The quiet balancing act

Working mothers in the city do quite a tightrope walk, balancing PTA meetings and park visits in between managing their hectic work schedules and homes.

“You know what’s my biggest nightmare?” asks 34-year-old bank manager Ameeta Srivastava from RT Nagar. “Forgetting to check my son’s school diary at night and finding out during the mad morning rush that he’s supposed to wear an eco-friendly outfit and take a green snack!” she says with a laugh. That offhand humorous take probably sums up the constant juggling act all working mothers have to do.

Balancing act

Illustration: Narasimha Vedala

Like Ameeta who commutes to MG Road, most working mothers in the city go through a day that begins early, watched by a clock that seems to tick extra fast in the morning. The days are usually packed with meetings, presentations and projects sandwiched between checking whether the maid has turned up, if the kids have eaten and then rushing back home, to jump straight into homework and housework.

Despite helpful husbands, supportive families, daycares and maids, working mothers walk a thin line between children, home and work. “One of the problems is that the primary responsibility of childcare still falls on the woman due to our conditioning,” is how HSR Layout-based corporate lawyer Dhanya Menon puts it, adding that “unless men are equally responsible for every aspect of childcare, it can get emotionally draining for women.”

And draining it is. Shalini S*, a business development manager, rushes home from Koramangala to Rajajinagar every evening to throw herself into housework because all through the day she is “acutely aware” that her “very helpful in-laws” are looking after the house and her toddler daughter. In between the feeding-reading-bathing-putting daughter to sleep routine, Shalini finishes household chores and sometimes sits a few hours into the night, finishing office work.

This isn’t unusual, say many working moms. “No matter what the nature of your work or hours, the truth is that no dad, unless he’s raising children single handedly, does as much running around as a mom,” believes Ameeta.

This isn’t a dads versus moms story. Citizen Matters spoke to working mothers across various fields in Bengaluru and tried to figure out the pressures and challenges they faced. And most importantly, what the solutions were. One thing that remains common is that despite knowing the apparent difficulties and time management problems it may bring, most middle class professional women work out of choice and because they have both education and the inclination for it.

Here’s what we discovered.

Problems and solutions

Speak to men about work-life balance and most would talk about not having much family time or the lack of regular holidays. Speak to working mothers and you open a Pandora’s Box of issues related to children, school, homework and domestic problems. Not having enough time for children and for themselves is the most common problem women face. “I’m exhausted when I return home at 7.30 PM and would like to spend some time on myself,” confesses IT professional Mallika Fernandes Mishra. But with her daughter craving attention, combined with her own guilt, Mallika has no time for a relaxing walk or exercise.

Bengaluru’s traffic adds to time related woes. Research analyst and mother of a four-year -old, Beena Madan* commutes to Magrath Road from JP Nagar everyday. “A better commuting system would take away a lot of worries,” says Beena, who hired a driver as “driving through the rush hour was making me edgy and I needed to reserve my energies for my daughter when I reached home.”

Working mothers with smaller children feel guilty about missing out on school events and milestones like first steps and first words. Parents try and ensure they don’t miss out on school events, though sometimes the inevitable does occur. “I missed my son’s first sports day and that is something I feel guilty about,” says HR professional Vineeta Nair who works in Electronics City. Software manager Sonali Anand worries that her daughter is falling behind on aspects like potty training, eating on her own and social behaviour. “If I could spend more time with my daughter, these would have been taken care of better,” she feels.

The task gets trickier if you happen to be a single mom, like Bindu who spends all her after-work hours with her 10 year old son.

Older children tend to feel disgruntled about the fact that their working mother isn’t around the house while the mothers of some of their peers are, says Anjana Vivek, entrepreneur and founder of Venturebean, a consulting firm. Anjana, who’s also part of TiE Women Entrepreneurs and had set up a networking group called Women in Business and Technology, finds this to be a common problem. “You need to reassure the kids that you are there for them and sensitise them,” she says.

“It’s very important to explain to your children that mummy needs to go out and work,” states image and colour consultant Babita Jaishankar, who lives in Yelahanka and has two daughters and restarted her career when her children were school going. “I want them to understand that being mom doesn’t mean I have to do nothing.”

Sensitising the entire family is a common dilemma. Even small things like having to give family functions a miss can escalate into large problems. And while many women in India are lucky enough to have mothers and mother-in-laws (MIL) more than willing to chip in with the child, it can, as software professional Anju Pillai points out, come with a “huge mental price,” given the expectations attached.

