September 2011: The decision and dilemma of choosing to stay home for the kids...
Shilpi Sengupta Jain's post about the "hardest choice [she] ever made", choosing work-over-baby or baby-over-work, got me thinking. Until a few decades ago, there was absolutely no angst attached to staying at home and nurturing the family. Far from it in fact, that's what we were expected to do—and, as women, we've fought hard to hold our own outside our homes. We've come a long way, baby... don't you think?!
But, there's a flip side. Having checked ourselves in to this rat race, it is hard to check out. With expectations from your career, the independence and achievement, and, of course, the moolah... staying at home can be hard! Plus, there's the point you set out to prove: that emancipated women can be as true to their careers as men are perceived to be. To prove my rude uncle wrong: “I'll never hire a woman because they never stay. Shaadi-bacche ke baad career khatam.” So yeah, that point: that you wouldn't be another one that bites the traditional dust. In this process, have we painted ourselves in to another corner—of being trapped outside the house?
Choosing to Stay at Home
So, can you do it? There are things to consider about your situation and personality...
Can you afford it? Expenses are bound to increase.
For how long? You'll need the maternity leave (between three and six months) to nurse and recoup, and it will barely be a blip in your work-life. For how long do you think your babies need you 24x7? Shilpi believes that the reason Raashi, 5, is an insecure child—she "freaks out" even when Shilpi goes for a run—is because she resumed work when Raashi was only two months old. "Somewhere I still keep blaming myself for all her insecurities around me."
While there is no ideal, the best time to resume work—from your children's point of view—is when they've started school and settled in. If you have a strong support system (and a good maid!), this can be sooner still—Roopshikha Mane credits their supportive joint family for her career in architecture. Simple rule: the happier and busier they are in the daytime while you're away, the less they will need you every minute.
Are you ready for it? Whether or not your staying at home for three-plus years is good for your child, do it only if it's good for you. Being a 'home maker'/'house manager' is the least appreciated job in the world, and if your work is a huge part of your sense of self and staying at home will just get you depressed... don't do it!
Like most women, Shilpi resumed work because she was "already tired of being at home." For all the joy that spending every waking minute with your child is, it is just that... every waking minute with your child! Are you prepared for the boredom, claustrophobia, tantrum-y days? It's better for your kids to have a happy you for two hours a day than a resentful or depressed you for all 24...
But, going back to work soon doesn't provide the answers either. Every working mother I spoke to described overwhelming guilt, along with an estrangement from her husband. Once Shilpi resumed work, she found herself crying as she drove: "I had a huge bag of guilt and compromise, tagging along with me." Says my own mum, who worked from within a month after I was born: "Work, baby, stress, guilt took everything out of me. There was no time left for my marriage. Thank god your dad understood."
Real-world word of advice: lower your expectations. Accept that you'll never be 100% happy as either, a working mother of a young child, or as a stay-at-home mum missing her career. That's tough to accept, isn't it?
Just Do It!
Shilpi stays home, and I'm sure she is slowly but surely working away Raashi's insecurities with her gentle understanding. She hopes to resume work when Raashi is happier about it. "I loved to work and I always needed some mental challenge to make myself happy... after Raashi I realised that I need more than that. I needed her and Rajeev to make myself complete."
As for you... you must weigh the money you'll miss against the wealth of memories you'll create; and other factors in your life. If you do decide that being a hands-on mum is the most important role you'll hold, plan how exactly you're going to reorganise your life around the family and a few personal goals, and how to keep yourself challenged.
And the expectations? If you want to stay at home, temporarily or long-term, do it. Without guilt. Because ultimately, being liberated means having the freedom to make your own decisions, irrespective of traditional or liberal stereotypes. Doesn't it?
This article appeared on Yowoto—a now-defunct parenting website startup that I helped incubate as Editor-in-chief—in September 2011.
While I’m now a firm childless antinatalist, my politics weren’t fully formed when I took this short-lived assignment to explore the digital side of publishing (though it was never a good fit). Nonetheless, some of the articles I wrote at the time are interesting.