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A sneak preview of what being a working mother in a pandemic is like
Jobs, kids, and leaky taps
It has been almost a year now since we started living under this dark cloud called Covid. We are talking, this week, about the miserable year gone by.
Covid was bad news all around for humanity, even as other species on earth enjoyed a bumper year after decades. (Says a lot about you when all your co-workers celebrate your retirement.)
But there are plenty of subspecies within ‘humanity’ and, even in the middle of a pandemic, not all of us are in the same boat. For instance, you have probably had a worse year than most if you are a healthcare worker, or a migrant labourer, or a sane person on Twitter.
This week, I spoke with the sub-species commonly known as the 'working mother' (a misnomer as we established a few weeks back) to find out how they fared in the year gone by.
One of the questions I asked them in these conversations was, "When do you get your me-time?"
Which led me to possibly the saddest words I have heard in a long time, and I thought they might make a fitting beginning to this piece:
"There is a tap in my bathroom which has very low water pressure. So, a bucket placed under this tap takes a few minutes to fill up. Everyday, when I go for a bath, I have to wait a bit for the bucket to fill up - that is my me-time."
On that note, presenting… A (Pandemic) Day in the life of a woman who has it all - a job, a kid, and a leaky tap.
Drawing a line
Shipra and her husband both have high-profile demanding jobs, and are parents to a one-year-old son. After the Covid lockdown was announced, both started working from home. Her husband's mother moved in with them to help with the baby.
Shipra wakes up several times a night to feed the baby. In the mornings, she often wakes up with the baby. She carries him out of the room, while her husband continues to 'catch up on sleep'. On the days her mother-in-law happens to wake up before her, Shipra finds her in a foul mood.
"Just last week, I forgot to soak the rajma (kidney beans) the night before. I woke up to a snide comment, 'Itna bhi dhyaan nahi rakh paogi to kaise chalega?' (How will you manage if you can't even remember these basic things?) I still have to put on a smiling face because I need her to watch the baby while I rush through my morning - a quick bathroom visit, brushing my teeth, etc. Then I am back in the kitchen, making tea and breakfast for everyone while carrying the baby in one hand and checking my work calendar with the other. Shuttling between the baby, chores, and work, I am often able to attend only half the meetings scheduled for the day."
Her husband wakes up about an hour after she does.
"He has the breakfast and tea I've prepared by then, and gets right to work. I manage the baby the entire day, and only hand him to my mother-in-law when I have unavoidable calls. My husband takes a break for an hour in the afternoon and handles the baby because that is when I cook lunch for the family. After that, he goes back to his 'home office' and emerges only late in the evening after his work for the day is done."
By evening, Shipra is exhausted, but still has to cook dinner and put the baby to bed. Once, she received an urgent call from work after office hours - at 7pm.
"I told my husband and mother-in-law that I needed to take this call. They were not happy but agreed to mind the baby till I finished the call. The call went on for 90 minutes. I was anxious the whole time - about the baby, about the 200 unread emails I had pending, about the dinner that needed to be cooked, and the dishes that needed to be done. Once I managed the crisis at work and got back, my husband gave me a stern look and said, 'You know, Shipra, one of these days you will really need to learn how to draw a line!'"
Coincidentally, the very next day, Shipra's husband had a call that went on till 10pm. She was trying to make dinner, but the baby kept crying. Her mother-in-law recused herself from babysitting complaining of pain in her knees, and asked why dinner was taking so long. Shipra was irritated.
"I replied, 'What about him learning to draw a line?' Prompt came the reply, 'Ab itni badi post hai to ye sab to laga hi rehta hain. Kitni der se kam kar raha hai bechara. Tum logon ke liye hi to karta hai itna kam'(These things are bound to happen when he works at such a senior position. Poor thing has been working so long today.)"
Probably should have mentioned this before - Shipra and her husband work for the same firm at the same position and earn the same salary.
The Man who does no potty diapers
Purti received the worst performance review of her career this year.
"When I was on a call with my boss last week, discussing my review, the nanny popped into the room and loudly proclaimed, 'Didi baby ne potty kar di hai. Saab bol rahe hain aap saaf kar do.' (The baby has pooped. Your husband is saying please come out and clean it.)"
