Working Mother

A precious little bundle, fragile and tender is handed to me. I have been carrying him for months, I know his moods already. What I do not know is the sheer physicality of the experience. And the surge to protect.

Having children does a lot to parents. It changes us in ways we had never seen, or known – then how could we expect it? It shows us deeper love than we have ever known to be possible, one that flows like a constant river, giving even if it does not receive. And that is joy.

Oh, not all joy of course – the first few years are madness, but then I would not have missed that madness for all the world. So what if there were a few sleepless nights and toes stubbed on lego pieces in the hallway. (When I say a few, I do mean a few years – not just days and nights). It is a crazy time when the workplace seems to be an escape to normality. At least the old normal. Because the new normal changes everyday. You learn to deal with the unexpected – and how does one delegate that? It tears you apart, you would not forgive yourself if the unexpected horrible thing suddenly happened to your little one.

I cannot forget the time I get a call on the way back home from work. “I did not want to disturb you at work, but there is a letter from the nursery saying that the child was exposed to a serious meningitis case. They have said something about antibiotics.” Panic. I know the case they are referring to – there was a girl, both parents doctors. She contracted it and was gone in four hours. They could do nothing. I did not know she had attended my son’s nursery that week. But she had. And he was at risk.

I looked at my watch. It was seven minutes to six. My doctor’s surgery (that is what they call a clinic in England) was shutting as I was looking at the ticking hands of the clock. The letter had arrived at lunchtime. My son only did half the day at the nursery. I hear of it now. I have no idea how he is, whether I can breathe or not. I disconnect rudely. Call up the doctor. Try to keep calm as I speak, or how will they understand me? I cannot speak, but I must – there is urgency in my voice, panic breaking through. Would they even have the antibiotic? Would they keep the surgery open for me? Can I get him there in time? Why was I not there to take the letter? Why did I even let the child out of the house? Focus.. Focus. Injection. Co-ordinate. Ensure next steps. Don’t worry about breathing or bags or other silly material things.

I do not remember the next few minutes. I do not remember how we got to the moment when the right liquid was being injected into the little one. It was in, the doctors were kind. (Remember, this was the NHS, they could have been bureaucratic. Remember, this was the NHS – the treatment was free at the point of use). I could breathe, but must be watchful. I was given a bunch of brochures. I read them diligently. And much more online later, as the tiny little thing slept next to me. I watched him as I had watched him newborn.

The constant refrain. I should have been there. I should not have been at work. He would not be at risk if I had been there to take decisions. Four hours without the antibiotics. Anything could have happened. Anything still could.

I was watching for blood poisoning.

I could not delegate this to anyone else. Took the day off work the next day. A jangle of nerves by then, but steeled, for I must be the one to make it right.

Sure enough, by the next afternoon, they came. The rashes. I did the glass test. All parents must know the glass test, everyone must. If the rashes don’t change colour when pressed – and you can see if they do through a transparent glass – then there is trouble. A normal rash will go white when pressed, a dangerous rash would not.

This one did not.

I took a deep breath. I am glad I did, because it would be hours before I would allow myself another one. Called the ambulance. I did not know what was ahead. The ambulance crew was sympathetic. They understood. They had taken that other little girl to hospital, with the doctor parents. I did not want to hear this. I did not want to hear anything but that sentence – “It looks fine now, nothing to worry about. You can go home safely now”. It would be a few hours before I heard it. Thankfully I did. He had the rash, the meningitis had touched him and gone. The antibiotics had just been in time. Just. A close shave. I still cry when I remember, I am crying now.

Parenting shows you how vulnerable you are. Parenting shows you your insecurities. Parenting is about fighting your fears. And losing often.

It also makes you do things you thought you’d never get around to doing. I learnt to drive, because you never know when you need to dash to hospital. I learnt to swim, to be able to play and laugh with the little one. I learnt not to be afraid of smaller pay cheques and freelance fees. I learnt that I was not my job title or the network of CEOs and presidents I met with in my work-day life. I was me, and I was the shine in the eyes of my child.

I did try, and worked, and learnt, and led and built businesses for others. My job was exciting. I was building a business school in a completely different model. They were an offshoot of a community college, they were showing a pathway to the corporate ladder even if you had skipped school or lost your way. Bright young and old people joined in to become chartered accountants in a few years or climb the HR ladder and more. It was the brave new world of skilling, and I was leading a charge. How could I resist, I knew I was good at building things that had just been started.

But the child’s school ended at noon, and this job needed me to be at work till 10pm at least half the time. Every mother faces this, so did I. There was the usual barrage of – “millions of women work and use childcare, why can’t you?”, “you are lucky that you earn enough to afford childcare”, “Our local council is so supportive and this is such a nice area – surely you will find something good”, “there are so many options if you look” and so on. But all I could see were the newspaper reports of childminders locking up and starving their wards, or worse. The good news stories were either not plentiful or were not news. What did I know – I just could not find them. I spoke to other mothers, and none had a good first hand tale to tell. Their neighbours who used to look after their child for two hours after school (before the parent came back from work) would not feed their child. The childminder used to leave the children alone at home and go to the shops. The nursery – of course would not keep children after 6pm, every five minutes cost a huge penalty and I heard tales of a child once left with the janitor for the parent to pick up. These were stories – surely that could not have happened… but what is a mother to do?

