Working Mothers In India: Its TOUGH – But WHY?

Posted: September 28, 2013
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Ever since I started my journey as a mother about 4 years back, I’ve been on this QUEST. The quest on why is it so “TOUGH” for working mothers in India.

Over the last few years, I have read extensively on this subject, quizzed several working mothers, observed and analyzed several real-life scenarios and done a lot of thinking on this subject based on my own experiences and what I’ve seen in the lives of individuals around me. Specifically, on what are the multidimensional issues which most working mothers in India have to endure.

My first learning was this | As a working woman, you can’t ignore the influence of your immediate living environment on the challenges you face, the choices and decisions you make.  Every country has its own legacy, history, evolution, growth story, political scenario, policies, laws, educational framework, economic growth, culture, “ways of living” and employment guidelines which influence the mind-set of the “community at large”; and this creates unique set of country-specific-issues when it comes to the topic of “Working Mother and the issues they face”. India is no exception.

My second discovery was this | The thoughts, opinions and views on the subject of whether mothers should work, and what kind of professions would be suitable / favorable is still very diverse and spreads across the spectrum. I don’t see any general consensus, or strong majority emerge here – irrespective of educational background, socioeconomic strata, which generation one belongs to or even whether the person speaking is a man / father or woman / mother. So I’ve seen modern well-educated middle-class women (between 25 to 30) who strongly believe that it is absolutely essential for a mother to focus on bringing up her child and make whatever personal / professional sacrifices this entails. And I’ve seen grandfathers from very conservative mind-sets who are strongly vocal about the fact that their daughters / daughters-in-law / grand-daughters pursue long term meaningful careers.

The third comprehension was this | For the vast majority of the average working woman in India, there is no universal definition of what “work life” balance is. So to each mother, her own! And rightly so!

The forth eye-opener was this | In many real-life situations, the REAL issues were not related to their individual competencies of a women / mother, or the corporates they were a part of: but more deeply related to issues of the “self” and “upbringing”

So what are the multi-dimensional aspects that make it TOUGHER for the “working mother” in India? Sharing my personal views in this post.

NOTE: In most instances, it was a combination of the below factors which made it tougher for a working mother in India

Why is life tough for working mothers in India?1)      ISSUES RELATED TO THE “SELF”

(i)    The DNA of a Woman / Strong “Maternal Instinct”: In a vast majority of the instances, what made is especially harder for a working mother in India is her own strong “maternal instinct”; which compels her to quit the workforce and be with her children full-time, or explore flexible work options which enable her to be the kind of mother she aspires to be. These choices or decisions obviously came with some trade-offs with respect to her professional growth and aspirations. And these very choices and decisions are the cause for feelings of uncertainty, guilt, dissatisfaction and a varying sense of self-esteem.

From what I’ve seen, the manifestation of this “maternal instinct” is very specific to your country / culture! And so the Indian mother has her own emotional issues and limitations – which are very personal and subjective to her!

(ii)    Mental Conditioning of a Woman: For many Indian working mothers, the everyday battles they had to fight were related to their own mental conditioning – which is deeply and directly influenced by the living environment one is a part of. So if you’re parents / spouse / in-laws / community you’re a part of continuously make the point that your first duty as a woman is that of a mother; and that the primary responsibility of a mother is towards your child; then at some point – the mother gives-in; mentally, emotionally and professionally.

(iii)    Desire / Passion to Work: In many cases, a lot of women themselves did not have any desire / passion to work; or it is very low. The truth is that Indian women who have built meaningful long term careers had a burning desire / passion to work, and they found ways to make it work! Sure there were career brakes or career breaks; but over a period of time they did manage to build a successful career because of this passion, focus, hard-work, openness, flexibility and dedication.

2)      ISSUES RELATED TO THE “FAMILY”

(i)    Upbringing: Interestingly, the first note-worthy observation I made was around how a woman’s upbringing made all the difference in her own definition of what is expected of a “mother”, her own self-worth and her role at home and in society. All of this determines whether or not she continues to work after becoming a mother. In many instances, the influence of your upbringing can drastically alter your career path once you become a mother. For e.g.: Many working mothers quit regular full-time corporate jobs due to pressures from family. In some cases, they opt for professional commitments which provide flexibility – and end up as freelancers or consultants or entrepreneurs. And in many cases, they accept their primary role and identity of a mother, and only a mother; and completely give up their professional identity.

If your parents / family / friends / people in your immediate network continuously drive home the point (in words, actions and interactions) that “The duty of a mother is only and only towards her children”, chances are that you’ll end up giving your career the minute you become a mother.

