Wonder women

December 28, 2019

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HAVE you ever seen a tightrope walker in a circus, walking through a thin rope trying to balance himself with a prop like a pole or an umbrella in his hands? A working mother’s life is no different than that of a circus performer, minus the fact that she doesn’t receive the applause for keeping the balance between motherhood and career, but boos and hisses if she fails.

Every day while scrolling through my social media feed, I come across at least one post from an overwhelmed mother seeking advice as to how to beat the ‘mom guilt’ of leaving her baby behind while resuming work after maternity leave. While mom guilt does not exist in dictionaries, it is pervasive among mothers, can strike anytime and is the driving force behind women’s career decisions and childcare options.

Maternity leaves, no matter how long, seem to end in a flash when you have a new born. As the return date to work approaches, mothers are often more tired, scattered, and drained, sometimes unable to make even simple decisions. The flustered, unprepared mother appears to stand at a crossroads of working for the sake of making a living only or choosing a career for herself.

Women, who transition back to work after maternity leaves, return as a different person with new priorities and concerns. They are often aware of the bumps that lie ahead of them but are unaware of the pressure of perfection which is expected of them both in house chores and at work. In this pursuit of perfection in both roles, women forget to appreciate the efforts they put in and blame themselves for falling short of the societal expectations.

Nida S. Fahad is one such mother who was keen to work after having her first child. As she had worked actively before her daughter’s birth, returning to work was the most viable way to cope with the post-partum depression and keep herself productive at the same time. She started her hunt for a job that could allow her to bring her baby along and successfully grabbed a compelling position at a start-up. However, she resigned only after a month and a half due to the cold behaviour of the organisation towards her three-month-old baby and the lack of private space to feed her infant.

“When an organisation promises to empower young mothers and encourages them to work, it needs to keep its word and facilitate them well enough so they [mothers] can feel comfortable,” Nida says. Unfortunately in Pakistan, the organisational infrastructure is not child-friendly and does not support the tall claims that most organisations make at the time of interview, she adds.

Like a tightrope walker in a circus, a working mother does her best to balance motherhood and career. Unlike the circus fellow, however, she doesn’t receive much in the name of applause even when she succeeds.

Although the World Health Organisation recommends mothers to exclusively breastfeed their newborns for the first six months, many mothers give up breastfeeding when they return to work because of the lack of support from employers and proper nursing rooms for breastfeeding mothers.

The benefits of breastfeeding cannot be overemphasised. In addition to the numerous benefits for the baby and mother, it has many advantages for the employer as well such as decreased absenteeism and increased employee job satisfaction, studies suggest.

While speaking about her short stint at work, Nida reminisces how her hard work, timely completion of tasks and late sittings were never acknowledged. “No matter how sincerely a woman works, there is a common notion attached with working mothers that they never give their 100 per cent at work,” she laments.

The criticism that Nida faced during her time at her former company motivated her to not give up. She created a Facebook community, Superwomen of Pakistan (SWOP), to raise concerns and create awareness regarding the discriminating work culture towards working mothers.

Nida now designs marketing strategies and helps businesses thrive besides running SWOP that has over 36,000 members and aims to empower women entrepreneurs.

“Working from home is difficult but it makes me happy,” she remarks. Nida says that she works 24/7 as a marketer, consultant, community admin and a mother to two beautiful girls.

The female participation rate in Pakistan’s labour force is disappointingly low i.e. 24.8 per cent compared to the overall female population in Pakistan that was 48.63 per cent in 2016, according to the World Bank’s collection of development indicators. According to the data released by International Labour Organisation, there is a wide gap between Pakistan’s male and female Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR). The LFRP for women, which stands at a mere 24.8 per cent, is three times lower than men’s 82.5 per cent.

