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The Multitasking Mata

May 2007
The Multitasking Mata

"Topsy-turvy" and "somersault"! These are the words that come to mind when one considers how the role of motherhood has morphed in just a single generation. What is true for mothers all over is perhaps that much more so for Indian-American moms who have experienced not just the generational shift but also a cultural one.

Most of them, it may be said, were raised by a sari-clad epitome of a devi who was the bedrock of the household. Home, husband, and the children are what her life was all about. She was the undisputed "home minister." But she was also blissfully detached from the world of working-for-a-living. What is more, when it came to raising children, she generally enjoyed the support of an extended family, neighbors, and servants.

Contrast that with the life of the desi mom in the U.S., most commonly found to be the one building a career, raising children and attending to the home and hearth—without the traditional support systems or the live-in household help. As if that is not a tall enough task, she is also found to tackle aspects of daily living that were unheard of to her mother; aspects such as company meetings, PTAs, bake sales, homework help, grocery shopping, paying bills, balancing the checkbook, and on and on.

A poor tradeoff you say? Not so, says Kanchana Raman, the energetic founder and CEO of Avion Systems, a telecom and technology company with over 600 employees. "In previous generations, the only reason women went to work was either to make ends meet or because they were widowed or divorced. It was a necessity. The difference today is we do it because we choose to do it!" Recipient of several awards and accolades, including recognition in Fortune magazine, and mother of two preteens, Kanchana goes by a belief that motherhood, like life itself, is a "blessed challenge." She also asserts that being a great mom and being a high-profile executive need not be at odds with each other. Nor does she feel overwhelmed by the demands of this new role of modern motherhood.

Harshvina "Helen" Zaver, a Certified Hotel Administrator with Marcus and Millichap, is also equally enthusiastic about the full life she enjoys compared to mothers of generations past. Winner of Asian American Hotel Owners Association's "Woman Hotelier of the Year Award" in 2000, Helen is far from being envious of the relaxed homely comforts enjoyed by her mother's generation. Talking about her demanding roles she says, "It's what we choose?if we choose to work as hard as we do, then that's the choice we made for ourselves. I like having a lot of things to juggle. I wouldn't know what to do otherwise." Both Kanchana and Helen seem to reflect the sentiments of most of their peers who thrive on their multiple roles and the innumerable demands upon themselves.

Maximum mommy

Not to say morphing into a maddeningly multitasking mom is all smooth sailing. Change has brought with it opportunities, making a woman's life richer?but also extremely challenging. Poornima Apte, mother of two (twelve and nine), and full-time managing editor of a trade publication, while acknowledging the joys of her family, appreciates the opportunity to vent: "In my family, I have been awarded the title of Chief Worrier. Have the kids brought in their lunch money? Have we signed her homework? Has the plumber been called? I sometimes tell my family that they don't know the zillion small things I do everyday to keep the house going. There are days when the sheer strain of things makes me wallow in self-pity and think that nobody appreciates me, especially when you have to remind the kids for the hundredth time to fold their laundry."

If "settled" and "secure" is what would describe mothers of a generation past, "searching" and "striving" are perhaps the buzzwords apt for modern moms—especially those who have to negotiate a country and culture different from the one where they grew up. Sonali Rao, a computer science engineer from Pune who worked with Nortel for many years before establishing a foreign languages school for young children, has this to say: "For those of us who are born in India and come here to make a career, the challenges are multiple. Handling the children, the house, the job and everything in between is a balancing act that is not always easy." Rifka Mayani, a Professor of Business Information Systems at Kennesaw State University shares the feeling. Mother of two girls, six and one-and-a-half, Rifka also runs a Bharatnatyam dance school?and is pursuing a Master's in accounting? and is actively involved with community service. "I am constantly being split. If I am not busy with one aspect of work then I am busy with another aspect of home life. There is simply no downtime! There is also this struggle within me of the feeling of not giving enough, whether to my spouse, children or work. Some days it gets extremely rough. But on other days just knowing that I make a difference in every sphere helps me go on."

In generations past, especially in India, it took the proverbial village to raise the kids. Mothers did not have to shoulder the responsibility all by themselves. Not having an extended family around is one of the biggest challenges of parenting, asserts Poornima. "I am jealous of friends who can just call their mom when their daughter is sick and can't go to daycare. We don't have that crutch. Not that we would expect them to watch our kids all the time, but it is difficult when there's absolutely no one to lean on."

Playing dual and even multiple roles is daunting enough for any mom. Is it more so for desi moms?

Rifka believes our traditional values do indeed come into play to demand more. She feels she has a few more balls to juggle compared to the average American soccer mom. "I like to feed the family a home cooked Indian meal as much as possible—so that my girls cultivate a taste for our food. A quick fix just does not cut it in our household. [Then] there are social obligations—keeping up with friends and family, hosting family from overseas, and continuing to instill our culture into the children—all take time and lots of energy." A banking assistant and mother of two, Baku Daruwalla, concurs, "Due to our background and culture, we incorporate things like setting aside time for teaching and reciting prayers, cooking meals as opposed to microwaving or eating out. Doing all that does take up extra time." Helen Zaver weighs in on the issue about traditional values that might result in some self imposed standards. Besides her demanding career in the hotel industry, she says she is also the typical soccer mom who is always on the go. "The difference though, is that my priority is always my family! If there is anything that I have to work around that accommodates my kids and my husband first, I would do it. Family always comes first for me!"