Similarly, if your parents / family / friends / people in your immediate network continuously drive home the point that “The primary responsibility of a man is to earn money, and be treated like royalty within the 4 walls. And that of a woman is to bear and raise children”, chances are once you become parents you will compel your spouse to give all her waking time and attention to the role of being a mother. And then the mother’s career is just never an option or consideration

(ii)   Rise of “Nuclear Families”: The other reality of India today is the increasing rise of nuclear families. In such a set-up, it is imperative for one of the parent to play an active role during the early years of child-growth and development. In majority of the cases, again it is the mother who takes a career break. And after the break, it definitely takes time for your career to build up and flourish. This comes at a price in terms of both career growth and financial earnings.

 (iii)   Unequal Partnerships at Home – Husband’s “Hands-Off” Approach: This is somewhat related to the point (i) above. One’s upbringing and conditioning determine how “hands-on” or “hands-off” the husband / father is within the four walls.

 In several Indian homes, there are “unequal partnerships”. After a long tiring day [even when the working mother works as hard / sometimes even harder as her husband], once she returns home – she is still expected to cook, clean and take care of home-work and attend to the other demands of the husband / children and maintain the house. Over a period of time – all this adds to the stress levels, and can exhaust working mothers that they start under-performing at work, or they re-calibrate their own expectations of themselves.

There are ample research, reports and articles on how every mother (whether she is working or not) puts in more hours per week towards child care and domestic responsibilities at home; as compared to the father. In the scenario of a working mother, based on the kind of profession you are in – this can be a huge disadvantage, and can come at the price of her career. Simply put, if you have 24 hours in a day and need to put in 14 hours / day on an average towards your maternal duties and domestic responsibilities, you can give to work only 10 hours / day all inclusive (Travel + Actual work). On the other hand, the father can easily commit to giving work 16 hours / day. A willingness and practical feasibility of giving 6 extra hours / day add up to almost 1440 hours / year. That’s a lot of difference in working hours – as far as an organization is concerned.

I’ve heard a lot of the Indian urban men telling their wives in no uncertain terms that they will not contribute towards the domestic responsibilities. “Hire staff, but don’t expect me to help out” is the message loud and clear. And the latest trend I’ve heard is one in which the men say it’s OK even if they working mothers don’t do anything at home. That way they believe its equal partnership at home!????

(iv)  Expectations in line with a “Full Time Mother” and “Full Time Working Professional”; No real-life role model for “Working Mother”: This is probably the most important issue, but less acknowledged. Typically, we all know what to expect from a “Full Time Mother”; and there are umpteen role models for how / what she should be and do. The best examples for a vast majority of people are our own mothers. And then there are umpteen examples of role models (men / women) for how / what a “Full Time Working Professional” should be and do. Again, the best examples for a vast majority of people are our own fathers.

The reality of today is that the working mothers is expected to live up to both these role models – That of a “Full Time Mother” and a “Full Time Working Professional” and is compared judged and rated with both these “role models”. The truth is that she will almost always fall short. And that only adds to her stress levels, guilt, expectations of herself – all of which does impact her professional growth and output, not to mention personal well-being.

(v)    The “6C” Children of the New Era: Children of this generation are Complex, Confident, Communicative, Commanding, Competent and  Complicated Children. And they are all probably good. Just that as a working mother, dealing with a 6C child every single day only adds to what any mother has to endure, listen, do and deal with on a daily basis. I’ve discussed this with so many successful working mothers of the earlier generation, and they all unanimously agreed that while they did not have modern technology / gadgets / support staff, they had easier children and children’s issues as compared to the working mothers of today!

(vi)   Expectations of family / extended family: Again, not much description required. But the “Indian family” is an important and integral part of our lives. As per Indian culture / traditions, women / mothers are expected to live up to some expectations from the family / extended family. Be it in terms of the kind of professions she can select and choose, the kind of work hours she can clock-in, the kind of things she has to do at home, etc etc. All these expectations don’t really make it easy for a working mother. After a point, I know so many working mothers who just give up these every day fights and just choose stay silent / ignore – for the sake of their children, their own mental peace, and their own well-being. Not every battle is worth fighting you see!

(vii)     The Complex Indian Meal: Again, this was not in my original list till I spoke to working mothers from other parts of the world. And one thing which they all mentioned was how little time they spent in the kitchen dishing up their meals – especially once they become mothers – Eating left-overs, cooking over week-ends and storing food, getting take-aways were all perfectly fine.

However, in many Indian homes these modern ways are not always OK – especially if there are children. The Indian meals have always been long drawn affairs taking hours in the kitchen. And in many homes, every meal is supposed to be cooked fresh and hot! Since many of us have grown up in homes where our mothers were home-makers, so our staple diet has been the traditional Indian meal invariably cooked and served hot just-in-time. These are eating habits which have been built over 20+ years. And it is tough to change habits overnight.

