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.


Anjum Dhir Kulkarni said...

Thank you so much Geeta Ma'am and Jo Sir, Geeta Ma'am, your take on freelancing and your positive attitude really made me feel good about freelancing myself:)

Nilakant & Ramnarayan said...

Gita's account is fascinating. I am sure she ws resticted by 1000-word limit. I would have also liked to hear about the tensions and challenges she faced as she strove for balance. On the whole, good on you Gita! You have led a full life.

Joe Pinto said...

Geeta Seshu says:

Hi Joseph,

A courageous and wonderful endeavour ...

My short intervention - you don't balance work and family. What happens is the scales you are on tip this side and that like some crazy doll on a pivot ... all the while giving the impression that you are PROFESSIONAL and in CONTROL!

But if you can get a bunch of friends to be a support system ... then you can laugh about it ...

All the best.

Geeta Seshu.

Joe Pinto said...

Sekhar Seshan says:

I'm not really qualified, my daughters are 26 & 24. But we didn't have the problem cos my wife decided (on her own) not to work till the little one was going to school.

Similarly, she got an offer to join Hyd Central University many years ago, but didn't even tell me about it till the birds have more or less flown the nest ...

Now she's quit Pune Univ & joined HCU.


Joe Pinto said...

Deepa Sahasrabuddhe says:

Hi Joe...

A question that never really gets satisfactorily answered :)

1. In my experience `Planning for' and `adhering to' work time and family time (especially if you freelance or work from home) helps. Especially if you suffer from the guilt overload disorder - the compartmentalisation helps you push away such guilt feelings since this is the `planned' work or family time. And oh! The difficult part is to ensure `body' as well as `MIND' are with you in the current moment and to consciously push away thoughts of the other roles you play in your life.

2. Cutting oneself some slack - not trying to be a super man/woman and being okay with messing up sometimes or not doing superlatively on all counts each time.

3. Sharing the home responsibilities between spouses and understanding that as long as `one' of us is there to handle the specific family matter, that is enough.

4. One person going easy on the career front during the `critical' years of children growing up (ok. let the brickbats come :p )

What else? Oh .. go shopping for an armour - to remain unaffected by the barbs that one is bound to be subjected to - from close family (read parents), relatives, colleagues - on ocassion.

Remember that in the final analysis what PEOPLE say is only of that much consequence. There is no formula - never has been, never will be - everyone muddles along and hopes things will turn out well in the final scene :)

Best of luck all ye embarking on this balancing journey!

Warm regards,


Gita Iyengar said...

To Nilakant, Ramnarayan, I would say that 800-1000 words allows one to put in whatever is important and stops one from getting verbose.
Tensions and challenges are the stuff of life. A working parent gets the small challenges as well as the big ones - I see this in the life of my young colleagues...who's to stay at home if a child's unwell, or who's to help her get admission into school or college, or which parent should be speaking with her if she's dipping into their purses to buy cosmetics or whatever else... I tell the parent to have faith and go forth in what looks at that juncture like the right direction. That's true for any parent, and not just for a working parent.

Miss.Tejashri said...

it was a very useful mam.... good work...;)

Joe Pinto said...

Sangeeta John, one of my most sincere and honest students, from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism & Communication (SIJC) batch of 1996, one of the finest batches I have taught since 1987 in Pune, says in a comment on FB (I have copied it out verbatim):

"As I grew up under a single parent, I was forced to spend a lot of lonely hours with the maids. Believe me, it was not a great experience. I hated it.

And so, when it came to my own baby, as and when I decided to have one, I was very clear that I would not let my daughter grow up under any domestic help.

I prayed that God made it possible, and today I don't regret the decision to have given up a full-fledged career as a journalist to stay at home and watch my child grow.

Over the past five years that I have stayed at home, including the one year I stayed home to de-stress and conceive, I have managed to keep writing for some publication or the other and now I have just completed my Masters in English through a distance education prorgramme.

Can't say that the stories were always great or I was very excited with my free-lance assignments, but they have kept me going: emotionally. I may not fit the work-home balance bill entirely but, yes, I must confess: after having worked full-time for over ten years, I was very ready to be home with a baby.

I miss having to get up each morning to get ready and leave the house. Honestly, if you ask me, it is far more easier to do that rather than stay home and manage everything ... I miss that purpose in life ... I miss having colleagues to chat with ... I miss my space.

But it is every bit worth it. Especially when my little one comes up to me to say, "Thank you, Mamma, for being there ... :))"


Joe Pinto said...

@ Anjum: Don't just stop at feeling good about free-lancing yourself. Share your wonderful experiences over the years; you've moved to and survived in different places and coped in various ways.

Describe all that keen stuff of which life, work and family is made.

As you can see and may know, there is no ONE formula that works for everyone. Each of us works out our own way. Tell us yours.

Peace and love,
- Joe.

Joe Pinto said...

@ Nilakant & Ramnarayan: Thank you. Can you share with us "the tensions and challenges you faced, while you strove for balance"? Tell us your story.

Peace and love,
- Joe.

Joe Pinto said...

@ Geeta Seshu; Sekhar Seshan; Deepa Sahasrabuddhe: Thank you for, so openly and frankly, sharing your experiences "in the first person".

Many of my students and friends, in personal emails and FB messages (which I am not copying out here), have told me how "humbled" and "grateful" they are to you for sharing your personal experiences.

