In representations in films, TV serials, as well as in real life, motherhood comes across as a competition. Our society has strict notions of the ‘good mother’ – one whose life should revolve around her children, who prioritises family over herself and whose worth is defined by the ‘compromises’ she makes.
Conflict arises when a mother chooses to pursue her career after the birth of her children. Apparent concerns like ‘how will she manage both the things’ and ‘the kids will be so spoilt’ start erupting amongst well-wishers. She receives an uncalled for scrutiny of how ‘good’ a mother she is and is subjected to allegations of incompetence whenever the child does something problematic.
My mother is an accounts manager and has been working in a firm for the last 26 years. For 21 years of my life, I have grown up seeing her manage everything. I have also noticed that when it comes to women’s work and motherhood, everyone has an opinion. The employers see it as an infringement of labour and well wishers, as ignorance of childcare.
But for how long can the relationship between a mother and her children be defined by anything but the two of them?
Also read: Motherhood And The Work Life Balance
One of the most widely quoted reasons to shame working mothers into giving up their job is unavailability of love and support for the kids, because they are looked after by a house help instead of the mother. There is a lot of guilt-tripping that comes from the extended family as well, when mothers choose to continue their career.
This causes an unnecessary amount of self-criticism about their commitment towards children because they are conditioned to believe that somehow, they are the ones who have to be more available.
However, a mother’s professional commitments are not related to her children growing up with deprivation of love, care or affection. As a 21 year old child of a working mother, I can vouch for that.
There were times when my brother and I would return from school on a hot summer day and hate that our friends had their mothers at home, with chilled drinks prepared, waiting. But my mother ensured that we came back home to a jug full of lemonade in the freezer and her phone call. It was like telepathy because her calls were very accurately timed, the phone would ring at the exact moment when I’d be unlocking the door and just stepping into the house. There was not a single day she missed.
My mother is not a perfect mother. She doesn’t go around with a mountain of patience to be okay with everything. She has flaws and she is allowed to make mistakes. Aren’t we all?
Who put the onus on our mothers to be the perfect example of an individual that we can look up to? Why does she have to negotiate between societal expectations and her own belief of how she wants to raise the child she gave birth to? Why does society enforce the fear of missing out on her child’s upbringing once she chooses to work?
Why is her absence guilt-laden, and everyone else’s absence excusable?
A few years ago, her evenings had too much going on. She would return from the office to find her students waiting. After at least two hours of tuition, she would head to her dance class and an evening walk to spend some time with her friends.
She would be back home just in time when my brother and I would return from our respective coaching classes and crash on the bed, tired. I would still push myself a bit to help her with household chores and dinner. Back then, whenever I discussed our evenings with my friends, they would be surprised that my mother is so hardworking and that she does ‘so much’. They weren’t wrong. She is hardworking and does a lot but she isn’t the only one.
Mothers going out of their way to make time for themselves is not a commendable feat. Rather, it is our patriarchal conditioning that makes us believe that once a mother, motherhood is the only identity a woman is bound to possess.
The pandemic has further added to the burden of working mothers. Work from home brought its own share of extra responsibilities that somehow were previously assumed to be taken over by the woman of the house. It is up to them alone to sustain through at least four full-time jobs at once – parent, teacher, caretaker and the work they are paid to do.
The pressure of holding a household together during a pandemic is intense in itself. For instance, when families bond over homemade delicacies and snacks, it is the mothers who emerge as essential workers.
We do not see our mothers relaxing or resting enough. There is always something that they are bothered about, a responsibility they have to fulfill. Most of the times their excuse is, “If I won’t, then who will”. The concept of leisure is very real, but for women somehow, it isn’t a priority but a corollary of other important things.
For a large part of her career, the commute from home to office and back was the only leisure time for my mother. It was in these three hours in total that she would watch movies on her phone, reply to WhatsApp forwards, scroll through online retail stores and make lists for the monthly ration.
While it may not sound like the ideal leisure time, to my mother, this was all she had. She thought about her own self and her aspirations for the life ahead even though it was accompanied by the consistent metro announcements in the background.
However, in the last few months, Mamma has been taking some time out. She has gotten back to singing and recording songs to the tunes of karaoke instrumental music.
But still, I think, singing isn’t practiced in full measures of leisure. Sometimes it is an escape from the anxieties of an uncertain future, otherwise, it is a distraction from arguments with my 18 year old brother and his teenage ideas on living. But mostly, the singing has brought her solace and comfort and boy she has been taking her riyaaz seriously.
Our society tends to stage mothers into conflicting categories of sacrifice or absence. This is constantly spearheaded generationally and by popular culture. It leads to the denial of the individual a mother is. Indian popular culture, from movies and TV ads to soap operas have always looked at mothers through the lens of endurance.
They are villainous if their child isn’t the absolute center of their universe. It is tropes like these that magnify the mother as a care-giver alone and internalise the image of the ‘good mother’ in our minds. This culture of glorifying the sacrificing caregiver has led to an unnecessary pedestalisation which invalidates the fact that the mother is ultimately human, has needs and can make mistakes just like every other person in the family. If at all there are any categories, it is a spectrum of experience, flaws, love and individuality rather than just the extreme ends.
As we aspire for an empathetic and kind world, it is crucial that conversations about parenting take place with an intersectional lens. Motherhood should not be seen from sacrifice-tinted glasses, rather, from those of individuality and identity. It is after all every woman’s choice to embrace motherhood the way she deems appropriate.
Aishwaryaa is a multimedia graduate with a passion for storytelling. She likes producing digital content and writes about her experiences, culture, gender and more. She is always eager to learn new things and wants to make films some day. You may find her listening to old Hindi songs and Sufi music especially when it rains.