“You are not an involved mother, but I have just accepted that about you,” my sulky 15-year-old said to me recently.
To say that her words came as a shock to me would be to put it mildly. Having given up my thriving career as an offering on the altar of motherhood, I had taken a sanctimonious view towards parenting. I believed that one had to give it their best and my best meant giving up being everything else I had ever been, to assume my role as a mother.
This happy sacrifice briefly gave me a sense of moral superiority as a parent with an initial – “Look! My child matters so much to me that I have made a bonfire of my career and I am basking in the glow of its embers.”
I did not realise then that this was a decision that was going to cost me monetarily in years to come, but it was the non-monetary cost that was going to hurt me more eventually.
At the time, I was too consumed with maternal love to fathom these future setbacks.
The Choice to Live Life in a Slow Lane
Over the years, I have felt more than an occasional pang while interacting with women who have managed good parenting and brilliant careers without compromising on either. Most of these women, I noticed, had a support system in place with grandparents or a spouse with flexible working hours to help raise their children.
Living in a nuclear family, with a husband who was working more than 14 hours a day, I actively dropped out of the work force like so many women around the world do, because I did not like the idea of my child being raised entirely by a nanny or a maid.
Making this choice meant switching over to living life in a slow lane. I would no longer be drawing a salary, or lunching with colleagues from work, or attending off-sites and conferences, or staying late for office parties. I used to be an ambitious person but I let go of those ambitions because I felt that holding on to them would come at a price.
Motherhood did not come naturally to me, but loving my children did. I wasn’t good at packing lunches or doing coffee with school mums, I wasn’t even good at remembering their school and post-school schedules.
And so, I did what came to me naturally. I was always around, engaging with my children, listening to their after-school stories and reading to them at bed-time, helping them during moments of self-doubt and counselling them when they got into scraps with other kids.
On Continuing to Wrestle Guilt...
I took pride in being a ‘good mother’, but it wasn’t the sort of sure, secure pride that got more robust when it got validation. There were other mothers who were far better at this than I was and at times I felt incompetent, but I did not think my children noticed – or so I had assumed.
If, after all these years, the allegation of ‘not being involved enough’ was being flung at me by my own child, could it be possible that they had noticed my ineptitude at being a mother? Had I done it all wrong? A sinking feeling began to come over me as I grappled with these thoughts, but I resisted succumbing to them.
I could not let my emotions get the better of me; I wasn’t the one dealing with an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex after all. The child’s petulance may well have been hormone driven, I told myself. Exaggerated emotional expressions, after all, were the hallmarks of teenage years and were never to be taken too seriously.
Over the next few days, however, I wrestled with guilt. I pondered over the choices I had made and wondered if they had all been in vain.
After our first one was born, my husband encouraged me to go back to working full time too and get our child an additional nanny to lessen my responsibilities as a mother. One could hire all the nannies in the world, but that would not be the same as a parent or grandparent being around, I reasoned. My husband said I had lost the plot.
“In Hindsight, It Was a Flawed Decision”
Paying heed to his words, I took on a project as a consultant, but it did not take me long to realise that I wasn’t giving it my best. There would be fevers, parent-child playdates, swimming lessons, toddler school activities and I wanted to be there with my daughter for each one of them. Soon, I found myself making excuses to stay away from work.
On the rare days when I worked late, I would be consumed with guilt. Rushing home from the office only to find a sleeping child felt like a punch in the gut and seeing her growing attachment with the nanny consumed me with jealousy.
A year later, I quit working entirely, and by the time our second child came along, I had made up my mind that I would not seek employment anywhere until my children were much older.
In hindsight, it was a flawed decision and I have done disservice to myself in abiding by it.
While I am grateful that I could spend countless moments with my kids and witness all their milestones firsthand, I regret being so blindsided by my attachment to them that I willingly narrowed down my own universe.
It’s been seven years since I resumed my writing career. Writing from home is a solitary job; it physically distances you from the world around you. What I wouldn’t do to feel the rush of editorial meetings, of hurried lunches and demanding deadlines, of meeting new people and exchanging new ideas!
I do have to travel on writing assignments occasionally and I do take on small projects from time to time, but everything must be worked around my children and their schedules. Just last week, I had to cancel a trip to Bangalore at the last minute and give up a project that I was on the verge of signing because one of them took ill.
And so, while I am not the sort of mother who participates with her children in their projects or tosses up fancy meals in the kitchen, or shows up with them diligently at every class birthday party they are invited to, I realise that, given my limitations, I am the best type of mother I can be.
And, if being true to myself appears to the teenager as being uninvolved, I will just have to wait for her to become a mother one day before she can fully start appreciating me.
The truth is, one can never really have it all. To a parent, dedicating their whole life to a career does come at a price. And that was a price I wasn’t willing to pay. In the end one has to choose the regrets they prefer to live with. Between the regrets of not being able to bond with my children and not building my career, on most days, I am glad I chose the latter.
(Shunali Khullar Shroff 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.)