Motherhood is a very unique and transforming experience. And if you are a career woman, this transition is even more dramatic. The thought of quitting perhaps might have crossed most of the woman entering into motherhood. Many do. For those who come back to work, there is constant challenge – guilt of leaving behind the little ones, fear of being left behind owing to the maternity gap, lack of confidence for not taking challenging projects owing to work-life balance, being judged in personal and professional domain.
What I have learnt from my journey and of some exemplary women leaders who have gone through this journey is that there are no absolute rules. Mothers, you have to make your own rules. Yes, there are learnings which can guide us to make us our rules.
- Guilt free Motherhood – Every mother goes through this emotion of guilt. As Indira Nooyi says, “You have to cope, because you die with guilt”. What stands most prominent in this statement is ‘cope’. Yes, each one will have to build a coping mechanism to reduce the feeling of guilt.
Find people whom you trust. Ask them how they have done it. Read stories of inspiring career woman who have gone through motherhood. Believe in what you have learnt and what is best for you.
A clarity on career and life vision would help you asking the right questions. Remember, some days would be for the mother in you, some days would be for the professional in you. Weigh what is most important today. Take your decisions and remember, there are many more strong women who are both mothers and professionals who are perhaps sailing in the same boat. You are not alone.
- The Mom Community – Communities act as a great support system. Be a part of the working mother community. If there is none around you, take the lead and create one. All our challenges and problems might already have a solution. Internet provides access to many such communities. Research has proven that we feel more confident and are able to face our challenges more confidently when we are part of a community. Some of the renowned online community is ‘Lean in’ by Sheryl Sandberg which has local chapters across many cities in the world. A little research and you might find many more local working mom community.
- Create the Extended Family – Quoting Indira Nooyi again, “Train people at work. Train your family to be your extended family”. Before people stop expecting from you, you need to bring down your own expectations from yourself. The perfect mother syndrome is killing. Is being the perfect mother, your only identity? If not, then shed it right now. Allow your family members
- to help you. Trust your husband, your parents, and your in-laws. They love the child as much as you do and would do a good job of taking care of the child.
- Overcome the Judgement Game –We are a society who is ready to pass judgements at a drop of a hat. Just as every individual find their individual coping mechanism to overcome guilt, you need to find your coping mechanism for this one as well. There could be few who give a damn to anyone judging them. For some it could be quite troublesome. If the person judging you is not important for you, don’t waste your time dealing with it. If it’s someone who is important – your spouse or some important family member, you would need to confront it. Do it with empathy and love. Have repeated conversations, take help of mom community, reach out to a common friend or family member who can be an influencer and sometimes just ignore. But remember, it’s about them, it’s not about you. Till the time you don’t judge yourself, you would be able to manage it.
- Have a Mentor – Mentoring is often best used when someone is facing a key transition point in their career, at the moment when self-doubt and lack of confidence may hold us back—a great mentor helps us to hold onto our ambition and to truly realize our potential. What can be a bigger transition than maternity transition? Having a mentor helps you keep focus on essential and important issues. A mentor can help you navigate your career points, network better and create effective strategies. A 30 minutes talk with your mentor can be the most energising and effective booster. Ask your organization to assign a mentor and if they can’t, reach out to leaders whom you admire and trust.
- Plan, Plan & Plan – If you are a working mother, probably you are juggling with various chores throughout the day. The best way to reduce the stress and anxiety is to PLAN. Make technology your best friend. There are many planners and apps which help you plan and organize in the most effective manner. ‘Todoist’ is one such app which can be downloaded. It distinguishes your work in important and not so important category. It gives you reminders and also brownie points when you accomplish your goals J choose what works best for you but do spruce up your organizing skills.
The key to all the above is clarity and understanding of what you really want of your life and career. A two year maternity transition is not the all and end all of your career. You never stop being the mother, even when your child is 20 years old. Building a career is like running a marathon and not a 100 metre race. It requires vision, courage, stamina and strategy.
Wonder Woman is not just a movie. It’s a welcome changing narrative of the society. A society where we grew up listening to fairy tales of the beautiful princess in distress and the brave prince who brings in peace and justice is awakening to a new story of women playing a powerful and equal role, where strong is beautiful, where they are not trying to keep up with the boys but actually are better than boys.
The typical man –woman role is reversed which is a great step forward in breaking stereotypes. Thanks to wonder director Patty Jenkins and actress Gal Gadot for bringing forth the story with such conviction. What is very interesting and important is that Diana’s beauty does not at any point take away the viewer’s attention from her courage, sense of righteousness or purpose in life. It’s refreshing to see her warrior skills which she demonstrates with such ease.
