“Motherhood is the greatest thing and the hardest thing”. Ricki Lake
It was a beautiful Sunday morning. Sundays mornings are usually beautiful. Serene. It is like the weather knows it is a Sunday and even if it rains, the day has a sunny demeanor. May be because there is less traffic in Nairobi. Less pollution unless you neighbor some Church with blaring noise. I have never understood why they do this. The megaphones outside the Church preaching to everyone who is not interested in the preaching. Anyway, as usual, I had plans to start the day with Sunday Mass, but his plans…well he had different plans. I ended up spending part of the Sunday Mass time outside the Church when my terrific two son decided there was more interesting stuff outside. Despite the accommodating section for lactating mothers and young babies in the Church, he was uncooperative.
“Enough is enough.” He said …through tantrums.
He wanted to play, not pray. Sometimes, most times, he is more cooperative. To be fair to him, after some rains that week, the grass was so green, alive and inviting, sort of calling to be enjoyed. It was truly a beautiful day to be outdoors, but the wrong timing. I resigned myself to the fate as he explored. That is where I met this lady, fellow mom in a similar situation. We got talking as her daughter and my son discovered the surroundings. The two children were about the same age. Well, may be the two young ones had planned it all along! Children really get adults talking.
Somehow the issue of travel came up. Her profession demands travel as part of the everyday roles. She mentioned the challenge of having to travel when her child was about seven months old, and so stopped breastfeeding. We ended up talking about the balancing act of being a mother and a professional when the children are too young to understand. This is a shared concern for many women in particular. I started travelling when my son was 13 months old. I had planned for it, but that did not make it easier. Sometimes there is a sparkle in the drab. This was an easy way for getting him off the boob. He had reduced breastfeeding and the travel sealed it. He stopped breastfeeding and he forgot about it. For some mothers, this is a struggle. If I was not travelling I had no idea how long he would have breastfed as that decision was off my hands. I think he had already had his fair share anyway.
As a parent, one often has to make tough decisions around the different roles that one plays. Travelling and leaving the family is not easy, yet this is often required of many parents, in employment or business.
“How do you manage?” I often get the question.
I do not have an answer. Just doing what I got to do and getting a lot of support in that. I grew up with an ever present mother who worked in the homestead. But, my dad worked and resided in Thika, coming home over the weekends. I doubt if anyone ever asked him how he managed being away from the family five (or sometimes six) out of the seven days in a week. That does not mean that the men do not necessarily find it difficult to leave the families, but the world has accepted men as the species that work away from the home. Not so for women.
Many professionals have had to make decisions around various issues related to work and their parenting role. Travelling away is a sometimes quite tough. The anxiety of leaving one’s family, more so when there is a young child, almost robs one the excitement of exploring a new place. When the time difference is many hours apart, it becomes even trickier. You want to hear the positive message when you call, “we are doing well.” That is a standard reassuring response. Sometimes I wonder if it is rehearsed and ask many questions to verify.
The first time, I travelled away from my home for work after my baby was born was difficult. I was away for two weeks and every day felt like torture. This was quite different before I became a parent. It was easier to stay away for longer. This was a different experience. Despite occupying myself with the tasks at hand, I practically counted days, every morning and every evening. I felt like my heart was being torn apart. I kept wondering what his little mind is telling him. Was he feeling abandoned? I ached to be back. When I arrive back home, he was confused. He looked at me and became so emotional, tears welled in both of our eyes. May be he thought he was dreaming. As he gets older, his reactions are different. He will clap and run for a hug. That is easier to manage.
In some situations, the work environment does not support the roles of being a parent. Many women face the challenge of biased employers or supervisors or colleagues. I recall experience of a friend in her first few years of work in her first job working for a government department. The parental leave period was about two months, and she was expected to be in the office from 8.00 am to 5.00PM and working at 100%. There was no allowance for the lactating mothers to have more flexibility back to work. Her supervisor could not understand her need to go home earlier. That was when breast pumps were not quite known and acceptable in Kenya. I recall many agonising days as we would skim no how she left the office without her employer knowing in the afternoon, and she could not take any meals during the day as that would mean spending time expressing milk into the sink/ and in pain. She had a rough time struggling with painful breasts every day and literally fasting to reduce her milk production. Ironically, she had so much milk, but her baby could not benefit fully from. At one time her supervisor told her to “find out how other women manage”. In other words, this young woman’s need to take care of a child should not impact the work schedule.
While we have gained quite some steps in getting more women to the offices, getting the offices accommodate the parental responsibilities is still a struggle. Many offices are buildings without a soul. There are also beautiful stories of how many employers have made strides in making the working environment more humane. One should not have to choose and feel that the multiple roles are in conflict.