To some, raising their children with Indian values and traditions is sacrosanct; others simply want to carry forward the traditional customs to offer a richer upbringing. Whatever the motivation, they drive the extra mile, whether it is taking their children to Indian dance and language classes or keeping native social ties alive. In the absence of grandparents to tell tales of Lord Krishna, or a Shanti bai to roll out sizzling aloo paranthas, a large chunk of this responsibility falls in the desi mom's endless list of ‘to-dos.'

Does maximum mom result in minimum kids?

How does all this maximum mom business affect the children? Surely, weren't we better off for the fact that our mother's only priority was us and the household? Wouldn't the kids feel neglected if they are just one of the many focal points of their mom's lives? Kanchana, the executive, does not think so. She believes different value systems for different eras could be equally valid. "What we learnt from our moms was that she was dedicated to us. When we came home at four o'clock, she was at the door with a smile. She personally toiled to put food on the table. This was wonderful, but does it have to be the same in today's age?" She feels that kids today look at their career oriented moms as extremely hard working and disciplined. They see their mom as "one who does whatever it takes?working three shifts if that's what it takes." According to her, there is not just a singular type of legacy that mothers can bestow. "Times have changed, and we have to change with times. I don't think it takes anything away from our children. They are used to this lifestyle. It's not like their mom is the only one going out to work," she adds. Hard work, personal growth, and self-reliance, she feels, are just some of the core values a working mom can instill. Helen Zaver agrees when she says, "My kids are actually very independent, they are social, they also understand what we are doing, and it makes them more responsible and understanding of how things work in the real world. So they know they are responsible for getting home on time or about the things they need to do without mom pushing them at every step. So I think they are better for it."

"Myriad studies conclude that the happiness and welfare of healthy children are indistinguishable whether a woman works or not. What matters is the nurturing and loving environment a family provides," writes columnist Karen Heller in an article appearing in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, dated April 23, 2007.

The curse of chores

While children may not necessarily suffer as a result of multitasking moms, the house almost certainly does. Even though yoga-practicing mothers in spandex may look like superwomen, they are not. No one can do it all. The one recurring theme that started sounding all too familiar is the lament of the ever increasing barrage of chores.

So how do maximum moms tackle this inevitable fact of living in the fast lane? While multitasking helps, this is where the dads come in? and so do the grey areas and the miscommunications arising from shifting roles and undefined parameters. The traditional baadshah of the home is not inherently inclined to so much as get a glass of water for himself.

Is it any wonder household chores are an issue? Raising a family together appears to be the thorniest mergers of all. Exhausted from a days work, both parents return just in time for the daily 6:00 p.m. meltdown. Things need to get done fast, and yes, some finger pointing may ensue. Bombay-to-Gainesville transplant Nairika Cornett is a restaurateur. Both she and her husband work long hours. "One does what one has to but I also ask my husband to help. Roles are not just different for women only. Home chores should not merely be the burden of a woman, especially if both parents work outside the home."

Malika Garrett, a sales manager for PepsiCo and mother of two, describes a scenario that most women and surely Indian-American ones would envy. Talking about her American born husband, Russell, she says she is grateful for the equation she shares with him. "He has taken on the matriarchal role and I the patriarchal when needed. When we lived in Singapore he was the stay-home dad as I traveled. Even today when I travel he does it all."

Thankfully, though, it is no longer just the American men who vacuum and wipe while helping around the house. If the desi moms have morphed into new roles, so have the desi dads, thanks to the demands of modern two-income nuclear families. They seem to be increasingly comfortable with their own fluid roles as well.

Rifka gives much credit to her husband, Viren, who does not let his responsible position at Mayor Shirley Franklin's office come in the way of what is needed to be done with their two girls and around the house. "Viren has his set of chores including dishes and watching over the kids when I am at work." Where friction does arise, it is seen as a somewhat inevitable byproduct of new norms and demanding lifestyles? and is handled maturely as described by Rifka: "Dual roles have caused friction occasionally as both of us hold high level jobs with very high demands on us. The best thing we have found is for one of us to hold our silence and let the other vent. Once things are off the chest it seems easier to deal with."

Poornima believes her husband to be an equal partner in chores. "There are no pre-defined roles at home, but I would say he does more than his fair share. He gives me my space to do my job well and even keeps the girls ‘out of my hair' if things get too hairy with deadlines. There hasn't been any friction with respect to my working."

Not surprisingly, Kanchana brings an executive perspective to the issue of household chores. "You just sit down and decide ok, you do these things and I will do these. And if it doesn't work, choose your battles carefully. I mean, if this guy does not like to load the dishwasher, then so be it. And if you have the traditional husband you see in Hindi movies who doesn't want to do any work around the house, then too you find a way—by remembering that chores do not have to be a big issue in life. You say to yourself, ‘Ok, he does not like to help me in the twenty percent of my life, so then, how is he in the rest of the eighty percent?' I am saying just look at the big picture and make the necessary adjustment."

