All of us would have definitely heard the fairy-tale of Cinderella as children and would have in all probability read the same to our children. Whenever I hear or read the fairy-tale, I cannot help but feel that all working mothers are in some way like Cinderella. I am sure, you would have raised your eyebrows after reading this sweeping statement, though instinctively conjuring up a romantic vision of life. And you are right, my observation needs to be elaborated upon and elucidated better. So here goes.
When I compare a working mother to Cinderella, I am essentially dwelling on the fear that Cinderella lives in – that of the spell of the fairy godmother wearing off at midnight; this explains the desperate effort to get home before the carriage turns back into a pumpkin, her horses mice, her coachman a rat, her footmen lizards and her clothes rags.
Isn’t this what a working mother also feels like, most of the time? It’s almost as though she lives her professional life on borrowed time. It’s an eternal riches to rags story by sunset. The daily struggle between the heart and the hearth almost casts a spell on her. It’s also perhaps not a coincidence that the hearth is closely associated with cinders! While she is away from her home and children, chasing her passion or her professional goals, there is always a lurking fear at the back of the mind that there are several pending chores back home; there is the guilt that her children are left at home with a caretaker, who is a rather poor and whimsical version of the compassionate fairy godmother, for whom tending to children is a purely commercial proposition. So, the mother has to get back home, almost like Cinderella has to, before the spell loses its potency.
The dread of the spell wearing off is even more heightened when she has to travel out of town for professional work. The mother’s travelling for work is by no means the same as the father’s. The adjustments and arrangements that are made by the mother on the domestic front before leaving are almost like preparing for a fierce battle.
While Cinderella ends on a happy note just as all fairy tales do, real life, regrettably, is not that hunky dory. The working mother is desperately waiting for a time when no spell is cast; when she can objectively decide when to get back home, without having to rush back, fretting. This however is easier said than done. This would need a sea change in perceptions about gender roles. What is also ironical is that it is the mothers of the earlier generation, at least in the Indian context, who have fed their sons a rich diet of dissimilarity/supremacy (?) and have subconsciously instilled a feeling among them that parenting and domestic chores are not their domain and that they are the preserve of the womenfolk.
Come to think of it, have you heard of a ‘working father’? This appellation is still uncommon because aren’t all fathers working or supposed to work. And even if you hear of a working father, he is lauded and praised for being a hands-on parent, something that is almost taken for granted in the case of the mother. Fortunately, Cinderella because of her prince charming does not have to sweat over domestic chores or changing diapers, as she basks in the midst of luxury, happily ever after. But what about the ordinary working mother whose prince charming doesn’t appear as charming after all, once the responsibilities of managing a household and of parenting begin to manifest in full measure.
It’s disheartening that schools too endorse and enforce this unequal treatment, sometimes explicitly and at other times subtly. It is the mothers who are made members of various school WhatsApp groups. The father making an appearance at the parent teacher meeting or other school events is a pleasant surprise.
The working mother thus lives in the hope that there will come a time when a spell will not be cast on her in the first place so that the question of it wearing off wouldn’t arise at all. But for this we will have to be mature enough to appreciate that work-life needs are not gender specific. We shall have to usher in a time where we are not dealing with a ‘working mother’ or ‘working father’ but a ‘working parent’.