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Monday, September 26, 2011

A Life Less Extraordinary

At the back of every educated woman's head lurks the suspicion that she's destined for greatness. That's why we went to college after all, when we could just as easily have been reproducing a year into our first period. That's why we learnt how to use the computer before we cooked our first meal. That's why we grew up hearing words like 'career', 'success' and 'balance' - and questions like, "What do you want to do?" We were supposed to make something of ourselves. We were supposed to be better than women who never imagined they could do anything other than rear children. A lot of money was invested in developing our brains so that we could... well, use them.

It's 3.37 am and I am writing this with the heady fumes of Dettol slowly permeating every valuable grey cell that inhabits this skull. That's because the better part of the last hour has been spent cleaning up the healthy portions of half-digested sausage that my son threw up in his bed, on the rug, just outside the bathroom door and then in the bathroom itself. Perhaps I'm writing this because I need an excuse to binge on chocolate cake in the wee hours of the morning. Or maybe the Dettol is clouding my judgement. Who knows. All I can say with confidence is that at this moment, my education is completely useless. The only trail I'm capable of blazing right now is the sort you might see if you threw a burning match at a woman reeking of disinfectant running down a corridor with a wiper.

And that is difficult to accept. It is a tough moment when you realise that after all the years of presuming that you'd become something, you have actually turned out quite ordinary. That your life, too, has been reorganised around the concept of birthday parties, quarterly assessments and macaroni with cheese, just like all those unbearably average women you were always so SURE you were never like. UN reports talk about women like you: they say you are worth educating because you're three times more likely to send your children to school. You too are a majority statistic - and in all likelihood you will stay one.

But is that so bad? What's so unbearable about being the lynchpin of bloody society, after all? Yes, there's no fame or fortune in it. Yes, much of your day is spent in what could only be described as menial tasks. There are no thanks to be had, no certificates of appreciation, no annual bonuses. But you are part of that silent mass of worker ants that holds things together, are you not? If it weren't for this army, fighting its small battles quietly in the background every single day, where would the world be? If we weren't content with playing this supporting role, the whole cast - hell, the whole dang film - would collapse. So yeah... motherhood. It's the most thankless voluntary work in the world, but this is one community service the world cannot do without.

At least that's what I have to tell myself at moments like this one.


  1. sad but true... realistically true words

  2. Thanks... I had actually posted this without finishing it earlier this morning. The updated version is up now. Thanks for reading.

  3. I've grown up hearing the exact words - career, success, and balance. I like to think sometimes that I would never turn out to be like those women... though I never gave a thought to how I've been categorizing the word 'those'. Nor did I ever think about my life beyond the intellectual confines of my university, the summer internships, the job I'm going to be take up in 2012. I'm 22. Thank you for the perspective. I'll learn someday. :)

  4. Twenty-two!!! A-ha! What memories that brings back :-)) What an interesting time in life. I hope you're madly in love with someone cool :-D

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  6. I think it's awesome you choose motherhood over a more demanding career. I totally look up to you and will ask for advice if i'm ever brave enough to attempt it :)

  7. Why thank you, M :-)) That is a good thing to hear!

  8. What a deeply, disturbingly familiar monologue - one that often runs through my head with varying endings.

    What if roles were the other way around, what if women didn't HAVE to be the housewives, what if I'd hired a nanny.

    And so on and so forth.

    But it all ends the same way anyway: rationalizations. :)

  9. I had lunch with a professor today who chose teaching over a position at a law firm so she could be there for her kids. What struck me was how completely at peace she was with the decision, how HAPPY she was.

    I think that is the problem, we make choices without realizing that we are doing just that: choosing. There is no reason why you couldn't be out there doing something other than motherhood. You chose not to. And it's a good thing to question / second guess yourself. It keeps you grounded, and reminds you why you made those choices in the first place.

  10. "Motherhood" sounds like such a heavy phenomenon, an elusive state of mind, a Herculean skill to master. There are only a lucky few who do it right, I think. I fear I might fail miserably.

  11. Since Solom's birth, I've thought over and over what I could have done differently, where I went wrong, why it seemed to have been harder for me than for so many others. These are the conclusions I've reached so far. I don't know if they will be of any help to you, but here goes:

    1. Mothers with postpartum are definitely in more trouble than mothers without. In retrospect, I probably had postpartum and no one saw it, me included. It colours everything, at that time and later (because those are the memories you take ahead with you). I really hope you are able to start this journey with the fullest of your capabilities (inshallah).

    2. It helps to be prepared. Don't have any delusions; be practical; expect extreme adversity.

    3. It helps to be positive, cheerful and determined, even dheetly so. Believe in yourself. I didn't, and no one around me gave me faith in my mothering abilities. Know that if you feel guilty it's because you're socially wired to, not because you're actually a terrible mother. There will be times when you will surprise yourself with your own strength.

