Of A Million Indra Nooyis And Their Mothers

Posted: July 11, 2014

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Pepsi Co President Indra Nooyi’s mother asked her to leave the crown in the garage. As mothers, how supportive would you be of a daughter’s career?

In an interview, Indra Nooyi, top honcho of Pepsico, speaks of what women of Indian heritage will identify with – the family that encourages further education, but also pushes for early marriage (and motherhood). She jokingly talks about the conflict between the biological clock and career aspirations and how one can never really ‘have-it-all’.

She also talks about an evening, when she was told by her mother to go back and buy milk before she could enter the house; when in fact, that evening, she was bursting to tell everyone about her big, fat ascension to being President of Pepsico.

Her mother emphasized that inside the home, she was a wife and mom, while the crown had to stay in the garage.

Postponing the marriage debate

In this interview, I was struck by two things.

The first – the still single ‘unmarried child.’

I grew up in a time when women were waking up to feminism (that’s Ok within limits), Western clothes (appropriate censoring by dads), liberation (ha! You already are !) and free thinking (what’s that?).

I can identify with Ms. Nooyi, whose mom apparently wished her to study further, but wanted her to get married early. Although encouraged by parents to study and ‘go ahead’ in life, we were still largely submissive and bowed to their wishes (after some struggle) when matrimony was discussed. But, I can clearly remember my irritation when the topic was brought up by well-meaning persons of our acquaintance.

Although encouraged by parents to study and ‘go ahead’ in life, we were still largely submissive and bowed to their wishes (after some struggle) when matrimony was discussed.

Fast forward to the present day – young women now are definitely more competitive, career oriented and focused on creating their own identity, income and niche in their chosen fields. Nothing else has changed except that young girls are being badgered about their ‘shaadi’ and biological clock at least five to seven years later.

Guilty as charged

During a family gathering, a savvy young woman of twenty-five, a medical professional was asked if she would like to look at prospective bridegrooms. The person at the other end of her polite negative rejoinder was – yours truly.

An hour or so of ruminating about this incident brought me face to face with some very unpleasant facts (about myself and others like me).

  1. Women who were the “brides” back then, are the mothers, aunts, neighbours and ‘well-wishers’ for the present-day women. So the nosey parker that I had resented twenty-five years ago was now me, reincarnated!

  2. Regardless of the situation, it never, ever fails to help if one merely puts oneself in the shoes of the person that one is ‘helping-out’. Would you have liked it if such questions were asked of you or your loved ones?

  3. The woman in question, in my case, is someone who is as close as a daughter to me. But the closeness of your perceived relationship to a person should not make you overstep boundaries.

  4. Questions about biological clock and ‘needing’ to be married are moot, since young women today are well aware of the pitfalls of what they can, should, will do.

  5. In any case, marriage is too big a step to consider for reasons such as society, clocks (biological or others) and threats of ‘loneliness’ in old age. Some married women that I know are very lonely, while some singles have a great social life.

So, my advice to all the aunties (me included), and neighbours who enquire about the unmarried girls of a family would be, GET A LIFE!

The second aspect: a career for your daughter

When you educate your daughter, and encourage her to get a degree, you are an equal partner in her success. Remember that extra inch that you went to see that she had the best coaching, all those nights that you stayed up with her for her exams, those tears of joy that you shed when she did well? That means that you have an equal stake in her career and success.

…when she starts to climb up that ladder that was blueprinted by you, don’t stand there at the bottom rattling it and shaking it. Hold it steady for your daughter the way you would for your son.

So, when she starts to climb up that ladder that was blueprinted by you, don’t stand there at the bottom rattling it and shaking it. Hold it steady for your daughter the way you would for your son.

Don’t ask what she cooked for her hubby and kids and compound her “mommy-guilt” and “spouse-guilt”. Ask her what accolades she won at work.

Don’t ask if she attends PTA in that accusatory tone. Ask if she had time for lunch amidst the flurry of meetings she had at the office.

Don’t judge her if the planning of the birthday party or family gathering was a little shaky. Offer to help out, instead.

Don’t look at her with “How could You” eyes when she has to work when her child is sick. Drop in and give her a hand!

Don’t ask her to run out and buy milk when she is tired. Break out the milk powder! And make do.

Share her triumphs and disasters at home and work. Give a firm shoulder to cry upon and bequeath her a spine that will stand up to the greatest storms. Your role as a mother does not ever end. If you can do that for your son as well as your daughter, that makes YOU a great mom!

If you manage that for your daughter-in-law as well, then Kya Baat Hai!

Pic credit: World Economic Forum (Used under a CC license) 

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  1. while the mother’s behaviour had me reeling and nodding my head all through this piece, I found Indra Nooyis reaction to her daughters coffee meetings quite disturbing as well… instead of sitting with her and explaining that the coffee doesnt form the basis of their relation and the work she does, she (a CEO) finds time to call the school to find out how many mothers dont turn up and rattles that list out to her daughter as a response.. was this the right behaviour as a mother?.. I wonder…. well written post this!

    • Perhaps rattling out the list of absentee mothers should be seen in context.
      Most of the time, children return home and say, “So- and- so’s mum was there… where were you? MOM!” This lays on the guilt real thick.
      The response to that in the case of a really small kid is, “Well, I know some mothers who were not there as well.”
      This is not a tit-for-tat with your kid, but letting her/him know that they are not alone in the absent-mom-at-the -PTA situation.

