Imagine: Let’s smash the myth of work-life balance for working mothers

No man is ever asked how he manages to keep the work-life balance; it is an expectation from women only.

I am asked very often how I manage my work-life balance as I work, write and also have a family with two children. And people get taken aback, when I tell them that actually there is no such balance in my life and have no idea what it looks like. As Alain de Botton, writer and philosopher put it, “There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life.”

My family is my priority but there have been times when I have been pulled away from it as I was preoccupied with some exciting project at work or immersed in writing of a particular book. As a young mother, I carried a huge amount of guilt about my struggle with my work-life balance till the time I realised that my family had no problem with my way of working. They accepted and were fine with my tendency to give my all to whatever I was working on. It was the internalised “gaze” of what a “good mother” should be like that had haunted me for so long. Now I have come to accept and have fun with this crazy, messy life of a working mother. I am not perfect, and I will end up in some sticky situations, but that is all right.

I also do not subscribe to this concept as it makes work out to be some kind of sentence where only when you have clocked in your 9 to 5, you are allowed to have access to your life. Work is very much part of our life isn’t it, especially counting the number of hours we invest in it every day? I also feel it does not serve women well. There is always that expectation of “doing it all” with a very high bar of expectations and huge guilt if she does not reach it. And she can’t — no human being can, and it is just a myth which takes a toll on so many working mothers.

No man is ever asked how he manages to keep the work-life balance; it is an expectation from women only. I visualise it as a mother, precariously balanced on a tight rope between work and life, juggling several balls, being watching closely by judgmental eyes. One wrong step and she is doomed.

So having first unspooled the concept of work-life balance and “doing it all”, let’s also put it out very clearly that a working mother’s life can be a big fat struggle. A friend had once, in exasperation, likened it to a mix of a dog trying to catch its tail and a headless chicken, and she was so right! When my kids were little, I used to work part-time which actually turned out to be putting in a full week’s work on half the salary. And on top of that, making sure I was packing in every moment possible with my kids — morning rush for the bus and returning from work for blitzkrieg of playtime, homework, reading, dinner, bath, bedtime with all the laughter, noise, squealing, squabbles, screeches, messes that the little human beings carry around with them to catching up with some work before finally crashing exhausted to start the next day again.

Then there is snatching time from work for PTMs, annual days, not to mention when they are sick and you are trying to tend to them and catching up on some deadlines. Though I had a husband who was equally involved in childcare but still there was not much of a balance and a whole lot of disorderly muddle. This can become more of a battle when you happen to be a single mum, with not much of a support or have a child with disability or dealing with strained finances on top of all this.

The biggest downside of this issue is that we locate the problem and the solution of it in the mothers rather than coming together as a society to deal with it. Our organisations have to work out humane and just maternity policies, flexibility and wherever possible child care services. They are not doing anybody a favour but themselves. We know from research that happy, healthy workers are an asset rather than the ones who are exhausted, isolated and burnt out.

If I had to share a few ideas I could share with all the working mothers out there, it would be these:

  • Avoid the perfectionist virus as much as possible. Clutter, chaos noise comes with the territory so let it be.
  • Try to stay away from the addictive stuff as it will just suck away all your precious time that you need to keep for yourself and the kids – like social media, Netflix, etc. I remember for me it was fiction as once I picked up a book I would not resurface for the day – ignored the kids, shrugged off deadlines and growled every time I was asked a question.
  • Have a voice and do not let the guilt and shame define you. Nobody is doing you any favours so speak up if you need a certain level of flexibility at work. Share as much of housework, childcare with your partner/husband as possible. Don’t try to take everything on yourself.
  • Plan, plan, plan your week and your days as much as possible – your children’s routine, your work projects, shopping, meals, child care and on the days when nothing seems to be working out, just smile, go with the flow and let it be.
  • Safeguard times for things that revive you — fun times with friends, laughter, music, yoga, books, movies, holidays, good food, anything that keeps you going.
  • Hold on to the bigger picture in mind — outbreak of lice, homework not completed, missed baths, etc, might seem like a disaster at that time, but they really do not matter so much in the long run.
  • Keep the best of yourself for your kids. It is so easy to get wrapped up in work especially the recognition, and immediate reward from it can make it so much more rewarding than the daily grind of childcare which does not get us much appreciation and no financial gains.

We might be engaged, full of creative ideas and enthusiasm at work but if after our return home we are just exhausted, grouchy and snapping at the little people who matter most to us, then, a possible re-balancing is in order. You work, or you don’t work is your choice, but giving your better part of yourself to your kids is non-negotiable.

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