Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

I started my first job three months ago. Before the lockdown, I would put on a buttoned shirt and go to work at 9:30 am.

During the lockdown, I huddle in the cold blue light of my laptop as I navigate my inbox from a makeshift desk (read: my bed). I often eat meals there. My mother will come to me in the midst of a Zoom call demanding that I eat breakfast or asking me what I want for lunch. I will almost always give a non-answer – making things more difficult.

It’s also something that never fails to make me feel guilty, especially when friends describe the nightmare of balancing working from home with housework.

With each passing day, the guilt worsens. Let me explain why.

A couple of weeks ago, we tried celebrating Mother’s Day the best way we could under lockdown. I tried enrolling my mother in a couple of workshops I knew she’d enjoy. My sister promised to make her a card.

But we couldn’t withhold her from her daily, three meals-a-day kitchen routine. Even now, as I write this, she is in front of the stove whipping up two dinners, because when have seven people ever agreed to eat one thing? I stumble in and ask if I can help. She’ll let me toss around some vegetables or watch over the rice before she sends me back to my room, exhausted by my ineptitude.

Having lived by myself for over a year, I am no stranger to cooking. But after I moved back to my parents’ home, I realised that cooking for a family is an entirely different task. My mother always remembers that sour foods make me sick, that my sister cannot eat spice, and the exact amount of ghee my father likes on his rotis. And if I’ve had a particularly bad day at work, she’ll know to let me eat what I want, even if it involves pancakes for dinner.

I have tried to talk to her about the guilt I feel about not being able to help her more. She shrugs and tells me, “But you have work.”

Also read: One Lockdown, Two Women, Two Stories

Her message is clear. You have a career. Focus on that. There’s a lifetime of chores ahead of you.

My mother never worked in an office. She married before she graduated. When I finished college last year, there was no question that I would apply for jobs. Real, well paying corporate jobs – my mother would have none of the freelance creative life I had once aspired to. “You are the first woman in our family who goes to office.”

For my mother, being able to work outside the house was an end in itself. To waste that opportunity would be an injustice towards everything she had worked and fought for.

Nothing makes your achievements more insignificant than realising they have all been on the backs of other people’s labour. Would school have been the same if my mother didn’t attend every performance and parent teacher meeting? Would I have survived studying abroad without the panic calls to my mother, asking about how to treat stomach cramps? I think of friends with mothers who work, who left their children with their grandmothers or the trusted maid they relied on.

Women like me, urban professional women, whether single or married, would collapse if not supported by other women.

I, by no means, wish to glorify domestic work. I know it is undervalued, unpaid and unsatisfying, the result of a social diktat that charges women with the all responsibility of sustaining life – not just of her children, but of everyone who depends on her.

I remember reading a Harvard Business School study that said daughters of working mothers have more successful careers. Maybe they do. There have been times where I’ve wished my mother could give me better career advice, or teach me how to navigate the pseudo-liberal dynamics of the Indian workplace.

Instead, I’ll be the one to guide her as she starts discovering what she can do. Maybe it’s time to take the ladder off her back and say, “Climb, I’ll hold it here for you.”

Kanika Jain graduated from the LSE in 2019 and currently works as a writer and communications professional in Mumbai.