I recently saw a post on a Facebook group that I’m a part of, by a working mom, asking for book recommendations to help cope with that elusive thing called work-life balance. The responses were – as is inevitable these days on social media – cringe-worthy.
Some just broke out into hysterical laughter, some wondered aloud if such a balance indeed existed, and some others merely chipped in with advice on how not to seek these answers in books.
After a few days, there were some more responses by women who said they took a hiatus after they became moms – either because they felt guilty to resume work, or because their families questioned their decisions.
Why I’ve Never Felt Guilt
It got me thinking about my own work-life balance, and how it’s not something to be brushed aside with a sweeping generalisation about feminism. If feminism asks for equal opportunities, it’s fair to include work-life balance under that umbrella. But what really constitutes this balance in a woman’s life?
Is it about having enough family time and me-time at her disposal, more help around the house, perhaps, or weekends off? Or does it just have to do with her being paid as much as her male counterparts so a sense of equity would flow into other realms of her life?
In the 13 years that I have been working in some capacity or the other since giving birth to my only daughter, I have never felt a twinge of guilt for leaving her behind while I went to work (in fact, I have grappled with some guilt of the reverse order – of not doing enough work to become a worthy role model for my daughter).
I haven’t really encountered inequities for being a woman at work; except that there have been instances when I haven’t been a part of decision making processes, simply because I wasn’t around.
To be fair, I made a conscious choice to be there for my daughter when she returned from school, right from her pre-school days – so that made things easier for me in terms of choosing to do what I wanted to – and so I knew had to accept being left out of crucial meetings once in a while.
Of course, one could further argue that being a freelancer afforded me that kind of flexibility – I’ve been a columnist, features writer, author and communications consultant.
But I have also worked at various other jobs – ones I created for myself by cashing in on the templates readily available to me when I was in the US – while also seeing my daughter through her formative years, until she was eight (which was when we moved to India).
I taught Creative Writing and Culture Immersion courses at the local library and a Community College as part of their youth enrichment programme (an initiative I founded, with the aim of breaking multicultural barriers). I hosted lectures on Indian food and culture with a local group of culinary historians (after attending a Food Writing workshop and networking with some members there).
I also held a more substantial position as a MarComm and Social Media Branding Consultant with an online publishing company (where I reported to a male millennial without wincing, or feeling insecure about my age, experience or worse, gender – it was a job I loved, was good at, and I simply did it as best as I could).
Two Vastly Different Worlds
Looking back, it doesn’t seem to me as if I had to maintain a balance between the two worlds I inhabited. Things seemed to function like clockwork, for the most part, at home – which gave me the strength to focus on getting work done in my professional life.
In large part, this owes its success to the fact that I am a compulsive “doer” (taking after my mom) and have mostly picked up tasks that were left undone around the house – without comparing notes. I brought my daughter to work when I didn’t have another choice – there was simply no place for negotiation there.
I just thought it was important to have priorities carved out right from the outset, and find ways to uphold them, even if it meant twisting myself into a pretzel or losing out on something, once in a while.
If I had to travel, my husband had to take over the house and the child’s care, and so it was. And while this transition from a stay-at-home working mom to a mom who went outside to work, in the US, seems fairly seamless in retrospect – things didn’t exactly turn out that way when we moved to India.
Chew on that a little.
With no additional help in the US, I managed to walk the tightrope balance just fine, and in India, with affordable and easily available help, things seemed more arduous for me! My husband had to take up a job in a different city right after we moved, while I held the fort at home in Bangalore, helping my daughter battle the challenges of a new culture and environment, among other things.
Still, the writing continued, and except for a few glitches here and there, it has been consistent – whether it's been for the blog, books, freelance work, or consulting projects.
Saying no to assignments that needed me to be out in the evenings, or away from her for long periods of time, made it easier to forge ahead, even though it wasn’t always pleasant.
How I Stick to my Rules
When I took up my current job (I teach at a Media Institute in Bangalore), I followed the same rules I had set for myself all along – sticking with my order of priorities and finding ways to make that happen in unforeseen circumstances without compromising on work.
For instance, a couple of years ago, during a critical presentation at work that I was spearheading, I had to rush back home as soon as it was over because my daughter had come down with the pox. Earlier this year, I had to back out of a big-league work trip because it clashed with my daughter’s school reopening day. Did I feel a pinch? I most definitely did. But those were my choices and I stuck with them.
I think, as women, we are always at work – whether it is inside the house or outside – and while some of us manage to deal with the pressure effectively, some of us barely make it through, chipping laboriously away at it one molecule at a time, until it consumes some part of us.
The key to success at “work”, anywhere, is to be kind to ourselves, according to me. Work-life balance can be a breeze when work and life flow into one another, and we create opportunities for ourselves where they don’t exist or come with guarantees.
We are all different and possess distinct capabilities: if we can just tap into our strengths and try to do our best, learn to say “no” firmly when called for, and stop comparing ourselves to others, change will come about, for the better.
To sum it all up, I learnt that these little things can bring many big rewards, even if they’re not necessarily of the material kind.
(Ranjini Rao 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.)