This month marks 10-year anniversary of my current role as defined by the society: a stay-at-home mom. In this decade I have read, heard, discussed and have gotten educated on many diverse opinions on work-life balance issues. My own emotions on the topic have ranged from bewilderment, confusion, frustration, envy, guilt, liberation, what-ifs, bliss and, at times, nostalgia.
Just a few months ago, this discussion bubbled up once again in US media as a few high-powered and high-achieving women in corporate and political realms sent conflicting messages via newspaper articles, books and their actions. On one hand, some messages reaffirmed the impossibility of managing demanding careers with successful family life for women. On the other hand, we were cautioned against ‘checking-out’ too early. As the debate went on, I wonderfully discovered a newly found calm and serenity in my own reactions to this debate in the public arena. Let me explain.
I grew up in a family in India with no brothers where my parents’ aspirations were centered on their daughters. Educational achievement and professional growth was promoted with love and support. My sister and I used these tools to explore our talents, define our identities and mark our independence as adults. In this journey, I became an electronics engineer, left my country of origin and moved to the US at the age of 20 for my first real job assignment. The freedom and meritocracy of my new world encouraged me to expand my ambitions. I received an MBA from a prestigious business school, worked at an elite management consulting firm followed by a global technology corporation.
During this sojourn, I met a wonderful man, got married and had two kids. When I was pregnant with my first son, my husband and I visited the state-of-the-art day-care facilities at my place of work. We had both implicitly decided that that is where our bundle of joy will spend his or her days. But, I vividly remember the feeling of discomfort that arose in me as I tossed and turned in bed the first night after that visit. Something in me was getting very uncomfortable with the decision of leaving my child in the day-care. But what were my options? I was definitely not going to QUIT MY JOB. I could not stay at home all day every day to care for a baby, even my own baby. As my pregnancy rolled along, my husband and I decided to look for a nanny who would come to our house and take care of our baby. A gift walked into our lives as a nanny when our son was 2 months old and I worked from home for the first year of my son’s life. I also chose to cut down on my hours to 75% of full-time work-load. Fast forward two years and I had another son and reduced my work-load to 60%. In this time, I moved with my family and my nanny to Europe for my husband’s work and continued to work part-time at my company’s European headquarters.
I had best of both the worlds. My personal situation was worthy of envy: a supportive husband, healthy children, comfortable financial situation, loving and dedicated nanny that we all adored. My professional circumstances could not have been better either. My employer was known in the industry for flexible work arrangements to encourage women to balance work and family AND I enjoyed what I did and was good at it. But when my younger son was 2 years old, I attended an executive coaching workshop sponsored by my employer and went home with the mantra of higher productivity emblazoned in my head: ‘Let Go’. Somewhere, some thing in me told me to let go of my professional life. My rational mind told me that for me to grow any further in my chosen professional life, I needed to go back full-time and I knew that I did not want to do that with two young kids. My heart was being pulled towards a more relaxed time with my family that I had never planned for. So, once again, I followed my heart and quit my job. We were financially secure to be able to make that decision. My hitherto supportive husband could not understand my decision as he was convinced that I (an ambitious and a successful professional woman) would go crazy sitting at home and would, in turn, drive him crazy.
Well, he was right. I went crazy for the first year of my stay-at-home mom phase. I was awkward at introducing myself to new acquaintances as I struggled to define who I was beyond my professional identity. A couple more years of frustrated feelings followed as I seemed to disappear in people’s eyes as Mr. X’s wife or Y&Z’s mom. I unintentionally, and clumsily, tried to force an identity with people in casual get-togethers with conversations beyond my children. I remember a few times when I would tell myself before a dinner or a party that I am not going to indulge in mommy-talk and come home to the realization that that is all I had done.
Yet in spite of all these frustrating and confusing times and well–intentioned suggestions/recommendations of well-wishing family and friends, I never had a desire to go back to the corporate world. I would not even consider self-employment efforts utilizing my business skills. Even well run philanthropic organizations that could have benefitted from my experience were not tempting enough. Seriously, I truly was a ship adrift. I had started to doubt my capabilities, my talents and my self-worth.
Beyond these confusing emotions, there is something else that has also been going on in all these years. In the past decade, I have been able to pay a little bit more attention to my elderly parents and spend just a little bit more time with them. Although I would not claim my family to be physically fit, I have been able to contain our family’s unhealthy eating habits to a certain extent. In my professional world, male-friendships used to be the norm for me. In my mommy-hood phase, I have been blown over by the warmth of female friendships and support. Most importantly, in spite of the routine and excruciatingly boring tasks of motherhood, I have truly loved being around my kids. I have learnt so much about human learning, brain development and human behavior from them. I have learnt to really listen to what my kids are saying. This still does not come naturally to me but as I am not in a hurry or distracted by much else, I am able to invest in understanding their world. They have also made me so much more aware of who am I as a person, with all her dark and bright spots. Their authentic and pure world has created so many moments of joy and frustrations that no professional success or failure can compete with.
Last few years, to keep myself entertained, I have forayed into cooking with gusto and have gotten bored of it. I have ventured into areas I knew nothing about. I have taken classes in religion, art history and human behavior. I have explored meditation and mindfulness. I have tried my hands in multiple creative endeavors and discovered my own hidden talents. I have travelled to Middle East, Africa and Asia. I have lived in Europe and America. I have analyzed societies from within and from afar. And all of this has helped me to dive deep into myself in many ways to find out who I am and what gives me a kick. The freedom of time and few outside expectations have been extremely liberating.
As a result of all these accidental, unplanned and clumsy, but heart-driven efforts, today, I stand on the brink of starting my own ‘Well-Being Coaching’ practice, my newly found passion. I feel deep in my heart that I am closer to my life’s purpose today than I was ten years ago. Yes, I do believe that my life could not have been this rich had I stuck to my original ambitious life-plan of ‘doing well’ in the professional world. Yes, I am guilty of not having contributed to family coffers for last ten years. Yes, I may even be guilty of curtailing my husband’s freedom for taking big risks in his professional life as he became the sole breadwinner for the family. But I have done my best to contribute to my kids, to my family, but most importantly, I have contributed to my own growth.
But how much so ever following my heart’s desire may seem selfish at a certain level, I am proud of myself for really listening to my heart at every level in my life. To me, that IS the definition of success – to explore where YOUR inside voice wants to take you. And this realization is the reason for my calm and serenity as I listen to the work-life balance debate. Steve Jobs once said, “Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” I couldn’t agree with him more.
I cannot and do not take credit for my success. I will never be able to express how grateful I am for my blessings that have led me to this success– my parents, my husband, my children and my luck!