Other than take each day at a time.

Parenting teaches you myopia. You plan for the next three minutes, for the next week, or at best till the next annual holiday. Beyond that, you know that all your visioning and forecasting is going to come to naught. Because here come dependents. I never quite figured out who was the dependent here, but in a sense we all were – the family.

There will be many tales told of jobs juggled, of childcare sorrows, of days the baby is unwell. There are stories that make you laugh – later – when they are done. Remember the moment when you were making a presentation and the projector lit up the burp patch on your shoulder? We all learnt to wear shades of beige. Remember when it was time to feed, and the meeting just would not end? We learnt to wear breast pads. We learnt of the sorority of motherhood, and another world opened up for us. The in-between world of jugglers.

We mothers lived in a twilight zone. (Maybe fathers did too, but I did not know enough to speak of them. There were many who cared, who shared). The twilight zone had track-pants and cushiony sofas with a sleepy baby perched on us with a bag of chips to hand. It was a piece of heaven. Sometimes it was softness and lace and fragranced bedrooms with a gentle light on the little ones – the days the cleaner had been. But the twilight zone was not a place you could linger in at all. There be doors. And each led to a different stage. Enter, stage-door left – and you were in your heels, clicking away importantly at nation building, or doing the accounts – both important to your business. Stage door right let to the perfectly coiffed and muffined mommy meet – over glasses of champagne in the evenings when you connected in ways so new, and yet so familiar. Another, a birthday party. Oh – will they not allow gelatin or gluten? Fine – in my stride I take this too. Did someone say roller coaster? Sure, except you have no idea whether you are stepping into – the one with teacups or the Space Mountain ride. It made us better workers in many ways. I still don’t yawn in long conferences, I still smile when pulling an all-nighter for work. Other doors would open up unexpectedly, and you had to be ready for them all. You were mommy, you could take it all.

We learnt to be nimble.

Parenthood teaches you to be prepared for everything. Remember that mountaineering gear that you carried with you when the children were small? Yup, that’s when it began. You have no idea what you might need, be prepared – or it might be a crisis. I still write my presentations like that and it is tough weaning myself away from it. I will have an extra 60 slides – just in case. Those who see the process are lost (yup, never ever see a sausage being made) because they cannot see that I am planning for all doors from the twilight zone. It stands one in good stead, this being prepared. It has costs too – and we live with those regrets everyday.

Who here has not had that discussion about parents being given time off for looking after sick children whereas those without children have to pick up the load. Who has not retaliated with ‘choice’ and not had a pleasurable half an hour discussing this threadbare before it was time to go back to those wearisome deadlines. A parent of course often did not join these discussions because they had to work feverishly, sometimes skipping their lunch break to be able to meet their quota of work before their ‘flexi’time arrangements kicked in and they had to leave an hour before the rest so that they could make the school pick up deadline.

It was a myth, you know, this part time work.

You sign up for a three day or four day workweek, but you do the same job that others do in a week. It is just that you get paid half of what the others are paid. We work because we are good at it, we are there because we can work it. The job is us, wholeheartedly and there are parts that cannot wait or cannot be delegated. We care about getting it right. So we put in hours that we have not even signed up for when we negotiated the deal. Was that poor negotiation? Maybe. It is easy to be insecure and on the defensive when you live in the zone of many doors. You know that there are few more roller coasters ahead. As my grandmother in law is famously known to have said, and said it often, “This is not called fear, this is called caution”.

We learnt to operate with caution.

Research reports that women understate their abilities compared to men. They will not even apply for jobs unless they are wholly convinced it can be done. Men, it seems, will apply even if they are 60-70% sure that they can do it. I wonder – and I must look at the datasets. Where were the mothers, I wonder. I learnt this from being a mother. Because there is no 70% in being a mother. A child has to be picked up on time, all the time. 100%. A child has to be fed, 100% of the time. You deliver 100% on everything. You don’t leave it to the client/boss/child to decide whether you are suited for the job. Nope – you are there, in the spot. You make it happen.

We learnt to work anywhere.

We learnt to be device agnostic. To not care about ‘working conditions’. Or where we were. We learnt to write presentation when cheering for games. To send work emails from the hairdressers. Radio interviews done in cars, negotiations conducted in cinema hall foyers. We were anytime, anywhere, working mommas. Yo. Sure, there are many of us. We all work whenever we can. Together or alone, we hold up the wall.

We learnt to deal with crumbling walls.