    4. Have someone to talk to. HAVE SOMEONE TO TALK TO. H.A.V.E. S.O.M.E.O.N.E. T.O. T.A.L.K. T.O. You live in the land of support groups: use them!

    5. Make sure there's someone to help out. It's very, very physically taxing to go it alone with a new baby. If it requires dishing out money, do it... it's worth it.

    6. Keep some time in the day that is only for you. This will seem impossible when the baby is born and you will think I'm a pseudo-psychologist bullshitter, but hopefully with that dheet positive, cheerful and determined attitude you'll be able to wing it. One hour every day for anything, be it reading a book or dancing or aerobics or a long soak is GOLD. Again, something I realised too late.

    Don't mean to be patronising or prescriptive - just hope these tips will make it a different experience for you. Muah!

  12. I have recently been a little obsessed with the word legacy. What am I going to leave behind in this world having changed it even a tiny bit for the better? Being a mother really does take the wind out of your sails for a while but I think Im trying to keep my eye on the fact that these two kiddos will also be a legacy of mine :) It makes making that choice which you feel is not a choice easier, somehow.

  13. Bilkul sahi! At the end of the day, aur koi chaara nahin hai. I've often said that the biggest contribution you can make to this world is to bring up your child well.

    I like the way you put it, btw: 'making that choice which you feel is not a choice'. You really captured the weight of a decision made in a world with imperfect information!

  14. not a day goes by when I don't question why I am NOT a full time mom. Life would be easier, I think. For I may be working 10 hours in the office, I am riddled with guilt, still have to come home and cook, help with the homework and all that. And no matter what I do, I live continuously with guilt.

    Part of me envies you. To be able to stay at home... and a part of me admires you, for your strength, to devote your whole existence, whole heartedly to the one cause - motherhood.

    Being a working mother hasn't expanded my horizons as much as it has limited the activities I can have with my child.

    Everything said and done. Women question themselves, their existance. I work to set an example for my daughter...that she can have everything, can do everything. Although I'm sure she will grow up and decide to be a begum sahib because the overworked mother was not inspiring. and thus I may fail her.

    We do the best we can Aaf. With or without our degrees, the women try their best. and you might on some days wonder why you dont work, and I wonder everyday why I do? If only we stopped questioning ourselves and our decisions... if only....but then we wouldn't be mothers.

  15. I agree completely. I mirror your thoughts. I *understand* exactly what you're saying.

    For my part, instead of becoming an all out SAHM, I have at least never tried too hard for the really hard core positions because my mother did a fantabulous job of ingraining in me a desire, above all, for personal-domestic duty and peace.

    So I look at this thing from outside the box. I try anyway. Perhaps it's time to realize that all the models for careers we see are incomplete because they are designed only for men. Were it a woman's career, in truth, it would make appropriate accommodations for the woman's reality: that of necessarily having a dual career. A 24-hour-breathless-breakless dual career role. A role of homemaker and mother AND corporate professional/academic/creative artist. If that became the basic foundation on which rules were made, then it would be natural to provide support, give time off longer than the 'generous' 3 months of maternity leave, provide retraining, provide flexible work environments and hours, provide at-the-job-site creches, etc.

    Also, I think that perhaps the standards of education are badly managed (again because the concept of career is so limiting and limited). You can elaborate on this point along the same lines as above.

    So, the question really becomes: we women, who knew in our gut that we would never be just ordinary; who have not only the capability but also the guts for self-reflection and telling it like it is: do we have the gumption, the perserverance and the presence of mind and control over emotion, to effect change in society? A new wave of womens' rights movement?
    And I know I've lost the practical-living-in-the-moment Mommy part of your concentration span already. But next time you're fretting over this topic - tell me what you think about these ideas.

    At least we can talk. And who knows, maybe our daughters will overhear us.

  16. Bush, your words really shook me to the core.

    To pick up on one of the points you've made, I saw a sign in Solom's school that said: If you can't be a good example, then you'll just have to be a terrible warning. I swear I thought the sign was talking to me. I thought, "My son's going to grow up shouting at his children and I won't have the moral ground from which to quiet him down." But that was just another example of me looking to question myself. It's almost as if we feel like worse mothers if we don't keep questioning ourselves.

  17. Aneeqa, always a pleasure to get an analytical take on an issue! ;-) Just as you get where I'm coming from, I recognise and salute the academic in you!

    My thoughts are that in the future, change cannot be brought about by a women's rights movement. Truth be told, we're at the stage where we need a new workers' rights movement in which the right to have a home life is reinstated as one of the top priorities. I firmly believe that as long as men continue to put in insane hours at work, stay on-call over weekends and don't get paternity leave, the responsibility of staying at home will keep falling in the mother's lap and she will keep working overtime to compensate for the father's absence.