So with this generation of working mothers, it becomes a challenge to find that balance between old habits, the lifestyle of today and overall health & wellness.

(viii) Health Issues / Lifestyle Disorders in the Family : I have seen too many ambitious and successful working mothers who’ve had challenges in managing their professional and personal life because of health related issues / lifestyle disorders in the family (husband / children / their own). These range from obesity, to allergies (like Asthma), to depression and psychological issues. For e.g.: An acquaintance who is a Bollywood script-writer took a 2 year break because her son went into severe depression. I heard of another IT professional whose 4 year old son simply stopped talking one fine day. Medically, everything was normal. So the mother took a 6 month break from work to just be there for him. I know of several working mothers who have been diagnosed with anxiety related disorders, and again had to take a career break.

3)      ISSUES RELATED TO “SOCIETY”

(i)     The society and era we live in: We call this era the “Kalyug”. There’s evil everywhere. Lies, Theft, Cheating, Kidnapping, Stealing, Child Sex Abuse, etc. all are part of everyday news: These are indeed not safe times. Simple things like travelling in an auto or any public transport (more so in some cities) is unsafe. Even if you hire staff, reliability is an issue; and many parents don’t want to leave children with custody of drivers / nannies – till you’re 100% confident. So what does that mean? One parent has to cut-down on work; and be with the child. In majority of the cases, its the mother who is expected to do this. And that does impact her career / professional growth

(ii)     This Well-Known Male “EGO”: I don’t need to say anything here. Suffice to say, that the well-known male “EGO” is real and prevalent – at home, at the workforce, and in the world at large – This can many times make things difficult for a women, and more so for a working mother.

(iii)     Lack of affordable quality child-care: Child-care costs are increasing with each passing day. And with the kind of salaries and hikes which people are getting year on year, many times it just does not make economic sense to enroll in child-care. So one parent has to again cut down on work commitments and be with the child till he / she starts formal school. Again, invariably it is the mother who ends up doing this! And this could translate to a break of 3 – 5 years, after which she has to re-build her career. It takes time, hard-work, lot of determination: which can be tough for many a working mother – especially if she has limited family support. As a consequence – many women start their second careers – again either doing freelance work or take up other professions like teaching, writing, etc.

(iv)    The rising boom of extra-marital affairs: Again, this is indeed a reality of modern India. One of the most vulnerable times for a man to get involved with other women is after they become parents. Most mother’s give their 200% to the maternal duties and responsibilities. And at the same time, I’ve seen so many intelligent, smart men get involved into extra-marital affairs when they become fathers. Once a man is involved in an extra-marital affair and you already have kids, it simply complicates the family life equation. And for many women, the sheer emotional trauma, hurt and uncertainty of the future compel them to pursue full-time high pressure careers so that they can provide quality upbringing and life for their children.

(v)  The Changing Face of Education and its Competitive Nature :  Education has changed in the past few decades, and it has become really competitive today. Just keeping up with everyday home-work, assignments and school work can be a close to full-time job for parents, especially if you’re the kind who is completely involved in your child’s studies. Adding to this is the concept on “Continuous” assessments and evaluations in which kids have atleast one – two tests every week along with 1 project atleast in a fortnight. So you need to be on your toes almost all through the year.

4)      ISSUES RELATED TO THE “ORGANIZATION”

(i)      Limited Organizational Support during transition phases: Most working mother’s goes through a phase of transition when their children are small and yet to start formal education. During this phase, the most important factor that can make a difference is “flexibility at the work place”. While several organizations do provide some level of flexibility to women, and it is high on the priority list for several others – There is a considerable time lag between policy and action. So many working mothers have to make tough choices – which can come at the cost of their child’s upbringing or their own professional growth. These career breaks again come at a price in terms of a mothers professional success.

(ii)   Limited Mentorship / Guidance for working women during transition phases: Having a “real mentor” can make an ocean of difference in the life and career of working mothers. However, the sad reality of today is that many working mothers have never really had mentors; and so they don’t know what it means to have one or what difference a mentor can make in your life. A mentor can provide the much needed ear, shoulder and perspective on how to handle career transitions, career breaks / brakes and also provide a long term career view on how to handle many of the critical career milestones. Working mothers who’ve handled these situations in the past can make an ocean of difference by just sharing their own personal journey and what worked for them. There are no universal mantras, but many times just knowing that you’re not in the boat alone can provide the well needed motivation to keep going – even with the going is rough!