Multitasking and more

When the stakes and demands are high, it follows the solutions sought should keep pace. To say modern moms are resourceful, hardworking, and efficient is understating it. Each one of them seems like an incarnation of Goddess Shakti herself, with all her multiple arms. Rani Sharma, who for many years climbed the corporate ladder is appreciative of all the personal and time management workshops she has attended. Now, after the birth of her second child, she is a full time homemaker who says she brings in every bit of her executive background into managing the home. "I may be one of the rare fortunate moms who have a close to picture perfect life. And not because it is not full to the brim. Between my two kids I am committed to taking them to four weekly classes. I cook elaborate meals almost everyday, take the kids to outings, picnics, libraries, spend quality time with them and my husband, plan our vacations, pursue my interests of reading and gardening?you get the picture. But none of this would be possible without my intense planning and multitasking skills acquired from my corporate days. My elder one is only nine, but both know to refer to and use our family calendar before committing to play dates or other activities where mom might be needed. I have a continually updated database of our friends and family here and in India with their birthdates, anniversaries etc. I use strategies of prioritizing, and bunching up similar tasks for maximum efficiency. True, I don't have to work for a living, but being an effective mom or just an effective individual takes all you have in these complex times where there is an abundance of options."

Kannan Humphries, mother of a four-month-old and program manager for an IT company, also swears by meticulous planning. "I have found it absolutely critical to plan and prioritize what is important every week. Every Sunday night I sit by myself and identify what I wish to accomplish in the upcoming week in each of my roles. For example, I list my roles as mom, wife, sister, daughter, cousin, friend, executive, pianist, landlord, gardener? and then I list what I am going to do to support each of those in the coming week. I prioritize tasks in each role. I realize it is a very academic approach, but it keeps me on track. Obviously I can't do everything as I continue to add more roles to my plate, but the most important ones get done."

Being an effective mom is not just about doing it all by yourself. It helps knowing which battles to take on and which to "job out." Many of the moms reported that they see paid help as a cure against insanity. From house cleaning to cooking, the mothers are increasingly inclined to not always "DIY" (Do-It-Yourself). Baku Daruwala admits to having Dominos on the speed dial. Besides paid help, delegating and spreading tasks is another frequently mentioned solution. Malika reports that all four members of her family "divide and conquer" chores.

Kannan is one of the increasing numbers of moms who is enjoying falling back to traditions of the support of the extended family. Fortunate to have her retired parents living in her vicinity, she shares, "I have a wonderfully supportive family, from my husband and parents to my extended family, who all pitch in, not only in raising our son Rohan but also with household tasks which makes life very easy."

Baku is all praise for the father-in-law who resides with them. "He helps out a lot with household chores and I can always leave the kids with him when I need to run errands." When such an arrangement of living with parents and in-laws works, it is wonderful. After all, Dr. Spock will never tell you to apply asafetida spiked ghee to sooth a colicky infant's tummy or sing the lyrics to "Chandamama Door Ke."

Granted, this is an option that does not always work out smoothly for all mothers. Living with kin can present its own challenges. Seniors with rigid and pedantic values can encroach upon a woman's independence. Being instructed on how to raise your own child or being under constant scrutiny can be suffocating. Some mothers shared about demands from in-laws for hot chapattis every night to forbidding any professional aspirations.

Trials and triumphs of modern motherhood������

So what is the toughest part being a modern multitasking mata? "The toughest part is in recognizing that you can't do everything and making peace with it. You can't do a great job at work, put out the best meals, have a perfect house, throw the best parties and raise wonderful kids. There are only twenty-four hours in a day and something's got to give. In our case, it's the house. Yes, we keep it clean but it is not a house from the pages of Pottery Barn. It's a mess quite often. We don't throw huge parties. We only have cozy gatherings with one family over for dinner. I am not a superwoman and I don't want to be one either. Figuring where to give in and say: ‘This is okay to let slip,' has been the toughest part," says Poornima.

For Malika the toughest part "is not spending enough time with my children and being away from them when I travel. I don't like to miss their school events, not being there for them when they go to bed, their home work, when they are sick?missing all of this gets me upset."

But whatever the trials and tribulations, modern motherhood comes with a multitude of rewards. Poornima appreciates being paid to do the work she loves. Being a multifaceted individual is what Kannan likes. For Sonali, the most satisfying is the feeling of achievement and independence. "I sincerely feel that all women, young or old, single or committed, should work at some job—whether that is as a volunteer, being in a paid position or being self-employed. The mind remains more active for far longer if a person works out of the home even for a few hours a week. And once the children grow up, there will be something for these women to continue doing."

Hearing your baby say "mama" for the first time, finding your blackberry covered in applesauce – motherhood is a constellation of such precious moments. Baku Daruwala's daughter, Delzin, said it best when she was asked what she wants to be when she grows up, "A mommy!"



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