“My MIL doesn’t understand why I need to travel on work but I can’t argue as it is she who supervises my home when I’m away,” says insurance executive Geeta R* from Bannerghatta Road. Her words are echoed by others. The problems may be many but solutions aren’t far away. “A woman’s instinct is more homebound and their priorities are different. They need to learn to let go at times,” says consulting psychologist Swarnalatha Iyer.

The sensitive and supportive husband is the working mother’s first big solution. Thankfully, mindsets are changing, though you may still need to step carefully. “I keep coaxing my husband to help out, but my MIL would prefer her son to relax. So that’s another challenge,” says software professional Vijayalakshmi Harikrishnan, though she’s grateful for the support she gets from her MIL in taking care of her child.

So while the joint family does have certain benefits, scratch a little deeper and you’ll find women admitting that individual differences and unrealistic expectations often outweigh the advantages. There are exceptions of course but in many cases, women who depend upon their in-laws (specifically the MIL) to help run the house and care for their child while they work, find themselves bending over backwards to please everyone.

The reason as women themselves admit, are societal stereotypes and generations of conditioning. While on the surface several families applaud their working daughter-in-law, deep down, one small event is enough to trigger negative emotions. The same conditioning trickles down to men as well. Men reach home after work and plonk down in front of the television seems a common observation. How many working mothers have the luxury to do that? As women put it, in our society, men are applauded for ‘helping out,’ with housework and children, whereas it should be as much their responsibility and decision as well.

Though the new age dad may not get into the finer points of domesticity, some amount of chore sharing is a common factor in most households where both husband and wife work. In fact, there are several instances of men completely taking over the reins when required. Indiranagar based Travel professional Riddhi Sarkar’s schedule involves not just late hours (she works in Banashankari) but also a lot of work related trips. She credits her hassle free routine to her husband. “He is
extremely cooperative when it comes to managing our daughters, with the help of a maid,” she says. JP Nagar based IT professional Sunita Venkatachalam thinks her rock solid support systems are her mother and husband. Her mother looks after the children and her husband not only works a lot from home but also takes care of every issue outside like bills and taxes.

Don’t sweat the small stuff, advises Rashmi V, who runs her own marketing firm Altius near her Indiranagar home and has two children. “Outsource everything you don’t like to do personally and set your home on autopilot,” is her suggestion. Another big solution is to focus on what you can do, rather than what you cannot, says Anjana Vivek. Pedodontist Priya Nagar follows this. She runs two dental clinics at Koramangala and Indiranagar and is away from home for a large part of the day. “But I have learnt to make the most of whatever time I get with my daughter,” says Priya.

The bottomline? Decide how your want your home life charted out. Would you like to come back home and check every available surface for dust or would you rather turn a blind eye and happily play carom with the kids?

Problems like long commutes and constant work related travel also come with solutions that may not be imminently possible but aren’t impossible either. Language trainer Kiran Malik, who works at Infantry Road, shifted closer to work, moving from Sultanpalya to Frazer Town. Most women who need to travel out of town on work ensure that it isn’t for long stretches.

As for adjusting to family egos and generation gaps, a good way is to avoid expectations altogether by not burdening others, say women who’ve been through these. Some women like paid childcare a good cook and domestic help.

Support at work

In some fields, options like loss of pay and part-time work are increasingly being used by new mothers to stay in touch with their profession while supervising and caring for the home and baby. The option is more pronounced in the software industry, where, according to a NASSCOM report, by 2010, women will constitute half the workforce. HR executives confirm that women in the IT industry do get the option of flexi-hours and working from home or telecommuting. However, these options aren’t generic ones. It depends upon the number of years the employee has worked in the firm, the nature of her work, whether it enables her to be away from the office and is largely based on the discretion of the manager, says one HR manager. Companies like Infosys, where 30 per cent of the workforce are women, Oracle, Cisco, Mindtree, TCS, IBM (72 per cent of IBM’s global women executives are working mothers), HP and Accenture all offer this option.

“Options like part-time and telecommuting are increasingly being adopted by Indian employers,” says HR consultant Sanjeev Dutta. At IBM, Gender Diversity Programs offer more than just flexi hours and individualised work schedules. There are also practices like mentoring and networking among women employees across IBM India. Networks like the Infosys Women Inclusivity Network and Cisco’s Women’s Action Network strive to make the work atmosphere friendlier.

