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Less distracted, free of gender roles — many working mothers are glad to return to office

The precautions they take to keep Covid at bay are, in some ways, a small price to pay for regaining their boundaries and reclaiming their professional identity.

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New Delhi: It’s no surprise that the pandemic-induced lockdown has been hard on working mothers. They’ve had to juggle working from home with running a household, cooking, cleaning and taking care of their children and elderly or infirm family members. Of course, there are exceptions, as well as differences related to socioeconomic strata. But traditionally, household work has been considered the woman’s domain.

A 2018 study on unpaid care work showed that men in Asia and the Pacific scored the lowest when it came to performing their share of unpaid care work across the world. In urban India, men spent just 29 minutes on care work per day, compared to women’s 312 minutes. In rural India, it was 32 minutes for men, compared to 291 for women. And these inequities are more pronounced during a pandemic.

In essence, for those women who have a job outside of the home, lockdown has meant holding down two jobs, one of which doesn’t pay. And for mothers, the physical and emotional drain of child care and, in many cases, the absence of domestic staff, has meant no time to themselves, and no work-life balance. Given this, it’s not surprising that many are relieved to be back at the office. The endless precautions they take to keep Covid at bay and not bring it home are, in some ways, a small price to pay for regaining their boundaries and reclaiming their professional identity.


Also read: The story of the storytellers: How writers are coping with Covid-19 and the lockdown


A welcome boundary between work and home

It’s not been easy, especially for those who don’t have child care at home. A Gurgaon-based couple, for example, had to figure out a way to bring home to work once their respective offices reopened. “Luckily, my husband and I work in the same building, so we bring our daughter to work. She spends half the day in my office and half in her father’s,” explains Jaspreet Khurana, an administration manager at a travel tech company. She works at the office on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

At work, they keep their six-year-old daughter occupied by letting her draw or watch cartoons on a laptop, although, as the husband, Harrpreet, tells ThePrint, this isn’t always ideal when there are promoters or client walk-ins. “I end up having to put her in another cabin in such situations,” he says. Still, Jaspreet says a fixed workstation provides structure to her routine.

Similarly, Kasturi Roy, a 56-year-old management consultant in Kolkata, was struggling to find a work corner at home where she would be undisturbed. Since both her children were occupying their bedrooms, her husband had his own study space and the master bedroom “wasn’t exactly appropriate”, she ended up using the drawing room for most of the lockdown. Like Khurana, she has returned to her office over the past month and follows the Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule. “There’s a certain sanctity to the workplace,” she says.

According to developmental psychologist Soumini Menon, physically going to a workplace helps compartmentalise one’s life and improve problem-solving skills when home and work life often clash. She draws on her own difficulties during lockdown to explain the boundary problem. “Due to the nature of my work, I can’t afford to have my daughter in the room during therapy sessions,” she says. “There have been times where I’ve had to pick her up, hand her over to my husband and lock myself in a room to conduct a session.”

And it’s not just women who have had to do household chores without their domestic staff — it is also women who are domestic staff. Beena Khatri, a 37-year-old cook for a family in Delhi’s Neb Sarai, tells ThePrint how she was eager to go back to her ‘work kitchen’. She explains that during lockdown, she only cooked dal and roti for her family and missed cooking chicken, eggs and other dishes at the houses she works for. “I was very irritable during lockdown. It reminded me that at work, I’m a cook, but at home, I’m just someone who cooks,” she says.


Also read: Fewer working hours, higher stress, drop in income: UN survey shows how Covid affected women


Dressing up & being on your feet

The workstation is one part of it, though. For many women, it is also the routine of getting ready, the psychology of getting what ’80s pop rock band Roxette called “dressed for success” that affects one’s mood and productivity.

During lockdown, many have grown used to spending the entire day in front of a laptop in their pyjamas, and many end up repeating the same set of loungewear every week.

However, several of the women ThePrint spoke to have realised that dressing up and getting ready for the day can have a profound effect on how they approach work. For example, Roy makes it a point to wear a sari every day (even on the days she works from home). For most working women, wearing an outfit and a touch of makeup in the morning is one thing they do for themselves and not the family, therefore making it an integral part of the routine.

Similarly, returning from office and relaxing for a dedicated period of time is another pocket of ‘me time’ in their day. Take Ashalatha Vijayarangan, a 52-year-old administrator of a paramedical college next to Madras Medical Mission in Chennai, who makes sure she is undisturbed on coming back home, between 4.30 and 6 pm. She explains, “I am exhausted after the day, but I’ve always been used to being on my feet as a college administrator. Lockdown made me feel lethargic.”

Also, with many women feeling the pinch of pay cuts, more so than their male counterparts who typically earned more anyway, they are all the more determined to get back up the ladder as the economy reopens. Menon says to watch out as more mothers return to office with a fresh resolve. She says, “If you’ve noticed, even after maternity leave, women tend to go the extra mile at work to prove a point.”


Also read: When work moved home during Covid, so did toxic workplace harassment


Constant awareness of the perils

However, for all of their relief at being back at the workplace, there is a constant, looming fear of contracting Covid. In fact, 93 per cent of employees were wary of returning back to office, according to a MindMap Advance Research survey in May. The fear of bringing the virus back home is a major source of anxiety. One report noted how an employee brings a spare set of clothes to the office. She changes into it before reaching home, and puts the old clothes in a bucket of disinfectant kept out by her family.

Ashalatha, for example, is diabetic, which, combined with her age, means she has to be very, very careful. She is strict about taking her multivitamins and herbal decoctions, her walks and breathing exercise.

And even though most workplaces are strictly following the rules, whether it’s ensuring employees wear masks and maintain six feet of distance among themselves at all times or stationing sanitisers and conducting temperature checks at the entrance, Jaspreet has her own set of rules.

“I’m strict about sticking to my seat at work. I also only bring home-cooked tiffins. I tried wearing surgical gloves in my first week of being back, but it wasn’t easy to type so I discarded them,” she says. She has also made an added effort to increase her family’s immunity, whether it’s drinking haldi-ka dhoodh daily or giving her daughter vitamins. It’s the tradeoff, she says, for a secure workstation and a return to structure.


Also read: Flexible hours and regular virtual contact — How companies can support remote workforces


 

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