Enabling Women to truly choose

There has been a lot of back and forth in the Indian blogosphere of late, on the choices of SAHMs, on the choices of working moms. SAHMs wrote in justifying their choice to be with their children all day and vehemently denied that their brains were rotting away. Working mothers rose to defend themselves, on why they chose to/need to work, and how their children were not neglected, at the same time.

I choose not to take a position with either side. Personally, I am not yet at a stage where I need to make that choice. Also, I truly believe that each woman makes the choice for herself based on the situation that she is in, and how best she can handle it, at that point in time.

However, I do believe, that women (and men), by positioning the debate as between SAHMs Vs Working Moms, are doing a huge disservice to themselves. Each individual’s choice is important to herself and her family, but if we are to examine the phenomenon as a whole, we need to take a step back. We need to step back at the larger picture and understand the whole background of where these choices spring from, what enables these choices and whether all choices are truly choices.

To do this, we need to look at a couple of things. Lets first look at work itself. How do we define work? If we define work as a service that is provided by someone, in return for a measurable compensation, that leaves out all work at home which may be compensated by love, security, internal satisfaction – but is not measurable as compensation. On the other hand, if we define work as any service that is productive, i.e. “it occupies the person’s time”, it is too vague and includes leisure activities as well. Perhaps then it could be defined as any activity that occupies your time, but is useful to one other person atleast. Looked at this way, home making becomes a service like any other, since cooking, cleaning, child-care and education, care for the elderly, paying bills are all services that offer great value to other people.

Great. We agree then, that there is work which is performed outside the home, and work which is performed at home. Things become more dicey however, when we start assigning a value to both kinds of work.

Work outside the home is usually paid, (though a small fraction could be volunteer work). Further, work outside the home often involves skills that one has been trained for, be it mechanical work, nursing, management positions, clerical work, anything. Work outside the home also allows one to interact with other people, gain new friends, learn new things. Working inside the home, offers tremendous benefits to one’s own family. It is not usually viewed as a specialised skill that one is trained for, though many would argue that cooking for example is a skill that not everyone has. Typically, it meant less learning, less fresh interaction, though for an urban, affluent person today, facilities such as online learning mean that being home is no longer a barrier to learning. Still, it is not usually associated with one, compensation and two, specialised skills. It is not surprising then, that as human beings acquire more and more specialised skills, and want more and more things to buy, work outside the home is viewed as a more superior activity, even if we argue that home-making is equally critical for a society as a whole.

Traditionally, men did the work outside the house, and women, the home-making work, and everything ‘seemed’ hunky-dory. UNTIL. Women also started acquiring more specialised skills, and started feeling left out of an opportunity to use these. At the same time, they could not discard their traditional roles of home-making.

The situation gets more complex with the arrival of a child. Biologically, for the first six months to a year, definitely the mother is more qualified to take care of the child, until the child is weaned. Post this period, some women choose to stay back and some, to get back to work. Instead of deriding either choice, we should look at what is it that enables some women to get back to work, while others decide not to.

First of all, it is so deeply ingrained in most of us, that the mother is the primary care-giver, that it is very difficult to even imagine a situation, where at the end of say, 9 months, both parents really think, “Hey, which one of us should take a career break?” (In cases where the couple thinks its essential for a parent to be with the child, and not leave the child at a day-care). The society we live in today, does not recognise men as suitable care-givers. Men are usually treated as children themselves, needing care! Where are the companies that offer paternity leave? Or at a much smaller scale, how many companies appreciate men taking time off to care for a sick child? It is somehow much easier for women employees to ask for such things. This is ofcourse a double-edged sword – while women employees find it easier to be “accomodated”, they may also be viewed as not ambitious enough/not CEO material. These attitudes, around us, and internalised by us, make the mother the default caretaker. Naturally then, the “choice” falls upon her alone.

To my mind, this is not a complete choice. It forces almost every woman to make the choice, AND it does not allow men this choice, in most cases. I can just imagine the brouhaha that would be created by friends, family, colleagues – if ever a man decided to be a SAHD. Its not an easy choice, and most women recognise that in their hearts. Again, in the Indian culture atleast, the perception of man as primary bread-winner is still strong. Most women marry someone who earns more than them, if not equally. Hence, when it comes down to dropping a job, it is a far more difficult option for the man who is the primary bread-winner, and expected to play this role well.

Then, what about the parents who decide that its not imperative for them to spend all day with an infant? For those who have their parents around, its a blessing. For others, they need to depend on day-care centres, which is still very much an emerging industry in India, and has all the unpredictability of an emerging industry. A few bright stars, and largely inconsistent quality, no 100% assurance for the rest. Linked with “mom-primary-care-giver” the absence of good quality day-care centres in sufficient numbers is another reason why women choose not to go back to work.

Again, if you are a parent who decides that its fine to leave your child in day-care, our society today doesn’t always respect those choices. There will always be a 100 people around you, who tell moms especially, that you’ve abandoned your baby, if in not so many words. Its easy to say that who cares what the world thinks? But these young moms are often battling with themselves, as they make a difficult choice. Its even more difficult for them to confront other people, who all think they know better. Unsupportive families (husbands/in-laws) could be another problem for women who want to get back to work, but find little help at home.

We also need to look at the way our workplaces are structured. Most workplaces are structured around getting things done in a particular way, at a particular time. They focus on the means, not the ends. This leaves little options for flexibility in timings, place of work etc. On the other hand, if organisations were to focus on the ends, and allow employees various means of achieving them, both women and men could blend their work and home lives so much better. One may ask ofcourse, why should companies do this? Well, companies should do this not just to be women-friendly. Companies should do this because any company which is family friendly offers its employees a great reason to stay back. Everyone knows how much harder it is to re-hire and re-train for a position, as opposed to an existing employee. Now, even if this employee were to take a 6 month break, it may still be worthwhile for the company to manage those 6 months by allocating the work among others. A new person would take up 4 of those 6 months settling into the groove anyways. This may ofcourse be easier for some jobs (especially white collar) than others. But if a company has this mindset, options could always be found. For routine jobs, for example, temporary workers could be used.

