An Even Keel

I heard the words, but they had never really registered. “Remember, no sleep for two years!” my boss warned when I shared the news of my second pregnancy with him.

 I scoffed. My body had suffered the rigors of pregnancy already. I had survived the infancy of a night-lord once before. My daughter had pierced through the darkness and emerged into our world around dusk on a wintry evening. For the first six weeks, she dozed peacefully while the sun hung high in the sky, but wreaked havoc on our slumber when the owls came out to play.

 Eight years had passed since then, because that’s how long it took me to erode the trauma of labour. 

 Now, after three years of parenting two children, I better understand and appreciate the meaning of “mombie” – moms who are living zombies, or better still, zombies masquerading as mothers – mothers who staggered through their offices piecing together the strongest part of their selves to power through the day. One could equate the word with the visual image it conjures – mothers wearing eyeliner that streak down their cheeks, patting down wild bushy hair that has rarely met the bristles of a hairbrush, mothers bearing the general demeanor of a gazelle tearing through the savannahs to escape the fangs of a predator.

 Eight continuous hours of peaceful slumber eludes me. Sleep arrives in fits and starts. Once it leaves, it packs up and troops out the door for good.

 My boss’ words make perfect sense to me now. 

A decade earlier, I trotted out of the hallowed halls of my software firm as a senior programmer but not yet a team lead, to embark on my first maternity leave. I returned six months later, with anxiety perched upon my shoulder as I strode through the doors. As I settled into my groove, however, I discovered to my pleasant surprise that my senior management had not forgotten my commendable performance, and in fact they had assigned me a brand new critical project under my leadership.

 

In the year that followed, I rarely glimpsed the magnificent sunsets that lit up the sky. I toiled through seventy-hour weeks, peeping in on my daughter in the morning when I left, and returning barely minutes before her bedtime routine. All the grit and sweat rewarded me with appreciation, bonuses, and a promotion, but as I knock around building blocks with my son, it occurs to me that I might have directed more attention to playing with my then toddler daughter. To be fair, even embarking upon this train of thought is an exercise in indulgence, and rather convenient in retrospect when I have already reaped the benefits of trading diapers for deadlines. 

Today I have risen to the post of Project Manager. As I climb the corporate ladder one rickety rung at a time, I gaze upwards at the thrones already in place. When can I claim one of them for my own?

Balancing motherhood and ambition on an even keel is never easy.

Into the heady mix of motherhood and career, I’ve tossed in an extra ingredient in the form of writing. It is a creative pursuit, a hobby, and an itch I cannot help but scratch on a regular basis. The desire to write exceeds the time available for me to write. Writing takes shape and form in those tiny slivers of time after the kids close their eyes but before sleep forces my own eyelids shut.

When I gave birth to my daughter and rose to a lead position, I found even less time to pursue my love of writing. It was ironic – my passion increased but the time I could devote to it had diminished. 

With the birth of my second child, time, which was a precious commodity earlier, is now scarcer than ever. I find myself shoring up enough material to fill reams of pages with stories and essays. Multiple ideas play in my mind and tempt me all at once. They draw me in to their succulent cores and lead me in to vivid daydreams. Most of them descend into the cerebellum when I sleep. 

The tenuous link between my ideas and the words that will execute them come alive to me in the middle of the night.

Time and sleep are two precious commodities that I willingly sacrifice at the altar of my artistic career. The hours beyond midnight are gold to me, offering what jewels and magic beans cannot – a quiet environment uninterrupted for long stretches of time.

After delivering my second child, I stood at a crossroads I hadn’t faced before – did I want to return to work at all?

What would happen if, after fifteen straight years of striding into cubicles, I woke up in the morning and, instead of trousers and a shirt, threw on a jumpsuit and flip-flops, and headed to the nearest café?

The rejoinders begin streaming through my mind even before I reach the end of the sentence:

I would miss the heady feeling of earning an independent income, even if it poured back into the household.

I might miss the hustle and bustle of the office atmosphere, the friendships, the chai sessions and the watercooler gossip

I would watch other career women effortlessly straddling both work and home, and sense the frustration rising within me, wondering why I wasn’t doing the same.

My writing muse would disappear on me, and the little momentum I had gained would sputter and die a natural death.

The other part of my conundrum is – do I really want to leave my job? 

The real answer to that is no – I love my job. I’m not one of those who wandered into the software industry to ride the wave of digitization or because it was the most popular course or because my parents goaded me into it. I’ve been on computers since I was ten and wouldn’t dream of doing anything else. I had dug my heels deep into the kernels of programming languages well before I had entered my teens. If I wasn’t in the software industry I don’t know what else I’d be doing. 

My designation states “Project Manager.” I derive great pride from it. I know I shouldn’t. I should be self-actualized enough that my sense of self-worth is not tied to a mere title, but as a manager taking care of multiple aspects of multiple projects, I take pride in the work I do. Leaving my job means letting go of all that comes with it.

The financial aspect seals the deal – the job pays well enough that replacing it would be nigh impossible.

When my maternity leave was hurtling towards its inevitable conclusion, a recruiter called offering me a new position at a bank. I recoiled at the thought – who would consider entering a new workplace so soon after giving birth? I refused. 

The recruiter persisted, throwing out lures in the form of telecommuting facilities and a decent increase in pay. I warned her I had a newborn at home, and wouldn’t stay longer than an hour for an interview. She conceded to all my requests.

I called in my parents for babysitting help and attended the interview. To my surprise, the company was located nearer my home than I had initially believed. My discussions went well, as did another two rounds in the following weeks. When the offer came in, dollar signs lit up my eyes. They had exceeded my expectations and proposed a generous package. I could find no reason to say no, even though I wanted to. Comfort and complacency had tied me to my company of six years. When I confided in my boss, he admitted he wouldn’t be able to match the offer, and advised me to accept it.

In December, I joined the bank.

Now every morning, as I step out the house and leave my dark-haired son to the care of his ageing grandparents, he scrunches his nose, wraps his pudgy arms around my leg and gazes up at me imploringly. I gently unwind him from my knee and hand him back to my mother. Then, I place a stopper on the well of emotions filling up in my throat and around my temples, and cross the threshold before the sounds of my son’s weeping overwhelms me.

Every time I step out of my car after reaching the office, I glance down at my paraphernalia – laptop bag, tote bag, lunch box. Every time, I feel the absence of a crucial part of my being, and it strikes me – the missing piece is my heart that beats for the little ones that I’ve left at home.

-Gargi Mehra 

Gargi is a software professional and a mother living in India. Her essays have appeared in The Writer magazine, Literary MamaSo Glad They Told Me by Her Stories Project, Cocktails with Miss Austen, and other literary magazines across the world online and in print. 

Julia NusbaumComment