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Interviewing Mummy: Work-family juggle in India

Here we are on a Sunday afternoon, interviewing our mother about her longtime work-family juggle in India. Meet Indira, a government officer for more than 30 years with two grown daughters — Shivangi and Himani.

Shivangi: So Mummy, would you like to introduce yourself to our readers?

Indira: Sure! I’m Indira and I have been working in the government for many many years now. I’m currently the Library and Information Officer in Niti Aayog (which used to be known as the Planning Commission of India). I am in my late fifties. I have a beautiful family and am blessed with two daughters. In my spare time, I love to watch movies, cook my favourite dishes and knit. 

Shivangi: Thank you for sharing that. We’d like to understand your views and opinions on being a mother and managing your work simultaneously. Maybe we can start with your description of motherhood.

Indira: As a mother, I wanted my babies to be healthy. I wanted to give you ample time, to help you grow and to provide a great education for you. I also needed to devote time to our multigenerational household. But as a working mother, my time was scattered and limited. I still feel a sense of guilt that I could not give the two of you more of my attention. I do feel, though, that children benefit from having a working mom. They learn about hard work and the importance of independence.

Himani: True — hearing stories about your work taught me lots about real life. So, what did others expect of you as a working mother?

Indira: In our generation, our in-laws expected us to work as well as fulfill the responsibilities of a typical daughter-in-law in society. There was all of the cooking, chores, and child raising. We were required to attend every family function, so there was very little time for a working mother to do anything for herself over the weekend. There was even an expectation for us to look presentable at all times. 

Shivangi: Have these expectations changed in recent years?

Indira: I think there has been a big change. Earlier a working mother could not rebel or express her feelings out loud. But today’s working mothers know their rights. They know that they don’t have to bear all family responsibilities alone. 

For example, I used to cook dinners for 20 people on a fairly regular basis. This was common in our family, as we often had guests. Online ordering didn’t exist and takeaway wasn’t socially acceptable. I used to feel exhausted as I had to start cooking the second I got home from the office. I was happy doing it at first but then it became an expectation, and I was a little resentful. However, today, with online ordering and quick deliveries, you can easily host dinners without exhausting yourself. It’s also acceptable now to hire domestic help to cook food, which was not preferred before. 

Shivangi: Things have definitely changed for the better. Did your workplace support you when you were struggling to balance everything?

Indira: As a government official, we had to be present in the office most days. But we also had family friendly policies that made it easier. After my first pregnancy, I could take leave for up to 3 months. Later, I had to frequently take time off to look after you, Shivangi, and also to take care of your grandmother, who had asthma. My office was aware of the situation and was very cooperative. I also learned a lot about juggling work and motherhood from my senior colleagues.

Himani: Are there any examples of this support that stood out?

Indira: I was incredibly lucky to have male managers with families who supported me and gave me the flexibility I needed. They went above and beyond to make sure I could take care of the two of you when you needed me. Another thing was that when you had summer vacations, my office allowed you to spend the day in the office with me. In some offices, this is not allowed, so I was extremely appreciative.

Himani: I totally remember running into the office and all the office people getting me snacks to eat. 

Shivangi: Yes! Do you remember the time you tried to bring ice cream home to me from Mummy’s office? That didn’t work so well.

Himani: Please see the gesture, not the logic. Mummy, given that Shivangi and I are more than 9 years apart, did you notice any similarities and differences in raising the two of us?

Indira: The similarity is that I was studying during both pregnancies while also working a full time job. When I was pregnant with Shivangi, I was doing my second bachelor’s in Library and Information Sciences, and with Himani, I was completing a master’s. The difference is that the first time, I was young and had no health concerns. In my second pregnancy, I was diagnosed with diabetes and there was an age factor. So I had to take a lot of precautions to deliver a healthy baby. 

I also feel there was much more support during and after my first pregnancy than with my second. After Himani was born, I struggled because my mother-in-law who’d helped so much with Shivangi had sadly passed away. So, for almost 3 years, your father and I used to drop Himani at my parents’ house and then bring her home after work. Also, there is a difference in personality and nature between the two of you, so I had to adapt to your individual needs and ensure you both felt heard. 

Shivangi: So when you went to the office, what did you do to make sure we didn’t miss or need you during your working hours? 

Indira: Well, I would cook and pack food for you before leaving for the office. I also used to talk with you daily over the phone after you came home from school. I would ask how school went, and if you needed any paper or prints for your homework. Maybe most importantly, I would bring home fresh fruit and snacks for you. And then I gave you the space to share your day with me and provided whatever support you needed. 

Shivangi: I clearly remember rushing to the door in the evening to open it, greet you and check your bags for snacks! When you were in the throes of it all, do you think society judged you as a working mom? Especially in India, typically families don’t approve of women leaving their kids to work outside the home. Did you experience that?

Indira: Well, it is highly regarded in Indian society to be a government officer, so I didn’t experience any judgement, even as a woman. I think both sides of my family were proud that I was working. However, there was invisible pressure for sure to excel as a mom, an employee, and a daughter-in-law and all the other roles I had. All of my colleagues experienced the same pressure, so it felt normal to me back then.

Himani: You know, my psychology professor once asked if it was difficult for us when our mothers worked. Did we feel we were missing out on memories? I got very emotional. When my turn came to speak, I said that as a child it hurt that I did not see you at home very much. I used to get so excited when you would take leave and be there when I came home from school. But as I grew up, I started to understand your side of the story. I am so proud that you worked and were also there whenever we needed you.

Do you have any tips that you would like to share with the working women of today?

Indira: Our society has changed and being self-dependent is important. As a working mother, you need to develop strong communication with your partner and family. And do not hesitate to get help if you need it. 

Shivangi Mehra is an Associate at Liftery and founder of Limitless Stree, an initiative to empower women and girls in India. She also serves as the Research Mentor for young researchers at UNESCO. She can be reached via LinkedIn.

Himani Mehra, a passionate advocate for mental health and gender equality, leverages her background in psychology to drive positive change. She’s founding member of Limitless Stree, an initiative to empower women and girls in India and is currently working with Sangath India, a mental health nonprofit for their suicide prevention programme, Outlive. She can be reached via LinkedIn.


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