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When The 3 Of Us Set Up FlexiBees, My Mother’s Wisdom About Flexible Work Propelled Me

This mommy career break soon revealed its true magnitude. My friends who weren't moms and had stellar careers couldn't believe the barriers faced by mothers who wanted to return to work.

“Why don’t all of you in this generation work part-time so that you can have a meaningful life beyond work also?”

This was my mother, Smt. Muthuvaralakshmi’s words when I was working in ITC and on a stint at Chennai after my CA. This happened nearly two decades ago when I was in a “race” against time to succeed. “What race and what time?” I smile now, chiding this 20-something youngster, always looking for the dopamine high of every new work milestone. This youngster who gobbled up the full-page write-up about Indra Nooyi in the Hindu newspaper, the new CEO of Pepsico who had instilled hope and ambition in all Chennai-born young academic and driven women.

I laughed at my mother.

“Why would I do that? I can do so much; why do you want to restrict me?”

Little did I know that my mother’s words were not about restriction but liberation.

My parents and my brother stood by me. They supported me in my never-ending climb, which involved significant sacrifice and hard work on all our parts. MBA from IIMB happened, adding a new dimension to life and then happened marriage. The transition brought the bliss and scent of a fulfilling life. At the same time, the protruding roots of patriarchy kept tripping me over. My mother, a fountain of life, was nevertheless missing me and grappling with her own life transition.

Which, before we knew it, became an end-of-life transition.

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Two kinds of babies I was looking after

A cruel diagnosis led to years of hospitalizations, medications and treatments followed that broke more than they healed. The family started grieving even before she went. Grieving for what she would miss and for whom we could not enable living the large life she had inside of her.

Things improved, and I delivered my daughter, coinciding with my mother’s remission. With the fear of a rebound always lurking in our brains, we embraced the joy and light that came with my baby’s arrival. My mother taught my daughter to speak, be seen, and know she was loved. Things she understood much better than me at that time from her soul, for the medications had aged only her body.

Cancer returned, more vengeful than before, pulling at her will and gnawing at our souls again. My mother’s spirit remained strong, a testament to her resilience and courage in adversity. I still remember when she could no longer consume solid foods. While having a liquid diet and ingesting as much as my 1-year-old baby did – she still managed to make a feast for the family for her favourite festival – Varalakshmi Vruttham.

Amidst all this, I decided to take a break from work – to be around both the babies, one fresh into life and the other transitioning out. My mother’s heart broke. She herself had served at a nationalized bank for decades, denying promotions to take care of the family and having learnt to enjoy work and life; she could not fathom a high achiever like me not working. But I assured her – it was only temporary.

“Things will get better, and of course, I will return,” I told her.

Being a “Google mom” from the time the internet became ubiquitous, she searched for part-time jobs for me while waiting for her subsequent treatment. She felt that would work for my life then, without my having to take a complete break.

I had by now started seeing the wisdom in her words – of how choosing flexible work could allow me to take care of the phase of life I was currently in. I looked at the options she presented and searched for some more. Alas, they did not suit my qualifications or experience.

My mother felt even more guilty than me.

And yet, amidst the disappointment and frustration, my mother remained my strength. She would ask about the baby and my comfort and offer encouragement and support when I had hard mommy days or my daughter fell ill. Her empathy was all-encompassing. Her love for her family was so authentic and deep that even her extreme pain and suffering could not make her focus on herself alone. We learned much about living, life and the power of will from those last months with my mother. She extended her life by at least six months by the sheer force of her will.

When she finally passed away in Nov 2014, we were heartbroken, lost and selfish in our grieving for the love we would miss. But we were also a little relieved for her; she was finally free from the body that had turned against her.

A birth of FlexiBees after the death of my job

Despite my trepidation, I continued searching for work, even ready for full-time roles.

But the world of jobs was not prepared for a new mother with a career break.

“How will you manage work with the baby at home?”

“Can I call you at 10 pm at night? We have a startup-like culture here; Are you sure you can cope?”

“How do I know you will not choose your family again?”

Even though I was willing to absorb the discrimination and accusations implicit in these questions, I could not convince any employer to take a chance on me.

As each opportunity slipped through my fingers, I felt I was letting my mother down.

My friends from IIMB and I started talking about this issue. This mommy career break soon revealed its true magnitude. Shreya and Rashmi – who had stellar corporate careers in front of them, and neither of them was a mother at that time, could not believe the barriers faced by mothers who wanted to return to work. My anger became their anger; their will to create impact became mine.

We decided this problem was large enough to give our working lives, intellect, experiences and souls. Together we gave birth to FlexiBees to solve the problem of women dropping out of the workforce due to life events like relocation, maternity and other caregiving responsibilities by offering them careers through flexible work opportunities.

The journey was not easy, we encountered many obstacles, but our passion for helping women have careers kept us going. FlexiBees has placed women in part-time and remote roles across functions such as Sales, Digital, Marketing, Finance and Tech. We run the show with the most committed team members any “startup culture” could ask for – drawn from our own pool, all women, primarily those returning to work, working in a combination of part-time and full-time and all remotely. Women who plan and manage their work and life with finesse are productive and who choose their families and ambition. Every single day.

Today, we are a fully scaled company with 600+ global clients, having placed thousands of women in flexible roles of their choice. A company that has published a book, Found Again: Real Stories of Women, Work and Flexibility to celebrate the successes and resilience of women who have embraced flexible careers. We, founders, work super hard; our potent vision to empower women holds us together like super glue amidst the challenges that the business world and life often throw.

Sometimes I cannot help but think about the instinct that led my mother to use the words “part-time” at various points in my life. It did not happen for me, but FlexiBees has made it happen for several mothers and women.

I think about her resilience, which the family always marvelled at. A small part of it, I now suspect I also possess. I am usually neither the smartest nor the most hardworking in any room. But I know that when I fall, I pick myself up or take help and move forward. Always.

And that is my mother’s #legacyofstrength to me.

Editor’s Note:  Join us this Mother’s Day by using the hashtag #LegacyOfStrength and sharing your story, of how your mother (or mother in law!) has influenced your career or how you have made an impact as a woman in business, inspired by her strength and resilience. Perhaps your mother started a business inspired by you or vice versa? Whatever your story is, we want to celebrate the powerful bond between mothers and daughters and the legacy of strength that you share.. Let’s inspire and uplift each other as we honour the incredible women who have shaped our lives.

Read all the #LegacyOfStrength stories here.

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