There was a time when I used to stay with my parents, go to university, meet friends, study, eat what my mum cooked and go to sleep. That was the time I had a handwritten note stuck to my room door, saying: "Would you like your tedium, rare, well-done or medium?" That was then. Today, as a working mother of a teenager, I would not know tedium if it came and bit me on my face. It seems like someone else's reality altogether, a luxury I can't afford. Even so, I actually had it much worse when my child was younger.
Times have changed. From the time the husband earned, and the wife stayed at home to now, when the husband earns and the wife earns too. But generally the wife still cooks and washes and runs the house and the husband comes and flops on the sofa and grabs the remote before you can even get a greeting in. So, how does she balance her work with life at home?
"[A] mother's life is like a treadmill with stops at monotony, the kids' bedroom and the kitchen. "
The transition from computers to nappies and back to computers is not an easy one. I have a fridge magnet which says: "There is no such thing as a non-working mother". But try being a mother who has a full-time job outside the home as well. And while your male colleagues will always tell you that it is all about time/stress management, I can guarantee you at least 80% of them go home to get ready-made tea, meals and welcome hugs from nicely bathed, cute children.
Most men do not see the work that goes behind creating that wonderful homely scene, often by a wife who has also laboured just as hard as him in an office. They do not see how a mother's life is like a treadmill with stops at monotony, the kids' bedroom and the kitchen. The concept of me-time", so cherished by women in their youth and by psycho-babblers, is just that -- psychobabble, not rooted in any reality. Personal space is a concept almost alien to us.
For women with children, the combination of work and all the complexities of raising children entail a high-pressure lifestyle that requires remarkable balancing skills. While men no longer have to bear the pressures of being sole breadwinners, we are wrapped in two equally exacting roles: pursuing a career and economic independence, while continuing, for the most part, to bear the brunt of household work.
The problems are legion -- finding affordable and good-quality childcare for younger kids (unless you have a parental set-up to support you, but that brings its own burden of guilt), the unrelenting pressure and strain of their working day averaging anywhere from 14 to 16 hours, the frustration of not having enough time for your child and having even fewer spare minutes for yourself. It eats you up.
"If you whinge, you are told to strike a better balance and maybe even give up your job."
When your child has raging high fever, you are the one usually who stays up nights tending to him, getting his medicines, checking his temperature. And you are the one who still has to go back to work the next day. If you whinge, you are told to strike a better balance and maybe even give up your job. They say it takes a village to bring up a child. Most modern mothers don't even have one person to help. I see my maid rushing from house to house working up to 14 hours a day, getting abused by her alcoholic non-working husband and naturally snapping when her child gets cranky. This stress cuts across socioeconomic backgrounds.
Women need immense strength and resilience to organise and handle what are in effect two full-time jobs. They get up early and by the time they hit the bed they are half-past dead. They rush to feed and prepare their children for day-care or school and then get ready for their office work. They adjust their timing to beat the morning rush-hour traffic. Skipping lunch to make up for hours missed from work when they have to handle emergencies related to their children is normal. When the work is done, they rush to fetch their kids, hurriedly make dinner and then play or do homework with their children. All the while the words "quality time" inspire flashes of guilt.
When their children are asleep, they go on to do the housework. If their children are small or ill, they have the additional burden of sleepless nights to contend with. Most have even given up trying to understand this whole work-life balance business. To them it is just a fancy-term for a utopian situation. Hear them talk, and they will tell you how they will probably die of a stress-induced disease. Forget everything else, just raising children in a far more competitive and insane world is hard enough.
One hears the term multi-tasking bandied about a lot. Hah! To most men it means skipping from one PowerPoint presentation to reading an email to answering a phone call. To working mothers, multi-tasking is answering an important office call with all the details the boss wants, reading emails, having something cooking in the oven, ensuring the child is eating properly on his high chair, switching TV channels to the right cartoons to make sure he remains entertained.
"There is no perfect, one-size-fits-all balance one should be striving for. "
How many fathers do you know who take time off because his child has caught a virus? The mother ends up doing it, cutting into her annual leave. Her holidays are not holidays at all -- they are days and nights spent doing nurse duty. And I am not even getting into how it can adversely affect her career progression.
Work-life balance does not mean an equal balance. Trying to schedule an equal number of hours for each of your various work and personal activities is usually unrewarding and unrealistic. Life is and should be more fluid than that. Your best individual work-life balance will vary over time, often on a daily basis. The right balance for you today will probably be different for you tomorrow. There is no perfect, one-size-fits-all balance one should be striving for. A juggling act including multiple responsibilities at work, business trips, taking care of ailing parents and crying-for-attention kids (and sometimes, partners) -- that in essence is the life of our average working mother.
Work is a way for you to get a life, it is not life itself they say. For most women, that remains an unachievable ideal.