Princes of Amazons, Diana, she is trained to be unconquerable warrior. The emphasis of training is not just the art of fighting but more importantly the art of believing in self. We all have powers more than we know about, we are not able to harness our power because we do not believe enough. I am guilty of same, but then as long as one works on it, perhaps you are moving in the right direction.
Patty Jenkins definitely need a pat for celebrating with feminine traits of the warrior princess. The empathetic side of Diana is what we celebrate most amongst her bullet repelling jewellery and brilliant swordplay, her wrists which would fire shockwaves and her courage to take the most powerful. To be a warrior, the woman does not abandon her nurturing side. A strong message is that to be in the man’s world, we don’t have to change who we are but we need to strongly demonstrate who we really are. Gadot proves that women can be fierce and loyal, as well as empathetic.
Not to forget the brilliant opening of the movie where we see an enchanted island, the women warriors prepare for the day when they would probably be wiped out by God of War Ares. There is a common purpose which bind them together, as the camera pans through the training ground…..wrestling, archery, horsemanship, the swings and the flights. The image of women with such fiery strength and purpose reinforces my own sense of purpose in life. To me, in just this opening scene these women destruct the stereotypical roles and images of women.
What amazes me is also the juxtaposed social construct in which I see this movie. In the same theatre there are men who can’t see much beyond what is literally shown and there is an audience which celebrates and claps for Princess Diana. I left the theatre with a smile, with loads of gratitude for Patty Jenkins to make a movie which without taking a higher pedestal has a message for our girls and boys and hope for a more equal society.
I once asked in one of my talks – Do you think Men should be included in the Menstrual conversations?
A girl raised hand and said yes. I asked why do you think so? She responded because the word MENstruation has MEN in it…:p
While the entire class burst into laughter, I paused and acknowledged what she said was just perfect.
But truly speaking, I feel not just because Menstruation has MEN in it becomes the sole reason for having inclusive period conversations. But there’s a lot more to it.
Menstruation, a life-giving process yet a timeless taboo, is untouched by any of the modern evolutions. Though half of our population gets their periods for almost half of their lives, most women still shudder to talk about it normally.
The key to breaking a taboo is openly talking about it in society and the conversations should be inclusive ensuring to include both men and women.
When I was in 9th standard, we had a team from Whisper at our school who encouraged us to use napkins and maintain hygiene. One of the giveaways was a calendar to maintain a period track and I loved maintaining my tracker and made some notes about my menstrual experience. One of the days, we were away for our library period and when we came back, I had this weird sense that boys of my class were looking at me and talking among themselves, laughing loudly, cracking jokes. And then a boy who was also a good friend of me, came up and hinted that we opened your bag and found something. My heart skipped a beat as I was praying they didn’t see my period tracker. But I was wrong, they saw it and were making fun of it. Making fun of all the pics in the calendar, of the fact that we bleed. This embarrassed me so much that I was absent for the whole of the week and would check with my friend every day to find out if those guys had forgotten about that incident.
And there were many girls who went through the same distress and agony at some point in their lives. These incidents impact a girl’s productivity because she misses her school, in rural areas some of them refrain from attending school during these days, which means they lose out on 15% of their studies every month. And collectively it is a lot!!
When I think back of this incident, it just reinforces the belief that it is so important for boys to know about periods, it is important for them to understand that this is a normal biological process of a woman’s body and that it is the source of existence of human race on earth. There is nothing to make fun of or joke about it and that their understanding will empower the women of their lives to be smarter and confident individuals tomorrow.
To accelerate this, we have started to conduct inclusive awareness talks and our first talk was with the employees of a multinational corporate. We were overwhelmed with their response and their support implying that they too felt, it was important to break silence around this topic, it’s important to break stereotypes after all menstruation is not just a woman’s thing. It impacts the people around her as well, directly or indirectly.
What do you think about this? Are you comfortable having an open conversation with your father, brother or son about periods?
Benetton’s latest and much raved about campaign on social media, #UnitedByHalf urges women to claim their equal half. To challenge unconscious bias and redefine their roles. At the workplace, at home, in a relationship.
But let’s ask ourselves: do we really dare to be as bold as the ad portrays us to be? Or do we leave that to the “feminists” to do? Are we really forceful actors in this play called ‘life’? Is the glass ceiling a making of the unjust system, or first, of our minds?
As more and more women join the workforce (and more drop out of it!), it’s imperative we are empowered with the right kind of attitude and confidence to tackle our responsibilities, and go beyond. Here are a few pointers we can put into action; they may be small, but go a long way:
- Recognise unconscious bias.
