The SHEROES Contributor
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based journalist and columnist; the mother of two daughters who quit her day job to freelance from home. She frequently writes on women's issues for her fortnightly column with the Hindustan Times. Following the December gang-rape of a medical student in Delhi, she also started an online petition, Stop Rape Now, which gathered over six lakh signatures and is one of the largest petitions out of India. She also features in a documentary film, Silent Screams: India's Fight Against Rape made by Miditech for Channel NewsAsia.
The decision to quit my job with a widely-circulated newspaper came to me as a Eureka-moment, appropriately enough, in the bath.
What, I thought, would happen if I dropped dead? My colleagues and friends at work would be upset. The edition that I brought out might get delayed (depending, of course, on the time of my imagined death). But what would really happen? I was an important cog in the wheel, but I was just that, a cog, replaceable by the next cog. My daughters, on the other hand, would be devastated. Despite the fact that I often came home after they had gone to bed, despite the fact that I skipped parent-teacher meetings, despite the fact that I stayed back home while they went off on holiday with my husband, to not have a mother at all had to be worse than having an absentee mother.
So, armed with the guilt of being a Bad Mother and grappling with the knowledge that I had failed to be one of a superwoman who seamlessly manage families and careers, I handed in my papers.
The reactions were predictable.
Aww, we’ll miss you.
Are you really quitting to at stay home, or are you taking up a job elsewhere?
Can you find and train your replacement?
And, the unkindest cut:
You’re so lucky to have a husband who provides for you. You’re going to be a lady of leisure. I want your life.
We work because we’re paid. That’s the bottom-line. But we also work because it gives us a sense of our self and an understanding of our gifts. Our jobs give us an identity that goes beyond mother, wife, daughter, and daughter-in-law. Being a journalist placed me within a fellowship of people with whom I frequently disagreed but with whom I shared a common belief in the work we were doing. Being in an office meant forging wonderful friendships, knowing that you could count on these people to turn up in a crisis in the middle of the night. And, it meant gossip over coffees and cigarettes.
Giving up that life was a wrench. My family has always been supportive of my work as a journalist. My mother-in-law, one of the few women judges at the Delhi High Court who might have been India’s first woman Chief Justice had she lived long enough, told me at our first meeting: “Don’t give up your job because you are marrying my son.” She had completed her law degree after marriage and after her children were born. And she had done it a generation before me.
Now, 15 years after her death, after the birth of my two daughters, after years of struggling and juggling, I couldn’t do it any longer. When they were younger, ironically, I could outsource the feeding and the nappy changing and I was fortunate that they had a father who did way more than his share. But now they were adolescents, dealing with peer pressure and pimples and first crushes and I was out of their loop, staring at their photographs on my office desk. In a few years they would be gone and I would never get this time with them again. My father-in-law, respectful of my personal decision, told a colleague: “Tell her, I will look after her children [and he did]. But tell her to hang in there.”
Despite the support of my extended family, it was growing increasingly impossible to balance the demands of family life with a job that had no defined working hours. It didn’t matter if I came in early, news flow got underway only around 5 pm or later, which meant that I would be in the office till 8 pm on a good day; beyond midnight when I was closing the Saturday paper which I was then editing. It meant that no matter what time I got home, I was just too exhausted to get dressed and go out for dinner with my husband. It meant that weekends dissolved into a mad race of catching up with parents and groceries and shopping and homework assignments and socializing (God, I loved Mondays). It meant that I dreaded out-of-the-office lunches because I would then have to stay back even later to make up for lost time.
And, so armed with my bath-time epiphany, I put a stone on my heart and walked away from my job.
I was lucky. Not every woman is. My husband did indeed provide for me, and he did it without ever making me feel that I was a less-than-equal partner. I was lucky also because the tools of my profession are absurdly simple: A pen, a notebook, a laptop and an Internet connection that makes it possible for anyone to work from home. And I was lucky to have editors who gave me a platform where I could continue to get published.
Was it easy? My new bank statement gave me my first shock. I was looking at the trickle that came in by way of freelance contributions. How on earth do people in India make a living as independent journalists? Then I began asking around, speaking to women who wrote for nothing at all, just the ‘privilege’ of seeing their bylines in print; women who were told ‘why do you need the money’ when they asked if they were going to be paid; women who had to ask 10 times before the cheque finally arrived in the mail; women who pitched ideas to editors who just couldn’t be bothered with the courtesy of a simple ‘no thanks’. It was appalling and demoralizing to have to grow a thick skin without succumbing to the lure of victim-hood.