That concludes my list. Would like to hear your views on why it is so hard for a working mother in India? Leave a comment to share your experiences.

Pic credit: Divine Harvester (Used under a Creative Commons license) 

 

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25 Comments


  1. CP

    Nice points, Only one comment that it is tougher for women to work and raise kid all over the world as well as in India. Indian women still have the choice to get domestic helps or extended families but in developed parts that is also not there. Indian women in India get a lot of sympathy while they go through pregnancy at home, work and society which is not so common in many other countries. So in physical sense Indian women are in a better place working India. In terms of mental make-up, social conditioning and social expectations – Yes, a lot of things to be done in India.

    • Nischala Murthy Kaushik

      Chandrima – Agreed that the life of a working mother is a challenge no matter where you are.. But I think it depends completely on your individual set-up.. While in India, there is help on some fronts.. Sometimes the help is not reliable, or the expectations are too high if people have helped you through pregnancy / initial mommy days. For e.g.: I know of people who never asked anyone to help them in child raising, and yet family offered help. Then when the situation warranted those who helped expected the “mom” to quit her job to take care of their needs.. Sometimes its tough to set and manage expectations in India, and its even harder to say NO! Nischala

    • oilseed

      I like this article, especially in the case of single working mothers in India there is a lot of bad stigma given to that. I’ve met a lot of very strong women, but it is also the exception rather than the norm when you see single working mothers in India, there’s an up-an-coming article about it on this website http://www.oilseedgroup.com Thanks for the insights!

  2. Very comprehensive post with relevant points!!

    Agree with u completely…

    In India, motherhood is glorified and if a woman doesnt get pregnant, she is taunted..once a baby comes, people shut their mouths for sometime and dont bother how the new parents are coping..within a year or two, they ask about the “second one!!” and God forbid, if the first child is a daughter, the mother will be asked to produce a “son!”

    This cycle goes on even among educated, well-to-do families..only a woman who has the passion to build a career can continue working after kid(s)..

    In my case, i took a break of 2 years to raise my daughter as i had no support..joined back work about 2 years back and somehow juggling work and a kid!

    • Nischala Murthy Kaushik

      Sri – Thanks for stopping by and for your comments! Firstly congrats to you for getting back to work. After I became a mom, I have a new found respect for every working mother (especially those who do it with little / no support)… You have to be really strong (emotionally and mentally) to have a long term meaningful career.. And of course, you should want it.. Else the journey is full of storms! Good luck for a long and successful career ahead! Nischala

  3. Agree with the 6C Children point completely..today’s children are definitely a complex lot! I never thought problems such as depression in children existed earlier but now, situations like these are not uncommon in children. As far as work life balance goes, Indians have never realized that one. They work on weekends, public holidays and on vacations too! All without realizing the cost of being in work-mode 24×7!

  4. Damned if you do… damned if you don’t!

  5. Hi Nischala,

    Very nice article. I actually came across this website while searching for dinner ideas for my 18 month old son.
    I am an Electrical engineer by profession and have been working in Singapore since 2008 ( shortly after my Btech in India). I too took a 2 year break for my pregnancy & childcare. I re-started working around 6months back. Though we have very good childcare facilities over here in Singapore, balancing work & life can still be a huge challenge ( especially in Singapore’s workaholic culture). However, my husband has always been very supportive and on weekdays he does most of the childcare activities ( all the feeding, bathing, diaper, …). Our only major issue is dinner during the weekdays. Currently our son has runny eggs & 2 bananas almost every night ( he seems to enjoy it & its very healthy too), but I am worried about the time when he would be bored with it.

  6. Hi Nischala,
    You have definitely done an extensive research on the topic. Every word is too true to the core. I can relate myself in many of your statements. The descriptions under the following topics were more certainly real and it is what is happening currently in most of the indian families. You nailed it.
    mental conditioning of women
    unequal partnerships
    6C
    expectations of family
    complex indian meal

    “I know so many working mothers who just give up these every day fights and just choose stay silent / ignore – for the sake of their children, their own mental peace, and their own well-being. Not every battle is worth fighting you see!” – u just read my mind. I gave up my career for the sake of my child and above all for my own mental piece. I could not handle a demanding profession and a family at the same time. So i just gave up.

    The below line has to be mentioned in bold letters and with big size font.
    “This Well-Known Male “EGO”: I don’t need to say anything here.”

    Great post!

  7. Dr sonali…..Hi i superliked the article.i m dentist by profession and my son is nine month old. M facing many problems managing work and childcare.my inlaws babysit when am at work but expect lot of work to be done by me when i return home and kinda show obligation for babysitting.my husband is also dentist and we have same clinic where we both work.
    I am completely agrred with all the points in the article.
    I stay with inlaws and face many problems like domination by motherinlaw and husband.i am going through hard time of my life.

