Are you a career woman with a kid, or a mother with a job?
This is the question I had asked one of my team members after she came back from an extended maternity leave and wanted to know what she should do next in the organisation.
She appeared puzzled. "What's the difference?" She asked, after a bit.
I told her then, what I want to share here. There is all the difference in the world between the two options. We are socialised to believe that there is no greater identity than that of being a mother. If you say you identify yourself as a painter, a lawyer, a banker, an entrepreneur, before you think of yourself as a mother, you will be looked upon with horror, especially in this country which deifies the mother figure. You will appear harsh, hard and unfeeling. Instant judgements will be passed about your lack of maternal instinct.
Of course, our child is our first and primary priority—nobody is arguing with that! Identity, however, is totally different.
Why? Because we confuse identity with priority. Of course, our child is our first and primary priority—nobody is arguing with that! It is but obvious that once one has a kid, we will drop every single thing in the world to be by that child's side when she needs us. I am not arguing with that. THAT is priority.
Identity, however, is totally different. It is the first thought about ourselves that crosses our mind when we wake up in the morning. It is the first words that pop out of our mouths when someone asks us what we do. It is the conversations we find ourselves gravitating towards in a mixed crowd party. It is the books we read, the knowledge we seek, the work we do.
Do you enjoy deeply involved parenting conversations? Do you read a lot of websites and magazines on child-rearing? Do you attend parenting workshops to brush up your skills? Does your social circle now primarily include mothers or fathers? Then your primary identity is, of course, of a parent. If you want to work in an organisation after your maternity leave is over, you are still clear that you are a parent first and that's your biggest role. Yes, you want to work because you feel you have the time to spare, something to give back, you enjoy the income and like the diversion. But you will not just drop everything you are doing when your child has an emergency—you will do it even otherwise. If your child gets up in the morning and says, "Mommy please don't go to work today, let's play at home," you will immediately agree, and inform your boss. You will not ask, you will not hesitate.
More power to you. You know who you are and which way the dice falls. Birthday party planning takes precedence over power point presentations, and PTMs are far more central than client meetings. Your child will thank you for this attention, this focus, this constancy when she grows up, she will know you were the solid base upon which she flowered.
The organisation you're associated with, however, won't. Not unless you come clean. Not unless you are completely clear that you are "a mother with a job." You get out for a few hours every day to put in some effort in an organisation, do your best, do it with sincerity, but you will not extend yourself beyond that—it should be expected, it is not going to happen.
If, however, you are a "career woman with a kid", everything changes. What I said at the beginning of the article is true—illness, emergencies, emotional meltdowns will always have you running back to your precious bundle. You will always prioritise such moments because as a mother you are conditioned to do it.
But on many other occasions, you will not be around. You will move heaven and earth to attend PTMs and annual days but you may not be there for birthday parties, crafts class, swimming lessons. You may find ways to get it done—with car pools, drivers, nannies. And yet, you will often find these best-laid plans crumbling, and your child will have to forfeit those outings.
When she drags that overnight bag behind her, stepping into your office pumps, giggling and saying, "Look! I am mamma!" you can be sure lady, you're a role model.
You don't feel like joining in every parenting conversation happening around you. When you spot someone from your own industry at a party you are more likely to start a conversation with that person rather than with someone who has a kid your kid's age. You don't find all children in the world interesting, just yours. You are interested in reading and learning about parenting, but you also consume other content that's far removed from children and childcare.
If someone woke you up in the middle of the night and asked you who you are, the word "lawyer" or "dancer" might pop out of your mouth before "mother."
Does that make you a monster? I don't think so. It makes you different from many other women around you. You probably feel assailed by guilt every time you leave for a meeting even though your child is wailing "mamma don't go." You probably flog yourself mentally every time you take that flight out of your city and can't return the same night.
Please stop. You are imparting critical life lessons to your kid even without realising it. You are teaching her about independence and identity and self-reliance and self-worth. You are helping her become tougher and more independent herself.
"But have I struck the right balance?" You ask yourself, and agonise.
Well, the next time you walk in through that front door with your overnight bag, see if the child runs up to you, throws herself into your arms, eyes sparkling with joy, shimmering with love.
If you've got that, you're sorted.
Oh and by the way, when she drags that overnight back behind her, stepping into your office pumps, giggling and saying, "look I am mamma!" you can be sure lady, you're a role model.