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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, March 13, 2010

No contest

Everyone is too focused on careers these days to become carers to those around them

Some months ago, as part of the publicity drive to promote my book, Woman on Top (available in all good bookshops, since you ask), I appeared on a TV discussion programme. The idea was to get a cross-section of women, some who worked full-time, others who worked part-time, mothers who stayed at home, etc., and get them to talk about their concerns, share their stories with one another and the many millions watching at home.

There was a high-flying lawyer who told us how she didn’t have enough hours in a day to look after her massive caseload and her teenage daughter. There was the single career woman who confessed that she worked such a long day because she dreaded coming home to an empty house. There was the housewife who had decided to step out of traditional ambit and set up her own fashion label.

And then, there was the successful career woman who had resigned her well-paid banking job to work flexi-time as lecturer in a management institute so that she could look after her young baby and her ageing parents and parents-in-law who lived nearby. While all the other ladies on the panel made the usual approving noises as she related her story, their eyes reflected the horror they really felt about someone who had given up her career just to become a carer for those around her.

I mean, really, who does that? That was the unspoken comment that wafted all around us even as we waffled on about how magnanimous it was to make such a sacrifice. Surely, she could have just hired help to make sure that everyone’s needs were met even as she concentrated on clambering up the corporate ladder. Wouldn’t all that extra money have come in useful when it came to paying her child’s college fees in some fancy American university? Or even the medical fees of her parents and in-laws?

Did it really make sense to sabotage her career prospects just so that she could fulfill the traditional role of carer that has always been assigned to women? Wasn’t that what the feminist movement was all about: empowering women with education and financial independence so that they could go out and take over the world rather than stifle with the confines of their homes?

But none of us made these points. Not because we were being polite, but because even to our decidedly jaundiced eyes it was clear that this was a decision that the lady in question had taken of her own accord – and that she was the happier for it.

Of course, not everyone can make this sort of decision without worrying about its impact on the household budget. Not every family has the means to support itself on just one income. But increasingly, even if it is possible, the woman of the house feels it incumbent on herself to contribute to the coffers financially, whatever may be the psychological cost of this decision. So mothers tear themselves away from mewling babies; double-income couples hire day and night maids to take care of ailing parents; and young people move away from the old homestead leaving their parents to cope with emotional, and sometimes even financial, abandonment.

Given the choice between having a career and becoming a carer, it’s no contest, isn’t it? But as I listened to that young woman talk of how fulfilled she felt in her new role, I began to wonder if perhaps we hadn’t got it all wrong. Satisfying though it undoubtedly is to bring home a huge paycheck that takes care of all your family’s financial needs and then some, people need more than just money to make them happy. And a bit of tender loving care goes a long way in making up for a shortfall in the joint household income.

It takes a brave woman – and in very rare cases, men – to make that choice, however. And in the absence of that, those who really suffer are the very old and the very young. The old feel lost and alienated in a world that doesn’t seem to have much use for them, where even those they love the most barely have time for the occasional phone call let alone a meaningful conversation. The young suffer for having their emotional needs neglected, which can inflict permanent damage even if their every material want is fulfilled.

But even though we dimly sense that something is very wrong with this state of affairs, we seem unable to make the necessary shift in our thinking to set things right. The modern world appears to have conditioned us to regard careers as all important. And those who give it up – even if it is for a short period of time – to become carers for those they love and cherish are seen as sentimentalists at best or losers at worst.

And yet, something tells me that it is these people – who can subdue their egos sufficiently to put someone else ahead of them – who have got it right.

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