Monday, March 06, 2017

To Work or not to Work? A Stay-At-Home-Mom's Perspective

If you think this is about me a stay-at-home-mom's (SAHM) dilemma before or after I had kids, you are partially right, but this is not just about that. This question "To work or not to Work" is something that I have asked myself millions of times at various stages in my life, after I completed my basic education (12 + 5 years of college in one of the esteemed universities - probably the only university - that offers integrated dual degrees in India). This is also a question I have been asked by many (family, friends and strangers alike) over the years. This is also a question, I know for a fact that my husband also keep asking himself and has been asked by many others that he has come across in his life so far including our children and me. Now I can see cog wheels turning inside your heads when you are contemplating the various scenarios and instances that this could have happened. So let me start with the most obvious of this scenario that deals with me (because as humans we are always self obsessed and like to talk a lot about what goes on with our lives, especially the imbalances in it and I am no exception) and then move on to the more intriguing aspect which is for a husband, the male (for whom to work is the norm and there can never be any other question especially one) that even considers about not working.

The female/wife/mother/woman angle

A couple of years ago, while I was travelling to my husband's home town, during our India visit with the children (just me and my 2 children), in a train journey, I happened to strike a conversation with a co-passenger, a stranger, who was also travelling to a destination close to mine. She was travelling to her home town to visit her parents after year of her second delivery and was travelling alone with 2 children. So this was a conversation between two recent time mothers (My youngest was couple of years older than her youngest).

She had recently resigned her job after using up her maternity vacation (paid and unpaid), and was doubting herself if she took the right choice. Somehow, she found me safe enough to share her personal information with me (which I might not have done without a little prodding). Guess it must have more to do with the intensity of the self doubting that she was going through rather than my being a safe enough sounding board.

"I just resigned my job as a Team Lead an IT firm. I used to draw a good salary and now I am wondering if I did the right thing by giving up my job. But when I see my children and the fact that I am able to make sure what I put in my daughter's lunch box is something fresh, home cooked and healthy, when she leaves for school in the morning, and the fact that I can attend to beck and call of my younger daughter every time she cries for a comforting hug or has melt down for my complete attention, makes me think it was the right thing to do. When I meet my friends from school and college, I start doubting myself as they have progressed in their career and they also have a family. Some days are so depressing, I do not have peers around me to have intellectual conversations with, I feel there is lack of challenge to my thought process. I feel that I am wasting away my life by choosing to stay at home instead of working and putting to use the education that I was privileged to have. I feel that I am doing injustice to my qualifications." Listening to her made me think how similar she sounded and looked to how I felt when I resigned my job a few years back. She asked me, "Are you working?". I said "I am not". Then, she asked me about my educational qualifications and when I told her that I had an integrated dual-degree from one of the prestigious institutes in India and a PG diploma, she was surprised and her immediate next question was "With a single Bachelors degree, I am doubting myself for not working, with your educational qualifications don't you feel you are wasting it by staying home?"

I contemplated a bit before I answered her. This involved opening up about my personal life (including opinions, state of mind, and choices) to a stranger and I wanted to be absolutely sure if I was ready to. But then, looking at her dilemma, made me think how nice it would have been if I did have someone to talk to every time I went through this kind of self doubt myself. So we continued our conversation. I told her, "The choice to work or to stay at home depends on your personal take on what your priority is. As clichéd as it sounds, that is the truth. You need to have your choices and priorities right. Otherwise it is going to be a very difficult task to stay happy and contended in the long run."

"You make it sound simple.", she said. "Believe it or not, it is that simple, but to arrive at this state of clarity is a long journey which is filled with self doubt and struggles. When we compare ourselves with those friends / colleagues of ours who have decided to continue to pursue their career (what ever their reasons behind it are), then we are doing injustice to ourselves. You cannot compare apples with oranges. It is not a fair comparison. A good option is to list what your needs are and proceed from there. No solution is perfect. There is always scope for improvements and adjustments. Do what is needed to make life easier and happier for yourself and your family."

"Don't you ever feel that you made a mistake by deciding to quit your job?" she asked.