A couple of years ago, a male colleague was driving me to a meeting. On the way, we were to pick up another (slightly older) male colleague. As we approached his house, I offered to shift to the back seat. I thought it was the polite thing to do.
“Why?” my colleague asked. I honestly had no idea. Perhaps because I’m conditioned to watching my mother give up her seat in front for my father’s colleagues. I assumed, they always had much to talk about. While that may be the case, there was no need for her to mute her presence.
Sometimes, we may not realise when we become victim to unconscious bias. Do you usually find yourself being asked to book a cab to a meeting? Or, get the cake for a colleague’s birthday? Order dinner in when it’s a late night? Can we challenge these norms? And start saying no, for the sake of saying no. Let’s stop disappearing into the back seat
2. Speak up more.
My ex-boss, after any presentation, would always make it a point to ask for the opinion of the ladies in the meeting room, first. Most times I would be the only woman in the room, and I would be urged to share what I thought. I’m grateful for those opportunities because it built my confidence and shattered my fears of “being wrong”. At times, it’s more important to be heard than to be right.
We need to start being the voice at the table. Overcome the hesitation and be vocal about what we’re thinking. Many times, I’ve sat at meetings, silently brewing an idea in my mind, only to have a male colleague say the same thing ten seconds later! At that point, it doesn’t help to say “I was just going to say the same thing”. Whatever one says from that point on will only be passed off as an echo. Let’s start setting the precedent. State your case clearly. The greatest ally you have, even if the entire room is against you, is logic. Logic knows no gender. Put forth your argument with logic, and it will be difficult not to find any takers.
I long for the day, when firstly, there are more women in the room with me; and secondly, we don’t have to be prompted to speak up.
3.Be aware of the signals you send out.
An ex-colleague and good friend from my previous company shared her experiences of interviewing candidates. Most often, she says, it’s the women candidates who ask her: How long do I have to stay? What time can I leave?
Not only are they “seeking permission” – something Sheryl Sandberg, in her book, Lean In states that women tend to do. They’re also sending out strong signals: I really don’t intend to be here, I have another life to go home to. Should we then be offended when colleagues are surprised to find us working after 6 and say, “How come you’re still here?”
Are our careers simply an add-on? Or do they form a defining element for our lives? More importantly, what do we portray it to be.
4.Market yourself openly.
Women feel extremely uncomfortable talking about their accomplishments. We’d rather wait for someone else to point them out. This, too, is a product of our upbringing. When was the last time you heard your mother brag about her cooking?
My mother has never once talked about the lovely and nourishing dishes she cooks day after day. On the other hand, when my dad makes even the most banal sandwich, he’d make it a point to extol its virtues at breakfast. Having now expanded his portfolio to wines and pickles, he uses every opportunity to unabashedly talk about them to every guest who walks into our home. He rightly calls it “brand building”.
Women at the workplace need to put out the signals that they’re in the race too – be vocal about your ambitions and feats. Recently I chanced upon an empowering video series called “The Best Advice I Ever Got”. A senior creative director at an agency recounted her experience at an interview. The recruiter told her, “You’re way more talented than any of the other guys at your level. But they’re a lot more well-known. You need to work on your brand.”
5.Never be ashamed to say you want more.
At my previous company, I had been working for so long without a vacation, that I almost felt guilty for taking a three-week-long Christmas break. I asked one of my seniors, “Can I take three weeks off?” All he said was, “How would I know? Take however long you need.”
He was right, but why did I hesitate to ask for more? In fact, why did I ask at all? (Corporate tip: never ask for a vacation; always inform.) The more “cultured” we become, the more we hesitate to speak our mind. A nine-year-old orphan, “desperate with hunger,” asked the master for more gruel. He said, “Please, sir, I want some more.”
That’s how hungry we should be, too, at times. Say you want more pay, more leaves, more work. Be vocal about what you want. Let’s change our “Can I” to “I Can”. When you seek permission, you are letting someone else decide what’s best for you. Believe you are worth it and feel no shame in claiming what you want.
6.Champion other women
It’s not enough for us to silently believe and fight our own battles. Call out unconscious bias when you see it happening to other women around you. Because when they win – you win. A good friend recounts an instance when she heard a male colleague ask a female colleague seated next to her to “order some food online”. She regrets not having told the male colleague to do so himself. And rightly so! Couldn’t he have typed just as well as she does?
We need more women – and men – to champion the cause. To speak up, not just because others don’t have a voice, but because others may not even know that they are victims to unconscious bias.
