. I learned enough about fabric, design and construction that I don’t need that fashion degree from NIFT. Another shining memory is from the day I graduated from business school – I stole a look at my proud parents in the crowd. My mum and I shared an unspoken moment of understanding and acknowledgement of what it had taken to get there.

I didn’t appreciate it for years and I can’t get over it now – what an amazing role model I have had. By not helping with homework, she helped us figure out how to do it on our own. By her not being around as much, we became independent. Seeing her depend on her own mother, her husband and friends to help out, I learned what “leaning in” meant much before Sheryl Sandberg came along. She was fortunate to have an amazingly supportive and understanding husband in my dad, but she matched him stride for stride by being a true equal. And in that she taught me to expect and deliver equality. My brothers share the load in their own households and my sisters-in-law are working moms themselves. It has never occurred to any of us that there is another way of living.

Had she had a masters degree in chemistry, but chosen to be a SAHM for us, I would never have seen the kind of effort, commitment and enterprise she was capable of. I would perhaps have not found the inspiration to find it in me.

So when I choose to work, I not only think about what it allows me to achieve in my life and career. I also think about the kind of role models my son is growing up around. He will learn to value quality time and appreciate that the time his parents spent away from him was invested in doing some really quality work. He will expect women to be independent, have a say and be treated equal – he will never question this.

I don’t know about others, but this doesn’t seem to be a bad thing to me.

About the author:

Arti Gupta is a full time professional and full time mom. Before having her son five years ago, she did not believe she had a single “maternal bone” to speak of. She has since found motherhood in ways unthinkable.  She is the founding team member at Hopscotch.in where she brought her brand of mommy sense to help shape an exciting ecommerce business that redefined the ways moms shop in India.

 

When are you going back to work: Living the motherhood/career paradox

So when are you getting back to work, asked she who must know it all. It has been exactly a year and four months since I quit.

I am not sure, perhaps when Re is settled in school?

But the longer you wait, the more out-of-practice you will get.

Out-of-practice? Did she even know what I do? But I try to explain.

I am a writer. I write all the time. I will never get out of practice.

But education is so expensive. And then there is peer pressure. Children are also so demanding these days.

We keep our needs minimal. I don’t do designer labels, designer birthdays, designer holidays, or designer schools. I want to keep it simple.

Still, it must be tough to manage on one salary.

She has entered forbidden territory by now. I am seething, but I keep my calm. I guess motherhood makes you manage your anger better.

I’d rather do 100% motherhood now than deal with issues later.

You can plan all you like, but what will happen, will happen.

She is someone who hasn’t worked a day in her life. Perhaps she thought I spent my days getting my nails done, spending the OPU’s money, taking beauty naps, or getting my jewellery reset. What would she know about the motherhood/career paradox, I wondered.

The problem with motherhood is that either way, you are screwed (I know I shouldn’t be using such words, this is a mommy blog, but nothing describes it better). If you choose career over baby, bottle over breast, money over bonding, you are accused of being materialistic and cold-hearted. If you choose the opposite, you are accused of having turned into a lady who lunches, someone who would be emotionally manipulated by her child, someone who took the easy way out, someone who wasn’t career-minded in the first place. And then, people think you are at their beck and call. Friends expect you to pick up movie tickets. Randoms ask you what you do all day. Relatives wonder why you can’t show up at perfunctory dinners thrown for someone in the family tree you don’t really give a shit about (okay, will watch it!). Considering you don’t work, I thought you would show up, was a line thrown at me recently by a certain someone who is trying to pack it all and is an eager contestant for supermom.

I grew up with super moms before the phrase became fashionable. My mother was one too. My extended family is full of them, although they haven’t made it to magazine covers or features. Every single aunt of mine worked till her retirement, managed work and family on auto-pilot and most of them still draw pensions. The ones that didn’t have jobs turned entrepreneurs who ran creches, beauty parlours, catering businesses, jewellery design or investment companies. Each one of them lauded me on my decision to quit my job to do motherhood. No one has yet asked me when I plan to go back to work. Least of all, my mother, who worked 36 years as a school teacher before she eventually retired. She loved her job, but she still tells me she wished she could have quit to be home with us when we were little. She had no choice. Times were hard then.

I guess times are still hard. I have given up on my dream to own a house in a real-estate gangrene-ridden city. It’s not a priority any more. Yes, I do miss my fat paycheque and I do feel odd spending someone else’s money.  But I figured, after working non-stop for 17 years, I could certainly win a job back. On motherhood, I am still raw, and this is my only chance, so I want to get it right. I didn’t want to be torn all the time, I didn’t want to negotiate my work-life balance on a daily basis. I wouldn’t have a daughter I could lament to years from now about a decision I could have made.  Re would be too grown up and too male by then.

But she stirred a lot of emotions. When I thought about it, I didn’t have an answer to when I would be ready to go back to work (makes you wonder if you are on holiday now). Yes, Re will start school in six months. But that would still be three hours.  Would I leave him with a maid for the other six, wondering if she ever fed him the date rolls my mother made or has she eaten it herself? Would I find a day-care with soul close to home/my place of work? Would I find a job close to home/playschool that would allow me to hop across when required? Would I find an organisation that understood and practised (without being exploitative) the concept of flexitime? Would I find an organisation that offered day-care and not look at me like I was asking for the moon? I don’t know.

It may seem unfair, but fathers never have to deal with these kinds of negotiations. Fatherhood is still a column men don’t have to fill in their resumes. It can be invisible until they decide to put up baby pictures on their soft-boards. Motherhood on the other hand is a life-long contract you enter into from the time you get pregnant. You can make it discreet, but never discreet enough.

I am not glorifying stay-at-home moms, before you swish your daggers at me. All I am saying is, this is how I wanted to do it, and after 17 years of working non-stop, I think I deserved to. Kids grow up and turn out okay anyway, is another line thrown by randoms. Yes, I know they do. May be I am nuts.  But I figured I may as well invest the time now than deal with allergies, therapists and eating disorders for years to come. It is not the only way, but it is my way. And I don’t think it is anybody’s business, except me and the OPU. Even if the OPU is totally supportive of my decision, and in awe of the way Re is shaping up, my ‘not working’ is still viewed with a certain dismissiveness and skepticism by people who don’t even matter. I am always asked when I plan to return to work, never if.

If you come and see what I do, you wouldn’t want to trade places with me. Being ensconced in air-conditioning, bcc and cc mails, video conferences, meetings and endless cups of tea seems far more comfortable than being a stay-at-home mom, keeping pace with a toddler’s complexities.

As to what I do all day, there are two ways I can answer that. Give you a detailed account of all I do, starting with waking up to my face being rearranged at 6 am to controlling water-play to trying to decode the boy’s vocabulary which has much more sound than it has words or dealing with growth spurts and behaviour transitions and making sense of them to making sure he interacts with his environment in a way that is humane and productive to managing menus and domestics, groceries and SIPs, play-dates and outdoor activity along the way to playing the wife/daughter/daughter-in-law/friend/social mom  as the situation demands to writing two blogs and a book to finding me time (if anything is left from the above).

Better still, I will let you trade places with me for a day.

I am sure she wouldn’t last an hour.