"Yes, almost every instance I feel taken for granted or ignored, I wonder if I took the right decision. Then, I think if I had continued to work, would I have been happier than what I am now? Every time the answer to that question is NO, and immediately my doubts vanish. The reason behind is the fact that I know I would not have given my 100% to the 'paying job' (career) and then come back home to give a 100% to my family. And personally, if I cannot do that, then I cannot be content, in turn affecting my family. So it all drills down to what you really want - a successful career (where you will need at least some dependency from others around you to tackle day-to-day chores), or just concentrate full-time on your family (giving up your professional career, being able to better manage a Home-Maker role hands on)". We continued to converse till the children slept & parted ways at our respective destinations.

Now it is 11 years since I resigned my last job and I did not resign just because I became a mother. I resigned because, I was struggling to balance between a demanding professional life and tiring needs at home. I was just married (a year into marriage when I resigned) and was immediately in-charge of managing a household (about which I had a vague idea but was unprepared when the whole thing was starring at my face). If I could not do justice to the roles that I chose to play without having to depend on others around me for support to even deliver my basic job requirements, then I would not be personally satisfied and happy. So the better option for me was to give up my professional career so that I could give my 100% to my personal career (Home Management)! But from the time I made this decision, I am constantly challenged by many (family and friends alike) that I am wasting my studies by staying at home. How am I wasting my knowledge gained, If I can use what I have studied / learnt to apply them in my day-to-day tasks and make it enriching to everyone whose life I touch including my own family?

When I put down my resignation, my colleagues asked me, "What would you do sitting at home all day? I will go mad if I had to do that!". My answer was, "For now, I am just taking a break from professional life, take a step back, re-assess my stakes and then move forward from there depending on what I decide as my future path. Till then I am going to enjoy a vacation.". But truth be told, the "vacation" never came. When I resigned from job, I tried my level best to keep in touch with family and friends. I thought I had 8 hours of free time (the time I spent in an office when I was working) at hand and could pursue anything that I wanted to including to revive my hobbies. That never happened. At risk of repeating what many have already said, the day of a home maker is filled with tasks that never end. So instead of doing that, let me tell you how my typical day would be. My typical day would start at 6 in the morning and end at 10 p.m. (ideally it should and used to till I had children) I do have free hours during the day when I can basically laze around in front of the TV and watch serials or programmes of my choice. But that comes with the tough choice that I had to make to forego the organised world of profession where my work would be periodically evaluated and accolades and brick bats would follow the normal course, based on the kind of deliverable/output I gave, and follow a path where the word "organised" becomes a case of luxury. Any work I do is taken for "granted", because I am at home and have all the time in the world to do it, and unless I really went all out to make sure that I spell out exactly what I do, and what it translates into when put in monetary, time and effort perspective (difficult to bring it into that perspective but with some effort can be done) contributes a hell a lot of roles and responsibilities clubbed into one complete package, I would never have a peer review or appraisal that will put my household work in the right perspective and give me a sense of achievement from someone else's point of view.

Every time I visit my relatives or friends, they never fail to ask me about what I do now that both my children are in school full time. I used to try to tell them how my day is filled with tasks to ensure that the rest of the family has a peaceful life especially with a travelling husband (his job requirement demands him to), and a young family settled abroad with a single earning member. I had friends remark jovially that somehow I always tend to remain busy despite no employment. There used to be time when that statement hurt me, because I am not "jobless". I just do not have a job that pays money. I do not have a job that has a regular evaluation process set up. I do not have set standard or benchmark to which I can compare myself and readjust or re-position my progress. My job requires me to wear multiple hats that include the roles of a:

  • Day Planner - every day I plan to finish 10 odd jobs but at the end of the day, I see that the jobs that I planned to finish have not been started at all while I ended up doing 15 other jobs which were not part of my day's plan. 
  • Cook/Chef - try to start making a particular spread for lunch or dinner and then suddenly figure out that during the course of the day, you had planned to get the necessary ingredients for it but never got around to do the shopping because something else came up and this got left out and so mid way you get creative and come up with a new dish of your own and guess what, it becomes a hit, but you do not know how to replicate it again.
  • Child Carer - You just dropped off your older one at school, finished shopping and running some errands that might or might not have included a visit to government offices or any such place that required you to patiently wait for an hour in queue for a job that took less that 5 minutes once you reached the counter, and are entering home while the younger one is sleeping in the stroller/buggy peacefully, so you decide to leave the child in the stroller so as not to disturb and try to catch up on the zzzzs that you lost the previous night because your older one was complaining of pain in the ear/nose/eyes/teeth/stomach/back/knee/there between the legs/pinky toes... and you get a call from the school saying that you need to come to school because the older child has had a small accident and though there is nothing to worry, needs to be picked up and taken home so that the rest of the day can be spent at home resting. So you rush back to school in what ever mode of transport necessary with the younger one waking up mid way and yelling all the way back till you reach home and there goes your zzzzzzzzzs.
  • Personnel Assistant & Accountant - Irrespective of whether you are educated or uneducated, I think every wife (in the current scenario I should be saying the staying home partner but I would not be sure if I would be stating the facts as I only know what goes on in my home) goes through this. Act as a reminder service for the husband for even keeping in touch with family and friends, to pay bills on time, to ensure the posting of those odd letters/applications that still need to be done by manual post and not through emails, fill out forms online for stuff like passport renewal, visa processing, ordering gifts for the birthday parties that the children might end up attending over the weekends, scan bills that need to submitted for reimbursements, and sometimes even proxy for the husband not being able to get away from work to attend to the extended family's needs.
  • Nurse - any day any time to attend to the first aid to reduce pain and discomfort for the family members until the time that the actual doctor's appointment is available (which most of the times happens to be after the pain or discomfort or ailment disappears with the home based remedies that have been tried)
  • Tutor & Governess - After school, the children need to practice what they have learnt in school and for families like ours where we are not sure where we are going to settle down, the necessity to keep up with what other parts of the world also do including learning mother tongue or a language that the country that we might possibly move to next has as its primary or secondary language, fill the gaps that the current curriculum might have in comparison with the rest of the education systems...
  • Domestic Helper - Includes dish cleaning, window cleaning, spring cleaning, weekly cleaning, moping floors, regular laundry and ironing, small fixes like fixing buttons and tears in the seams in dresses/pants/shirts, fixing DIY shelves and work table that get delivered home in a box, minor fixes in scooters/bicycles, electrical fixtures at home like replacing worn out bulbs, mend minor leaks...
are some that I creatively could name and provide a sample of what that particular role would demand. Over the years, I have learned to condition myself to smile at such questions. I smile not because, I can't answer them, but I do not see a point in answering it as what ever answer I give will never completely convey my experience of my day.

When a sibling/cousin or a working friend or spouse callously says, "You would not understand the stress that the work place politics and expectations have on me", "I am paid to work not to take time off from work", I used to feel like an outsider and subdued. I remember when I used to work, my mentor told me once, "If you want to understand how to effectively play work place politics, then learn to play politics at home. There is never a better place than there to learn how to do it". I did not understand what he meant at that time as it was my first job and I was just fresh out of college living by myself. But now, almost 2 decades after that "gyan" session, after living as a full time home maker, I completely understand what he meant. I can tell you there is no better place to learn the nuances of Organisational Behaviour and master the art of excelling in the game of Organisational Politics than home, where there is an additional twist of emotions and relationships coming into play which is non-existent in a professional environment. If I have to elaborate on it, then I am sure I will end up writing a complete book on this. Suffice it to say, family is nothing less than an organisation and even more complicated than it and the experience, personal growth and sense of achievement, well rounded (read emotionally beaten up) approach and humility that it has given me to have crossed the hurdles that I have with or without help, I doubt I would have had it if I had chosen to lead a professional career. Enough said about myself. Moving on to the other side.

The Male/husband/father angle

When I decided to quit my job, we had just married and a year into marriage and had to make adjustments to ensure that the financial void that my leaving the job would create can be balanced by what ever job, whatever role that my husband took up. We were in a city living in a rented apartment with substantial rental cost. Added to this was we were planning to expand our family and hence had to save up for that as well. Both of us being family centric, we did not want to leave our respective families in the lurch, not that they were financially dependent on us but we wanted to do our share of providing for them financially as well in addition to being available to them physically and emotionally. This being said, he did not even think before he congratulated me on deciding to quit my job. He has never, till date, asked why I decided to quit (I did talk with him before putting down my papers but not for permission, more as informing him of my decision and discuss when and how to execute the decision) without consulting him. For my in-laws it was a happy news as they belonged to the section of people (including some of the text books that till date have the same clichéd role definitions) who thought once married the wife managed the home, while the husband went out to work. This decision taken, we both were not really prepared for what was to hit us after this. The initial days where I was enjoying my new-found free time, I am sure he was going through the turmoil of having to carry the burden of financial stability of the entire family on his shoulders all by himself. But there has never been a single day or single instance when he has complained of having to carry that burden alone.