    • Nischala Murthy Kaushik

      Sonali – Glad you could relate to the article. I think there are no easy solutions. We all need to find our own answers based on our circumstances.. But I have huge respect and admiration for any working mother. Suffice to say, it is TOUGH!

  8. MEENAKSHI PANDEY -

    Really very well written article. I am Engineer by profession and my baby is just an year old. I got really good help at my home for baby sitting,with very good support at personal front but i went through tough time in office. What i have realized in past 2-3 yrs is that industry gives preference to Men or Ladies with grown up Kids because if gal has 2-3 yrs of work experience, surely she is going to settle soon, so company or Manager have to bear those leaves/transition and if at all she is recently married ,then for sure she can go on ML soon, so who will bear paid ML and work on her behalf. Sad but true face of Indian Industry.

  9. You haven’t missed a single point that I always had in mind & in general.. Very comprehensive! When would this setup change? I am still waiting. I juggled and juggled when my son came into this world but did not take any help except from my husband. Enrolled him t I cant think of any more pointers but here is how I am trying to make a difference:
    Bring up my son in a way that he respects women & stops stereotyping..
    Alot of mothers approach me when they are completely helpless and still want to go on with their careers. A typical situation when elders @ home refuse to help as the new mother is adamant on continuing with her career. I motivate them and help them in whichever way I can 🙂

  10. I have been overseeing for this kind of articles and came across this one which is 100% true and applicable to every Indian women(irrespective of any location they stay).

    I stay in US and has 3 year old daughter – life in US is much complicated than India with household chores (maid is expensive).. each and every task has to be taken care by family. However, Indian men mindset will never change – men earns, women earns+ do household things+ take care of child. so i cannot change his mindset(if i try to change, everyday will be battle).. just keep silent/ignore to keep mental peace and had to suppress due to child where we cannot fight in front of kid, such a pathetic condition to express emotions.being calm which encourages men to continue as they are…. Indian meals – yes i agree.. they take lengthy process and takes lot of vessels to clean by EOD. Ultimately, builds up frustration and weakens relationship.

    Men upbringing life style has to change.. mothers need to teach to take care of child self activities instead of helping. Let them cook, do laundry, take care of kids…. need to teach men and women are equal and has to share equal responsibilities in any role( as a kid, husband, father, grandfather). our parents life style is different – men meant for work and women meant for housewife and taking care of kids which was applicable but in current generation, men and women have to be equal since both earns and let them share all activities. In US, Americans has equal respect for male and female and volunteer help towards each others. During childcare, men will equally participate in the parenthood from diaper changing till feeding. this kind of good things need to be influenced from western culture rather absorbing bad things.

    • I totally agree..it is all in our hands to make future better for women atleast for one in my case 🙂

  11. Great work Nischala, relevant points to which I would like to add one more…In India it does not matter that you are giving your 200% to being a mother and 150% at your workplace and another 80% to your own domestic chores and 0% to yourself…..You still have to attend all social and/or religious functions, be their for all relatives especially at the beck and call of the senior generation. God forbid if you miss that part

  12. Excellent article! another problem is now-a -days most bold and working women get jobless husbands.Most of the talented and intelligent girls get jobless boys, even though they are jobless none of the above said problem of women have changed.Moreover mother’s of such jobless boys are very clear so that boy should not do any household jobs ,because it will become his permanent job.Such heartless women much change again this heartlessness is all because of ego problem between the parents.This is another big point Ego between the two parents is like adding fuel to the young working women problems.

  13. you are absolutely right..i am facing almost all the problems..now i am in verge of losing of my career.My baby is just an year old,my in laws doesn’t like to live in the city,so they are pressuring me to give my baby to them.they dont like the idea of having a babysitter..i don’t want to be separated from my baby..so i am in dilemma..in my mind & heart my baby comes first..i dont want to lose him.everyday i am mentally depressed..doing domestic works,child care and 9 hours office ,2 hours travelling..it is really tiring ..everyday is world war to me in my mind..seeing your article clearly shows i am not alone atleast

  14. Totally appreciate this writeup. The way you have organized the article is superb.

  15. I completely agree with Nischala. Also I have observed one thing at work place were I have give 8 years of my life that post my child my appraisal got degraded just with the excuse that I leave office early i.e 7 PM which I have to due to my little baby girl at home even if I don’t leave the office without finishing my work . They assume that people will not raise any voice against this because they dont have any other option then to continue working over here as they are not in a position to move to new assignment in the present scenario with small child at home.

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