My life as a Mother and as a Working Woman

—Basudhara Roy

The best place to cry is on a mother's arms.
—Jodi Picoult

A couple of years ago, when I was contemplating motherhood, it appeared to me to be a distinct phase of life to which I would instantly be upgraded as soon as I was blessed with a child. Mothers came across to me as a distinct lot of their own kind who could unceasingly and untiringly call forth the virtues of compassion, empathy, selflessness and sacrifice in order to bring up their children and contribute to the family ‘good’. I had seen my mother, grandmothers, aunts, friends’ mothers and all of them appeared to conform to that ideal of the self-abnegating woman whose only mission in life was to bring up her children well.

However, when I saw myself in the role that I had looked forward to, it came to me as a shock that it was not all that easy as it had been institutionalized in everyday cultural lore. With the birth of my son, I, in no way experienced an overnight transformation. When he was laid in my arms for the first time, my instant reaction was not the transcendental ecstasy that I had been psychologically trained to expect from the countless baby-product ads on television. Rather, it was one of surprise (he was far too tiny) mixed with intimidation (the fear of my inability to nurture him).

Now, a year later, I am still coming to terms with motherhood and it strikes me as absurd that its realities rarely gain representation in public cultural discourse. Movies, television soaps and advertisements never tell me that it can be tiresome to be stranded all alone with a baby in a nuclear family for the major part of the day and unhealthy to have month-long sleepless nights; that it is sometimes a relaxing break to be by oneself with the baby off-hands and that a delicacy may be as tempting to you as to your child and sharing can be as good an option as giving up.

The truth remains that despite a changing cultural scenario, changing conditions of life, values and morals, ‘motherhood’ as a concept has remained stagnant and inert. The ideal mother is, in today’s world, a stereotypical figure rather than a flesh and blood reality. She does not naturally exist but is forced into existence by female cultural prescriptions of duty. Motherhood is not meant to be a negation of the self but an extension of it. In becoming a mother, one branches out like a sapling, sending forth shoots in new directions; in replicating form, one imparts of oneself to be, by extension, constituted into another; in creating life, one partakes of nature and divinity. How then can motherhood result not in the expansion but in the handicap of the self, in the shedding or may I say, the mutilating of a part of it? It becomes then impossible to accept that the idea of the ideal mother too, like numerous other constructs, is not a patriarchally forwarded and endorsed concept to confirm the exclusion of the woman from mainstream life. Instilled in women from birth and firmly embedded within the cultural institution of womanhood, ‘motherly’ becomes more than an adverb, signifying a presence or absence of certain requisite qualities of the female being that equip her to best transform herself on childbirth.

In such a society then, the myth of the ‘working mother’ derives effective currency in evolving a label for mother-ness. I call it ‘myth’ because the very idea of an idle woman is mythical. In evolving a label therefore for women who participate as economic members in the nation’s work-force, a functional misnomer is being culturally promoted. All mothers, in the fundamental sense are working and the discrimination between work performed within the domestic sphere and public economic sphere as being disadvantageous for the latter class of mothers derives hypocritical overtones. Nonetheless, in most walks of life, the earning mother (a more appropriate label according to me) remains an ‘othered figure’. A binary to the ideal mother, she is all that the latter is not. She is selfish, callous, indifferent, tough and is most unlikely to bring up her children well. Waving aside her ‘duties’, she is out to realize her own ambitions and is a physical manifestation of all that is considered ‘unmotherly’. Although a gradual attitudinal change is manifesting itself in various quarters today, the predominant focus in the social reception of earning mothers remains on their (in)efficient performance in child-care activities. As I register myself as an economic member, outsiders find it natural to assume that a sacrifice of child-care hours is being made to realize the aspirations of an academic career. Thus, I am often questioned whether my child is ministered proper feeds and whether it isn’t unmotherly to leave him to the care of a baby-sitter.

Criticisms lick and roll around us like unsure pets in our everyday lives, their effects ranging from affectionate itches to rude repulses but all around me, all the same, I see changes registering themselves. Today, pursuing a career is being increasingly looked upon as a matter of individual right and choice and the host of modern options – diapers, instant baby foods, washing machines, music recorders, day care centres, not to mention the specializing in babysitting as a profession, are catching on in India too, giving back bit by bit to the Indian mother, the self that she seemed to have completely lost.

About the Author
Basudhara Roy is presently employed as Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Karim City College, Jamshedpur. She is a gold-medallist in English from Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi (2009) and has just initiated her research work on Indian-American women writers. She enjoys reading, writing and teaching and lives in Jamshedpur, India.

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