‘Flexi-Jobs’ Phenomenon Promises to Ease Women’s Burden?

‘We mothers are often told “you can have it all”. What they do not tell us is “you can have it all… just not all at once.” I feel deep love for my child and a gnawing frustration with my ‘self’. And sadly the two are linked’ – a blogger who quit work for full-time child care.

The angst of this woman reflects the age-old tussle between work and motherhood. Living rooms, office corridors and increasingly Indian ‘mommy blogs’, websites, Facebook and Twitter have become popular sites of such throttled expression by “working mothers” (a term so widely used, it does not even sound odd till you try “working father”). So potent is the Cult of Motherhood that stay-at-home mothers report feeling less capable and wasted for not working, the working ones feel guilty and selfish for not being home with the kids and yet each camp disapproves of the other’s choices. While the ‘flexi-jobs’ phenomenon promises to ease women’s burden, one hopes it does not inadvertently perpetuate women’s care-giving roles.

Of all the women with full-time jobs, it is the mothers, especially those in the private sector, who seem to be the worst-hit. Besides the high-pressure work and long hours is the ‘intensive mothering’ wave that seems to have gained credence among certain circles. Dr Ravinder Kaur, Professor, Sociology and Social Anthropology at IIT Delhi, states, “It is largely the aspiring middle class that is involved in this…they are doing what has been called “concerted cultivation” – the focus is on upward mobility through various strategies one of which is making children, especially sons, successful in their careers.”

On the other hand, human resource professionals gingerly admit a slight apprehension about mother employees: “During interviews, we like to know if women have care takers at home for their kids so that there is clarity about job requirements on both sides. It is not that we do not want mothers but they may not prefer such high-stress jobs,” shares a senior recruitment manager at an MNC. But it is no secret that ‘good jobs’ go to ‘good workers’ often defined as those who work fulltime (read long hours) and full force.

Culturally normative obligations of a good mother seem disjointed with the obligations of an ideal, committed worker. In ‘The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is Still the Least Valued’, Crittenden has argued that mothers are discriminated against in terms of wages in some Western workplaces; Joan C. Williams, a researcher at the Washington College of Law calls this the “maternal wall”.

In their tireless efforts to give their best shot in every role, women resort to various strategies. Some make care-giving arrangements with elderly parents or in-laws. Middle and upper-middle class women hire nannies. A 38-year-old banker in Mumbai says, “My parents look after my son during the day but they are unhappy that I spend little time with the child. A full-time job gives me everything but time. But they condone and approve of my husband’s longer absence from the house while I am made to feel guilty! Why do I have to choose between work and child?” Her 10-year-old son has a whole team to people to look after him – maternal grandparents, a cook, a daily tutor to help with homework and studies and a driver at his disposal. Yet, guilt is a big issue among working mothers.

A Gurgaon-based HR professional with 13 years of full-time work in the petro-chemical, engineering and BPO sector shares her approach to the conundrum: “When my kids were toddlers, I would accompany them to the park only on weekends. The questions and comments by other mothers implied that I neglected my kids. I used to cry a lot. Over the years I have learnt I must live for myself too. I decided to have a flexible job only when my kids were adolescents because I think the more they grow, the more they need you.” No wonder the tagline of workingindianmoms.blogspot.com is ‘Problems, Stress and the Guilt They Face’. Women’s Web, an online magazine for Indian women, even ran a “Mommy Guilt” contest! The prize: A copy of the book ‘Mommy Guilt: Learn to Worry Less, Focus on What Matters Most & Raise Happier Kids’.

It is often assumed that outside the competitive environs of the private sector, work pace is slower. Teaching is particularly thought of as a ‘softer’ job for women who intend to marry and raise a family. Meenu, a senior teacher at a Mumbai-based school shares, “That school teachers have it easier is a myth! I start my day at 5.30 am and end it at 11.30 pm despite having a part-time domestic helper at home. I may be home a couple of hours earlier than a full-time worker but then I have to do far more. There are more expectations because we are seen to have more time.” Sarita, an Assistant Professor in a Delhi University College, is a single/unmarried adoptive mother, thinks that “All mothers – married or not – are ultimately single mothers. Care giving is seen as a woman’s job.” But she states that it was not very difficult for her: “I have flexibility and not a nine-to-five regime and have many more holidays. My colleagues helped me by re-arranging the timings of my classes”. So can flexibility be the panacea?

Yes, thinks the team of “working mothers” at Fleximoms, a career advisory for women who wish to work flexibly. At a community meeting organised by Fleximoms in Gurgaon, BlackBerry-toting women who had quit work to be full-time care-givers at home discuss challenges, issues and solutions. From a twenty-something mother of a three month-old baby to a 50-year-old Chartered Accountant, these women are looking for jobs and “lost identities”; they admitted “feeling brain-dead at home” and “fuming about the luxury of sitting at home”. They had doubts over “part-time” work, its pay patterns vis-a-vis work load and the non-serious, almost “recreational” aura it carries. Fleximoms Co-Founder, Anita Vasudeva, clarifies that ‘flexible’ jobs “unlike part-time jobs, connotes a larger spectrum of innovative possibilities ranging from flexible hours/days/ or projects weeks to working from home and so on.

The idea behind Fleximoms is to bridge the vast gap between the untapped pool of skilled women professionals and businesses’ need for experienced workers at remote locations. And it seems to work for some like Linda, a senior advertising professional in Bangalore, who quit full-time work for child-care, “I did not want to neglect my kids. Been working flexi hours ever since…it allows me to do it all, including singing in a concert and directing a play! I am happy”.

While flexi hours do end the tortuous grind of daily jugglery for women, it seems at best an interim solution. Housekeeping and care giving are still seen as women’s work but women have started to demand help and their space. Whatever happened to “work-life balance”, a term often bandied about in corporate town halls? Time for the gender roles paradigm to shift. Flexi-roles anyone?

(Some names have been changed).

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