We tend to feel that we are the only ones facing enormous difficulties in coping with (rather than balancing?) work and family.

When we share our experiences, we become aware that we are NOT the only ones going through this phase. And that by itself puts our life into perspective.

Peace and love,
- Joe.

Joe Pinto said...

@ Teju: what did you find "useful" in Gita's "good work"? Would you like to share your views with us?

Peace and love,
- Joe.

Joe Pinto said...

Kajal Iyer, SIMC batch of 2007, is one of my most sincere and honest students, from whom I have learned so much about keeping in touch with people on FB and by email.

She gives me kind encouragement and quiet support with my blog. Her request to do "25 random things about yourself" was the trigger for much of the auto-biographical and memoir stuff on my blog.

Thank you, my dear Kajal, for keeping me young and going at 60.

She is the first among children to share her views and experiences of how she saw and felt about her parents "balancing" work and family. I have copied out her comment verbatim :

"My Mom tells me that when I was born the family income was Rs. 800 and that's what we subsisted on. Mom has been a working woman most of her life, with a few years here and there after our births and then later on when she stayed at home.

"I remember how -- when she took up a teaching job after my sister started going to nursery school -- Mom's classes started at 7-30am while ours an hour later. So we would all leave home at around 7, drop Mom off and then Dad would take us to the municipal park where we would play till it was time to go to school. On her way back, Mom would pick us up.

"The next year my school timings changed to afternoon and there was the problem of what I should do while everyone would go to work. Dad had a few part-time jobs early in the morning. So the plan was that I would stay at home and Dad would come home after his part- time work at 10 and drop me to school, where I would sit on the grounds till my school started at 12-30pm.

"Our home was in a suburban area, so there was no other option. I was 9 then. This went on for two years. Sometimes, I would be scared being at home alone. But I knew it was the only way back then and my parents did their best.

"Though Dad has been the primary earning member, Mom was the one who managed the budget. They took turns in cooking or getting us ready for school, though home-work was always Mom's department. Dad was the go-to-guy for English and essay writing.

"They encouraged me to read and study and that was something they never compromised on. When I thought of coming to Symbi I didn't know their exact financial status, but I knew that it would be a huge chunk, even though the fee back then was one-third of what it is today.

"But they let me go.

"In return, I have tried to be as good a daughter as I can be, though I haven't always turned out the way they wanted.

"But all in all, they tried their best to give us a good education. Today even my younger sister is on the way to establish a teaching career.

"My parents have led an honest, upright life and have given us the necessary comforts, a curiosity to explore the world and a sense of pride in whatever we have achieved. They are from small towns in Kerala, but they have embraced the changing times and given us a stable house to grow in. Each time I hear of things going wrong, I realise how grateful I am to the kind of upbringing I have had.

"I have tried to thank them. And I hope I just live well and thank them by doing that."


Gita Iyengar said...

Kajal's story interested me a lot. I remember an occasion when two cousins and I were discussing the fact that a chick's eye view is as illuminating as the more popular `bird's eye view'. Kajal's is an example of an insightful chick's eye view.
In her words, her parents ``led an honest, upright life and have given us the necessary comforts, a curiosity to explore the world and a sense of pride in whatever we have achieved''.
That's about as good as one needs.

Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting discussion! From Kajal's experience it does look like children of two working parents learn to manage on their own faster and that's something only responsibility can teach. I am sure this is something they are glad for all their lives.

Joe Pinto said...

Brig (retd) Arun Ambardekar is my senior colleague at the Bharatiya Jain Sanghatana (BJS) in Pune. He has two married sons: one in the US and the other in Thane. Both his highly educated daughter-in-laws have, for the time being, chosen to stay at home for the sake of the children.

Brig (retd) Ambardekar writes:

"The subject you have raised is really interesting and requires a debate. Personally, my wife did not pick up a job and so she could devote all her time to the family. All the same, I would like to share my views on the subject.

"Biologically, the female is expected to raise and care for the children and the male is expected to hunt and take care of the family. In rural society, the lady looks after the house, children and also helps outdoors, to the extent possible. The issue of balancing work and family today is primarily confined to the urban household, where the lady is required to spend 8 to 10 hours at work.

"With ladies today being well-educated, their aspirations for a career are fully justified. With the joint family system having come to an end and with globalization, children have to move out for work, and it is here that the problem arises.

"A lady must accept that in case she decides to have children, motherhood should be accepted as most important and the career should, for some time, be put on the back- burner. The child requires the mother's full involvement for at least the first three years till she/he can go to school and is able to communicate with ease. A father or grand- parents are only viable substitutes.

"Thus, I feel the lady should spend most of her time with the child for the first three years. A common justification given by women who want to go out to work is a gap in career, inadequate leave, the need for additional income, and the like.

"All these activities must come only after the primary duty of motherhood has been completed. In case this arrangement is not feasible for any reason, working from home or part-time work are also good options. In case this is also not feasible, then there are good options available today: day-care centres, nannies or relatives.

Arun Ambardekar.

Cilla said...

Thank you Joe sir, IHM and Geeta Ma'am, I wasn't always responsible, there were times when I acted like a sulking teenager (even after I was no longer that), but over all I think, we have turned out fine. That I think is more important. And Joe sir, you are right about sharing, our troubles seem less when we share it and the joy multiplies.

- said...

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