Pakistan’s development roadmap “Vision 2025” sets an ambitious target of an increase in Female Labour Force Participation (FLFP) from its current level of nearly 25 per cent to 45 per cent by 2025. The World Bank’s report on female labour force participation in Pakistan cites household and childcare responsibilities as primary hurdles that hinder women’s ability to work outside their homes. The majority of women, surveyed for the report, attribute their absence from the labour force to housework and child-rearing. Even among women who work, over 61 per cent of women in urban and 45 per cent in rural areas work from their homes, owing to the same pressure. While working remotely offers the women flexibility in terms of hours, it confines the types of jobs they can take, thus, hampering their growth.

Amber Jaffery, a digital and content strategist at a leading software house, was associated with a media organisation for around nine years when she came to know that she was expecting her first child. Being a first-time expectant mommy, she was extremely excited but was aware of a whole host of hurdles that she had to overcome at work. She had a complicated pregnancy and postpartum period and opted for an extended maternity leave to look after her baby and herself.

When Amber communicated her reservations to her head of department, she was pressed to choose between keeping her job and providing full care to her newborn. “Since there wasn’t any day care facility, my request to have reduced timings (till 4 pm) for a couple of months was denied and there was no question of bringing along my baby with a maid, I resigned despite wanting to continue,” she says.

Amber decided to work as a freelancer until she found a workplace that was more ‘mom-friendly’. She defines ‘mom-friendly’ workplaces as organisations that have day cares, offer flexible timings and are generally more empathetic. A year and a half later, she found her ideal workplace that is both mom and child friendly, has an on-site day care facility and is welcoming and empowering women.

Amber keeps a check on her toddler through a webcam now. She says that she has no ‘mom guilt’ and is happy to see her child thriving in a great environment. She believes that every woman who wants to pursue a career should be encouraged, not just by her family, but also at her workplace. “An ecosystem that enables and empowers women is extremely important,” she adds.

Motherhood penalty

In many cases, women, when they become mothers, are exempted from the ambit of an ‘ideal worker’ who sits for long hours, sacrifices personal interests for the sake of the organisation, and does not have any interruptions from home. The working moms are perceived as less competent and less committed, thus, less likely to be employed or promoted at a workplace.

Pakistan’s Enterprise Survey conducted in 2013 reveals the same. It shows that nearly two-thirds of the firms reported gender-discriminatory attitudes as reasons for not recruiting women at leading roles. Over one-third firms do not hire women because of their family responsibilities. Nearly one-third firms believe that female employee can disrupt workplaces and an equivalent proportion believes that women are expensive employees because of the expenses on their separate workplace facilities. Less than one-third of the firms do not prefer to recruit women because of government regulations on working hours for women and maternity leaves.

Meher Afroze, a paediatric consultant, also talks about her concerns. She took a break of 2.5 years after her second-born in order to raise her. “During those 2.5 years, which I sacrificed for my children, I looked at my colleagues with envy who were moving forward in their careers. Although raising kids is the most important job a woman can perform, we underestimate our daily struggles and sacrifices we make for our family,” she says.

Since serving people has been Meher’s passion, a day-long work does not make her feel tired, but she wonders how difficult it must be for mothers who are working to make a living and dealing with work politics at the same time.

“Pursuing a career while being a mother means responsibilities multiplied twice. Life of a working mother is a daily struggle where you have to finish multiple tasks before leaving for work and meet the remaining targets after returning home,” Meher says.

Meher regards her specialisation as the most difficult phase of her career where she would be called on 36-hour-long duty and would sleep for only an hour to spend maximum time with her child.

While family support is one of the biggest blessings for a working mother in Pakistan, lack of good and affordable day care centres is the biggest hindrance for many women willing to pursue their careers. Almost 50 per cent of Meher’s female classmates are stay-at-home mothers now. “Had there been proper day care facilities at workplaces or hospitals, many of them would be working,” Meher believes.

Working mothers have been subjected to stinging criticism for what they do or do not do for their own children. They have been shamed by the society for leaving their children behind, depriving them of their right to breastfeed, not giving them quality time and food, missing out on their special days and ignoring them. Some people still think that a ‘good mother’ is one who gives up work to stay home to raise her children. However, Khushboo Rafiq, a lecturer at a public university believes otherwise. “Children of working mothers are more independent, confident, and compassionate and are super proud of them when they grow up,” she notes.