Sunday, June 26, 2011

How parents balance work and family

My dear students, friends and colleagues,

FOR THE LAST two-three years, many of my female (and a few of my male) students, who have got married and have small children, are asking the question most parents face: How does a parent balance work and family?

As a parent, what do you think about balancing work and family?

I am asking some of my female (and male) friends, colleagues and students to share their experiences. This is an exploratory exercise, to test out the waters, hoping not to get my fingers bitten off.

If you are one of my friends or colleagues, what do you think of your solution to balancing work and family? How has it worked out for your children and for yourself? If you are one of my unmarried students, would you like to share how your parents balanced work and family?

To start the ball rolling, I asked one of my closest friends and colleagues, Gita Iyengar (nee Gopalakrishnan), to share her views and experiences.

Gita and I know each other from 1970, when we were National Science Talent scholars and we have been meeting each other, off and on, for the last 41 years. The principal of a school in Hyderabad, she has written 7 books, mostly for children. “Anyone Can Write” (Foundation Press, Hyderabad, 170 pages, Rs.195) written with Cheryl Rao and Meena Murdeshwar, guides children on how to write poems, features and stories.

I admire her simple and direct style, which has an elegant flow. Above all, I value her fiercely frank opinions.


By Gita Iyengar (nee Gopalakrishnan)

WHEN MY FIRST child came along, I was working, and got the usual three months of maternity leave. I decided to wait and watch for some time how things would work. When I went back to work, my mother-in-law came to look after the baby. But that was strictly during the time I was at work.

I remember getting the cooking for the day done, getting my son bathed and fed before rushing off to work. The moment I entered the house again, I was back looking after the baby and the house again. So the first few months showed me how over-extended I was going to be.

My son also had an umbilical hernia, which needed surgery when he was 10 months old. So at that time, I tendered my resignation. But the management of the organisation took the trouble to talk to me and suggested that I just go on leave and think about it for some time. Six months later, I went back and confirmed that I wanted to let go my job.


AT THE TIME, we were able to manage our expenses without too much of a hassle, as ours was a simple life style. I had plenty to do, so I didn't miss my job on that count either. The occasional question about what I was “doing”' didn't trouble me much. Besides, fewer women were working then, so most people around me accepted my choice. My husband hadn't particularly wanted me to stop working, but he did not at that time make an issue of it.

For myself, I enjoyed being with my first-born, and then with the second one, who came along a couple of years later. I think I was able to be relaxed and look after them, read to them, play with them, take them out to the park, and teach them many things along the way in the first few years. They were active children, and my elder son especially had to be kept out of mischief. I think being around them made it less stressful.

They were both sent to play school when they were about 18 months old. For the elder one, it was in anticipation of the arrival of the second child. Since it worked well in making him happily engaged and less dependent, I did that with the second one as well.

When my elder son was four, and the younger one two, I started on my Master’s degree. About that time, we started running a small dairy farm, and I was taking care of the distribution and billing. I did short-term stints at my children's schools as well. I followed that up by getting my degree in education.

I had also started doing some free-lance writing. I got back to regular work, outside of the home, when my sons were twelve and ten. During some of those years, it was free-lance work. It gave me the advantage of flexibility in timing. However, when assignments came in at the same time, I found I was sometimes working on four different jobs! At such times, I was often at work at different time slots from 6.30 am to 8 pm!

Still, there is a lot to be said for free-lance work. I found it stimulating. It also gave me, over a period of eight to nine years, such a continuing choice of assignments that I really never felt any insecurity about ‘not having a permanent job’. In fact, I did pass up one or two opportunities for full-time work.

Eventually, when this offer to work as principal of a very good school came along, I took time to think it through, and then joined. I had to make the journey back to working in a very structured environment.


I THINK THAT along the way I also sequentially built identities for myself, though that was certainly not the main thing I was trying to do.

During the years when there was loads of work to get through both at home and outside, I think I managed because of some of the following factors :-

a) As a youngster, I had been brought up to do a certain bit of work around the home, and to take pride in getting things done. I had also grown up watching my mother, prioritising jobs aloud. That training, and a positive attitude, helped me.

b) My health and energy levels were pretty good.

c) I am calm, have some commonsense, and believe in net surpluses, which may not be immediately visible!

d) My system of making sure my family had a good breakfast and dinner, nutritious food with some flexibility but not too many frills, seemed to work.

e) I started trusting my children early to manage their personal toilet and baths; to eat; to do their home work and so on; and also to help with setting the table, to put away things; to do a bit of shopping nearby; and to take the bus to school. I supervised some of this activity, some of the time, but didn't believe in fussing.

f) I believed in guiding my children, but letting them make their choices, with the responsibility to work it out.

g) In India, one does get domestic help, most of the time.


I KNOW THAT I have not said anything about my husband or others sharing chores. To be frank, most of the chores were my responsibility. My mother-in-law would help me a bit with getting vegetables cut, or supervising the maid's work, or minding the children. My husband would sometimes keep the boys engaged, or supervise their getting ready for school. On some Sundays, he made breakfast. However, it would not have been possible to extend that to a system of sharing chores on a regular basis.

I think now that, on the whole, it has worked out all right. My two sons are capable and independent individuals, comfortable in their own skin. And I'm doing all right as well.


Now that Gita has had her say, do you feel comfortable sharing your own experiences and views? Please let me know -- either way.

Gita has written about 1,000 words. If you wish to make a small comment, please do so in the comments section at the end of this post. If you wish to write a longer piece, ie, more than 400 words, please send it to me by email at: and I will upload it as a separate post.

Your support is my strength.

Peace and love,
- Joe.

Pune, India; Sunday, 26 June 2011.