Sun, 28 Sep 2003

Making my own choices, proudly, as a working mother

Liya Chaika, Contributor, Jakarta

Gifted with the developments that come along with time, better education and opening up to the outside world, women these days enjoy many options off-limits to previous generations.

My mother did not have the luxury of making her own decisions -- her parents did it for her. They decided she could only finish senior high school and should marry a man they picked for her, my father. Although deep down she wished to further her studies and earn her own money, my mother realized she did not have a choice.

"You have your own future in your hands, I don't want you to go through what I had to go through," my mother keeps telling me.

So, I have made the most important choices of life on my own. I chose where and what to study, applied to a job as a journalist that I liked and then, three years ago -- after staying single five years later than my mother's expectations -- I got married to the man of my choice.

At 33, I work and run my family the best I can though at times -- like when my housemaid has to go back to her kampong to visit her son -- it's a frantic struggle to juggle both.

Many working mothers share such a maddening schedule, while at the same time dealing with the whispers that they are "bad" mothers.

I know that I am not. I always hold to the opinion of Susan Chira, deputy foreign editor for the New York Times, who said in a summary of her book, A Mother's Place, that those who believe stay-at-home mothers make ideal ones have neglected to consider the personhood of the mothers themselves.

Chira points out that a mother's intellectual and emotional satisfaction will undeniably affect her children. So, if a mother feels forced into staying at home with the kids, her resentment is not likely to result in star-quality mothering, she adds, without any intention to say that all stay-at-home mothers are bitter and bored.

As a mother, I want my baby girl to grow up into a smart and independent woman who knows what she wants in life. But that feeling of guilt -- either for leaving her in the care of my housemaid (fortunately she has never called her "mom") or for spending little quality time with her -- gnaws away in the back of my mind.

My mother did not have to experience my problems. As a full- time mother of two, she was always there for me, from the moment I woke up until I went back to sleep.

Although we always have maids at home, it was always my mother who woke me up every morning -- "forcing" me to take a bath, preparing my neat school uniform, breakfast, lunchbox, and then walking me to and from school.

When I got home from school, my meal was ready; later on, she would "transform" into my teacher, helping me with homework, or as a storyteller reading me bedtime stories.

I know I am not my mother who could always be there for her children. But I also know there are many women out there who enjoy good careers and run families at the same time, successfully. I guess there's nothing wrong with wanting both.

Every morning, I prepare meals for my child, bathe her, accompany her at breakfast, leave out some instructions for my maid to follow and then go to the office. Although I arrive home much later than other parents, I still find time to read bedtime stories to my child before she sleeps. Well, most of the time.

But there is still that lack of understanding among others.

Once, when my baby was sick and I had to ask for a day off from the office, there was a patronizing response.

"I think raising children is not hard," smiled one boss, who conveniently forgot that he has a full-time wife at home in charge of his two children. The view was echoed by my other supervisor, who also has a wife taking care of his four kids, who said that being a journalist and a mother is no big deal.

Maybe, it's the cultural thing, as we are still indoctrinated with the "father goes to the office and mother cooks in the kitchen" thing. But working in a profession where "culture" should not cloud judgment, such comments are hard to swallow.

For unlike those working fathers, a working mother not only works at the office -- she also runs the household, takes care of the children and her husband.

I am not trying to judge men -- I know there are many enlightened working fathers, like my husband, who are much more considerate than my bosses. But I always remember one of my colleagues's response to a comment on why there is no father's day here.

"Come on, mother's day (officially, women's day) is only once a year, but every day is father's day. When a father comes home, he only yells 'coffee' and the coffee is there...."

Many a true word said in jest.