It’s 2018, but it cannot be denied that India is still, largely, a patriarchal society where the workplace can be a nightmare for a woman if her stars don't favour her. Thankfully, my mother's workplace didn't give her hell – but her status as a working woman sure didn't make her life easy.
From misunderstandings between her and her non-working friends/relatives to lack of support from her husband’s family to health concerns and being taken for granted by her daughter and husband – she faced it all.
Born and brought up in Kolkata, my mother acquired a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Economics from Jadavpur University. She was my grandfather’s blue-eyed favourite; he himself had gone to London for an MBA and was an overachiever in his own right.
My mother was the middle child – and seemed to fit the stereotype of the middle child who always gets neglected; my grandmother was a little too fond of her youngest twins and her eldest child.
But guess who was my grandfather’s favourite? My mother. He used to sit down with her after work at night and ensure that she did all her homework. Years later, that hard work and determination to succeed in life paid off when she got a chance to work at the Reserve Bank of India in Kolkata. Maybe this is the right time to let you know that she is the only working woman among her sisters.
“I Used to Feel Guilty,” She Told Me
Before my birth, the doctor had advised my mother not to take maternity leave during the pregnancy and to take it after, instead. I was going to be a Caesarean baby and thus, she would need ample rest after the delivery. RBI gave her four months' maternity leave after which she had to come to work.
I was a baby who refused to sleep at night and because of that, she, too, would be awake. When I finally embraced the goddess of sleep at around four or five am, she would manage to get a couple of hours of sleep after which she had to get up and cook for her family and then rush to work. Years later, she told me – “I used to feel guilty about leaving you in a creche and going away.”
I will have to admit that I, too, made my mother’s life tough (I still do!) – especially when I was a teenager. I was rebellious at home and a loner at school. I was dealing with my own issues and, at that time, didn't have the emotional maturity to understand her daily struggles.
I would crib about how my friends would bring tasty homemade food to school, while I had to be satisfied with not-so-tasty food. The moment she came home, I would pounce on her (not literally) with a series of adolescent problems: “Mom, I want to die. I feel ugly. Look at all this acne on my face. Why does this happen to me only?”
Sometimes, when I had a tiff with my father, I would channel the frustration from that fight towards her, completely neglecting the fact that she might have had a tough day at work.
Years of being overworked and underpaid (in every sense) did take a toll on her, both literally and figuratively. The biggest toll was on her health and she couldn't always take leave for herself because she had exhausted her leaves for my illnesses. Also, the two years when my father was posted in Shillong, she was the only one around to take full responsibility for me – which, again, added to her stress.
But she often told me that she had to work because “work saved her” and also because of some major financial burdens – from our first flat, that was in her name, to the ACL surgery on my left knee...
Whenever my mother tried to hire maidservants, most took advantage of her ‘working woman’ status. They would either overcharge her or not come on time as they knew that my mother would be in a hurry in the morning and thus, not be able to supervise their work.
But thankfully, she never faced gender-based discrimination at work because she would tell me that the RBI saw men and women as equal. But she did tell me, every now and then, that some of her bosses used to be partial due to office politics.
The only support that she got in the family was from my maternal grandmother who used to take care of me when my mother used to go to work. But my father's parents and his sister were indifferent.
She was worried because I stopped living in a creche when I was nine years old and started living alone at home when she wasn’t there. She was very upset when, one day, I almost had an accident at home due to a gas leak. I believe things like these made her feel guilty about being away from home for so many hours.
I Rarely Showed My Mom Any Appreciation
My mother learnt driving, when I was 14, to make her life easier as she used to have trouble travelling by a bus to work. Thanks to social conditioning, I think my father was a little jealous of the fact that his wife could drive, and the fact that she would drive to her workplace. It wasn’t just him; most men in our neighbourhood would stare at her in awe and envy.
Our extended relatives harboured (they still do!) this misplaced belief that since my mother is a working woman, she must have no problems in her life and that everything must be easy for her. And now that she was driving to work, that delusion became all the more powerful.
Even though, secretly, I was proud of my mother for being a working woman in a patriarchal, regressive society – I was my father’s daughter after all. I rarely showed her any kind of appreciation (yay internalised misogyny!). We both took her for granted and still do.
She’s the one we go to with all our problems and we just can’t do without her – or her willpower and presence of mind.
It was only later, when I started living in Bombay on my own and had Satan’s children for flatmates (okay, I’m exaggerating a bit), that I realised how important she is. The past few months – when I was out of a job, had very little money and was not on good terms with my flatmates – would have been unbearable had she not said, “Don’t worry, you have your parents (mother)”.
Now, Bombay is a very expensive city and I could barely make ends meet with a struggling journalist’s salary. I recall how I had to ask for financial help every month – and I shudder to wonder how I would have survived in a city like Bombay without help from her. This, especially at a time when my dad had already retired.
I am in awe of my mother's street smartness. Even though I’m often annoyed when she can't use her iPhone properly, I beam with pride when I recall a particular incident:
She was at the Delhi airport and had missed her flight – when officials asked her to pay again, even though she had a boarding pass with her. She not only refused to pay, claiming that it was grossly unfair, but she also took out her government id card and asked the staff to think twice before harassing a government employee who is a woman!
Sadly, the girl who missed her flight to Cochin and had to pay again for a new flight didn’t have her mom’s street smartness or the government id to defend herself!
I am almost the same age as my mother was when she was had me – and I cannot imagine how she ran a house without enough emotional or, at times, financial support. I guess I am yet to inherit her will power!
(Indrani Bose has sent her blog to The Quint as part of our series of stories about India’s working women.)
(The Quint is trying to investigate what makes it easier or harder for women to be at the workplace. Can she return to work after a maternity leave with equal support from workplace and home? Does she carry the guilt of being away from her children while at work, and vice-versa? Even with or without baby, does the family share household responsibilities with her? Share your story, if you have one to tell, and we’ll publish it.)