Once all these are addressed – families truly have options to choose whether someone should stay at home, if yes, who should, and if not, how should the situation be managed, or whether a combination of being at home, and going out to work is feasible. Ofcourse, there may be some lucky women today, who are in this situation and have chosen to stay at home, after evaluating all options. Good for them! They are probably highly educated women in any case, who will not face trouble findings jobs after a few years. Until the base issues are addressed however, it is completely wrong on our part to frame the debate as being beteen working moms and SAHMs. By talking this way, we do a huge disservice to both sides, and only hurt these women, both of whom are doing the best that they can.

Rather than focusing on which camp of women is in the right, we should be addressing the base issues, which each of us can do, in a small way. I am putting down below some thoughts on what we can do, feel free to add on more!

1. Lobby in your company for paternity leave/extended paternity leave. (where maternity leave is already a norm). Talk to HR informally. Get people atleast talking about it. Only when workplaces start recognising men as dads, will men too truly be able to get involved in child care. Atleast they should have the option. That in turn will relieve the pressure on women.

2. Women – Try and avoid positioning yourself as the sole authority/responsibility for child care. Ofcourse, this depends on how supportive the husband is, but atleast internally, we have to start believing, not just saying, that two people bring in a child to this world, and beyond the biologically dictated breast-feeding, there are many things men can do, and do well.

3. If you are single or dont have kids yourself, don’t look at people in your workplace, who have children as getting some special benefits. Kids are the way for society to grow. Read Bitch Phd’s fantastic post on this subject here. Instead of feeling envious of people who take time off due to a kid’s emergency, why not lobby for the workplace to be more fair to everyone and ensure a good work-life balance? Don’t try to put them down, try to bring your needs up instead ! This will help so much to avoid a situation where working women are seen as easing off. It will instead help to establish that everyone has a life and needs time to attend to it, outside of work.

4. Stop believing that men have a special duty to be THE bread-winner in the family, and stop expecting that the man you marry must make more money than you do. Unless men achieve freedom from prescribed gender roles too, women alone will not – we will only end up doing both jobs. Start wondering to what extent gender really dictates the roles that you take up.

5. Entrepreneurs amongst you – maybe child-care is a good business for you to think of! We would all benefit by having more good quality day-cares in all areas, rather than in select upmarket areas only. Think about it.

6. Again, if you are someone who runs their own business, see what you can do to make your workplace more family friendly, while getting the work done at the same time.

And lastly, stop discussing which is better – SAHMs or working moms. Recognise the fact that women are still the primary child-carers, atleast in this country. Facing that expectation (internally as well as from society), each woman makes some very difficult choices. Rather than discussing whether individual choices are good or bad, try and see what can be done to help both men and women make the best choices they can.



  1. I was a stay at home mom for seven years and a working mom since the past 25 years.My job does not fetch mea great salary but it has helped me realize my potential.I tried my best not to neglect the house or children and I sometimes feel that had I continued to stay at home I may still have found means to interact with those around me in a purposeful way.Regrets are there but if I hadn’t put my education to good use i’d have still been frustrated for different reasons.the grass seems greener on the other side, the best way to deal with the situation is to do your best and stop feeling incomplete.the rest should be fine.

  2. Your closing para sums the whole issue up fantastically. Its really not about ‘which is better’, it has more to do with working with your choices.

    Lovely post.

  3. Padmaji, yes, all individuals face choices and the grass may look greener on the other side. Within career choices too, you as a teacher, for e.g. may at times find other professions more lucrative. But the challenge is to give women as level a playing field as possible – where we can atleast say that all choices were truly available to us.

    Megha, thanks for dropping by ! (I am an avid reader of your blog 🙂 Yes, it it about working with your choices, and also widening them

  4. […] Enabling Women to truly choose – Cubically Challenged Another take on the working vs stay at home issue for mothers, and why that’s the wrong way to frame it in the first place. From the point of view of workers in India. […]

  5. Thanks for putting things in clear perspective. i like the way you have enlisted what we should do to make this issue more woman friendly. I too agree with having a non-specific role- infact, when i came back home from the hospital, I discovered that my husband was more adept at cleaning/ washing the babies than me.. and there are people-you can guess who, who mention that they feel bad that their son comes home from office and straight away gets to clean up the poop.. for that matter even I am doing the same thing but the sentiment is – you are the mom you have to do it.. there is this generation with whom one cannot argue and it hurts that the man in question does not want to contradict even if personally he may not agree to that. i really hope the senior corporates do not think so. Your idea abt teh child care centre is something I started thinking when I decided that no day care is good enuf for my kids. infact the kidzee option was something i considered but the logistics were a problem and the profit projections were not correctly done in my opinion.. offcourse, i ddin’t have the place to start!! infact I had motivated some SAHMs in my building to start a day care and also indicated to the boss that the large Evaluation room cud be converted to a creche since there r so many mothers around now!! i am all for the end not the means. i feel like dirt when i dash in late to office as I get delayed when my kids cling on to me before I leave for office… wish the system did not make one feel so guilty abt it
    mini post here. but cud not miss not doing justice to the comprehensive post.

  6. wow. itchy. that was one super comment. thank you so much ! Yes, I did want to focus on the fact that cultural mores often drive both men and women into straitjackets. Child rearing is a worthy thing to spend one’s time on, and it makes sense to how it can be better integrated into our lives, rather than beating up on people for their cheaces.

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