Mom was plump, did nothing for her hair and nails, was always exhausted and always at our beck and call. As a college professor, she made more money than my father who taught high school. But this never came up. She cooked our meals, made my clothes because there were no decent clothes stores where we lived, directed plays and dance recitals for my brother and me to star in, and deftly fended the occasional barb from envious homemakers. She suffered a daily commute on unreliable, dirty buses to the city so we could live in a comfortable housing estate.
She did all of this by putting us first, her career second, and herself third. She had been a brilliant student, had secured admission to a reputed medical school but had to quit after the first year because she contracted tuberculosis. At eighteen, she began teaching in a school because money was tight. She scored top marks in her BA and MA despite studying through correspondence while holding down a full-time job. Marriage brought more responsibilities and not working was never an option. I suppose the financial hardships her family suffered after my grandfather had to stop working because of medical issues, must’ve etched the need for financial independence deep in her psyche. So she soldiered on, caring for a husband and two children while holding down a demanding teaching job.
She was 52 when I finished school and moved away for college. It must’ve been the shock of a quiet and empty house and time on her hands that prompted her to finally accept an offer that had been on the table for years. She left the college she had taught at for over 25 years, and became the principal at a newer college. She began working long hours. She learnt people management, dealing with university officials, deciphering government regulations, sorting out funding, and all sorts of stuff on her feet. I don’t remember her talking about gender issues or workplace issues. I don’t think she had the time to think about such stuff. She just took each day as it came, did her best and stayed cheerful.
Soon she bought a small car, and hired a driver to take her to work. She began to be invited to join the boards of various schools and colleges, inaugurate events, give away prizes. Eight years later, when she retired, the college organized a grand farewell. Local newspapers covered it and carried flattering profiles of her. She accepted all the fanfare with the same equanimity with which she had accepted everything that had come her way in life.
So when I find myself overthinking my life choices, wondering where I’m headed, worrying that motherhood has blunted my edge, I take a deep breath and think about Mom. I tell myself to just do the best I can for today. When I start worrying about whether I’m doing irreparable harm to my career by working from home, I think about Mom. She doesn’t say much now as Alzheimer’s has chipped away at most of her abilities. But I imagine she’d tell me to just stay the course. I think she’d say something like “Just keep doing the best you can. When the time is right, the right opportunity will come. And you will have earned it.”
I’d like to think that this mid-career slowdown that seems to affect more women than men is actually an advantage that we should cherish. When parenting or other mid-life phenomena force us to slow down or take a sabbatical, we need to remember that we are continuing to learn and grow and hone our skills.
Office politics is far less complicated and nowhere as terrifying as playground politics. Staying calm through tantrums and illnesses and sleep deprivation, becoming the patient, wise self that you never thought you could be are blessings we should appreciate. Dealing with uncertainty, making crucial decisions with far-reaching consequences, and multi-multi-tasking are concepts you truly understand only when you become responsible for a little human being. Parenting is the kind of boot camp that even the best corporate trainer cannot devise. We need to remember that as and when we return to the race.
Instead of feeling inadequate and apologetic and grateful for being allowed back in, we should stride ahead knowing that we have an edge over others.
Reshma Trenchil works in corporate marketing for a technology consulting company.She has around 15 years of professional experience in business news, business research and equity research. She has a graduate degree in journalism from Boston University and an undergraduate degree in English from Stella Maris College.