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The grass is not greener - Stay at home vs working mothers

Nirupama Subramanian

Updated: February 3, 2016, 12:16 AM IST
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I am relaxing on my couch watching 'The Intern' on DVD. Robert De Niro, plays the eternally affable Ben Whitaker who joins About the Fit, an internet start-up as The Intern. He is 70, his boss Jules Ostin, played by a stylish but stressed Anne Hathaway is a 30 something woman.

Ben is escorting his employer's daughter to a birthday party and comes across the stay at home mothers who have been sniping about Jules. 'You must be proud of her, one of your own, shattering the glass ceiling,' says Ben, wanting to set them right. The mothers don't seem convinced. Jules, not only has to find a new CEO for her company but also make guacamole for her daughter's picnic, a task that cannot be left to the stay at home Dad.

Despite a lackluster storyline and loose plot, the movie, 'The Intern' starring Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway, made me think about the way women, especially mothers relate to each other. Is there a subtle war, a clash between the stay-at-home mothers and the working ones? Do we support each other's choices and each other's sacrifices? Or do we try to pull each other down to assuage our feelings of inadequacy.

Currently as a work from home mother I have seen both sides of the coin. Usually I am teetering on the fence, unable to fully embrace either option. It does give me a good view of what happens in both worlds even if I am often trying to keep my balance.
When my daughter was younger, I would go down every morning to drop her off at the bus stop in front of the apartment complex where I lived. There were a couple of fathers, some maids and many mothers. Occasionally, a working mother would show up on the way to her office to send her child off. I would hear the comments, both innocuous and insidious that we all were a party to.

A well-meaning mother would tell Working Mom, "You are not able to come down to the park every evening. So thought I should tell you that your son was crying a lot yesterday. I am sure it was nothing but he looked so sad sitting with the maid." There is a faint whiff of accusation as other mothers nod sympathetically.

Working Mom would offer a stiff smile and be unable to work normally for the rest of the day.

Sometimes, a spectacular work of art would be produced for a school science project by a stay at home mother. As a miniature Eiffel Tower made with toothpicks or a replica of a zoo with handcrafted papermache animals was borne off to the bus, some of us would look on enviously. A working mother would roll her eyes and whisper, "Some people have too much time on their hands."

Career Mothers who have a hectic 9-7 routine and attend meetings all over the world consider themselves more successful than artists, school teachers and free-lance web designers, who in turn feel superior to 'housewives' who don't work at all. When it comes to parenting, the reverse happens. Full time mothers bask in the glow of being a successful parent while the career women cringe and avoid the topic. We are not in competition with each other for the Best Mother or Top Housekeeper award. We are not in competition to win the Nobel Prize or Businesswoman of the Year Award. But sometimes it does seem like that.

The urban educated woman is not forced to work for economic reasons though her earnings are a welcome addition to the family income. I have seen many working women who have quit their jobs after a baby, who think about getting back but then along comes another one and thoughts of work vanish like candy in a birthday party. Somewhere, amidst organizing play dates, creating designer muffins for the bake sale and ferrying the children from one class to another, they wonder if they are wasting their lives. "I also used to wear lipstick during the day, put on a suit and travel" mused a former banker friend of mine "but now I barely wash my hair and put on clean clothes. Sometimes, I just long to talk about interest rates and stock markets instead of watching Doraemon but…

"You do have help at home, you can take some time out," I suggested.

"I can't leave my children's upbringing to nannies. Then what is the point of taking off from work." She sounded affronted. I know she felt resentful of the few women who somehow managed work and motherhood, she was scared of never being able to get back to a job she liked, she worried about losing her significance.

Even women who have never worked and seem quite happy to shop and go to the salon, nurse ambitions of greater things. Things they will do after the children grow up, after they discharge their responsibilities. They have put their dreams on the back burner so it doesn't seem quite fair if another woman seems to have it all. Obviously, this career woman is making compromises, usually involving children. Thwarted ambitions and lost dreams show up as sarcastic asides and snide remarks.

Sometimes I travel out of town on work to conduct workshops for my corporate clients. Usually, there are a couple of women in the sessions who come up to me for a chat during the breaks. Invariably, the conversation shifts to balancing a career with motherhood.

The issues are similar.

I wasn't able to attend the last PTA meeting because there was a great opportunity for an overseas training program. My husband went but..

I am lucky to have my in-laws at home to take care of my daughters but I wonder if I am missing out…

I really like my job and I am doing well but sometimes I get so stressed that I wonder if it is worth it..

It is difficult but if I sit at home and go to kitty parties, I will go mad..

They can't afford to seem weak and conflicted while running in the rat race. They are struggling everyday just to stay on course. It doesn't seem fair that some women can relax, do lunches and watch television all day long. Stifled guilt and constant self-doubt lurks behind afacade of superiority and smugness.

Both working women and home makers can feel guilty and inadequate. There are times when both look longingly and enviously at the other option.

But the grass is not greener on the other side.

Each side needs the other for support, for inspiration, for succour, for strength. Both have made choices which need to be respected. Both could change their roles at any time. I have been inspired by women who have become CEOs as much as I have been moved by women who keep a spotless house and devote themselves selflessly to their children. There are some who have embraced their choices with happiness, some who try to straddle two worlds with a foot in each, some who find creative ways to manage their responsibilities. We have much to learn from each other.

When we move from envy to empathy, from resentment to real connections, both can win.

We just need to realize that we are on the same side.
First Published: February 3, 2016, 12:16 AM IST

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