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A New Book about Parenting: Here’s What Working Moms and Dads Need to Know

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SUCHITRA SHENOY

While this book is for all mothers and fathers, those parents who do jobs outside their home, or who are not completely in control of their time, experience a very particular kind of pressure. It is a brain and heart problem, leaving them torn, trying to perform well as both parent and employee. Often, whichever way the working parent leans, he or she is left racked with guilt. Robin J. Ely of the Harvard Business School has found that men tend to sacrifice their families in order to advance their careers, while women often do the opposite. They give up or cut back on their careers to take care of their children.’

Nausheen Ahmed has worked for years in the internal communications department at an international bank. She did so through her pregnancies and while bringing up her first child. Her long hours included managing teams in India and multiple countries and collaborating with upper management across time zones. ‘What are the things that affect the working mother the most?’ I ask her. She does not pause for either thought or breath:

Not being there for the ‘firsts’ (first rolling over, first sitting up, first step). A deep feeling of inadequacy or guilt at home because you, the working parent, do not have time to play with the baby. Feeling a similar inadequacy at work because you have to compromise on deadlines or late meetings because of the focus on family. Not being around for play school activities. And worst, the baby showing an affinity for another family member or the maid over the mother, especially when ill.

‘Both times I took two months off,’ says Amita Sudhir, another working mother. ‘If you are not going to take a year off, then I would suggest four months as ideal.’

Along with balancing home and work, pumping breast milk looms large in a working mother’s life. Amita works ten-hour days and would pump in her office or, at a pinch, in an empty patient room. ‘One of the advantages of being in the medical field is that you can say, “I need to pump,” and step out of meetings.’ She really struggled with pumping. ‘It gets so stressful. Every drop was precious. I never pumped at home when I was with the kids. So I never froze. I hated the pump.’ Amita eventually decided to do two bottles of milk and one bottle of formula for her children (when they were in daycare).

We discuss the pressures of work and the pressure to get back to work. ‘You have to recognize, especially for mothers, that you will not be 100 per cent at work,’ she says. ‘You have to accept that and compensate for that. You are sleep deprived, you are exhausted and your body has not recovered.’ She also points out that it is easy for us to assume that we are irreplaceable at work. ‘Take time off, four months at least,’ she advises new parents. ‘And when you go back, in the evenings and on weekends, don’t take your work home.’

‘You think you are giving up a lot [to be with your child] or handing over work to someone whose work you will have to re-do. Remember, though,’ she says, ‘it is only once or twice in your entire life.’

‘I was determined to continue giving my son breast milk after I went back to work, no matter what,’ states Shivani Vellanki, her dark, short hair framing her face and bobbing in emphasis. Her gutsy spirit is admirable. Shivani works in the human resources department of a massive conglomerate. In her business unit, within this hundred-year-old company, Shivani is the lone woman at the senior management level. ‘The management has a hundred and fifty men and me,’ she says with a twinkle. ‘There are other women, but they are administrative staff in their late forties and fifties, with their children behind them.’

Having worked at this company for more than six years before deciding to have a child, Shivani knew that being a working mother was not going to be easy. Her company wasn’t the typical modern technology firm that leaps to change based on employee suggestions. ‘I had read about speaking to one’s supervisor, setting up a pumping room, etc., but there was no one to talk to. My boss would have fainted if I said the word “breast” to him. Besides, there was no human resources department to go to. I was HR!’ she explains.

Shivani was keen to keep things as simple as possible. ‘I couldn’t use a pump because of the noise that it made. So I would hand-press.’ There was no comfortable room to pump in, only the women’s toilet. It was a small space with a wash basin and a toilet, nothing else. Every three hours, Shivani would go to the bathroom and hand-press her breast milk. ‘I had become such an expert that in ten minutes I would get 8 ounces,’ she says with a smile. Shivani also wanted to keep her expenses low. ‘I had flat bags that would stack in my freezer and that was it. After all, what did moms do before breast pumps were invented?’

No pumping room at work and … no fridge. Her cubicle was in an air-conditioned room. ‘I would put the expressed milk bag on my desk, under the vent. It never went bad,’ she says. Shivani expressed milk every three hours, every working day, for six months.

‘It is difficult,’ Shivani says (referring to balancing work and being home with the baby and ensuring that the baby is fed breast milk). ‘I think it’s important if both parents are working that the dads be involved in the feeding. I would have my husband date the milk, bring out the correct amount out to be thawed, and check the quantity that needed to be pumped. So that partnership really worked.’

Did having the baby change her? Though she worked the same long hours and travelled a lot even after the birth, Shivani nods. ‘I became much more productive at work. I also became a more empathetic manager. People who know me from before say that I used to be aggressive and easily irritable. Now they feel that I am much calmer.’

Then Shivani leans forward and says something that is at the heart of child-rearing. ‘You know,’ she says earnestly, ‘time is just more precious now.’

‘If a dad says they helped out by changing diapers, I would be underwhelmed,’ says Divakar Goswami. Divakar, an incredibly involved father, is of a new breed of urban Indian men who believe in sharing as much of the parenting load as they can.

