The irony of my armchair feminist stance slapped me in the face for the first time late 2019, during one of my fortnightly sessions with my therapist. I have been a self-proclaimed champion of gender equality since I was in college, fondly called ‘krantikari’ or ‘feminist’ by men, depending on their opinion towards my stand. (In case you were wondering, the ones who called me a revolutionary believed in the principle - of gender equality - so long as it didn’t change their lives, and the ones who called me a feminist were making a mental note to (a) avoid such topics in future when I was around, and (2) NOT marry one, if they could help it).
My cook, who had been working for me, as of 2020, for around two years, called one day to ask for a day off, because there was no one to watch her children, aged 14 and 5. “The elder one will be fine by himself, akka,” she explained, “but many younger son doesn’t eat if neither me nor my mother is at home with him.” On further probing she said that her mother, who usually watches her sons while she works as a cook for multiple households, had left for their village without a specified return date.
I didn’t look forward to cooking for an indeterminate period of time, because along with working part time, I had an energetic three year old daughter. I was lucky to have gotten a job that suited my qualifications, and with flexibility in terms of time, and to some extent, in terms of the deliverables, too. However, I had been wanting to spend my out-of-work time in exercising, getting back in shape and kicking the PCOD out of my system. Cooking didn’t feature in my plans. And of course I was paying my cook, what the English would call, ‘a king’s ransom’ and I couldn’t possibly continue paying her salary when she wasn’t going to turn up for more than two days in a row. Right?
One of my foremost reasons to not go back to the corporate grind post baby was the absolute lack of workplaces that were friendly to working mothers. Oh, sure, there is the perpetual WFH on paper, and a manager who merely sulks instead of yelling when you ask for a day off because your toddler is sick or needs to be picked up early from day care. But the reality is that organisations don’t know why they should do anything to help working mothers balance their professional and personal goals, and even if they want to, they haven’t fully figured out how. So rather than be treated like a semi-liability for having a child at home who needs me (and therefore a life outside office, duh), I chose to go my own way. It was a privilege, because my husband was working full time, and we had savings that enabled us to continue our present lifestyle even if I was not bringing in the big bucks.
Any time anyone asked me why I didn't "get a job" they got this eloquently worded, assertive explanation. But when my cook brought her problem to me, I realised, for the first time in my life, that my household was a workplace too, for her. I also realised how difficult it was, both practically and economically speaking, to have a workplace that was truly adapted to working mothers and their unexpected pushes and pulls. If I, with a single household to run, couldn’t manage it, how can I castigate organisations for not trying, or worse, failing?
Long term repercussions notwithstanding, I invited her to bring her son over the next time. My daughter was close in age, and one day when she was at home from school the two of them even played together amenably. On other days he would sit in the kitchen balcony and play games on his mother’s phone, while she cooked. All offers for snacks, or to play with my daughter’s toys when she wasn’t around were politely refused. Eventually my cook started leaving him at the security guards’ office at the gate rather than bring him upstairs into my home.
There are several clashes of thought in this situation, from class-based prejudices to my cook’s need to demonstrate her professionalism by not bringing her ‘home’ into her ‘place of work’. In my opinion, none of them is unique to her situation.
Covid-19 hit soon after, and with schools closed, not having a job to tend to whilst keeping the home running and a rapidly frustrated and lonely toddler engaged turned out to be a blessing. With life resuming some shades of normality these days, I tell myself I want to discover my own goals first, maybe try a few things, before going back to work full time. Starting with: a small scale example of successful enterprises by happy working mothers, maybe?