As a self-employed person, there were other hurdles. The discipline of waking up and sitting at my desk, even when there wasn’t a deadline. The dreadful loneliness of writing bereft of a newsroom or feedback. The courage of picking up the phone and not being able to say, “I am from such-and-such newspaper,” but simply, “Remember me? I’m freelancing now.”
When we go out to cover stories, our calling cards simply state name and address. We have no identity cards. In fact we have no identities apart from our own credibility and standing in the field. We get no sickness allowance, no paid leave, no pension.
These are not problems unique to my gender but they become the problems of my gender because the fact is that it is women more than men who drop out at middle and senior level career stages. Women still tend to be primary care-givers and secondary income-generators. A man who quits his day job to look after the kids is a rare hero. A woman who does it is, well, just another mom.
I read about ‘leaning in’ and sigh. Is it really that easy? As women we seem to be programmed to make as few demands as possible. So, we never question our work culture that treats long hours and all-nighters as some badge of honor. We never ask why this work culture gives primacy to The Job over every other aspect of our lives.
We don’t ask managements to recognize the complexity and multiplicity of our lives. We don’t demand that offices set aside a little space for crèches. We don’t ask for flexi-hours. We don’t insist on a shift-system so that we can schedule our lives more efficiently. We never turn-down company off-sites and endless department lunches and parties that masquerade as bonding rituals. We dread asking for leave when our children come down with flu because we fear we will be seen as ‘unprofessional’.
I tried working part-time. As I picked up my bag to leave at 5 pm, I would grin through the sniggers of, “Thank you for dropping by.” Hell, I was PART-TIME, that I meant I was earning less than anybody else. I finally went full-time, when I realized that the only thing ‘part-time’ about my job was my salary. If I was getting an eight-hour output in five hours, why not take the salary too?
But you can’t beat the system. Work full-time and prepare for the guilt of not being at work when you’re with family, and not being with family when you’re at work. Work part-time and you’ll be working full-time anyway. Chuck it all up and try and find a middle ground by working from home and you’ll face the double whammy of being forced out of the workplace by untenable working conditions and then being told, “Oh you don’t need the money,” when you ask for payment.
So, what is the way out? Here are my six simple rules:
One: Hang in there. I am shameless about asking for payment even from friends, even from causes that are close to my heart. If you don’t put a rupee value to your work, nobody else will.
Two: Work the network. If you’ve spent years building contacts and developing sources, do not lose them. If you’re now solo, go to conferences and seminars even when there is no immediate work benefit. You need to be out there, you need to meet new people, you need to be visible, and you need to exchange phone numbers. You might not represent a big organization any longer, but you still represent yourself. That makes you valuable.
Three: Use social networks. Twitter is my virtual newsroom. It gives me breaking news. It tells me what my readers are concerned about. I use it to ask for information. And I use it to plug my stories and columns, not always for self-promotion but also to get feedback.
Four: Keep learning, keep evolving. Technology is changing the way we work. Ignore it at your peril. I’m enrolled right now in Knight Center’s free online courses on how journalists can maximize the use of social networks. I’m keeping up with new business models for public interest journalism and not-for-profit platforms. I read Pew’s data reports like they’re racy crime fiction.
Five: Discipline. I’m particularly bad at this department but I take inspiration from a friend who chucked up his high profile job to move to another country for personal reasons and went freelance. Every morning, no matter what, he would be showered and in his work clothes at his desk by 9 am.
Six: Say no. When you’re not working, it’s easy to lapse into the role of the go-to person in the family. Can you come with me to buy curtain fabric, your favorite cousin will ask. Your mum will want to know why you’re not joining her for lunch with Mamiji who is visiting from New Jersey. The school pals with whom you’ve reconnected on Facebook will want to meet for coffee. Say no. Tell them you’re working. And then sit at your desk: Read, write, correspond, tweet, and stare out of the window. It doesn’t matter. You’re working.
And, here’s the funny thing. This is what happened after I quit my job. Because I wasn’t spending time and energy on long meetings, wasn’t commuting to work, wasn’t even, sadly, gossiping over coffee and cigarettes, I found I had a huge time resource and in terms of output, I’ve never been busier and the work just keeps coming. I became conscious of the need to get out there, and so I did, far more than when I had a job. I could meet sources for lunch without being guilty about having to catch up for lost time in the office. Once I had got over the serious dip in my writing income, I was happier because I was working on my terms.
You might not be able to have it all, but you can make it work.