I know you think it’s you. But it’s not.
The award for Worst Mother of the Year goes to…me.
I turn my laptop on the minute I get home. I pretend to listen to my daughter’s stories as I frantically volley replies on BlackBerry. On weekends, I relish the chance to sleep in and let the maids deal with bath and breakfast and the most dreaded chore—brushing little teeth, especially those hard-to-reach, squirm-inducing back ones.
Two days before the world celebrates the joy and wonders of motherhood and thanks us who have dutifully filled and then emptied our wombs, I hang my head in shame and hardly think I deserve any special attention. Really, as a mother, I am a failure.
Because that’s just the way parenthood is. Unlike our daily jobs, there are no benchmarks to success. Just when you think happy kids are the goal, a child psychologist or teacher will instruct you to let sadness occasionally wash over them, “so they can learn to deal with it on their own,” as one educator recently told me.
Nobody ever chastises working parents. We pat each other on the back, then say: “She’ll be fine. You’re doing the best you can.” Experts advise parents not to give into guilt.
I disagree. It’s time.
This week, The Times of India reported the results of a survey that find working parents spend only 30 minutes “nurturing their own children”. Not surprisingly, more than 85% of the 3,000 working couples in the study gave themselves a negative rating as bad parents. “Parents are working not only out of economic compulsion but also to cash in on their technical and professional qualification,” the study said. “Parents that work long or irregular hours are not available for children after school, and especially to help with the homework, ...and not able to do things together at weekends or eat together.”
Even on Sundays, when companies are allegedly off, working couples report being consumed with the endless tasks involved in running a household: paying bills, cleaning, going shopping.
The study illustrates the net effect of several societal shifts in the middle class. More and more couples are both working. Fewer families have the grandparents around. The demands at work are enormous: first, to sustain the growth in the economy and now to ensure all is not lost in case of a slowdown. Sadly, childcare has really not caught up; due to the sorry state of education in rural and poor India, most people’s maids have not even the nurturing instinct of one Mary Poppins bone. Creches are a fast booming business, but concerns over hygiene, safety and space persist. Parents who spend Rs5,000 on a meal quibble about spending half that to keep a good maid around.
In 10 years, will the neglect show? Is this study foreshadowing a future generation of kids who are needy, lack confidence, resent our success at their expense? Possibly.
Every now and then, when my mothering sinks to the all-time low I describe here, when my husband and I are both on deadlines and our daughter seems to crave even just a glance from us, something more powerful than the desire to achieve and excel washes over me: Mommy Guilt.
It is a most powerful and necessary warning. It inspires me to leave the laptop behind (or at least the cord so the battery dies in an hour). It forces me, no matter how pressed for time, to incorporate my daughter into my daily activities, if only to spend a few more minutes with her; we bathe, we brush, we banter. We reconnect.
This week’s findings, released by trade chamber Assocham’s Social Development Foundation, must inspire collective guilt, triggering changes at home and work. If reducing hours is not an option, children must be more effectively integrated into our lives, shopping to dining out. As parents have moved towards managing without their own parents around, so too might they learn to manage sometimes without another appendage: maids.
The rearing and nurturing of children in India is in crisis. Besides parents taking responsibility, workplaces will need to react quickly with flexible scheduling, not just to watch children but to take care of chores such as doctor appointments and car servicing. The risk of not reacting is to lose a diverse, necessary part of the workforce; according to Assocham, just 21% of mothers with young families want to work full-time, with an overwhelming majority preferring part-time work alongside raising their children.
Even as us working parents beat ourselves up, there’s some irony in what most motivates us: our children. To provide for them, to make the world a better place for them. Working mothers like me, with girls, try hard to set an example of the type of women they can be.
But in the end, our long hours and business plans really mean nothing without ensuring growth and vitality— of our most precious assets of all.
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