Although it may seem like I’m talking from the other side, I’m really talking to myself as I write this. And hopefully another woman out there. Let’s first crack the ceiling in our minds, before we take on the world.
It was my 13th birthday and my aunties and cousins had gathered home for a birthday hi-tea. After I did the cake cutting and everyone wished me Happy Birthday, I realized my aunts were whispering in my mom’s ears – It’s her time, make her understand about it. And my mom reciprocated with an embarrassing grin, saying – I have asked her cousin to talk to her.
I overheard this conversation many times. While this made me happy for all the attention I was getting, I was also curious to know what was this thing.
I am sure by now; you must have guessed it too. Yes, they were talking about Menstruation, menses, periods, monthlies.
Menstruation, a life giving, biological process of our body, yet a taboo in our society. It is so ironical, when a woman is pregnant, has a life inside her, she is pampered, her pregnancy is celebrated but on the other side when the same woman gets her period she is abandoned and almost secluded from the society.
In my 10 years of corporate stint, I realized even the corporate women; the educated, independent and significant lot of our society fail to express openly about this bodily function. They may joke around this topic, may laugh at the code words used for addressing menstruation but the fact remains that they still feel the need to shush around often when talking about periods.
So, coming back to my 13th birthday, and the time arrives when my cousin finally gathers the courage to talk to me and explain about this phenomenon. While I don’t clearly remember about what she told but I do remember her expressions. Throughout she was hesitant and embarrassed. She asked me to always keep it a secret, to not talk about it with anyone, and especially not with my papa and bhai as men are not supposed to know about this at all.
While this episode left a not so good impression about the upcoming phase of my life, I now feel that at least my mother was keen to make me prepared for my first period.
Per few studies – Even today, about 70% of mothers in rural community think that Periods are dirty and impure and sadly they pass on this stigma to their daughters. About half the girls are unaware of their first period and are not prepared. Many girls I spoke to shared they thought they had got some disease.
What does this unpreparedness lead to? Confusion, anxiety, shame, embarrassment, feeling of isolation, loss of confidence, inferiority complex and the list could go on.
Menarche – What could have been a cherished experience for girls becomes a dark memory of their lives that they want to forget about. Having to adhere to societal practices in name of rituals and traditions, feeling as if their wings had been clipped. There’s nothing beautiful about womanhood for them.
However, we all can bring a change in our society. One of the important contribution can be normalizing periods, normalizing conversation about periods and helping to invoke immense confidence in our daughters so they never dread of Periods in their lives like a lot of us did. We must talk to them and assure that Periods is just another biological function of our body, yet important, as important as breathing.
Let’s enable them to celebrate this phase of life…LET’S TALK PERIOD!!!
Amongst all the things that I successfully did in physical endurance, right from scuba and bungee, trekking was still something that had never happened. My first attempt at reaching for the stars, was Kilimanjaro. My excitement covered up the longish journey from Dhaka to Arusha with a break journey in Mumbai and a bus journey from Kenya to Tanzania.
This was the first time that I was trekking, and there were a thousand thoughts blinking like headlights in my head. Sleeping, bathing, nature motions, sleep, water, food, cold etc. etc. That made me have a bath twice as soon as I landed in Arusha base camp, as thinking of not having a bath for the next one week was almost a nightmare. My first impression of the guide at the introductory briefing session was” He smells of alcohol; God save us!!” His reassurance that he had done 400 climbs was the only saving grace.
I knew harsh weather conditions would be the biggest challenge for us trekkers. But I could foresee this as more of a mental challenge. So, my motto was to live in the moment rather than thinking about the summit. I knew, rain, hail, snow, sun whatever it may be, I needed to continue walking.
The first day trek was good fun with us singing songs and enjoying the nature though it was not a normal terrain. Even the small tent felt big and warm, with unpacking and changing done using head torches. It was about 15 degrees and we were at 2500 meters. I got up to use the wash room in the night around 3:30am, and my jaw dropped to see the sheer vastness of the sky. The feeling of nothingness and we so small in the vast universe. Stars scattered all over like silver powder, was a sight that I witnessed for the first time! Breathtaking!
The second day trek was hot and I was absolutely famished and dehydrated. I had finished my quota of water that I was carrying and managed a drink somehow from others. Started listening to music to keep my wandering thoughts in track. Seeing my despondent self, one of the porters challenged me to keep up to his pace Well my ‘Garwhali’ genes did surface as he later called me ‘fast and furious’, Ha!! The night was chilly, and we just got a bowl of hot water to brush our teeth and wash our face. My closing thoughts on Day 2 was “If u want to be grow, then you have to try out something which you have never done before. So, here I am trying something, which is away from my comfort zone and I needed to enjoy it.