Instead, every time I talked to him about getting back to work only to help out in easing this burden, his answer to me has always been "I am fine. The home management is in the hands of a capable person who is doing a good job of doing it with just single income. So you do not need to go to work just for the financial aspect of it; but if you do want to work because you think that would give you personal happiness and contentment, then go ahead. Otherwise, we are fine as we are."

To ensure that we lead a comfortable life and not have to compromise on our standard of living, he decided to take up Onsite roles (overseas). A person who is more than happy to go back to his home town and home land at the drop of a hat because he can stay closer to extended family and friends, decided to spread his wings and explore the world purely because it provided him with opportunities to scale heights that he needed to scale to keep up the standard of living for us, provide for his family, as well as, it was an opportunity to give my young family an experience of a life time that many have not had the pleasure of having. We have been lucky to live in 3 countries outside India (US, France and now UK) and enjoy the cultural experience that each country gave us, travel to more places than most in my family have ever travelled in our age and give our children an openness to the concept of right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable because of our extensive travel and meeting people with different points of view.

There have been several instances where me and my children included, have blamed my husband, of prioritising work ahead of anything else because he has had to miss birthdays, anniversaries, and marriages in the family as there was probably some meeting or some travel scheduled that he could not miss (even if those events were on weekends). During these times, there were extensive exchange of words between us which have been quite hurtful, but he did what he did because he thought that that was the best option at that time.

Both of us have matured in our thoughts and probably in our level of self worth as well. Now he follows a strict code of not working (official) during weekends and spends all of his time for the family and during these two days, he also manages to give me at least a half day of break from my home maker's role where he handles the kitchen, chores, children, attends to their needs, dons all of my multiple hats, makes time to keep in touch with family and friends. Despite this, he goes through a hell a lot criticism for doing a "woman's job", to which he turns a deaf ear and moves on with a smile that never fades . I would say, in my home, even I manage to get half a day off, but the man of my home never has time away from his work. Right from the time when my oldest was 5 months old and I felt like a milk production unit, my husband never once frowned on me when I used to literally shove our child in his hand the minute he steps through the front door after a tiring day at work (so that I can then peacefully attend to the task of making dinner and clearing the dishes), or to happily be the play partner to her when she decided that she was going be playing during her Indian evening while we were residing in the USA and then next morning leave for work despite not having been able to sleep off the tiredness of the previous day (and night) only to come back in the evening and go through the entire thing once again with the never fading smile.

Do what works for you

We are at a happy state of mind now, with the choices that we have made in our lives. By choosing to stay at home and not work at all, I am available to my children always at home for what ever and when ever they need me. I keep my house in order all on my own with no additional domestic help or help from family. I spend time with my children to help them with their studies and play. And even after all this, I am not remunerated, never go through regular appraisal cycles to evaluate the quality of my work, nor am I acknowledged on a daily basis for the job I do to make life easier for others around me. Equally my husband, after toiling for 5 days at his regular paid job, does not even think twice before he takes up the job to support me on the 2 days of the week, when most would like to kick back and relax.

To do a job when you are paid for it, appreciated for it, remunerated in the form of hike and promotions is easier to do mainly because of the external motivation that the job gives you, but to continue to doing this job of stay-at-home-mom, and to jump in to share equal responsibility from your spouse and even go the extra mile of giving her the much needed break from routine (or the lack of it) after toiling the entire working week in a regular paid job instead of taking the weekend off to recuperate for the next week, after doing it for 11 years now, I can say that, to keep doing this despite all that I mentioned above, requires immense courage and self motivation that can only come if you really like what you have chosen to do. So for all those who are going through this dilemma (life is filled with them - a statement that even my 9-yr old daughter seems to have understood which I consider as my achievement as a mother), think of what you want and then choose the path that would give you exactly what you want. Never compare yourself with anyone else because, each person is unique. You can have help manuals for products, not for people. What works for me might not work for you. So you are the best judge of what will work for you and never allow anyone else to tell you otherwise. It is okay to get opinions from others but do not let others decide for you. It is you and only you who can answer that question of "To Work or Not to Work?" #NoConditionsApply