A letter of hope, from one working mother to another
And why a happy mum makes a good mum.
I had been a television reporter for almost a decade when I became a mother. Up until then, nearly everyone around me was from journalism or related to it in some way. It was only through the new prism of my son, that I realised that wanting to be the first to interview accused telecom minister, A Raja about his alleged role in the 2G scam when he stepped out of the CBI office in 2011, wasn’t the aspiration of most mummies.
When my son was in class one, his teacher told me that he had discipline issues. Concerned, I was about to ask for her advice about how to fix it, when she continued, “We often see this in children whose parents are working. Children who are taken care of by nannies have a tendency to not heed instructions.” I was shattered. The teacher had found something lacking in my child and immediately blamed it on my career (she obviously wasn’t referring to his father’s). And not only had she shamed me, but she’d also dismissed the care and calculation with which I had designed our lives.
I knew that leaving him with his nanny from the time he returned from school to even till dinner time wasn’t ideal. But we’d tried to make up with after-school chats on FaceTime about the “yuck” khichdi he had that day. He’d video-call his uncle to do his maths homework with him, and dadaji was always on Hindi homework duty. The days he was still awake when I came home, we would have reading competitions to see who could do it faster and better. I had thought it was reassuring for him to know that all these people were just a phone call away, and whatever wasn’t okay, mummy and daddy would fix on the weekend. We’d slave together on that god awful RL Stevenson poem, and then recover by watching Netflix together. I thought I was raising my boy fine, but clearly others didn’t agree.
I felt depressed about it for days. After all, this wasn’t even a random stranger, but my son’s teacher, who thought I was neglecting him. Would he one day blame me too? It made me remember my first day back at work after giving birth—it was during Barack Obama’s visit to India; I had pulled a 14-hour shift and really enjoyed it, too. And then guilt immediately followed: was I a bad mother for relishing the experience instead of missing my child? I thought about the IAS topper Tina Dabi who was all over the news at the time, saying the secret to her success was her bureaucrat mother, who had quit her job to help her daughter study. Could my work actually be keeping my son from achieving his full potential?
It was remembering a few truths that helped me snap out of it eventually. One: while I came from a family where my mother stayed at home, my mother-in- law had been a teacher at Delhi University her whole life. She had often told me about how she had had limited maternity leave and she was left with no choice but to leave a two-month-old with a young boy-nanny, because he was the only caregiver she could find. It had caused her so much stress that she’d get off the college bus daily and practically take to her heels to get home and see if everything was okay. In comparison, my son had me to himself for his first eight months, and when I went back to work, he had two sets of grandparents and a nanny. And my husband turned out just fine.
Second: the words of feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir. In an interview, she said, “It’s financial independence that counts; that’s how they are going to be freed. To earn one’s living is not an end in itself, but it is the only way to achieve securely based inner independence.” And so, working is the only way to be.
On that first 14-hour day back from maternity leave, when I began to worry that I wasn’t missing my child enough, a very wise colleague who was a working mum gave me some helpfully honest advice. She said I could work and be a good mum too, but if I also wanted to have a relationship with my husband like we had before our baby, and also time left over for myself—it wasn’t going to happen. I would have to prioritise.
And so I did. I chose my work because it makes me happy. And because I realised it would be much harder on my son to have an unhappy mother who was resentful about what she had to give up.
My son is now eight. And sometimes I still wrestle with doubt about whether I’m giving him enough of myself. Like when I feel his maths basics are falling apart because I can’t supervise his homework daily. But then there are days when I’m proud and delighted over how independent and curious and full of humour he’s growing up to be, as a result. Like when he read a book on Einstein’s life or looked Dali up in the encyclopaedia on his own. Or when he answers those who ask what his mother does with, “Blah, blah, blah in front of camera!”
Last year, I even accepted a three-week fellowship that took me across the world, away from him, during the summer. It ended with a surprise reunion with him in Malaysia that neither of us will forget in a hurry. The message he gets, I hope, is that his mum isn’t always around and that’s okay—and maybe more fun that way.