A career woman is a bad mom.
Issue #78: The lose-lose game women are stuck playing.
In 2006, I was a third-year engineering student at a modest institute in the heartlands of rurban Haryana.
The future outlook for a female engineering student in the 2000s was a few years at a software job followed by a wedding with a nice boy from a nice family to have his nice babies.
But then, something happened that changed things.
Something that broadened the middle-class’s aspirations for their children - especially their girl children.
I still remember the day that Indra Nooyi’s appointment as the CEO of Pepsi Co was announced, because my mom looked at me differently that day.
Nooyi’s appointment was huge for thousands (maybe millions) of parents like mine. It gave them hope and pride. But most important, it gave them the courage to look at their daughters and - for the first time - see potential Fortune 500 CEOs.
Over the years, Nooyi has consistently ranked among the top most influential / powerful / successful corporate leader rankings by TIME, Forbes, and Fortune magazines.
But the change in my mother’s eyes was my enduring memory of Indra Nooyi for over a decade.
This week, I want to share stories of some such exceptional women - some Indra Nooyis, if I may - who I have had the fortune of knowing at closer quarters than a magazine cover.
Women’s professional accomplishments are well-captured on their CVs and LinkedIn profiles (or not, because hey, our friendly neighbourhood imposter syndrome!) However, the home front is not always quite as enthusiastic in its celebration of women’s professional achievements as it is about men’s.
Which is putting it mildly because, as I wrote last week:
This week, I am tackling another aspect of these accomplishments:
Women with a career are expected to carry two balls at all times: the Home Ball and the Career Ball.
This is a convenient setup because whenever a woman succeeds in one arena, we can accuse her of having dropped the other Ball.
If she does exceedingly well at work, her children must be neglected.
If her kids are carrying homemade lunches to school everyday, well, this is why women are not able to focus at work!
It is a lose-lose race and nobody takes our consent before signing us up!
And so, you have questions that men in the workplace are never asked, and women are seldom spared:
What about the kids?
What about the home?
Who will feed the dog?
How will the world keep rotating and revolving if women start making something of their wretched careers?
“Did your husband have a say in this?”
Swati recently got a promotion at work. She is a senior executive at a manufacturing firm. She also happens to be a mother.
“My new role involves managing a large global team across multiple time zones. This means that - across all the geographies I am managing - someone in my team is working somewhere, pretty much 24 hours.”
Making such a role work would be a tall order for anyone, and Swati recently met a colleague who seemed to think she was particularly unsuited to the job.
“At first, he congratulated me for getting this coveted and prestigious role. But then, he went on to add, ‘Oh it must be so hard for you. How do you manage all that work with a child?’
He also added, for good measure, ‘When I first heard you were getting this role, I thought to myself that you must be pretty out of your mind to say yes to something like this with a kid!’
Despite the clearly unprofessional line of conversation, Swati tried to respond with composure and dignity.
“I said that this wasn't just about me. I told him how difficult it is for women to make leaps like this at our workplace - any professional - and that as a senior professional in the firm, I was also deeply conscious of how would it be perceived by women who look up to me if I said no to this opportunity. I told him that I wanted to set a good example about how our organization is willing to allow working mothers the flexibility to make it possible for them to say ‘yes’ to challenging roles like these.”
“He shrugged and added sarcastically, ‘Well it is very noble of you to think of your "fans" but charity begins at home. Haven’t you thought about how this affects your family? Did your husband have a say in this?’
At that point, I decided I no longer wanted to continue that conversation and walked away.”
“How does your son feel about having a mother who has abandoned him?”
Latika rejoined work from maternity leave when her baby was six months old.
“It was my first day back at work. I had just dropped off my son at the daycare and it had been an emotionally difficult moment, like it is for most mothers.
Just as I entered my office, a colleague who was much more senior to me, but reporting to me at that time, saw me and said, ‘Welcome back. How does your son feel about having a mother who has abandoned him?’
Latika was taken aback at the unprompted aggression. Since he had caught her at such an emotionally vulnerable moment, she found herself welling up.
