By Ila Ananya
I grew up with a working mother. My parents taught at a university in Goa until I was three, so before I went to school, I would stay home with Nirmala akka, while my parents went to work. We would watch Shaktimaan together every afternoon, and she was with me the day there was a snake in our house and I thought I could play with it.
When we moved to Hyderabad, both my parents continued to work. I would usually accompany my mother to office every weekend. Since my mother joined an NGO that worked with weavers, I learnt to use a loom in her office when I was six. On days when my parents attended talks, I sat with them with sheets of one-sided paper and crayons and drew.
At some point when I was older, my mother told me the story of the time I locked Nirmala akka in the bathroom in our Goa house. I was two and had learnt to latch doors but not unlatch them, but, of course, I wasn’t thinking of this when I locked her in the bathroom in the first place. Then I was quite scared, so I went and sat on our terrace. But my mother told me that when Nirmala akka got out of the bathroom (our neighbours heard her screaming and opened the bathroom door), she was certain that I had been kidnapped and that she might be blamed for it.
Nirmala akka’s fear is perhaps a different side to the same paranoia that working parents have when it comes to leaving their young children at daycare centres. On 12 February, news broke of another horrible case of a three-year-old girl being sexually abused at a daycare by a 25-year-old man in Bangalore. The man was the son of the woman who ran the centre, and the abuse became known when the child’s grandmother came to pick her up and found her crying. For years, there have been reports about child sexual abuse at these centres and crèches. But what these horrific cases have perhaps unexpectedly, but surely, done, is to force mothers across class to feel a greater pressure to leave their jobs, and suffer guilt about ‘leaving’ their children.
This story about Nirmala akka might also remind us about how, some years ago, a family in Delhi had a teenage girl looking after their baby. The parents would go out to work, and every time the girl told them she wanted to go home, they would put it off, perhaps because it meant that the baby’s mother would have to stay home. Not knowing what to do (and not being able to leave the baby alone), the girl one day left for her home, with the baby.
A friend says that when she was in college, a company had come to talk to her class about a watch they had made for children. It had an SOS button the child could press if it were in trouble, with a GPS for parents to track them. If this wasn’t enough, the parents could even press another button and listen to what was happening around the child for some seconds. Of course, this meant that the child would have no privacy, but it seems like makers have realised that this paranoia about children — about where they are, and who they are with — is very real.
I can’t imagine my mother sitting at home to look after me. But I can’t imagine being in a crèche either. While she never talked to me about having to face this kind of pressure, there are many women who feel like they have no choice. If they want to work but their families don’t like the idea of a daycare, it automatically comes to mean that mothers should stay at home.
My friend’s sister — who worked in advertising and was doing extremely well before she had a daughter and quit — tells me that now she spends her days just staring at her child. She laughs as she says this, and then describes the dinner at home when she mentioned that she was considering re-joining her job. She had looked up a daycare centre close to her office so that she could check in on the baby. Her husband stayed silent, and her father-in-law stood up, told her she could do no such thing with his granddaughter, and left the table.
Anita, who used to teach in a school in Bangalore, says that before her son was born, she had been certain that she would be working after her son was a year old. “I thought a year was a long enough time to wait,” she says. But she also remembers when she felt like she would have to wait to work until her son was at least nine. She had just read reports about a young boy in Tamil Nadu who was sodomised by older boys in his school, and although it wasn’t the same, she decided that she couldn’t leave her son in daycare. Her story reminds me of a college teacher I know who had a child two years ago. She continues to teach, but she comes to college worrying and feeling terribly guilty about leaving her daughter in daycare.
Two weeks ago, Anita says that the woman who helps her at home asked if she could bring her two-year-old to their house. She wanted to leave her there while she finished working in other houses, because she didn’t like the idea of leaving her daughter alone with her brother. She was certain that she would come home one day to find her daughter missing or abused by her brother. “That was when I realised that we had the same fears and guilt,” Anita says, “Except I could stay home and her family couldn’t afford to do that.”
What this woman’s story also unsettlingly reminds us of is that very often the abuse that we associate with strangers happens within families. As a 2015 RAHAT study pointed out, rapes by fathers or step-fathers constituted 46 percent of family rapes. This number formed 7.2 percent of total rape cases, which was almost as high as rapes by strangers (9 percent).
The solution is certainly not to stop or reduce reporting child sexual abuse. But there must also be ways in which we assess what this means for women. That women are more worried about returning to work because of abuse in daycare centres adds to the need to find ways to make these crèches safer. In Dharavi, journalist Menaka Rao had reported about the cause of recent acute malnutrition in children due to consumption of junk food, since working mothers found it difficult to adequately cook, leaving their children to eat Maggi. In that case, activists had pushed for setting up crèches in Dharavi to support families.
Similarly, we also need to address the sense that the solution for child abuse isn’t guilt-tripping women to stay at home with their children. The solution for families across class is for more childcare solutions, with better variety and quality. Because a working mother with an income of her own is more likely to be able to remove a child from abuse, especially if the abuser is in the same household. Which statistics indicate, he is likely to be.
Co-published with Firstpost.