Along with participating in the birth of his child, Divakar took six weeks off (two weeks of paternity leave provided by his company, combined with four weeks of personal leave) to be with his family. ‘I experienced the early weeks of sleepless cycles, not knowing why the baby is crying, and the hormonal changes that my wife was going through,’ he says. ‘You really get a sense of what most mothers face, being cooped up indoors with no adult interaction for a long time. I was around to share some of that.’

Traditionally in India, mothers have their babies in their natal home. The new mother gets pampered and also gets vital support in handling the newborn. An unintended consequence of this occurs when the mother and child return. The baby is four or six months old and the husband has missed the early days of child-rearing. He has certainly missed the early-month experiences and memories, but he has also missed out in a very practical sense. ‘Because of this tradition, the fathers don’t know how to deal with the baby; they are incompetent,’ says Divakar. ‘That incompetence becomes an excuse to keep handing the kid back to the mum, especially if the kid is being fussy or difficult, rather than the father taking responsibility.’

For Divakar, the key turning point occurred much before he even became a parent. He was visiting an acquaintance. The mother decided to go out one evening, to take a break. The father, it turned out, was completely unable to look after the kids. ‘He’d call and put the crying baby on the phone,’ recalls Divakar. ‘I thought, “This is not how it is supposed to be.” I was determined to do it differently.’

Tony Schwartz, who has worked in the field of work–life balance and written extensively about it, says, ‘Men, who are neither permitted nor encouraged to take parental leave end up being deprived of the early level of bonding that could help them become better fathers by building more capacity for care giving, empathy, vulnerability, attunement and emotional connection. Coincidentally, these are increasingly critical qualities for leaders operating in a highly networked global economy.’

Fathers getting more hands-on is a large enough trend that Mint ran a piece about it, interviewing fathers across the country. Some fathers, like Subodh Maskara (the actress Nandita Das’s husband), quit their high-flying corporate jobs. They are lucky to be able to do so. Other fathers, like Divakar, make parenting and childcare an important component of their lives, and try to restructure their work around it.

Divakar works for an international strategy consulting company. His desire to do things differently with his child became a greater challenge when his work required living in the United States for months at a time. ‘I hope that quality trumps quantity,’ Divakar says with a grin. ‘When I am in the US, we Facetime twice a day. When they visit me in the US, we try and do things that my daughter does not get to do in India. We go hiking, or she plays in a local kids’ gym. I do miss them when we are separated,’ he says. ‘But these are the trade-offs that we make in life. So I don’t really have guilt. When I am here in India and spend time with Mehr, I give her all the attention that she deserves.’

The flip side of being on US-based projects is that when Divakar is in India, it means working on US time. And this is where Divakar’s quality component comes in. Since he is on US time, he keeps his days free for his daughter. ‘So my calls start at 7.30 p.m. and go on till 3.30 a.m. A lot of people think this is difficult but I am a night person,’ he says.

In the mornings, by the time Divakar wakes up, Mehr is at school. He picks her up in the afternoon. ‘When we come home, I have already prepped a project that we do together,’ he says. ‘They range from trying to fix a very large Peruvian pot that had shattered to making strawberry jam – a good two- to three-hour activity. Right now, she is very interested in beading. So we make bracelets and chains – a lot of fun.’ Along with planning projects that Divakar hopes will make for good memories, he is also very clear about not falling into the temptation of working during the day. ‘I don’t turn the laptop on, check email or anything during the Indian day. I am involved in recruitment, so I do go into the local office to interview, or to conduct training sessions. I might have a few client calls. But I actively try and schedule everything for after 7 p.m.’

Other than splitting time between countries, parents (not just fathers) are often caught between wanting to take on more responsibilities at work and leaving early to be home with the children. ‘You have to be smart about how you carve your time,’ Divakar says. ‘For example, if someone at work asks you for assistance and you say you have to attend your kid’s after-school activities, then after a while you might be characterized as someone who is more family-bound and not available for work. The way to do it,’ he recommends, ‘is not to give a reason. Just say you are otherwise engaged and make a suggestion for other time slots. That way, you can be involved at work, and hopefully at a time slot that suits you.’

Tony Schwartz points out that ‘new research shows that boys struggle from any early disadvantage more than girls do, and notably so from the absence of an involved father. The reasons are complex, but one likely explanation is the absence of a male role model.’

Divakar suggests that when an important occasion arises people need to be more upfront at work about their family needs. In his case, his wife, a ceramic artist, was going to China for one and a half months on work. ‘Having delivered good work and having a good track record, I could ask for flexibility. I said I needed to work from home for those months.’

Of course, not everything works out beautifully all the time. There have been periods of mad juggling in Divakar’s life (including taking client phone calls lying next to his daughter while putting her to bed), but these pale compared to the effort he puts into the relationship. ‘At the end of the day,’ he says, ‘the treasure waiting at home can perk you up from the lousiest day at work.’


Excerpted with permission. Mindful Parenting: The First 1000 Days, published by HarperCollins India, is now available in bookstores. To buy it online, click here: http://amzn.to/2fHdoIt.

 

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