A few days ago while chatting with a complete stranger during the course of a long train journey, I was asked:
Are you a full-time mum?
The question left me speechless, but not because I was offended (that came later).
My speechlessness had more to do with my inability to comprehend the question.
What exactly did the expression “full-time mum” mean?
Were there any positions available for “part-time mums”?
If so, what responsibilities would such a position entail? What arrangements would there made if the part-time mum was required out of hours?
In real terms, of course, I was being asked if I was, to use the stranger’s terminology again, a “working woman”.
Keep in mind, my husband has never been asked if he is a “working man” – but that is an altogether separate debate requiring undiluted attention and I have every intention of attending to it on another occasion.
For now, my concern is with the labels women find themselves encumbered with through the course of their lives – 'good girls', 'obedient daughters', 'devoted wives', 'house wives', 'committed mothers', 'working mothers' and the list goes on. At some point, it can become inconceivable to imagine oneself as anything outside the parameters of these definitions.
It is hardly surprising then to find so many women, especially mothers, struggle with a lack of self-esteem, self-worth, confidence and contentment.
Add to this the mounting psychological pressures on a woman who makes the decision to pursue parenting, alongside her profession or education, and we are left with a particularly uncomfortable spot between a rock and a hard place.
Like the scores of women who straddle both these life choices, I too, have experienced the guilt – part self-inflicted, part societal – that is an inevitable by-product of such a decision. But far from viewing the two as mutually exclusive I have begun to see these processes as complimentary and conducive to one another, one inspiring the other, sustaining it, preserving it.
If as a woman, I am going to accept any stereotypes at all, let it be the one about my indomitable inner strength and perseverance.
Also read: Guilt trip
My daughter was under six months old when I applied for a position at the PhD programme of a highly selective university in the United Kingdom. Pursuing a PHD is extremely hard work, yet I wanted to combine it with parenting. To most of my acquaintances, this seemed a form of madness – a delayed manifestation of post-natal blues; perhaps an indicator of self-harm.
I would be dishonest to deny that such anxieties did take up a significant part of my daily thought processes as well.
The real shock of my decision arrived in the form of a large envelope through my door, informing me of my admittance to the PhD programme in the English Department at the University of Warwick.
I can assure you that night, it was not the cries of my unsuspecting six-month-old that kept me awake.
That I year, I returned to being a full-time student and I rehearsed the contents of my first meeting with my supervisor – who happened to be an outstanding and demanding academic – by whispering it into my daughter’s ears as I rocked her to sleep that night.
Four years later, as I (much to the hilarity of family and friends) seize upon any opportunity to use my newly acquired title of “Dr”, I have on occasion asked the question – “What if?”
What if I had decided to indefinitely delay my PhD dream?
What if I had put off the birth of my two beautiful children?
What if, now, in some bizarre irrational desire to 'compensate' my children for 'suffering' through the demands of my research, I decide to forego employment?
My mental sojourns, long and winding, suffused with doubts and reflections, seem invariably to arrive at the same conclusion: I am never a better mother than I am when I am also myself.
Also read: Mum’s the word!
A 'mother' is one way to describe me — perhaps the most significant and meaningful — but it is not the sum total of my being. I want to be more and I want to make sure that I am more. Fortunately, life and its experiences lead me to believe that being a fulfilled 'me' is directly proportionate to being a fulfilled mother.
Yes, it has been a challenging four years in which I have experienced occasional losses – sanity and dignity among the first. But I mastered the art of multitasking. This meant that outings to the park, cupcake baking, grocery shopping, den-making and dissertation writing all learnt to live together, under one wonderful, generous roof.
It also meant that through the many arduous nights of research, often the only thing that kept me going was the prospect of taking my children on an outing to the zoo, the farm or on holiday.
I have never looked forward to, nor relished the time spent with my daughter and son as much as I have in the final few days before thesis submission. And, when I went to hand in the finished product, rest assured, they stood by me on either side, more happy than relieved.
I will never forget the moment in which we got back into the car and I started driving away from campus — feeling strangely weightless — when my daughter reclined in her car seat quietly spoke the following words of heartfelt reassurance: “They will like your book, Mummy”.
I have a great deal of respect for women who make a concerted choice to forgo a career, either permanently or temporarily, to stay home with their children. The challenges and rewards of such a life are, I know for a fact, manifold.
Equally, I know the sinking feeling of being unable to get time off work while my child devotes every sinew of her being to win a prize on Sports Day. Is this one of the moments when my travel companion would hang my 'full-time mum' status in the balance?
But, I am no longer interested in aspiring to be a label of any sort, positive or negative. The only thing I can be any good at being is me.