By Akangsha J
The first six months of my daughter’s life sped by. But after starting her on solid foods, it was time for me to get back to work. Thankfully, I had a battery of emotional, social, and physical support at home: Parents and household help assured me that my daughter would be in the safest hands possible. Despite feeling guilty and wondering if she and I would miss each other, I knew in my heart that I was dying to go back to work. Not only had I enjoyed financial independence and the confidence that comes with loving your work and being good at what you do, I was missing the general office camaraderie. Throughout maternity leave, I had kept in touch with my manager and team to make sure my return to the office would be smooth.
A few days before I was due to get back to work, I emailed my boss to arrange a meeting so that we could draw up my work plan. I was naturally feeling a little out-of-sorts after not being in action for six months, and was returning to a much changed organisation and team (with many new additions). She agreed. But when she met me, and I expressed how excited I was to be back at work, she said, “Are you sure you want to come back to work? I took a break for five years after my children were born, to look after them.”
I was shocked. After my experiences of working in Indian companies, I realised it’s too much to expect empathy or support, but downright discouragement was new, and certainly not what I needed at this time.
I explained that I was happy to take on work, but couldn’t travel outside the city for another six months. I was breastfeeding my daughter and had to go back home to her every night. While my job wasn’t a ‘travelling job’ in the strictest sense, it did involve some travel. But the way I saw it, the travel could be shared by the rest of the team and I, in turn, could be given some extra responsibilities that didn’t require travel. My manager remained non-committal about what work she would assign to me and merely said, we shall see.
Soon, my official first-day-back-at-work came around and I was getting my bag ready with my sterilised bottles and breast pump. I requested my boss for 20 minutes off in the mornings and afternoons, so that I could find an empty cabin to express my breast milk. Her response was lukewarm. She asked, “Is that even a thing? How do you plan to take the milk home?” Annoyed, I told her that I had thought through it, had bought an icebox that came with the breast pump, and had taken advice from a colleague who had gone through the exact same pumping routine at our workplace the previous year. The least she could do is support me, if not attempt to facilitate my request. She shrugged and said, “As long as it doesn’t interfere with your work.”
A week passed, and soon, it was an entire month that I had been back at work. My manager still hadn’t given me concrete work, and all my suggestions that I’d take up something were met with refusals. I was either told that someone was working on it already, or that there was not much happening with the project. “Can you travel?” I was asked repeatedly, and each time, I repeated the same thing. “No, I’m sorry, I cannot travel until my little one is a year old.”
Gradually, I felt my confidence was being drained. What had made my manager and team view me as a liability despite the fact that I hadn’t been erratic or irresponsible? I had been on maternity leave, not a six month-long vacation.
My daily routine was tight. My little one had adjusted very well without me, and was content drinking my expressed breast milk out of a bottle. To our dismay, she refused formula, even if it was given to her in the same bottle as the breast milk. This meant that I had to be on top of my schedule and could never miss a pumping session at work. On one occasion, my manager had scheduled a meeting (regarding an irrelevant project, to which I was eventually assigned) at 7 pm. In her defence, it was a meeting with an international client and there were no other mutual time slots available. But she did know that I had to leave at 6 pm, in order to reach home at 7.30 pm, in time to feed my daughter at 7.45 pm. Helpless and unsure what to do, I eventually had to pump some extra milk at work, put it in an ice box, and get a pick-up-and-drop service to deliver it to my parents’ home.
Coming back to the office made me realise how unsupportive and unsympathetic managers and companies could be to mothers returning from maternity leave. The empathy, considerations and benefits I had enjoyed as a pregnant women stopped the second I delivered. Did my colleagues and my boss realise the seriousness of the need to reach home in time to feed my daughter? Why were they unable to gauge that scheduling a meeting during my pumping session would mean that my breasts would be leaking, and I would essentially end up with a hungry baby and no expressed breast milk? Was it so hard to understand that I wanted to be a devoted employee but also a competent mother?
Indian companies appear to have a particular problem with new mothers. The US certainly doesn’t have great maternity policies, most American mothers go back to work in just a few weeks after giving birth. However, it does have a federal law in place, which mandates that workplaces have to provide a nursing mother a dedicated space and break times to express breast milk. After an amendment last August, Indian companies offer 26 weeks of paid leave to new mothers in the organised sector.
But the country is in dire need of a similar policy to address the needs of new mothers – from pumping to nursing. pumping or breaks from work to go to nurse the baby. Indian workplaces should go beyond the granting of leave and associated benefits, and think seriously about ways to re-integrate the woman into the workplace, make breastfeeding a viable option, and support her through these major life changes. Personally, I was lucky enough to have ample support at home, but this sadly isn’t the case with every new mother. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that so many women end up giving up their careers at this vulnerable and delicate time of their lives.