“But I put on a brave face, and said, ‘My son feels thankful that he is being raised by a strong woman who can teach him much more about life than someone who sits home and watches saas bahu serials all day.’ I know that was unnecessarily unkind to other women, but he had once mentioned to me that his wife loved those saas bahu dramas, and I could not think of a better response to his personal attack in that moment.”
Her response obviously hit a raw nerve.
“He retorted, ‘It is completely upto you if want to destroy your kid's childhood.’
I responded, ‘Thank God it is not your problem. So I hope you don't lose sleep over it.’”
“Oh my God. Where is the baby?”
Gomti is a civil servant who worked for several years on a major welfare programme.
“Right before the completion of this scheme I was working on, I went on Maternity Leave. As the culmination of the scheme was going to be a big event where many senior officers and Ministers would be attending, my boss told me that I should join the event if I can.”
Gomti’s baby was just a few weeks old, but she decided to make a day trip to the city where the event was being held so that she could be a part of the moment that she had been working towards all those years.
“Early motherhood can be a like a fog that leaves you blinded to the rest of the world as your sole focus becomes the baby and your own recovery. I wanted to take a quick break from the fog, before it engulfed me again. I wanted to meet my colleagues, to join them in celebrating the success of all our hard work. I don’t know what I was expecting their reaction to be, but it wasn’t anything I could have imagined.”
When her colleagues saw Gomti at the event, their primary reaction was shock and concern - for her baby.
“As soon as they saw me, many of their jaws dropped. Each one I went to greet asked me the same questions, ranging from polite curiosity to intrusive interrogation: ‘Oh my God, where is the baby? Who is with the baby? Did you bring the baby along? Did you leave the baby at home? Who is feeding the baby? Can the baby survive without your milk for so long?’”
“These were people I had worked with for years. They have known me as a thorough professional. But on that day, I did not see any recognition, respect, or even camaraderie in their attitude towards me.”
Gomti can’t help but compare her back-to-work experience with her husband’s.
“My husband became a father the same moment that I became a mother. Not once has he ever found any colleague unable to discuss work with him because they are too horrified that he came to work so soon after the baby.”
“And here I was: Not even back at work, but just visiting. And the very people who had always told me how they respected my work ethic, were suddenly incapable of discussing work with me. Either they thought that I was an incapable mother or just a negligent one. Regardless, they could barely contain their horror that a woman could take a day off from her mothering duties to celebrate a major professional milestone.”
“Is your career really that important to you?”
Romita got a full scholarship along with living expenses from a premier university in London to do her Masters in Education.
“Whenever I told people about it, their reactions were always some variation of ‘But what about the kids?’
This included, ‘And husband and kids?’, ‘Congrats but kids?’ and other reactions in the same vein. Except maybe closest friends and relatives, every single person said ‘But… umm… are you sure? Why now? You are 33 - isn't it too late? Is a Masters degree and your career really that important to you? Maybe you want to re-think this decision’.”
It reached the level that Romita told her husband to just start telling people that he had got a job in London for a year, and the family was moving with him.
As soon as we changed the storyline, there was a drastic change in people's responses. Not even one person asked him about the kids or his wife and what they would do to adjust to this big change. They were about 100 times more enthusiastic about ‘his’ job.
In fact, most of these people turned to me and said ‘Good, now you can take a break from your work and look after the children for a year. You anyway work too much. London is a great opportunity for him’.”
Romita, who had so far been excited about finally realizing a long-standing pipedream of doing her Masters, was heartbroken by this reaction.
“I wanted to cry out of frustration. I did not get any chance to actually revel in my achievement of landing this coveted scholarship. I could not even tell anyone without receiving judgmental questions about childcare.
As it is, there is enough mom guilt that we Indian women carry to last us seven lifetimes. We don’t also need people telling us that giving a single thought to furthering our careers is a selfish choice no mother should make.
Why does the society not let women feel pride in their achievements? My decision still involved a plan for our children and family. But even if it hadn’t - Why are women not allowed to ever put themselves and their dreams and aspirations ahead of family, when men do it all the time?”
“Leave that crown in the garage.”
I want to circle back to Indra Nooyi for a minute.
