Society

I decided I could not lean in

We should be more supportive of first-time mothers like Mira Rajput, says the writer.

I was totally unprepared for the torrents of love that followed the birth of my first child.

But feelings aren’t everything. Or so we are told. And so, six months later, I went back to work at my law firm as I had planned.

Excepting that things were not quite as planned. My Feminist Goal had been to return to work in three weeks. But I was unable to tear myself away from my baby till the very last day of maternity leave.

It was also not the triumphal return to work that I had imagined. I stepped into the office nervous and vulnerable. The day before, my husband, baby and I went out for lunch, to mark the end of my leave.

Pal, pal, dil ke-ei paa…aaa…aas, tum rehti ho… the words of the song playing in the background reached my ears, reducing me to tears. So this is love, I realised. When every breath you take has the person in it. How could I leave my baby tomorrow and go back to work as if nothing had happened?

A lot of doubts

Misgivings about returning to work had dogged me for the last six months. I had consulted friends who were working mothers—lawyers, doctors, marketing executives, even a pilot.

The first thing they told me was that they had the same doubts! Then they described quite frankly the compromises they made—both at work and in raising their children—to perform the proverbial balancing act of working motherhood.

A few months into my return to work, I was given a practical lesson in the nature of this compromise. I had landed an Initial Public Offering for the firm, and just before the Christmas break, the bankers announced they needed the draft offering document to be ready by January 1. This is a document of several hundred pages. The bankers were ragging us, and we all knew it. On January 1, the bankers would be chuckling over having made the lawyers work through New Year’s Eve. My January 1 draft would not be read. It would be returned with terse instructions to issue a revised draft ‘this week, ASAP’, with all the information that the client company would not have provided for the January 1 draft since their officials would have been on their Christmas break. But this was part of life for lawyers in my field. The bankers drive the timelines. It’s the lawyers’ job to provide the documentation as scheduled. The ragging is just part of the game.

So, I rolled my eyes, and got down to work. I’d send them that draft by the December 31 midnight, or die.

The next day, my baby fell ill for the first time. At this point, I didn’t feel like I had any choice—I had a deadline to meet. I handed my baby over to the maid, and buried myself in the study. For five days, my associates and I slogged day and night. I remember looking up from my laptop deep into the night one time and being surprised by the silence. I suddenly realised that all day I had been battered by the sound of my baby crying beyond the door. Struggling without me through her first illness. For one delicious moment, I drank in the silence, letting go of the stress of the looming deadline and the pain of ignoring my baby.

Day and night became one. The maid would bring in the baby. I’d look up at her forlorn little face, sticky strands of mucous dropping down her nose. For her fledgling body, even a mild cold was quite a dramatic affair. My heart would twist inside me. ‘Get her out of here’ I’d hiss at the maid, my hand cupped over the phone, where I was in conference with my associates.

Didi, kya aapko itna kaam karne se bahut paisa milega?” asked my maid. She had been abandoned with four children by her husband. Her salary was a fraction of mine. But she looked at me with nothing but pity in her eyes. Mother to mother, she was asking why I was sacrificing myself like this. Was it so much money, she asked, not in envy or understanding, but in bewilderment.

New year’s resolution

On the night of December 31, I emailed the draft to the bankers. Their ‘out-of-office’ auto replies flooded my inbox in sync with the burst of firecrackers announcing the New Year.

To cut a long story short, it was another six months before I finally accepted that the compromises involved in being a working mother were not for me. In the end, I quit, not out of love for my baby but a feeling of responsibility.

Responsibility to my baby and responsibility to my work. I decided I could not, simultaneously, be the lawyer and the mother that I should be. This was not just an emotional but an ethical choice too. The fact that my family did not need two incomes placed me in a moral dilemma. Is it fair for me to keep working just for myself? I could have taken a less demanding job. But I did not see the point of sacrificing my time for the children for a job that was not so meaningful to me anyway.

Moms need support

Many mothers who can afford the best of childcare feel exactly the same, and quit their careers for this reason. Working mothers struggle with these doubts themselves.

We should be more supportive of first-time mothers like Mira Rajput. It is insensitive of people to lash out at her at this sensitive point in her life. You are not empowering mothers when you belittle their love and concern for their babies.

It’s easy for feminists to take umbrage at the way a person expresses a preference for being a stay-at-home mother. You have to be very nimble-footed not to sound as if you believe working mothers are negligent or heartless. And many mothers have no choice but to work to feed their families. All this has to be respected. But working or not, all mothers are deeply and primarily concerned with the welfare of their children.

How are you to respond to the fact that babies and young children want nothing so much, and so often, as their mothers? Should mothers and fathers both hit below their weight at work so that they can have shared parenting? What is the reality of combining work with child raising? We have to face up to these questions. We have to account for the lived experience of mothers. A robust feminism would listen to these voices, instead of drowning them in feminist slogans.

The writer also illustrates children’s books, and advocates for child and mother’s rights.

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Printable version | May 28, 2020 11:30:17 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/i-decided-i-could-not-lean-in/article17750232.ece

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