Each time it was built, the experienced ones amongst us knew that something would give soon. And the mad scramble to prop it up would begin again. A child would fall ill. Another, from a perfect family – would start stealing – unexpectedly. The childcare arrangements would collapse. A parent would need attention. Something. Some of us became anxious parents, some utterly calm. Multiple crises over years does that to you. It changes you. Parenthood, you see – makes you what you thought you’d never be – and no, I am not going to acknowledge that I have become my mother. Though that would be nice too. She held, still holds many walls up – work and home. She too had the same choices – and fears. You cannot outsource parenting, even as you outsource the repetitive chores of parenting.

You learn over the years to let go, bit by bit.

You must, for they have to fly on their own and be safe. You learn to hold the reins a little more lightly as the years go by, though every crash puts you back in the driver’s seat. You learn to be the spider at the centre of the web you organise – making pathways, nudging with finesse. An occasional tumble. You manage. Dusting your knees, as you pick yourself up again in full public view, you learn humility again. And again. You fall, and rise – but you keep everyone safe.

That is what matters at the end of each day. Keeping us safe. Every decision is based on this for a working mother. Careers are balanced not on ambition and guilt, nor on pressures from peers or traditional self images, even though all of them have their influence. Of all the things that can contribute to the decision to stay in the workplace and climb the ladder at the pace of their potential, there is this – the most basic of all – that can make it or break it. Safety. If the career is an inconvenience to one’s children, family, tribe or community, then one finds ways to negotiate and resolve. If the career seems to affect the emotional or physical safety of our children, we as mothers must respond.

Each time I receive a call from the clinic at school, I thank the powers that be for allowing me the freedom to go rushing off when I am needed. Broken bones or fevers, you need someone who cares. Even if you pat the child with one hand and type with the other, it helps to be there. I have not always been there, sometimes projects called me away to other towns. Remotely managing a stapled hand is an exercise in hell. Nod, if as a parent you too have been fuming on a bunch of phones in an office or hotel room far away as someone else handles the emergency. You know they will miss the real questions, they will be asking questions to which you already know the answers – time is of the essence – comfort and heal the child, please. I have not been there for many prizes and plays, the child has played his music for strangers, but that does not trouble me as much as those moments when I (or his dad) should have been there to keep him safe, to make him well. Not all of us have the luxury of responding to the call. Some cannot because of their circumstances. For many of us the response is clear. I must be there for what I have made. The choice was mine, so the responsibility is mine.

It does hurt, you know, to walk away from all that you have built at work. Emotional and economic. It is a loss. Knowing that you have done it before, and may have to do it again. Wishing that there was a smarter way of keeping the shows on the road, smoothly, with no disruption to anyone. Knowing how tough it is to build again from the middle. We break too, as we take a work break. We walk away and worse, see it handed over to another for them to claim as their own. (Am I saying the work is another child? Maybe I am – in a way). But even as you watch it go, you know there is more ahead.

You learn. You learn to relearn.

You learn to rebuild. From the skill-sets of academic life and real life, from the battles in the board room and the nursery rooms. From the negotiations at the dining table and the ones in the conference room. You grow your skills. You learn to be indefatigable and formidable. You are here to get the job done, and you have more things to do. There is a force here, and it will build and grow. Like her or not. She has rebuilt herself many times over. She will relearn. She knows her weaknesses better than you can, you cannot hurt her there. She knows her strengths even better and uses them with practiced ease. There comes this time when the back to work mommy rises again. This time not in the image of her male colleagues but her own person, born to win.

What of the lost years?

Could she not have done this before? Without all the angst, the drama, the fear? Sure, if you could ensure that things worked all the time and everybody would be safe. In the workplace and outside it – and now we enter the realm of policy. Safe cities, support systems needs to be a policy pledge. Corporate policies must adapt to talent. I am tempted to blame academics who defined corporate strategies and structures in linear terms. Success mantras were borrowed from armies designed to kill and conquer – not to nourish and grow. Emphasis on grand strategic wars in business-land missed out on much progress in gentler spaces. All leaders know that their job is not just to create grand visions and sweeping change but also to nurture the everyday. They have inherited linear structures based on simplified theories. Life, sirs, is neither linear nor simple. It is a rich kaleidoscope where the landscape changes every minute, you need to respond. To be nimble. To manage the change. To leap from one crisis to another. To learn to relearn. To work anywhere. To rebuild your crumbling walls. Sorry – do I repeat myself? Have I just said this right above?

Consider this a call to rethink structures to respond to life, not theory. Tinkering at the edges of this change has told you that it works. Embrace the complexity – we have the tools. And the skills. Globally, it is time for the next stage of evolution of work.

The future of work clearly has to be more inclusive. In every sense of the term, and one more. For me, that means including the family in my workspace too. If they take some work time away, they save me plenty – printing, sorting files, researching, editing and sharing in the joy of work done well. We grow up together, professionally and personally, and I am sure future employers would not object to trained interns coming their way soon.