Purti's husband - the man who doesn't do diapers - often locks himself in a room from morning till evening, and demands food and snacks to be brought to him by Purti. Meanwhile, she has already had to drop out of two corporate social responsibility projects she was passionate about this year, because she was running out of bandwidth at home. One of her male colleagues recently got the Global Award for Community Impact for the work that she had started, but couldn't finish.
"Every time there is a crisis at home, my work suffers. Every time there is a crisis at work, my family members ask me to figure out where my priorities lie - while pointedly looking at the baby or the kitchen."
Her colleagues started a team-building activity under lockdown where they wake up at 6am every Thursday and do yoga together on Zoom.
"I have not participated in that even once. I have had to tell them to please count me out for anything before 9.30am or after 8pm. That is the time I have to cook meals for the entire family."
Purti recalls how an incident at work showed her that this attitude was not unique to her home either.
"I once had to suddenly drop out of a meeting with a senior officer because my daughter got hurt. I later reconnected with him to follow up on the meeting, and told him why I had dropped out. He expressed concern about my daughter, at first. And then casually remarked, 'Ab mummy papa dono working honge to bachhe aise hi suffer karenge na.' (This is how children suffer when both parents are working.)"
"I couldn't help but think that if I were a man narrating the same incident, he would have applauded me for being a caring, family guy."
The buck stops at Mom
Manasi says she is one of the lucky ones. At least she doesn't have to cook all the meals during the day.
"I only manage the baby's food. My mother-in-law does the rest of the cooking. But I still wash a ton of utensils. My husband doesn't do the dishes because his mum won't let him. 'Poor child', she'll say, 'He works so hard'. I have just as many working hours as my husband and I feed the baby at night, but somehow I am quite welcome to spend hours in the kitchen. He is simply not allowed because 'accha nahi lagta'."
Manasi says that the pandemic has taken a toll on her mental health.
"I feel like a bit of a victim compared to my husband. He gets to enjoy happier, playful moments with our daughter while I am usually the one calming down the tantrums, nursing her through difficult moments, or doing chores for her like meals, bath, and diaper changes."
Manasi's team has a number of parents with young children on it - three moms (including Manasi) and two dads. She cannot help but notice a pattern between the moms and the dads.
"The dads somehow always look very put together. They seem to be sitting in clearly demarcated home offices, never move around during meetings, and are never interrupted by family. The moms, on the other hand, often have an unkempt and hassled look that other moms know well - the look of having just come from doing the dishes or cooking or cleaning or attending to a wailing baby. The moms often have to bring their kids on camera or step away from calls to handle a situation with the child."
"So, to an outsider, the men generally seem a lot more 'in control' while the women may come across as 'poor managers'. However, the reality that I wish organizations would understand and respect is that the women are managing so much more work than the men. Because, in every household, the buck seems to stop at the mom."
Manasi thinks that while culture in our homes absolutely has to change, corporate work culture is only making things worse.
"One definite thing I want to call-out organizations / managers / bosses on is that they need to expect and respect men setting boundaries too. Too often, people respect it when a mother sets a boundary with respect to working hours or workload, but snigger and judge if a father does the same. It is important to normalise fathers playing an active role in the household too. Otherwise, it starts being considered 'natural' for their wives' careers to take a backseat. The pandemic has made this more obvious than ever before. Mothers are forced by this twisted work culture to quit their jobs, take sabbaticals, leaves of absence, etc."
"I know because I am on the brink of doing the same."
So there you have it. Women who have it all truly have it all - paid and unpaid jobs.
In fact, an OECD report has found that India is one of the worst faring countries when it comes to the gender distribution of unpaid care work at home. The average Indian man spends less than an hour on care work for the family while the average Indian woman spends nearly 6 hours.
And these are pre-pandemic figures. The pandemic has made this situation even worse.
I guess all I am saying is, we have all had a miserable year as a species. Don't be the guy who makes it more miserable for his own family.
Set boundaries at work so you can share the caregiving load at home. Change a diaper every once in a while. Take your wife’s place on the school WhatsApp group. And, for God's sake, do some dishes.
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