These heartfelt lines from an essay on Medium/ ZORA by Meeta Shah, an exhausted mother and doctor, sum up the mental state of many Indian moms who, without the support structure of domestic help, daycare and friends they can pour their heart out to, are groaning under the weight of online schooling, household work and office.
Pic credit: Meeta Shah
A recent survey conducted by Linkedin between July and September revealed that 31% Indian working mothers were providing full-time childcare in comparison to 17% working fathers. More than 44% were also working outside their business hours to provide childcare, nearly twice as many as the figure for men at 25%. Around 42% reported being unable to focus on work with children at home and 46% worked till late to make up.
With her husband resuming office in June, Gurgaon resident Kawya Agarwal says she often finds herself being interrupted by her two-and-a-half-year old son even during work calls, and has to find ways of keeping him preoccupied while she’s working. “His afternoon nap is when I rush to make calls,” says Agarwal. “Sometimes you feel so frustrated that you don’t feel like doing anything; just running away and getting some fresh air to breathe.”
Work from home has blurred boundaries between office and home, says Neha Bagaria, founder, JobsForHer, an online platform that helps women find jobs, mentors and upskill if needed. “While WFH has opened new opportunities for some women who can now take advantage of flexi-hours, it has also lowered productivity and led to loss of employment for some.”
Not all of them can afford to lose jobs but, according to a Reuters report, the lack of daycare options is forcing many like Karnataka’s garment workers to choose between going to work and babysitting their children.
Bagaria says there is a silver lining amid the gloom. “Since men have a higher earning capacity, women’s careers often play a second fiddle but amidst job losses many women are realising the importance of their career and having a double income,” she says. “Companies realise that WFH works and these opportunities will stay even after the pandemic, opening opportunities for women.”
Divya*, an administration in charge at a software company in Bengaluru, hasn’t quit yet but says she has contemplated it several times because of the day-to-day pressures of running the house for her husband, brother-in-law, elderly in-laws and nine-year-old son in the absence of her cook and domestic help for the last six months. “It has been really hectic and stressful,” she admits. “In the office, you can at least sit and have coffee for five minutes. Now I don’t even get that time because everyone wants me. I feel even two hands are not enough.”
With her husband mostly busy in work meetings and calls, the only help she gets is from her mother-in-law. As a result, multi-tasking has become second nature: answering office emails while cooking or keeping an eye on her son’s online’s classes. “More than physical stress, you feel mentally tired because you have to think of so many things, from groceries to sanitising,” she adds.
It wasn’t that pre-pandemic the burden of household work and childcare wasn’t on women. According to International Labour Organisation data in 2018, urban Indian women spent 312 minutes on unpaid care work every day as compared to 29 minutes for men. Though studies have shown that men did pitch in more in the early days of the lockdown, it’s not clear how permanent the shift is.
Parul Ohri, chief editor at parenting platform Momspresso, says many women have admitted to feeling overwhelmed. “In general, men are not used to helping around the house and since we are a society of molly-coddlers, we don’t train children to be independent and do their own chores, so at the end, the woman is doing it all.” Ohri gives the example of a woman who said her husband wouldn’t even get up to answer the door while she was busy washing utensils. While men are often not socialised to help around the house, women are conditioned to do it all. “These are notions we’ve grown up with and assume to be our responsibility,” she says.
Often, women’s work can get less priority than their husband’s because they are likely to be higher earners, a hierarchy that is reflected in everyday instances: who gets interrupted by the kids when both mom and dad are on a call or who gets the quiet corner in the house. “My children are young and often need attention, and mamma is the only one they go to for everything, dad doesn’t cut it,” says Bengaluru-based lawyer Arethra D’Souza. She counts herself lucky because she has a full-time nanny to help take care of her two young children, but even then it is she who has had to juggle her schedule to match her six-year-old’s classes. “Earlier if I could do eight hours of concentrated work in the office, now it is in spurts.”
Then there is the guilt. Though she lives in a joint family, Amita*, a primary school teacher in Gurgaon, feels bad about not being able to spend time with her six-year-old daughter. “I have to be glued to my laptop for 10-12 hours on an average for classes and meetings,” she says. “I spend so much time counselling parents but I do not have a second to spare for my own.”
Psychologist Varkha Chulani says the best advice for working moms is to call out the sloth of other family members, teach children to participate in chores and learn to take some short cuts such as simplifying meals.
* 44% working moms are working outside their business hours to provide childcare, nearly twice as many men (25%)
* 46% working mothers report working till late to make up for work
* 42% are unable to focus on work with their children at home
Source: LinkedIn Workforce Confidence Index
WHAT CAN EMPLOYERS DO?
Neha Bagaria, founder, JobsForHer says there is a need to shift focus to deliverables and flexible timings rather than logging in certain hours. “Employers need to deal with more empathy in such difficult situations, for instance, some companies are offering paid leave to both parents,” she says. “A lot of companies have also said they won’t reopen offices until schools reopen.”
*Names changed on request
Illustration: Chad Crowe