I sit between two women at the tae kwon do class my twins are at. We trade smiles each time one of us turn toward another. We are tentative, jabbing, probing with our eyes, ears and spidey senses to see if there will be a connection. We have forty minutes to kill. Our younger ones are playing a different version of the same game with better success.
“What do you do?” I ask the lady on my right.
In the first few months after I immigrated to the US from India, I chafed at the phrasing of questions at social gatherings. People asked my husband “Where do you work?” They asked me “What do you do?” The assumptions and bias implicit in their questions had me predisposed to not liking them. For years, I insisted on asking anyone over the age of 16 where they worked instead of what they did.
That work implied money, that work implied being productive, that work implied self-worth was a given. I hardly had a reason to reevaluate my feelings toward work for the next decade.
Then, I had kids.
I went from being a full-time employee at a bank to full-time employee at a bank and full-time mother to twin toddlers. When you are pregnant, you have time to ease into the idea of parenting. You have a good year to adjust to the idea of being responsible for people other than yourself. My husband and I got a call one Thursday in January 2010 about our twins, the next Thursday we were parents to toddlers.
I took time off from work, I luxuriated in my role as the parent, caregiver, nurturer until work made demands. I enrolled them in full-time care and returned to my job. My dreams of the corner office were still alive and kicking. I finished my MBA, explored management programs with different companies and realized with a sigh that it would mean travel and a commitment to working lot more than I did. I shelved those dreams and poured myself into balancing life and the work I did have. I called it balance but it was more about walking the tight rope. It was about logging in requisite hours at work while also making sure that the children I had yearned for many, many years had a mother who gave them squeezy hugs, cuddled with them and sat on the floor reading books to them before they slept.
In my quest for that perfect balance, I tried work from home, part time work and part time work from home. Each effort left me dissatisfied. I was not happy about the attention I gave work. I was unhappy with the amount of time I got to spend with the kids not to mention keep on top of housework.
I got advice solicited and unsolicited. Outsource, most people urged me. Outsource the cleaning. Outsource the cooking. Outsource the childcare. I tried and gave up. I was too particular about food. My husband was particular about the cleaning. We both were particular about childcare.
Most nights, I sank in exhaustion into my specially picked out firm mattress and fell asleep in seconds only to be roused by plaintive cries. I sleepwalked, picked my children from their cribs and walked back. Some nights I tried letting them cry it out. Some nights I slept through their cries.
The years passed and it felt like there was a light at the end of the tunnel. We had fallen into a predictive pattern. I bid good bye to management dreams and worked just for the money. After all, it was how I valued myself. As we wrote out mortgage checks each month and then some, I reveled in being able to be part of that process. Then, I found myself pregnant. Twelve years from when I had been married. Five years after I embraced parenthood, I found myself dealing with raging hormones, the exhaustion that went bone deep and a new found curiosity for the meaning of self-worth.
I persisted. I did. I woke up earlier. I adamantly made every meal fresh. I made sure my children saw me sitting in the audience for every school event. I met my deadlines at work. I was super woman. I could do it all.
I did until I could no more. The breastfeeding every two hours, the constant waking and struggling to sleep, the meager help I was willing to accept took a toll. One day I sat in my study, my child napping in the crib upstairs when it hit me. The lines of code staring at me made no sense literally and figuratively. I took a break, solved the immediate problem but the thought niggling at the back of my head went deeper.
What was my purpose in life? In the grand scheme of things, did I care about how interest was calculated on money? Was I passionate about how my company made money? Did the corner office even feature in my dreams anymore? I seemed to care more about empty lunch boxes that came back from school than about code reviews that came back with no comments.
What did I do? Was I a programmer? Was I a mother? Was I a home maker? What was I?
The stirrings of unease grew deeper. I quit. It was a break I told myself. A year and I would figure it out. One year became three. My children grew older, their palates more refined. They went from figuring out how to spell to reading to learn. The little one sat on my lap most mornings as I wrote for my blog (a labor of love) asking to do letters. We napped together each afternoon, her head snuggled into my neck. Each evening I sat with my children at the desk struggling to get them to focus. I still sank back exhausted each night and waited for sleep to claim me.
“You should get back to work,” my mother repeated to me every once in a while. Only a sigh that snuck in between her words gave away the regrets she harbored about being a stay at home mother. I waited to feel defensive. I waited for the many arguments I wanted to present to argue my case. Instead what I felt was a quiet acceptance of myself. I agreed with her and let it be.
In the many years, I have questioned my identity and my worth, it has been in the recent past that I have realized that what I did had little to do with how I valued myself. This decision of mine to stay home, to ensure a functioning space for my spouse and children, to feed and nurture the beings that have come to depend on me works for me now. I enjoy what I do. There are no regrets at the moment.
I occasionally wonder about the what-ifs. What if I am left to fend for myself and the children? What if we go financially broke? What if my children are unable to afford college? I also refuse to focus so much on the future that I forget to live in the present. For now, this works. It works for me. It works for my family. Most importantly, I realize I value myself they way I am. The day that changes, I will find ways to plug that need. I will change the path I am on to navigate to where I feel I am needed.
“I am a writer and a mother” I reply to the woman on my left and leave it at that.