"I always knew I had to work," says Swati Pandey, who is currently working at a middle management position at an American law firm and has a 23-year-old son with Asperger's Syndrome.
Pandey lives in Delhi with her husband, two sons, and her in-laws. She had been working as a quality manager at a multinational company in 2003 when her older son, who was four at the time, began showing signs of disability.
"At that time, I had to make the tough call of compromising on my career and quitting my job. My son was showing learning difficulties, milestone delays, and was struggling with his peers. His teachers could only help to some extent. My husband and I realised that we would only have to do it. That is when I decided that I needed take a break from work and immerse myself in parenting."Swati Pandey
The Initial Years: Confusion, Compromise & Rejoining Work
Swati Pandey notes that while quitting her job in 2003 had been a financial setback for the family at the time, it helped her give more structure to her son Yayati's routine.
"After I quit my job, my child did not have to be under the care of different people on weekdays. At that time, my son's diagnosis was not clear and we were floundering in the dark. Some said that he had dyslexia, some said he had discalculia. I spent a lot of time every day helping him work with numbers, taking a multisensory and experiential approach to learning that his school could not offer," she recalls.
Pandey's son was diagnosed with Asperger's when he was 12. She had joined work again in 2006, when he was seven years old.
"When I decided to rejoin work, I first took up part-time work as an editor for a few months. Then, I tried another job in medical transcription near my house. But these were disrupting my son's routine. Since these jobs required me to be in office every day, I could not ensure that my son was eating his meals at the right time, or was getting the attention he needed. My husband is a lawyer and had erratic hours. So, it was not possible that both of us step out for work."
Around the same time, Pandey had another son, and the challenges multiplied. Further, Yayati was having trouble fitting in with his peer groups as he grew older. "It was very distressing for him, so we were really trying to helping him adjust. We would take him to meet his peers, to birthday parties, and other social engagements."
Having a special needs child requires a lot of your time that goes into interacting with teachers, identifying professionals for help, going to the counsellors for the sessions, getting to social commitments, and spending time with your child, she explains.
Pandey had then looked for work-from-home jobs which would help her balance her professional aspirations and her son's needs. She took up an online clerical job in an American law firm in 2007.
"It was a huge step down from my older job, and my older compensation. But I could do it from home. To be able to do that job gave me financial strength and intellectual fulfilment. I was even getting recognised for my work. It was an uplifting feeling," she says.
The Most Crucial Aspect? Support of Partner & Family
Pandey has been working at the same firm for nearly 15 years now, in a fully work-from-home set up. Since the company is based in the United States, her work usually begins in the evening and stretches till 1 am at night.
"In order to be able to work at these hours, I had to demand support from my family and they had to step up and provide it. Since I was up till 1 am for my work, I asked my family to take responsibility for early morning chores," she said.
She also shares how she cannot spend time with her family in the evenings when everyone comes home.
"It is not pleasant for anyone to change their set patterns. But the family needs to understand that when the mother is supporting a child with special needs, they need to provide support to her and do things differently. Mothers in such a situation should be prepared to stand up for themselves."Swati Pandey
Pandey and her family also encouraged Yayati to be independent from early on. At the age of 11, he used to walk home from school on his own, after being accompanied by his parents on the route a few times.
"When he turned 17, we started preparing him for public transport because he wanted to go to college and we were not available to drop him every day. During this time, he took a metro from to go to his grandmother's house which is nearby, and he accidentally got on the wrong metro. He panicked, but we guided him on the phone. This is how he learnt."
Support of the partner and the family is the most critical factor when raising a child with special needs, Pandey notes. "Even if my husband had diammetrically different views on crucial matters, we found ways to share responsibility and work together instead of blaming each other."
'Had I Not Been Working...'
Yayati has completed his graduation and is fairly independent now. He spends his time reading, surfing the internet, and is looking for jobs.
"Now, the relationship dynamics are changing. My son is quite independent. If we want him to be able to manage on his own, we will have to take a backseat and let him make his own choices, even if some of them are poor choices," Pandey says.
It is now that the importance of having a career is most evident, Pandey remarks. "I want to say for the women, focusing on your individuality is important. Had I not been working and taken interest in areas of my own life, I would have been in a hole right now."
"Even when I left my job in between, I was very sure I would work again and be financially independent. When you have some monetary control, it also gives you the power to take decisions and assert your choices. Moreover, I needed intellectual stimulation. I did not want to be left behind; I wanted to be in touch with the world and keep upgrading my skills."Swati Pandey
She adds that it was a good decision for her sons as well. "How will they become independent if they are under constant vigilance and being smothered?"