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When an ABCD Mom Stays Home

December 2007
When an ABCD Mom Stays Home

Each time Khabar magazine makes its monthly appearance in our home, I am always drawn to the classified advertisements for nannies/housekeepers. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s envy for the (female) placers of the ads who are out there keeping their careers on track, while I’m at home full-time with my son. Maybe it’s the need to remind myself how fortunate I am, that I had the luxury of quitting my job, or “opting out”, as the current mommy wars literature puts it. Maybe it’s because I’m just struck at the sheer paradox of all those ads—Indian culture, after all, prides itself on being so family-centered, with all of its emphasis on home values, home cooking, and the like. At the same time, Indian immigrants and their children are being forced to acknowledge the reality of women in the workforce and adapt accordingly.

Where do ABCD women who choose to stay home fit into all of this? Some of our mothers, aunts, and aunties did not work, because their Indian degrees did not give them immediate access to certain American jobs, particularly in the non-science professions. Some of them worked, not because their career was a source of personal fulfillment but because economic circumstances forced them into the workplace. Some of them began their American careers once their children were older.

With our generation, however, it was a different story. We quickly established ourselves as high achievers in schools, and it was expected that we would pursue professional careers. Staying at home was unthinkable, beyond the standard maternity leave. All that sweating over the SAT’s, board exams, bar exams, GMAT’s, LSAT’s—who were we to throw away all that effort? And what about the all-nighters, caffeine binges, tears over less-than-perfect grades, hours in the lab and library, and anxieties over college acceptances? Was staying at home, and shopping in a near-empty Wal-Mart at 10 A.M. on a weekday morning supposed to be the end product of all that?

I think it’s wonderful that a lot of ABCD women who chose to return to work have resources that our moms did not have—generous maternity leaves, relatives nearby, Indian nannies, daycares, after-school care programs, tiffin ladies, husbands who grew up with working mothers, etc. Not only that, but they are role models for our children, who need to be exposed to women in the workplace. However, when the subject of kids and careers would come up among my Indian contemporaries, I heard comments (paraphrased), such as “I got bored staying at home—you can only cook so much,” “My kids would drive me crazy if I stayed at home,” “You stop thinking if you’re at home,” or “I’ve worked so hard—I would never stay at home.”

For some of my Indian contemporaries who live in extended family situations, with multiple generations under one roof, having a job outside the home was their way of creating some space and independence for themselves. For some, having a job outside the home was a way to avoid some of the limitations their own mothers faced, for lack of economic power within the household. Underneath the comments and concerns, I sensed a level of anxiety and fear over the prospect of being a full-time homemaker. I could understand these fears and concerns, because I shared a lot of them myself.

During the fifteen months I have been at home, I have been thinking a lot about the seeming lack of support the Indian community has for ABCD stay-at-home moms. I myself was horrified by the prospect of being at home full-time, even as I gave my firm notice, two months before my son’s birth, that I would not be returning. I feared the worst: that I would end up being the stereotypical Indian housewife, whose days would be an endless drudgery of cooking, cleaning, and Zee TV. I also feared falling into the more contemporary Type-A uber-mommy mold, which I associated with endless hours and tension over things like standardized tests, being a room mother at school, soccer, piano, tennis, karate, Kumon, Gymboree, etc. I did not like to cook, shop, decorate, or make home crafts. I did not want to put needless pressure on my son, just because I myself wasn’t out there achieving and competing.

The root of the problem seems to be the prevailing attitude of the Indian community towards second-generation stay-at-home moms. The first generation of stay-at-home moms are often venerated as preservers and passers-on of Indian culture and family values, whereas the second-generation’s moms’ credentials in the culture area are admittedly more diluted by their American upbringings. Moreover, the second generation was and is expected to carry on the impressive professional and educational accomplishments of the first generation. When an American-bred Indian mom drops out or opts out of the workforce, where or how does she fit into the high-achiever prototype? Is she a failure if she cannot or chooses not to work fifty hours a week, single-handedly host Indian dinners for forty guests, take care of all the relatives, AND keep an immaculate home, the way her mom, aunts, or older cousins may have done?

The Indian community can learn a few things from my white American peers, in terms of making staying at home a more attractive option for us ABCD’s. I have found that staying at home does not mean falling into the Indian housewife/American uber-mommy trap. Staying at home is really what you make it to be. In the short time I have been involved in my son’s playgroups, I have met (American) stay-at-home wives who are well-educated, resourceful, and positive about their at-home situation. They are confident in who they are and what they’re doing. If they feel a need to take a break, instead of complaining, they find ways to incorporate things like exercise, adult interaction, and intellectual stimulation into their lives, without sacrificing time with their children. I myself have gotten involved in a local book club and volunteer efforts to raise money for my college alma mater. However, these were cues I picked up from my white at-home friends, when I saw how they were managing to stay involved and active, despite not having a formal job.

I think the Indian community is (understandably) hesitant to encourage their daughters to pursue interests outside their chosen professions and cooking/cleaning/family obligations. This hesitancy is understandable—in the early years, people like my parents did not have the luxury of pursuing many outside interests, because they were busy trying to provide a good life for our generation, so that we could have the choices we have now. However, now, 20-30 years later, many of us do have the choice of opting to stay home (thanks to sacrifices made by our parents and in-laws). Now that many Indian Americans like me are in the fortunate position of having the luxury to stay at home with our children, the Indian community should be supportive about our choice and about the things we do, to make that choice a happy and comfortable one for ourselves and our children.

By Monica Patel

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