  2. That was very brilliant! All the thoughts that are eating my mind ever since I read the statement, couldn’t have been written better. You share responsibilities, provide solutions, love, care, everything, but at the end of the day, if you don’t feel “you don’t have it all”, if you don’t have guilt about not being a good wife/mom, you are not a GOOD WOMAN. This is what people around you make you feel. And you accept it, they feel they are victorious.
    And on the part where you ask mom’s to be supportive of their daughters and daughters-in-law, couldn’t have nailed it better.
    Thanks a lot, for voicing people like me, and putting forth such a wonderful article.

    • Thanks. Krubha.
      At the centre of our hearts we all crave our parent’s support and approval, the way we do not crave anything else.
      It we receive it, we are indeed blessed.
      If we give it our children and respect their choices, it is the best thing we can pass on.

  3. I try very hard not to be the well wishing female relative. Most of the times I am not. It puts me in a precarious position with the elders of the family, but hey I never did really care for what the older generation thinks anyway. But I do have a bone to pick with the younger crop of girls who think that marriage and kids are for behenjis!
    Women today have fantastic opportunities and are very close to having it all. I completely support all the women in my family to go get their dreams fulfilled. But please don’t chide the ones who chose raising a family as opposed to raising a career. Maybe they are living their dream too. Respect each other’s choice and revel in the joy.

    • Every generation thinks they have all the answers. And reject the wisdom of the earlier one!
      I often think that if at twenty, I had the wisdom that I possess now, I would have lived life differently…. But try telling that to my twenty year old kid!!!

  4. Nice one…. the biological clock ticking debate goes on regardless. … still its nice to know that its ok to “not have it all”. My mother worked for as long as I remember. .. She only retired after I myself started working… but we have never felt deprived of anything so to speak. .but she sometimes feels guilty of not being able to attend some of our school events. .still we never doubted her love or care. Its what made my brother and I so very independent. Now, that I have a child of my own, I wish I could be half as good a mother my mom was to us. I think the guilt is always there for working mothers..but with a proper support system in place, our children do grow up healthy and loved.

    • Yup, Tabitha. Your mother seems to be a wonderful person. Not only did she have a job outside her home, she also managed her home and gave her children the confidence and some to look up to!

  5. Very honest observations including the disapproval of her mother’s’ s demand to get milk. It’s quite cleat Nyoogi did not have it easy. . But she built get coping mechanisms optimally to get her to great heights. Several women have done that and their secret seemed not to ride this wave of guilt.

    • Guilt is what undermines the efforts of all mothers. I agree.
      The only thing that counters it is having someone around you who will reassure you that you are doing a great job.

  6. This interview pissed me off no end. It’s one thing when khap panchayats make stupid statements about women, and another when a successful woman who should know better does it instead. I’d written about this a couple of days earlier too: http://www.bhagwad.com/blog/2014/rights-and-freedoms/youre-the-ceo-of-pepsi-whatever-go-get-milk.html/

    • Hey.I read your blog.
      Ms. Nooyi may be at the top in her organization. But, she cannot be faulted for having human emotions and insecurities like the rest of us women!!! She can also have mommy- guilt and feel that she could be better at the home front. This comes from the values and ideals that one grows up with ( middle class Indian in this case!!!) and, perhaps very little with the success that she has achieved.

      I feel that by not being smug about her life and talking about her journey and difficulties in a frank manner, Ms.Nooyi has opened a flood of discussion about these issues. That is a great start.

  7. Well written Ujwala. The family needs to support women in their efforts to scale greater heights but the most important point is that women also need to stop feeling guilty and be smart to ask for help. Look at the positive side, children become independent, they get larger exposure to the world through the eyes of their mother, the family becomes financially more comfortable and the economy benefits because of the contribution from talented women.

    • Vanaja, I could not agree more.
      Mothers are a very important part of a support system that gives working women the courage and ability to go back to their jobs and careers after motherhood.

  8. Well expressed ujwala…
    Exactly my sentiments… a wife, a daughter-in-law, a mom… so many roles.. but no one specified the most imp of all – “ME”. I have my own identity.
    My Mil had showed me the article personally with a remark “that im a wife n a daughter-in-law first , then a doctor”. I remained quiet. But I wondered how come the males are never “husband and a son-in-law first” but always head of the family.
    Ms Indra Nooyi case is an explicit example of the patriarchal nature of indian society, where laurels of a woman are still less important than her house role. The Indian mindset is at a nascent stage where more money is spend on a girl’s marriage than her education.
    This being the rules of an older generation, the youngers are defying these gender roles. With the hope that one day our society will evolve beyond n equality will a reality than a teem used liberally.
    Thanks for writing on a important topic.

    • Reshu, I know what you are talking about!
      Pride in a daughter and daughter-in-law’s career achievements are almost an afterthought in the Indian family. It is almost as if that Y chromosome has given Indian men the privilege of living life on their own terms!!!

      But it is also true that a generation of youngsters being brought up on the idea of equality and nurtured and educated by working women, surrounded by women who are feminist are already changing perceptions.

  9. Applauding a daughter/daughter -in -laws success, I think it is definitely one of those `Miles to go before I sleep` milestones which we Indians need to achieve. While almost all spouses are happy with the income which a woman brings in, it is automatically assumed that she will still turn out a perfect three course meal at the end of the day. All that I can hope is to see the day I don`t enshackle my daughter in the chains I find so confining.

  10. Sumedha, I agree.
    Moreover, mothers should also think about their son’s attitude to their partners, and mould him into a sensitive, supportive and progressive human being.

  11. Pingback: INDRA NOOYI And Her MOTHER- Some Comments | ujwalasblog

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