    The truth of the matter is, men deserve home-time as well, just as their children deserve father-time. Families need to be together more, and employers - heck, society as a whole - needs to recognise this. You want to know how strongly I feel about this? I think this should be worked into national development indicators. Economic prosperity can come later, dammit.

  18. Afia, quite right. I do think it has more chances of success as a workers' rights movement...and I think the husbands of many working mothers will happily join in the movement. We are indeed nearing the critical mass required.

    Bit of a tangent: There's an article in this weekend's WSJ by the Gates, arguing that teachers ought to be treated as professionals. Got me thinking: I read that primarily as pointing towards higher salaries for teachers too... but then, teachers only get the salaries corresponding to, for lack of a better term (honestly, I tried), their marginal product. This marginal product is low because their 'product' is not directly a money maker for the educator.

    Back to the topic at hand: It's the development of financial systems at frenetic speed that has made modern life even more *lifeless* for anyone who works. The 'reward' people earn for accepting this is their salaries. You want a high salary? You need to sell more of your leisure hours. As you sell more and more of your day, you receive a higher return. That's the stage we're at right now. Anytime you go for a career that allows for greater flexibility and buys fewer leisure hours from each worker, it is inevitably a lower-pay job, even if worker skills/education are very high (I'm thinking of teachers).

    My point about this being something of a women's movement, though, is that this reasoning assumes that money can buy everything. Compensation for leisure hours is made only in the form of money, for men and women alike. For all the major needs a man's role as breadwinner looks to fulfil, this assumption is largely true. For a working woman, though, this assumption is patently false. That's why workplaces need to be reorganized or more accommodative at the very least. That's why education and training before and during a woman's working life needs to be refocused and, heck, perhaps even teach some "life-skills" before launching them into the roles of cook-wife-mom-professional unprepared. (Can this stuff be taught? Or am I just rambling...?)

    To your last point: I believe European welfare-state-type economies do place a fair amount of importance on family-related measures of worker contentment. The work week is restricted by law, maternity leave is a year (Germany), parents are provided grants for children per head, etc. It's doable, we just have to do it.

  19. I guess the certificate of success r perhaps it children who r the reflection of all it hard work.

  20. SAA, good points all of them. What jumped out at me was this one: Compensation for leisure hours is made only in the form of money. For all the major needs a man's role as breadwinner looks to fulfil, this assumption is largely true. For a working woman, though, this assumption is patently false.

    That's a very strong point, although I would extend it to both men and women in that if our starting assumption is that both parents need to be home more for the wellbeing of the children and the household, then the returns on extra money start declining earlier for men too (although yes, not as early as women).

  21. Black Scorpion, you are very, very right. I mean, that's what all of this is for, right? Otherwise our kids could be languishing in the street and we wouldn't care. As I'd said on someone else's blog, though, the rewards of upbringing are neither immediate nor tangible. One HOPES that they'll turn out well, that they won't get into drugs, that they won't make the wrong friends and so on. But it's not guaranteed (they are independent human beings after all) and it's only a long-term goal.

    Take potty training, for instance. That's something that's happening NOW, right? The day your child goes on the commode will be a big deal; it'll be a victory. But will it make up for the fifteen times s/he pooped or peed on the sofa? It's a tough call. You're just very TIRED by the time that happens. And it's difficult to shake the knowledge that you're jumping with excitement over STOOL.

    Everyday victories and rewards are a complicated matter in motherhood, I feel. Don't you think?

  22. I loved reading this piece...I have three kids..,left my job wheen the first one was born.But that was my decision.And I somehow still think that I did right,although Im still adjusting to the fact that Im a house wife..I have to kill my ambitions on a daily basis..sometimes when I scold my kiddies I feel I should better do a job to stay away from them for a while,return with a guilt and love them thoroughly...but then how would I do justice to my work?and who would take care of the kids when Im away...and the confusion becomes further confounded :).What I do is,I keep on telling myself that Im happy..and that keeps me going..

  23. ok! this piece clinched it for me. where are the awards?
    i am voting, now.

  24. Oooh! Exciting :-) Hope you were able to find those yellow stars!

  25. Really amazing and lovely

  26. "...Motherhood is the most thankless voluntary work in the world...".

    Far before our century the ancient civilization of the Aztecs were cutting peoples' heads off and limbs; almost like a wild boar on a skewer, at one of Richard The Third's banquets. I believe they accumulated the most gold but what matters are the momentous, rocky buildings they left behind.

    What is important about voluntary work is you go down a stream of self endorsement - self promotion, marketing yourself as an apt and committed parent upholding the sedimentary laws that your mother held when you were a baby.

    When your child is mature you know it was because of you and your hard work; then your child becomes your accreditation. (I'm sure Solomon is already the pinnacle of your life).

    "Hmm, what can I think of higher the a 'Masters' ? Aha yes, then you get the honorary doctorate - in parenting."

    Lots of praise for staying up so late, and publishing your works.