“Some core finance areas like risk management are still male dominated and traditional, as are manufacturing firms,” says Meeta Suri*, finance head at an engineering firm. “However, in certain areas of banking, flexi-hours are gradually becoming common,” she comments.

Some companies have days when employees can bring their children to work. On the days when she has nobody at home, Kiran simply takes her five year old daughter along to work. Some industries like law are yet to see women friendly setups, says Dhanya, who is a partner in a corporate law firm.

Do motherhood and its constant demands make a dent in one’s career path? It could, Dhanya says, if you took a long break. “The field of corporate law undergoes changes on a daily basis. You also need to develop a client base, which makes it impossible to take a long break.” Even in sectors like medicine, IT and media, a post baby sabbatical comes with both advantages and disadvantages. Psychotherapist Jeena Banerjee* has recently got back to work from a year’s sabbatical after her son’s birth. Though she’s grateful for the long break, she admits that “getting back on track” is challenging.

Does the glass ceiling come into the picture? It may not be talked about or practised openly but in many cases, prioritising family does signal a dent in career. Vijaylakshmi puts it bluntly. “I’m unable to take up additional responsibilities at work which would require me to put in extra time. This results in not getting an edge over male peers.”

It’s the age old story of the Old Boy’s Club. “My male colleagues go pubbing after work and I rush home to my children,” says Vandita Mehra,* assistant editor with a city newspaper. “I know these outings sometime end up as being informal meetings and I miss out on the networking and backslapping opportunities but I have no other option.”

Ultimately, what matters the most in keeping one’s career going is support from your superior. Meera K, now the co-founder of a news media company, worked with an IT firm for 10 years and shifted to a non-technical role once her son was born. “My boss and colleagues who I had worked with for a long time were cool and I had the comfort level to decide and do what worked for me,” she says. Sunita too credits a very supportive female manager in her decision to continue working after her second baby. “More important than the gender is the person behind it,” feels Anjana. “If the individual is supportive, values you and sees your contribution and empathises, it helps a lot.”

Last word

When it comes to daily routine, working mothers are like many handed goddess. Weekends aren’t very different, “I don’t call weekends my time as it revolves around the kid,” says Dhanya. The problem here? Most women probably know that they could go easy but don’t. As Meera puts it, it’s probably because we are wired to give importance to a clean house, washed clothes and nutritious food, instead of just sitting, playing with the child and enjoying ourselves!

Women feel guilty, pressured and overworked not just because of societal roles but also because they build their own expectations, whether it is with family or children, according to Swarnalatha Iyer. “Don’t build expectations that are not possible to keep and admit to yourself and others when you are tired,” is her advice.

Eventually, how you balance your life as working mom depends on your own solutions. Some women switch to jobs that do not involve travel, while some opt for a somewhat less demanding role professionally.

“Career-wise I’m in the same place as I was two years ago. I might want to get into a larger role in the future when both kids are in school full time. For now, I’m happy to sail along,” says Sunita who’s opted for a part-time option at work. With a very busy husband who could not take time off work, Anju willingly gave up a plum assignment in Washington as it would’ve meant dragging her daughter along. “I can always catch up later,” she says on a positive note.

A break can have positive effects in the long term, says Anjana, who took time off to educate herself and write. “Enjoy your break instead of worrying whether your career will exist after that. It is possible to come back and eventually, in a career span of 20-30 years, a one or two year sabbatical would hardly matter.”

At the end of the day, whether you are a mom working crazy hours and rushing home to read that bedtime story or a part-timer who prefers to set back the professional clock in order to keep pace with the personal one, what matters is how you feel. Because motherhood with its varied emotions, pressures and challenges isn’t just one size fits all.

Consulting psychologist Swarnalatha Iyer’s stress-busting tips:

  • Women tend to drive themselves very hard. Do not try to be superwoman. If something is difficult to achieve, admit it and learn to say NO to unusual expectations.
  • Get the right perspective about yourself and your choices.
  • Let family members know when you are tired and ask for help.
  • Take time out for yourself for at least 20 minutes daily and do something only you like. 
  • Pay attention to your health and physical symptoms, which may be due to stress. For example Type II Diabetes, migraine, et cetera. 
  • If you enjoy your work, half the stress will disappear.
  • Find humour in everyday situations and laugh a lot. It’s a great stress buster.

(Some names, marked by star, have been changed on request)


  1. Deepa Mohan says:

    Excellent article.

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