Like I said, I will always remember what happened to me the day she was appointed the CEO of Pepsi Co back in 2006.
However, a few years ago, I came across the story of how that day went for the woman herself.
Here is an excerpt from Indra Nooyi’s account of the day, paraphrased from her autobiography and various talks she has given on public forums:
“I’ll never forget coming home after being named President of PepsiCo back in 2001. My mother was visiting at the time.
I drove home. It was about 10pm, and the wintery roads were peaceful and dark. In those fifteen minutes behind the wheel, I let myself enjoy my accomplishment. I had worked so hard, learned so much, and earned my place.
I entered our house through the kitchen door and dropped my keys and bag on the counter. I was bursting with excitement - so eager to tell everyone.
Then my mother appeared.
'I have the most incredible news!', I exclaimed.
'The news can wait,' she said. 'I need you to go out and get milk.'
'Why didn't you ask Raj (Nooyi’s husband) to go get the milk?', I asked. 'It looks like he came home a while ago.'
'He looked so tired, so I didn't want to disturb him,' she said.
I picked up my keys, went back to the car, drove to the Stop&Shop a mile away, and bought a gallon of whole milk.
When I came back, I was hopping mad.
I said, ‘I had great news for you. I’ve just been named President of PepsiCo. And all you want me to do is go out and get milk.’
Then she said:
‘Let me explain something to you. You may be the President of PepsiCo. But when you step into this house, you’re a wife and mother first. Nobody can take that place. So leave that crown in the garage.’
Women, I am here to tell you today:
Wear that damn crown everywhere you go.
Be proud of it.
And know that you are not a lesser mother, wife, daughter, daughter-in-law, or anything else because of it.
Men, Society, and Everyone: If a woman is not asking you for any help or support, please keep your opinions about her family to herself. If you cannot be happy for a woman succeeding at her workplace, at least learn to have the decency to keep your mouth shut.
Alternatively, just imagine a moustache 3 inches under that crown. Maybe that will inspire you to give it the respect it deserves.
And leave the kids to their parents. Please.
This newsletter comes to you free of cost. But that does not mean that it costs nothing.
Womaning in India is a physical, mental, and emotional labour of love. If you appreciate the work I am doing with it, you can show me your love by buying me a coffee.
I was weeping by the end of this one. I'm not a mother who has had a similar experience. I'm a single woman, a 35 year old widow who has basic (extremely high by Indian standards) expectations from the next man who may become my partner. A non- raja beta, a mental load sharer etc. For me, the family vs career question crept in even before I had a family.
Romita's story resonates so much. I'm now at a prestigious institution in London, pursuing my Masters. But the joy of getting this offer was dampened a few months back when I was asked what was the value in this when I should be prioritizing finding a husband. It canceled all the hard work that went into getting a place in this course (oh God, the horror of writing and rewriting those essays). I almost didn't go, the self doubt was enormous. Now that I'm here, I know I'm at the right place, away from the 'concerned' looks of family members.
And there's obviously the flip side, the mom guilt that Romita mentioned. A fellow student here is a mom who had the extra stress of bringing her whole family to London, find a house close enough to college so she could get the kids ready for school before going for her own classes, and manage the finances for 4 people coming to London rather than just herself. She ultimately decided to opt for a less expensive course at a different university. I asked her if leaving the family behind was an option, and she said her kids were at a delicate stage in life. I wish someone in her family had given her the courage and confidence that her kids would be well looked after in India for a year, that she could concentrate on her Masters (a bloody daunting thing in itself) and leave family worries behind. I want to believe it is her independent decision to take the family along, but it is the manifestation of years of rubbish conditioning.
I'm sorry for the long comment, but this triggered so much recent anguish. Not engaging with our dearest family members when they doubt our priorities is the hardest thing to do. But it is the right thing to do. I wish it were easier for us. More power to all the women who take on these prejudices and power through life. And more power to you, Mahima, for calling out these realities for what they are.
I feel like an Onion, every week asi read your post, i peel off a layer that i never really understood i had but which was wrapped around me tightly.
Great going Mahima. Still listening to your episode, one hour more to go.