I am a 22-year-old woman who has very recently entered the world of work. My mother was 21 when she quit her job as a school teacher when she conceived me. Post-childbirth there were various times when she considered getting back to work but the decision never materialized.
Notwithstanding that raising her children became a priority, there was still some sense of desire to be able to earn her own money. For her, earning was a marker of independence. Hence she would often emphasize how crucial it was for me to study and get a job. So that I could be an independent woman before I became a wife or a mother. I sometimes wonder if this is the reason I consider my work to be a big part of my identity.
When I was 3, I would proudly announce to every guest that visited our house that “When I grow up I want to be Geeta ben!” Geeta ben was our house help and probably the first woman I saw at work. I would see her every day with a wooden bat in her hand. I used to think to myself if only I start working like her I might get a chance to use the bat and go house to house.
When I turned 10, I wanted to work like Dr.Vaijanti, my pediatrician. I saw her as a problem solver because every time I went into her clinic unwell I came out feeling better. I wanted to be able to do that for other people. Work meant doing good in the world.
In my understanding, your “work“ could take you places and give you the opportunity to do things that you were passionate about. And that is what I aspired to do as an independent woman. Somewhere down the line, a sort of ideal template got created in my head about who is a working woman.
When I imagined myself as one of these women I built the image of a well-educated, self-directed, articulate individual. A lot of the real working women in my imagination were replaced by pop culture references. Like women that were running law firms, girl bosses starting their own enterprises, and women CEOs. These were all women who had jobs to which they were fully dedicated. They put all their effort into it with hopes of succeeding in their field neglecting other parts of life. The conflict in all their stories arose from this neglect and the arc always concluded with them realizing that career alone cannot fulfill them as a family could.
The aspiration was to be at the top or to be the best at what you did. To live the life of these characters meant living a life centered around your work. My takeaway from these narratives was that to be at the top, your work had to be the priority, and your family could always come later. Having started working in a women-centric organization, has added some more complex layers to this image.
I currently work at Chaitanya WISE, a non-profit organization that promotes women’s collectives with the aim of enhancing their own capabilities to make informed choices and gain access to financial and other resources. I live in Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh where I work closely with a women-led clothing and apparel brand Kala Maitri which is starting up a collective enterprise model for women in stitching and weaving clusters here. My co-workers in the organization are all women. My work involves daily interaction with women who work with Kala Maitri and the federation in different capacities.
After 18 years of going through the education system, I believed that an immaculate marksheet was the only way to ensure that I’d excel in the career I chose to build for myself.
Swati didi, one of my co-workers who failed her 10th-grade examinations, is the coordinator of our Silai and Bunai unit. She learned how to weave. This enabled her to earn a regular income to support her two young daughters. Also, she excels at networking. Right from the people at the Nagar panchayat to the chaiwallahs by the ghat. She not only supports her own family but also is a pillar of support for other women in the community. She hopes to start her own enterprise one day.
Like her, Bharti too works to support her family. She started working with our organization post the pandemic after her husband had been unemployed for a couple of months. Both of these women strive at their work and leave no stone unturned to reach their targets. Their family’s needs are a huge stakeholder in their desire to work.
I see their work every day. I also see them constantly trying to balance out the weighing scale. For them choosing one over the other is not an option. Being a working woman does not relieve them of the responsibilities of the household. They are expected to manage both their households as well as the work they do. From all the lunch conversations we have had about this, one thing that is clear is how both are equally important to them.
Bharti often jokes about how at work she stresses about all of the things that are left to do at home and at home she can’t stop thinking about all her work. The two younger co-workers take this as an opportunity to butt in with how not getting married is the perfect solution to the problem. I wonder if they too see marriage as a hurdle to their growth in the professional sphere.
I am the age my mother was when she had me. These musings about work, family, and life are becoming a common thread in my days working in a rural setup where my work takes up the majority of my day but women often ask me “Aap akele reh lete ho? “