Reflections on a year of being a mom
A personal note
For the newsletter this week, I wanted to write not about start-up news or ecosystem news but something a bit more personal. Last week, my daughter turned a year old and it has been an opportunity to reflect on just how much has changed in my life and also in my outlook. What does any of this have to do with start-ups or India? We have talked in this newsletter often about how poor women's participation in the labour force in India is and how its only getting worse. And we’ve also talked about how woeful women’s representation amongst the VC and start-up community. In some small way, I hope these notes resonate and also cause people reflect — whether as individuals, colleagues, managers or founders — as to some of the challenges working moms face and how all of us can do better.
I should start off by saying I was among the incredibly lucky few in the US who had a job that gave me excellent healthcare and maternity benefits. And even then the last year has been a roller-coaster both personally and professionally. I could write reams about the challenges of being a parent, but for this post I’ll focus on the professional front. Managing a small baby and a pretty demanding day job is hard. It’s very hard. For all the talk about equality there’s no getting around the fact that childcare is much harder on women than men. And its not made easier by the fact that we have been living through an era of “leaning in”, where obviously having a baby should not mean you are any less of a girlboss. All in all, its a lot of pressure.
A couple of months after I came back from maternity leave, a female Partner at my firm asked me how I was adjusting. Struggling through it, I told her. She nodded, and said I just kind of had to struggle through it for a couple of years. It gets better. But also she said, you have to adjust to working at a different tempo and pace. It’s blindingly obvious but this adjustment has not been easy. I can no longer just power through with sheer stamina and long hours during a tough work situation — all nighters are really not feasible. Between more managerial responsibility and baby duties at home, I find myself dealing with fragmentation in the extreme. In all honesty, this is something I am still getting used to. There’s obviously a bit of mourning for my old work self. Figuring out what my new normal or new optimal is is still work in progress. Should I continue to work late into the night or try and become more of a morning person? How much in terms of additional commitments can I handle realistically without cracking and then coming across as flaky. It’s all been very much trial and error.
In all of this, the most important thing for me to think about has been setting boundaries. Leaning in is overrated and exhausting beyond measure. I remember one day managing my baby’s nighttime routine while also dialed in on a conference call. It was miserable. She was cranky and I wasn’t a 100% present either for her or for the call. Even worse, no one would have missed me on the call. But I had felt the pressure to be seen. I am much firmer now and vocal about what my boundaries are and why. I have also realized that on the whole people are pretty understanding (and if they aren’t, you probably don’t want to work with them anyway), and very rarely is something so crucial that you can’t pick it up later. The other realization was that the onus is always on me to set my boundaries and also be vocal about why, since I can’t just assume other people should or will understand my personal situation.
This touches on another key thing I realized — supportive colleagues are key. And to be honest, here I don’t even think gender matters. I work in a pretty male-dominated work environment, but some of the best advice and support I have received has been from male colleagues who are new parents too. They have been open about sharing stories about challenges they face (while acknowledging its always tougher for mom), while also sharing tips, and in general providing solidarity. It makes such a huge difference. When I wrote at the beginning of this post that my outlook has changed a lot, it was no exaggeration. We as a society don’t talk openly about what it takes to raise a child. Its no surprise to me then that if you don’t have a child you are clueless about what people with young children are going through, and will also likely be incredibly bored by it - I was! So finding a group of people at work who are navigating similar issues does make a big difference.
And one final reflection. I wish we asked more men how fatherhood impacted their professional lives. It has become commonplace to get annoyed about women being asked how they manage it all, because we don’t ask men. I’d actually love for this question to be asked to men, because sometimes you do hear insightful things, and because sometimes it’s important to know just how involved / not they are in child raising. In my experience millennial and Gen-Z fathers are way more hands on, and asking this question also puts the onus on them to think more about the toll of child raising on their professional careers vis-vis their female partners’. It’s exactly why I feel long paternity leave is so important. We should not normalize women being the primary caregivers.
As a manager, I now also think a lot about how we can set up supportive team structures for parents (and non-parents) of both genders. I do think it is incredibly valuable for companies and managers to articulate vocally the ways in which they can support their employees through challenging years on the personal front, but few do that. There’s a lot of low hanging fruit here for most organizations to create fulfilling and supportive environments for their employees, and I wish we see more doing so in practical terms.