The third day ,apart from the changing weather and terrain was hugely motivational. We met three trekkers, one with an artificial leg, the other with no eye sight and thirdly a gutsy lady of 75 years. Indeed, it’s all about determination. Age and physical barriers cannot make one weak for sure. By this time you can feel the vastness of nature. It felt amazing to witness the snowcapped mountains~ black volcanic rocks surrounded with snow. The cold breeze hitting one’s face in warm sunny weather was awesome. The climate had dropped to minus 2 degrees and sleeping at night had now become an experience. The ‘diamox’ medicine that each of us had to take for altitude sickness, made us urinate and eternally thirsty even after drinking six litres of water daily. Consequently, one had to use the loo in the middle of the night as there was no other way. That was hell of a challenge, as getting in and out of layers and gloves, sleeping bag and tent at 3:00 am is a memory to stay for life.
In the morning of the 4th day, I started noticing the water freezing in a bowl and ice particles on the tent. Getting a bowl of hot water to brush was literally bliss as fingers hardly moved due to the cold. The Sun had come out, but it was chilly and windy. The terrain had also become rocky and with a definite incline. In these extreme conditions one doesn’t have a choice but to think. Reflecting on things and people around me, enjoying the loneliness, walking at my own pace in that vast land wondering why am I doing this?? There was a certain stillness living in that moment. Even though I was physically moving I was mentally quite still, trying to absorb everything around me. The still mountain, the feel of the deserted vast space that makes you feel so small yet significant.
My tryst with water and cold continued into the 5th day. I remember the guide reminiscing “You drink so much water, that’s why you are so beautiful”. Well some motivation in the middle of nowhere. The pace of the trek had reduced quite a bit as we were getting out of breath very fast. The inclination was about 50-60 and we had to put in that extra effort. Cold was my constant companion and enemy. I had to put heat pads on feet over the socks, and held the hot water bottle the entire night to keep the fingers warm. Even the gloves did not feel warm enough.
Day 6 was the coldest and also the summit day and the final trek started at 11 pm in the night. I wore 3 thermals below and layered it with waterproof pants, 4 thermals on top and layered it with fleece, down jacket and summit jacket. But the feet and hands were still freezing. The altitude and inclination was quite a lot and the walk was steep. I once managed to look down in the moonlight, the mountain looked scary as we were really high up. After 3 hours, I could feel the lack of oxygen and I started feeling dizzy. Even though I kept breathing, my eyes were closing and body was completely tired and giving away .The porters and guides were singing and were trying to keep our spirits up, but each one of us, was struggling within ourselves. I wished every step to be the last one and the summit step. A moment came when I thought I will blackout, but then I noticed streak of sun rays in the sky. We were approaching ‘Gilbert Point’, which was our first point to see the run rising. Never knew sun rays would energize me that much, and by that time we had already walked 7 hours and it was 6:30am. Watching the sun rise was beautiful. The hues and colors made me feel like painting it right away.
Summit was still one and half hours away and we had to come back the same route. Mind and body both were giving up. I had started getting a severe headache and feet were getting colder and colder due to the height. The guide saw that I was dizzy, so as we proceeded he just held my hand. At that moment, I felt reassured I can push myself. Mind really plays games at this point and one feels helpless, because no one apart from yourself can help. I started thinking of all good things after the summit. Saw people coming down after their summit encouraging us to go a bit further. Finally we made it through the last stretch and finally seeing the ‘Uheru” summit board @5895 meters seemed like heaven. We all hugged each other, a couple of them started crying, it still did not dawn on me that I had made it! There was of course another 5 hours of trek that we had to do to reach our camp below.
The trek down on the last day was something that I was looking forward to. The trail down was beautiful with barren rocky land to lush green forest, moors, fresh cold breeze and warm weather. It was perfect and beautiful.
There is so much I’m taking back from this place;
- Being closer to nature taught me to appreciate and find happiness in simple things in life.
- Living in the present, thinking positive helps one to enjoy every moment.
- Challenging oneself, overcoming your fear, going beyond the comfort zone, pushing yourself to the edge has a positive effect on self to stay for life.
- There are a lot of good things around us, it’s just that we don’t take the time out to notice, appreciate and acknowledge it.
- Jumbo (hi) and Hakuna matata (no problem) and Poley Poley (slow) are Kili terms that everyone needs to internalize for a happy life.
Want to summarize with what I read recently “the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile”
I have come out a stronger, motivated and confident individual. Thank you Kilimanjaro!